Captain America: Civil War
How much further can the Marvel formula stretch before fatigue sets in? Don’t get me wrong, I greatly enjoyed Captain America: Civil War – it’s probably in the top trio of the studio’s features so far – but when moviegoers get used to a well-oiled machine, one that isn’t really taking chances, not where it counts (coming up with at least diverting plotlines ought to be a given, which this one does, at least in premise, although one might argue Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice did the same, at least in premise), it runs the risk of the much vaunted becoming commonplace. And the next step is polite disinterest. It’s ironic that by far the most vital, vibrant element of Civil War, whose “event” raison d’être unflatteringly exposes the limitations of “What if?” fantasy league square-offs between iconic heroes, has been dropped in from a moribund franchise its studio couldn’t work out how to get right, a task the original rights holders make look incredibly easy.
The big issue Civil War evidences is that Marvel – presumably at the edict of supremo Kevin Feige – makes highly competent movies, but not fantastic, jaw-dropping ones, because it just won’t invest in auteurs, or the idea of auteurship. There’s only room for one Feige in the studio. Which, on the one hand, means your balance sheet is always in the black, freed from the potential for spectacular missteps that has dogged DC since Christopher Nolan washed his hands of the Bat. On the other, it’s no coincidence that by far the best of the Marvels has an individual’s fingerprints all over it, one that may be divisive for hard-core Marvelites because it dumps all over a hallowed villain (the Mandarin), but surpasses itself as a really good movie in its own right.
Feige’s approach means you don’t get mediocre movies (with the exception the First Avenger and Iron Man II) but neither are you tantalised by the prospect of ones that will reach the stratosphere in terms of artistry (Ant-Man gets so much love that I feel like a pooper for being only mildly positive on it, but there’s a classic case of a journeyman director getting the gig juxtaposed against what might have been).
I’m not trying to be a killjoy about Civil War, because there’s a huge amount to like in it, and most of the time, scene-by-scene, I was thoroughly engaged. But. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo are entirely reliable, entirely unremarkable action facilitators ably enough putting an action movie together. You might say, “Thank God, at least there’s no chance of them Snydering up the works”. Which is undoubtedly true, but conversely, they’re unable to take what’s on screen into the territory of transcendently kinetic either. They’ve come on some way since Winter Soldier, although the choppy beats of the first action scene in Lagos had me worried we’d be in for sub-Bourne confused geography and wasted mega-bucks stunt work; most of the time, the Russos know enough to hold back and let the visuals play for impact, be it drama, surprise, or laughs. Technically they’re well supported, and in the increments of a scene they’re confident.
But they lack over-riding vision. That airport carpark scene, really is a big action scene in a carpark (something I was joked about when the first trailer hit; the “running at each other across the forecourt” moment is the ultimate in cheese, however you cut it), and it’s filled with standout moments and interactions, but it’s very evident the brothers are assembling it strategically, piece-by-piece, lacking the inspiration and flair that’s crucial for a virtuoso action director.
And why make these movies if you aren’t going to try and deliver the very best (I’m asking Marvel that question)? If they’re designed for audiences to walk away and admit, damning with faint praise, that they were just really solidly executed. If you can’t say the action is above and beyond, you’d better have really strong characters to make mere competency feel like something more.
And that’s where Spider-Man comes in. Nothing the Russos do with him physically has the kind of instinctive facility for action Sam Raimi brought to his Peter Parker pictures (albeit they have a decade of technology on their side in terms of seamlessness), but Tom Holland’s performance, and the lines he gets to deliver, are such a blast that it scarcely matters. Equipped with a torrent of verbal diarrhoea, his interactions with the Marvel mainstays are a giddy delight, unable to disguise his excitement and enthusiasm for all he encounters (“You have a metal arm? That is AWESOME, dude!”).
He effortlessly swipes the movie out from under Steve and Stark, getting on the superhero collective’s nerves in the most entertaining of manners. It’s no wonder Tony tells Peter to stay put after they’ve finished at the Flughafen, as Holland does the scarcely conceivable, drawing attention from Downey Jr’s instant charisma with his boyish brio. I felt almost sorry for Paul Rudd (well, not that sorry), who’s showing here is mostly superior to that of his solo vehicle (particularly the constant snubs he receives, notably from Tony) as Holland makes him look like the straight man even when he’s the giant one (“It’s your conscience. We don’t talk a lot these days”, to Tony, wondering who’s messing with his suit, is priceless, however).
Talking of which, this level of heroes vs heroes contretemps goes even further than the Avengers duo in unflatteringly highlighting the essential silliness of “normals” like Hawkeye and Black Widow attempting to get involved in the big stuff. It’s easy to envisage the screenwriters going out of the way to be charitable (“You may be useless, but I’m giving you this really good character moment later”), trying to find something to make the lame ducks swim. I’d suggest they kill off Clint Barton to instil some drama, but I hardly think anyone would care (it would be like Phil Coulson all over again; there’s an idea, Hawkeye could be reborn on TV, a much more natural fit for his, er, skillset).
It isn’t just Renner (who’s increasingly resembling an itinerant turnip farmer, rather than the next big leading man of a few years back) and Johansson; poor old Don Cheadle has been dutifully playing the support as not-actually-really, even-his-suit-isn’t-as-cool-as, Iron Man for four movies now, and he’s never in danger of making an impression. Square sidekicks are the worst, which is why Anthony Mackie has lucked-in with the laughs as Falcon (“Bird costume?”).
If Hawkeye and Black Widow have no business showing up to a burly brawl, the likes of Scarlet Witch (I still have no idea what she can and can’t do, but I’m guessing the sky’s the limit) and particularly Vision have to be reined in in unlikely ways, by ignoring their potential for the sake of the melee. Olsen’s winning, and Bettany is outright great, but I get the sense they’re unsure what they’ve got with Wanda (which is probably why her paltry subplot revolves around being unsure what she’s got and making a mess of things; see, knowing nothing about your characters writes itself), and are scared to really explore Vision. Their tentative romance is much more satisfying than the awkward intimacy Whedon tried and failed to tease out between Bruce Banner and Natasha Romanoff in Age of Ultron, but the writers need to find stories that work for these characters. Decide who Wanda is, and find something for Vision so it doesn’t seem that he’s slumming it (love Vision in his casual wear, though; I bet he was wearing slippers).
Rather than those relative newcomers, it’s the actual newcomer – besides Spidey – who makes the strongest showing. Chadwick Boseman does a sterling job as T’Challa, pulling off a feat that seems to have defeated Chris Evans as Cap (sorry, I’m ever-unmoved by the title character, of which more in a mo’), by making staunch nobility and grim earnestness actually interesting. T’Challa’s never in danger of becoming the main character, but he has easily the most resonant arc, as he actually grows and makes grown-up decisions, leaving the boys to bloody themselves while he arrives at a place of realisation and restraint at the crucial moment.
What of the central plot, then? Well, it’s strong-enough in outline, and during the early passages the verbal loggerheads between Cap and Tony are formidably furrowed, but ultimately only vague gestures are made towards exploring its more cerebral aspects before everyone starts raining blows. It’s fun to hear Tony want to punch Steve in his perfect teeth, and the juggling act with the mystery plotline (what is Daniel Bruhl’s Zemo up to and why?) generally complements the bruising.
Sebastian Stan’s Bucky is still an effective presence, at least when he’s in psycho Winter Soldier mode, less so when he and Cap are reminiscing about childhood larks, the kind of thing the writers know they need to shoehorn in to convince us of their relationship but which feels thoroughly phoney and shoehorned in when you hear it (so too the funeral of Peggy; we should care about this because we’ve been told to?). But Evans is perpetually dogged by the uphill struggle against bland decency that Tony’s fond of mocking; he can’t even give Rogers grit when he’s going against the grain to aid his pal, up against the odds.
Which means I naturally gravitate towards Stark’s position on the Sokovia Accords, not because the idea of all-consuming state-control is appealing, but because the defender of the alternative is so antiseptic. As for divining real world commentary from the content here, as one can readily do with Winter Soldier, one might look no further than the unilateralism of Captain America as America; but against that is Cap acting from a personal moral code, something one could never suggest of a government that, as Rogers puts it, has agendas.
Alternatively, Tony’s “We need to be put in check” might be read as the argument for totalitarianism in general, for the infringement of any liberty, irrespective of whether it infringes on another’s, a conversation Winter Soldier was getting into but fudged by taking the classic Hollywood “bad apples” approach (which leads to the return to the status quo of subsequent outings).
Perhaps Tony, the embodiment of the one percent, represents the vice like grip of TIPP and the will toward ever greater amassing of riches by large corporations, at the expense of individual “true” American values – global values – found nestling amid Steve’s righteously chiselled brow. Perhaps Wakanda, the advanced, blossoming, self-sufficient country where Steve finds sanctuary, free from the yoke of global capitalism, is the ideal we should all be looking to, and T’Challa, by exercising moderation, has the answer for us all. Alternatively, the “limits of vigilantism” debate has no broader connotations at all. It’s just fun to see the spandex-clad slug it out.
I’ve been reading this is Downey Jr’s best performance in years, but I suspect people are only really saying that because he’s not quipping every line this time, and sometimes he’s actually serious. And because no one saw him be actually serious in The Judge (seriously, his scene slipping about in Robert Duvall’s faeces wipes the floor with this). He’s good, sure, but in no way revelatory.
I have a problem too, with the way the final act unfolds. Not with the lack of super soldiers – I’m good with that – but Tony’s frankly weak turnabout “I was wrong about Bucky and the potential for an authoritarian jackboot”, only for him to rekindle his wrath when he discovers Bucky did for his folks. Yes, I know Zemo planned it this way from the start (some kind of convoluted planning there, with a host of eventualities that need to transpire, which also requires the infiltration of the enemy ruse we’ve seen before in Avengers), but it smacks of contrivance in a manner that’s too calculated to satisfy emotionally; the wheels and gears are showing. It also dissatisfies by distracting from the division that ruptured the Avengers in the first place – one that was growing long before Zemo got involved – and replacing it with something overpoweringly personal. You can bet the debate itself will never be properly resolved, a greater threat fostering an all-is-forgiven or blank slate, which on one level shouldn’t be a surprise, but on another is a cop-out.
This is, of course, another of those extra-super-long superhero movies that seems to equate going the distance with quality (the screening I attended even thoughtfully skipped to the end scene after the first, mid-credits clip, although I suspect that was more because the staff wanted to go home than out of consideration for the audience). They were doing something right in Civil War, as I didn’t feel the ennui of the final act of Age of Ultron, but I was never less than aware of it falling short as a transportive piece of entertainment.
Notably, Feige seems to have little understanding of the importance of a great score in fashioning a great movie, as Henry Jackman’s soundtrack is only noticeable for how determinedly lacklustre it is; he clearly needs someone who brings ideas to the table (to wit, Matthew Vaughn, who has elicited great results from him), as even his striking Winter Soldier theme is absent this time, and we’re left with down-the-line blandness (as far as scores are concerned, Iron Man Three is again the high-water mark for Marvel movies).
Other performances in this stuffed picture prove a mixed blessing. Frank Grillo is memorably grizzly in a too-brief cameo, Martin Freeman does Martin Freeman as per usual, to underwhelming effect, William Hurt strains to bring something to the return of General Ross (you can see him acting a guy recovering from a triple bypass for all he’s worth, which means wearing a typically pained expression), and Alfre Woodward is buried under the most clichéd, guilt-tripping character/scene; like the Cap-Bucky childhood reminiscence and Zemo’s confession, Civil War struggles when it has to step up and economically deliver substantial character motivation. Brühl is very good, even if, as noted, Zemo’s motivations are underwhelming when it comes time for his requisite exposition. But there’s always Maria Tomei as Parker’s hot Aunt May.
Captain America: Civil War is probably the best a Marvel movie can be without actually letting someone go to town and do their own thing. Of course, Marvel is probably running scared of a Hulk (which I really liked), which can happen when someone with inspiration is let loose. The flipside is that, sooner or later, they will inevitably hit a brick wall. Which will probably be when DC swoops in and finally recovers ground. Well, lumbers in, more like. I’m hoping for the best from Dr Strange, but so far it looks like psychedelia-by-committee. As to whether Civil War is a good Cap movie, since it’s at least as much about Stark and plays like Avengers 2.5, well, I’m really not the best person to ask.