Monday, May 16, 2016

Captain America: Civil War / *** (2016)

“Victory at the expense of the innocent is no victory at all.” So goes a key proclamation early on in the third “Captain America” film, made by a weary witness to the catastrophic events that follow an assemblage of superheroes known as the Avengers. His words are more than just a call for accountability on the behavior of physically superior beings in mainstream society – they echo a misplaced undercurrent that I have wondered about in the comic book films as of late, where chaos has run rampant and the fates of nameless victims have lost relevance in the blur of an ambitious foreground. That recurring trend also creates a strange quagmire, I think, for fans of the heroes: how can you support a group of elite and powerful figures when their endeavors to save a world from tyranny come at the expense of flattened cities and countless casualties? When the Tony Stark character shares an early scene with the mother of a man who was inadvertently killed by his team, their interaction penetrates to the most complicated angle of this conflict – no good deed goes unpunished, especially if you’re a person who can flatten buildings with the wave of a fist.

It has been obvious as far back as “Man of Steel” – the most chaotic of this new breed of cinematic endeavors – that some modern filmmakers have lost sight of the perspective. The recent “Batman v Superman” attempted to contemplate this thought process but did so with rather implausible solutions; rather than tone down the senseless violence, it was only ramped up and relocated away from major population centers. But now comes a movie that confronts the idea more directly, and does so without succumbing to all the typical visual sensations that are the norm for Marvel’s line of action-infested yarns. Some may find themselves at odds with the notion, but I find satisfaction in it; at long last, there is a willingness in a film about a noble superhero to balance the obligatory fighting with some level of patience and modulation, allowing us to understand the characters in their situations while giving the directors an opportunity to clarify details in a plot that might normally diminish them for wall-to-wall action.

That was not exactly the standard of the last “Captain America” vehicle “The Winter Soldier,” a hyper-active mess that I felt missed the entire point of its noble protagonist (many others disagreed, and indeed I took quite a verbal lashing from comic book fanboys over that opinion). “Civil War,” by comparison, proceeds more leisurely with the narrative conflict. The story deals (in one regard) with a mysterious villain known as Zemo (Daniel Brühl), a Russian who turns the northern hemisphere into an ambitious travelogue as he seeks a mission report dating back to December of 1991, when the notorious Winter Soldier, aka Bucky (Sebastian Stan), first went out on espionage assignments for the villainous faction known as Hydra. What relevance does that event have on Zemo’s radar? A prologue involving the acquisition of some sort of biological weapon seems to foreshadow the drive. And throughout his mysterious journey to secure those details, he takes the focus of the plot to locales such as Bucharest, Vienna, Moscow, London and Berlin, ramping up the suspicion that what he seeks is certainly of wide-scale importance.

Meanwhile, quiet and oblivious Bucky, previously liberated from Hydra’s mind control, slowly attempts to integrate his way back into society. But that prospect is undermined when footage of a United Nations terrorist attack points to him as the culprit, leading his closest friend – one Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) – to jump into the middle of an impending siege in order to help (and potentially prevent his own arrest). Bucky claims to have no knowledge of the attack, or any others that he might be cited for. A later encounter between Zemo and he reveals the key to this dual identity: a series of trigger words spoken in Russian send him into a frenzy of violent tendencies. Unfortunately, the Avengers themselves are split on who to trust, especially as pressure mounts from both the U.N. and the U.S. government to reel the team into government control in the wake of a very destructive pattern of world encounters (many of them evidenced in the two “Avengers” films).

The heart of the film lies not in confrontations or espionage but in conflicted ideologies, many of them roused because of the events (and the shifted attitudes) that occurred in “Age of Ultron.” Though the fallout was viewed – perhaps rightfully – as taxing, Captain America remains stalwart as a champion for the preservation of the free world in the face of global threats, even if it is at the cost of billions of dollars or a few civilian casualties. But Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), seemingly weathered by the weight of political ramifications, no longer sees a point in the Avengers remaining independent; to him, their endeavors are better left decided by political voting powers, to whom they will inevitably answer if any mission goes awry. The Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) echoes his sentiment, and even attends a conference to sign their allegiance over to the United Nations as part of a goodwill impulse.

The attack at that peace treaty also rouses the ambitions of a third agenda, in the form of a political leader (Chadwick Boseman), who dawns a leather costume and becomes the Black Panther, a vigilante seeking vengeance against the Winter Soldier for the death of his father. There is an added sense of tension between the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany), who attempts to keep her out of public circulation after her immense power leads to the death of hundreds in the early scenes. And somewhere along the way in this cluster of scenarios is a plethora of other notable appearances ranging from Hawkeye to Ant-Man and even Spider-Man, ultimately leading the movie to a third act that is all-out visual sensation as two internal factions battle for the future of the Avengers (and the fate of poor Bucky). The scenes, to their credit, are a good balance of action and verbal exchanges; the writers have a good sense of dexterity in flipping between key characters as they trade barbs or punches but does not have them completely decimate their surroundings, even though most of the conflict does transpire away from population centers.

The drawback: with so many key characters playing significant parts in this conflict, why did Marvel even bother referring to it as a “Captain America” film, really? Isn’t it basically another “Avengers” sequel, albeit with a much more toned down sense of pacing? What a strange criteria it must be to decipher what goals the writers had in mind when they drafted this screenplay, which makes heavy use of supporting players throughout the 147-minute running time. That also means, unfortunately, that Captain America himself – still the most likable of the ensemble – is easily set aside in favor of others, and there comes a point where we sense him drifting entirely out of focus. Imagine being the primary subject of your own story only to discover that you are being upstaged by a busy plot agenda that requires the active participation of so many domineering personalities. “Captain America: Civil War” is very entertaining in its own right, and I was thankful that the filmmakers approached the material with the pragmatic awareness that is required in the Marvel universe. It's  a far tighter production than much of the studio's recent output. But I suspect that poor noble Steve Rogers is now destined to never have an adventure that is entirely his own, especially as this world grows larger with each passing endeavor.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Action (US); 2016; Rated PG-13; Running Time: 147 Minutes

Chris Evans: Steve Rogers/Captain America
Robert Downey, Jr.: Tony Stark/Iron Man
Scarlett Johansson: Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow
Sebastian Stan: Bucky Barnes/The Winter Soldier
Anthony Mackie: Sam Wilson/Falcon
Don Cheadle: James Rhodes/War Machine
Jeremy Renner: Clint Barton/Hawkeye
Chadwick Boseman: T’Challa/Black Panther
Paul Bettany: Vision
Elizabeth Olsen: Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch
Paul Rudd: Scott Lang/Ant-Man
Tom Holland: Peter Parker/Spider-Man
Daniel Brühl: Zemo

Produced by Victoria Alonso, Mitchell Bell, Ari Costa, Louis D’Esposito, Kevin Feige, Alan Fine, Christoph Fisser, Stan Lee, Henning Molfenter, Nate Moore, Trinh Tran, Patricia Whitcher, Lars. P. Winther and Charlie Woebcken; Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo; Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely based on the comic book by Mark Millar and characters created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby

No comments: