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CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016) review

May 13, 2016

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written by: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
produced by: Kevin Feige
directed by: Anthony Russo and Joe Russo
rated: PG-13
runtime: 147 min.
U.S. release date: May 6, 2016

 

It makes sense that Disney and Marvel Studios gave brothers Anthony and Joe Russo another shot at the Star-Spangled Avenger (as well as the next two Avengers movies) with “Captain America: Civil War”, after delivering one of the best Marvel Cinematic Universe blockbusters with 2014’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” It also makes sense that the Russos reteam with the screenwriting duo of  Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who wrote both “Winter Soldier” and Joe Johnston’s “Captain America: The First Avenger“, completing a fulfilling yet complicated story arch for the titular man out of time. With the sheer amount of characters in this movie, many feared this would feel like a third Avengers movie, but at its core it’s still about friendship, the definition of and the repercussions of a hero.

This is one MCU movie where viewers will definitely benefit from having seen two previous movies, “Winter Soldier” and “Avengers: Age of Ultron“, since the after effects of both can be felt here. Coming in cold to “Civil War” (which is loosely based on a 2006/2007 mini-series) is fine too – you’ll be able to follow along with everything just fine, but knowing those two specific movies that have come before it, definitely provides a greater understanding of the characters, what they’ve already experienced and the stakes they now face.

Before we catch up with our heroes, “Civil War” opens with a sequence that takes place in 1991, where we find a HYDRA-programmed James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes/The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) released from a base in Siberia. He then follows through with orders to find and take out a moving car whose occupants possess a case of the super-soldier serum. It may not seem like it at first, but it’s an important scene that the movie will revisit with more revelations.

In present day Lagos, Nigeria, a mission is led by Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) and his team of Avengers – Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Wanda Maximof (Elizabeth Olsen) – to prevent former S.H.I.E.L.D. commander, Brock Rumlow (Frank Grillo) from acquiring a biological weapon. Although the terrorist is stopped, an accident occurs resulting in a number of civilian casualties, including some visiting Wakandans. After what transpired in Sokovia (see “Avengers: Age of Ultron”) as well as the alien invasion in New York (“Avengers”), the increasing damage, injury and death toll has now begun to overshadowing any amount of good work the Avengers accomplish.

 

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Cap’s team is called in to the office of former Army general current Secretary of State, Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt, reprising his role from “The Incredible Hulk”, cuz he’s no dummy), who along with the United Nations, has drawn up an agreement called the Sokovia Accords, which will mandate all acting superheroes be policed by the government. Silently sitting in on this meeting is Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), whose recent confrontation with a grieving mother (Alfre Woodard) who blames Iron Man and the Avengers for her son’s death in Sokovia a year ago, only adds to his existing guilt and anxiety over recent Avenging.

Stark realizes that the actions of Iron Man need to be kept in check and he’s willing to sign anything that will ensure he and his fellow heroes answer to someone. Rogers isn’t so eager to sign anything that would immediately take away his freedom to decide who the bad guys are and where the imminent emergencies are, stating, “the safest hands are still our own”, preferring to trust an experienced individual (or soldier), instead of a bureaucrat. While Ross thanks the heroes for their service, he nevertheless gives them an ultimatum – think about it, but not too long – sign it or get arrested.

 

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With division set in the team, the focus is now on Vienna, where a United Nations conference hosted by Wakandan King T’Chaka (John Kani) and his son Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) will introduce and ratify the Accords.  An explosion occurs at the conference, resulting in more injuries and deaths. Security footage points to the Winter Soldier/Bucky, which finds Cap going after his childhood friend/wartime companion, with the assistance of Sam and CIA agent Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp), in an effort to get to him and learn the truth, before authorities arrest or kill him.

Things get more complicated when T’Challa suits up as the acrobatic Black Panther with his own reason for targeting Winter Soldier, culminating in all four – Cap, Falcon, Panther and Bucky – getting arrested in Bucharest.  Under the radar of Ross and authorities, the mysterious Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl) reactivates the imprisoned Bucky using stolen Russian code words and unleashes a programmed Winter Soldier on Steve, Tony and their friends. While Steve and Sam are able to leave the scene with Bucky, Ross demands that Cap and his friends be arrested. Tony asks him to hold off for 36 hours to bring the fugitives in himself without incident.

With the Avengers split down the middle, we now have two teams – one that agrees in government accountability led by Tony Stark and another that believes the individual should decide where to go to do the most good, led by Steve Rogers. Behind Team Iron Man is his good friend, James “Rhodey” Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle), his creation Vision (Paul Bettany), Black Panther, a new kid named Peter Parker (Tom Holland) with Natasha somewhere in the middle.  Joining Captain America, Falcon and Bucky is the once-retired Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), along with Wanda and Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd).  The two teams inevitably clash and in all the noise, Steve and Bucky remain determined to track down the man responsible for the recent terrorist attacks.

 

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Admittedly, for those who haven’t been following along with what’s going on in the MCU since 2008’s “Iron Man” or if you have a hard time keeping up with who’s who, “Civil War” will frustrate you or make you roll your eyes. I’m quite impressed to see how all those previous MCU movies (well, at least the Iron Man, Cap and Avengers movies) have been built up to “Civil War”. So, if you’re like me and have been flipping through comics since you were a twerp and drawing these superheroes on any paper you could find around the house – seeing a smackdown between a splintered Avengers on the tarmac of Germany’s Leipzig/Halle Airport – well that’s a dream come true.

It has to be a dream come true for the Russo brothers as well. This may only be their second Marvel movie,  but their palpable excitement is present throughout the production and storytelling. The Russos have already proved how into Captain America they were with “Winter Soldier” by combining some of the best choreographed action of the genre with a dense, thought-provoking and genuinely compelling plot. With “Civil War”, they impressed me even more by the way in which they (and the screenwriting duo of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) balanced all the action (it helps that “John Wick” directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski served as Second Unit Directors here) and the characters here – clearly communicating their positions and motives (although, I will say some of Zemo’s storyline is a bit foggy, but Brühl makes the character really interesting nevertheless) – while seamlessly introducing new ones to the MCU like Black Panther and Spider-Man.

When it came down to the expected clash between Tony and Steve, I found myself surprisingly seeing the logic in both sides – something I didn’t count on since I thought I would be completely all-in on Cap’s perspective. Let’s face it, Tony has had a tendency of being a conceited douche and although I trusted the screenwriters/directors who brought us the previous “Captain America” movies, I was still impressed with how they provided an understandable perspective of his position.  Of course, I knew Steve Rogers wouldn’t take being on a government leash and, yes, it certainly does posit itself as a political “conservative vs. libertarian” position – and isn’t that kind of cool for a superhero movie? Everyone bemoans how ‘they’re all the same’ (those are usually the film snobs who don’t watch them to begin with, though), but the thorough-line in the “Captain America” movies have always been the friendship between Steve and Bucky, while Steve – still The Man Out of Time – tries to figure out his place/role in life. It’s possible to be flip-flopping back and forth to either side, during and after “Civil War” is over.

 

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Unlike the recent “Batman v Superman”, here’s a movie that benefits from an exploration of two characters in seven previous movies. Throughout those movies we’ve been able to see who Tony Stark and Steve Rogers are and where their ideologies differ, so they’re disagreement over government involvement is easy to understand. It’s already been established that Downey Jr. and Evans are perfectly cast as Tony and Steve, but that doesn’t mean we should take for granted their work here. They’re great, of course, and they really get the internal struggle each character is having in their own unique manner. Thankfully, the Russos opt for a one-on-one battle between Iron Man and Cap for the finale instead of the explosive closure we’re used to seeing in these movies.

The other actors that return to their roles are great to watch, especially the antagonizing or friction that occurs between some of them. Seeing Sam and Bucky vie for Steve’s BFF status is quite hilarious and in a movie that has some weighty examinations about heroism, friendship and the repercussions of battling the bad guys, it’s good to have a laugh or two. On that note, Rudd also adds some welcome comic relief as well. Emily VanCamp thankfully has a larger role as Peggy Carter’s niece, Sharon and the addition of Martin Freeman as Counter Terrorist Specialist Everest Ross, who serves as a liaison between superheroes and the government. It could’ve been a throw away character, but I like what Freeman was given to work with. The real treat though is seeing Boseman’s Black Panther and Holland’s Peter Parker/Spider-Man in action. It’s not just their action though, the casting here is dead-on for these two. By the end of the movie, both actors found me looking forward to their own upcoming movies.

By the time Holland appears as Parker, I had totally forgotten that we were getting a new Spider-Man and, well, everything about Parker’s interaction with Tony Stark felt so fitting and right. Holland handles the character superbly, somehow unlike any iteration of Parker/Spidey that we’ve seen before and his scenes with Downey Jr. – from witnessing Tony’s flirting with Aunt May (a welcome Marisa Tomei) to hearing he’ll be getting a costume upgrade – made me a really happy geek.

While “Civil War” was in production and casting announcements were released, there was a choir of complaints (not from me) on how this movie was going to be “Avengers 2.5” with all these characters crowded a “Captain America” movie. Despite the presence of all these characters, this is still Cap’s movie.  It’s a second sequel that fills out the “Captain America” trilogy nicely with a revealing and challenging twist at the end that further challenges friendships.

Currently, hyperbole is being swung as swiftly as Cap’s iconic shield in relation to “Captain America: Civil War” and ultimately it doesn’t matter whether or not this is “the greatest super hero movie ever” – all that matters is whether or not it works for you. It did for me in tremendously satisfying (and surprising) ways. But, if you feel that way, well then that’s good too.

 

 

 

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RATING: ***1/2

 

 

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