Sunday, May 29, 2016

Review - Captain America: Civil War

          If anyone wanted to make the claim that this review is a little late, then I will concede the point, but not without good reason. The past month has been extremely chaotic for me. There has been a lot of shifting in the hierarchy at my day job (remember, I work as a data analyst for a rather well-known coffee company), some of which has affected me, and I had a kind of "falling out" with a certain career prospect about three weeks ago. Perhaps the most glaring hurdle, however, has been my lack of adequate transportation for the past four weeks. The Cliff Notes version of the story is that some out-of-towner in a lifted pickup truck pretty much monster-trucked (yes, that's now a verb) over the front of my car while it was parked out in front of my apartment building. Extensive reparations had to be done, which meant that my car had to be in the auto shop for almost four weeks. Then, as a result of my car being in the shop for almost four weeks, I was more or less stuck in the Eastlake area of Seattle, relying on the bus to get to and from work. The unfortunate thing about the Eastlake area is that, while there are a number of good restaurants, the rest of the neighborhood consists of mostly apartment buildings, with very few actual attractions. So, continuing on in the chain of cause and effect, as a result of me being stuck in the Eastlake area, I wasn't really able to get to a movie theater to see Captain America: Civil War, which was released during the first week of my car being in the auto shop. Fear not, however, for my car has since returned to me and I have been prompted to spring into action yet again, having finally had the chance to make it to the theater to see Civil War.
          My overall impression of Civil War can best be described as "mild satisfaction". Civil War continues the trend of the past few years and perpetuates the popularity of superhero movies, and is yet another installment of the so-called "Marvel Cinematic Universe", which is showing no signs of slowing down in the near future, with Doctor Strange scheduled to be released later this year and another Thor film in the works. Don't let the title fool you - even though Captain America is the supposed centerpiece of the film, Civil War is more or less a showcase of the Marvel All-Star lineup, minus Thor and the Hulk. We are introduced to Black Panther not too far into the movie, Warmachine and Ant-Man make appearances, Hawkeye and the Scarlett Witch (who, I recently learned, is portrayed by one of the Olsen twins, who I though died with the 90s) interestingly pop-up at key points in the movie, and Black Widow and Vision are along for the ride all the way throughout. The end result is something that feels more like "Avengers Light" than a narrative focusing on Captain America. Despite this, Civil War still did a much better job of illustrating the personal narrative of not just Captain America, but several other characters as well, when compared to our most recent installment in the line of superhero films, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
          The film centers on Captain America and his attempts to rescue his buddy, the Winter Soldier, who is accused of bombing a United Nations meeting intended to ratify an agreement that would put heavy regulations on the Avengers. In a show of protest against this agreement, Captain America takes it upon himself to hunt down the Winter Soldier and learn the truth about who bombed the UN meeting himself. With the perception that Steve Rogers has gone rogue, international authorities enlist the help of Iron Man to capture both the Captain and the Winter Soldier. The remaining Avengers are then forced to choose sides - they can either side with the Captain, and help him rescue Bucky and solve this mystery, or they can side with Tony Stark and implicitly acquiesce to the UN agreement. We open up with a flashback to the brainwashing experiments used to train the Winter Soldier in a hidden Hydra base in the former Soviet Union, where we learn that, as part of the experiment, there are certain Russian key words that can be used to control him. Fast-forward to present day Africa. Captain, Black Widow, Falcon, and the Scarlett Witch are hunting an international terrorist and arms dealer, and the ensuing fight ends up destroying part of a building, killing and injuring innocent people. Back in the US, the Avengers are held accountable for this and other incidents, and a treaty is written that is meant to place international regulations on them. Among the Avengers, there are voices of both consent and dissent, spearheaded by both Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, respectively. At the UN meeting where these accords are supposed to be signed and ratified, a bomb goes off, killing many more innocent people, including King T'Chaka, the king of the African nation where the previous incident took place. We quickly find out that security footage reveals that the Winter Soldier is responsible for the bombing (or so it seems), and an international manhunt ensues.
          As news spreads that the UN meeting was bombed and that the Captain is going after the Winter Soldier, our two sides begin to assemble. Falcon, Hawkeye, Ant-Man, and the Scarlett Witch quickly join the Winter Soldier and Team Captain, while Warmachine, Vision, and Black Widow join Team Iron Man, who also enlists the help of Black Panther, i.e. T'Chala (i.e. the son of the murdered King T'Chaka) and the young Spider-Man. The Captain quickly learns that multiple super soldiers were created as part of Hydra's Winter Soldier program, and that a survivor of the incident at the end of Age of Ultron (where the Avengers dropped an entire town from the sky), Zemo, has gotten his hands on the top-secret Soviet training manual with the Russian keywords to control them and is making his way to the base where the remaining soldiers are held in cryogenic sleep. It is also revealed that this is the same man who bombed the UN meeting and framed the Winter Soldier in order to lure him out of hiding. After Bucky reveals the location of the base to Rogers, they quickly make their way to an airfield in Leipzig where they intend to commandeer a jet and cut off our antagonist before he reaches the base first, but not before they themselves are cut off by Team Iron Man. The rest of Team Captain shows up and what ensues is one giant punch-up, reminiscent of the ending sequence of either of the Avengers films. Eventually, Captain America and the Winter Soldier make it onto the jet and head towards the hidden base. Realizing the truth about what happened at the UN meeting and that the Winter Soldier was framed for it, Stark has a change of heart and joins Rogers and Bucky at Hydra's Soviet facility. While investigating, however, they find the other super soldiers have all been shot in the head, as opposed to being woken up and used as weapons, and our antagonist, with Rogers, Bucky, and Stark all in the room, plays a small video clip of Bucky, under the influence of Hydra's brainwashing, killing Stark's parents some decades before. An enraged Iron Man then quickly turns on the Captain and the Winter Soldier and yet another fight ensues, with none of them really coming out as the victor while Black Panther captures Zemo. The film ends with the Winter Soldier willfully going back into cryogenic sleep until a cure is found for his brainwashing, the rest of Team Captain being locked up for a while, and Stark and Rogers reconciling their differences.
          I previously mentioned that my overall impression of Civil War was that of "mild satisfaction". It's certainly a lot more coherent and in-depth than Dawn of Justice (which wouldn't be too particularly difficult to achieve), but it does miss the mark in certain areas. As I've said in the past, story and character development are very important criteria that can mean the difference between success and failure, and Civil War seems to be lacking in this regard. It's a shame because, historically, the Captain America series has been one of the better in the Marvel Cinematic Universe; The Winter Soldier remains towards the top of my list of better films in the Marvel series, and the setting of WWII for The First Avenger provided a nice reprieve from the pseudo-futuristic take on the modern decade seen in the Iron Man films. In Civil War, however, no one character is really developed further than he or she already is, except for, notably, the Winter Soldier himself. This is then ultimately undermined in the end when the Winter Soldier decides to go back into cryogenic sleep, removing a recently developed character from the equation altogether. The Scarlett Witch is another example of a character with a missed opportunity; as a young girl who grew up in Eastern Europe, there was potential to expand on her past as a Hydra research subject and tie her character into the background of the Winter Soldier, but, instead, we didn't even get a mention of her brother, Quicksilver, who was recently killed in Age of Ultron, let alone legitimate character development. Conversely, some of the characters who already had a well-established background in the series seem to have just been thrown into the film without any kind of real explanation at all. Hawkeye, for example, appears halfway through the film by casually walking in to Tony Stark's heavily defended compound to rescue the Scarlett Witch for no apparent reason other than the production team realizing that they ran out of characters to rescue her. Our villain, Zemo, is also a highly questionable character. To be frank, Zemo is literally just some asshole who is mad at the Avengers because his family was collateral damage in Age of Ultron. How Zemo manages to bomb the UN, steal the secret Soviet training manual from ex-Hydra operatives, find the Hydra research base where the other super soldiers are being kept, frame the Winter Soldier for the bombing, and get the Avengers to fight each other, and almost get away with it, not to mention outsmart international intelligence organizations, is beyond me. In previous installments of the Avengers or Captain America films, we at least have villains that pose a believable challenge to the Avengers: a mischievous Norse god, a rogue artificial intelligence, an augmented super soldier, a deformed renegade Nazi. Zemo? Literally just some guy who is mad at the government and the Avengers.
          It seems as if many of the above points are side effects of a larger, over-arching point: Civil War is just too over-crowded with various Marvel All-Stars to really develop any of them in any significant way. This is the same criticism that I have leveled at the Avengers films for some time; much like the two Avengers films, Civil War makes the mistake of bypassing any kind of character development in favor of an action-packed quagmire of special effects and cliche dialogue. And, also much like the two Avengers films, Civil War culminates in one giant brawl at the end, a clusterfuck of superheroes punching each other until Black Widow randomly decides to have a change of heart and tilts the brawl in favor of the Captain. Like the ending fight of Age of Ultron, a lot of our heroes seemed to blend into one of two archetypes: the hero who punches things really hard (i.e. Captain, Black Panther) or the hero who shoots lasers (i.e. Scarlett Witch, Vision, Iron Man). The end result is something along the lines of a cartoon fight; I was half expecting our heroes to be enveloped in a thick dust cloud, complete with Looney Tunes-esque sound effects and words like "POW!" And "BOP!" to flash across the screen. Again, this is in stark contrast to the previous two Captain America films; The Winter Soldier presented us with a Captain that questioned the meaning of "freedom" and "security" as Nick Fury revealed the missile-loaded-death-planes meant to keep America safe. But, alas, we don't get anything like this in Civil War.
          It should be noted that, despite my above points, Civil War wasn't bad - it was merely average. It was a satisfactory installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and illustrated why the Marvel films set the bar for superhero cinema without actually raising the bar any further. Every so often, there is an entry in the MCU that illustrates a depth of character unprecedented in the series (The Winter Soldier, Thor: The Dark World), but an eerie pattern is beginning to emerge where, once we start gathering the various faces on screen at the same time, things begin to fall apart. That said, there are a number of things that Civil War does well. Though it was somewhat rushed, Black Panther had an otherwise pretty well developed introduction. T'Chala is introduced to us as the prince of the African nation at the beginning of the film and we actually see his father, King T'Chaka, murdered by Zemo in the UN bombing, which motivates him to mistakenly seek vengeance on the Winter Soldier for the bombing as Black Panther. In other words, we see Black Panther's "angle", so to speak: we are given a given a brief overview of where he comes from and what motivates him, and what role he plays in the Avengers. This is in stark contrast to Spider-Man, who was literally thrown into the film for a reason that still eludes me (and by "literally", I mean literally - Tony Stark simply walks into Peter Parker's apartment and says "You're hired" and then suddenly...Spider-Man). And, continuing with the trend of the Captain America series of being multi-lingual, the film constantly invokes the Soviet-era and makes extensive use of the Russian language, which gives the film this kind of "international" flavor, and genuinely makes it seem as if the problems that plague the world aren't all just threats to America, which is the impression given by, say, most of the Iron Man series, and which is not reflective of the way the world actually is. And, by comparison, Civil War, and the rest of the MCU, continue to be the standard that superhero films should adhere to. I railed against Dawn of Justice in one of my previous reviews, and Civil War seems to underline many of my previous points. Civil War managed to introduce Black Panther far better than Dawn of Justice introduced Wonder Woman, and developed the Winter Soldier far better than Dawn of Justice developed Ben Affleck's Batman. Granted, there is a dedicated Wonder Woman film in the works, but there is also a dedicated Black Panther film as well, and yet we already have an idea of who Black Panther is and how we can relate to him.
          In short, I think Captain America: Civil War will end its theatrical run well. The masses, of course, will easily be drawn to the superficial elements of over-the-top special effects and convoluted brawls, and the fact that these are characters that the American public has grown attached to from previous Marvel films will ensure that the film continues to generate revenue for many weeks (this is the point that Dawn of Justice seemed to miss - if you don't develop the characters adequately beforehand, then no one is going to care when you put them all on screen together). That said, if you have more of an attention span than that of a squirrel, and are able to look past the quagmire of special effects and all-star cast, then you likely won't find much. Civil War is a steady stream of meaningless action, strung together by a number of questionable plot points. Granted, last year's Mad Max: Fury Road was also a steady stream of action, but that was exactly the point - Fury Road was using the action to make a point about the world, which is something that Civil War doesn't seem to be doing.