Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Movie Review: Captain America: Civil War

It's strange how conversations on the "geek internet" create consensus around movies, or franchises, and how bubbled that can get. We decree movies as "success" or "failure" on different metrics than say, studios, or wider audiences, and the driving need to get a distinctive opinion out there means that we have to sort films into "love" or "hate" with little room for just sort of liking something. And it means that a film like Avengers: Age of Ultron, which made a lot of money, was a lot of fun and generally pretty well received, is now commonly described as "dissapointing" or a "failure". (There's another film, out now, which I could reference but i won't, because I've not seen it and there is enough bandwagon jumping on that front as it is). AoU clearly struggles under it's franchise obligations, and I liked it well enough, although it left a worrying sense that it was all going in a troubling direction. Leave it Captain America: Civil War to save the day.

We're a long way gone since Iron Man broke open the MCU and ushered the idea that every film needs to be part of some on-going franchise, and if I've learned anything from watching all these films is that franchise service is the death of quality. There is a veritable graveyard of movies that have sacrified the story they are supposed to be telling in favour of setting up future stories they never got to tell. Despite a minor wobble with Age of Ultron, and a major wobble with Iron Man 2, the MCU has largely avoided this, and even managed to make a big change in their ongoing world with Winter Soldier, which still stands as the best entry in the series. 

Civil War has a bigger task ahead of it. The key theme here is consequence, as the series of destructive (and faintly repetitive) third acts of various films come back to haunt the team after a particularly nasty collateral damage incident in Lagos. It turns out that when you just sort of barrel around the world blowing things up, governments take notice, and start to consider that maybe someone should be keeping an eye on you. Quickly the team have to take sides, as their own quirks and weaknesses are used against them, bringing them into direct conflict of the sort that of course everyone wants to see - who would win in a fight?! being one of comic's oldest storylines. 

The smart thing that Civil War does is root this in character, and play it all for tragedy. Robert Downey Jnr turns in a toned down version of Tony Stark, a little adrift, and haunted by past and present failures. Chris Evans is driven and desperate in his own way to cling onto a small part of his past. Between these two poles the rest of the Avengers (and some newcomers) are drawn in, each for their own reasons that the film finds time to lay out in amongst everything else, even if it was "I was asked first." Throughout the film there are missed opportunities for it to play out differently, and the bonds between these characters fray, but it's not until right at the end that they start to break down - there is a notable difference between the sprawling Airport fight and Steve and Tony's final confrontation. 

In terms of Franchise Service, here we have a film directly addressing how we got to be here, and then trying to chart a way forward to Infinity War. In a lot of ways it's shame we got a new Spiderman here, excellent though he is, as it means that he's overshadowed the other newcomer, Black Panther. It's T'Challa who gets a proper arc through the film here, some big important moments, and his own voyage of self-descovery. Civil War is, in some regards, his "origin story", which means hopefully 2018's Black Panther can just get on with telling a new and interesting story with a character that is probably little known outside the comics world. 

The focus on it's heroes in conflict - did I mention that the Airport fight scene is terrific? - also means that we finally get another decent villian in the MCU version of Baron Zemo. He's wonderfully played, competant, and human,  a character in his own right rather a force to be defeated. It's lets them change the third act structure that the film itself is commenting on, too - something I didn't quite expect, nor the downbeat ending that leaves the team shattered and bereft, clearing the decks for a new wave of heros to come forward over the next couple of years worth of films. Franchise Service, used well, can be a worthwhile thing. 

So yeah, Civil War is pretty good. It's not, of course, going to convert you if the MCU's tone isn't your thing, we're much to far into the series for that. It's nods towards series themes, considers them, but its not going to make any of it's heroes flat out villians, or do anything too radical with it's universe. But it does play within that established ruleset extremely well, taking advantage of the demands of continuity without struggling against them. There is a lot of like here, and it bodes well for the future of the MCU that this far in, it can still keep all it's balls up in the air.

Finally - my current opinion of MCU films, in order or goodness:

Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Avengers Assemble
Iron Man
Guardians of the Galaxy
Captain America: Civil War
Captain America; The First Avenger
Ant Man 
Avengers: Age of Ultron 
Iron Man 3
Thor: The Dark World
Iron Man 2
The Incredible Hulk
Those Cap movie placements are just bizarre. Who'd have thought it?