IN A NUTSHELL
Due to a recent rash of civilian deaths and collateral damage related to super-human battles, the United Nations decides to muzzle the Avengers. Plagued by guilt after creating Ultron, Tony Stark / Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) immediately folds quicker than Quicksilver on laundry day while Steve Rogers / Captain America (Chris Evans) adamantly rejects any suggestion of government oversight. The growing rift between these two camps quickly deepens when Cap's brainwashed pal Bucky (Sebastian Stan), a.k.a. the Winter Soldier, is implicated in a high-profile terrorist attack. With sides chosen and battle lines drawn, everything builds up to the most spectacular super-hero rumble ever committed to film. Spider-Man guest stars.
IN THE WHEELHOUSE
If you want to know how The Winter Soldier pays off or, at the very least, if Joss Whedon's remaining hair loss over Age of Ultron was justified, than get in line, getcher ticket and sit yer asses down! Basically, comic fans will draw wood, general audiences will be entertained by all the imaginative punchery and critics will wonder where the hell all of this is headed.
- Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely manage to do a pretty admirable job justifying this film's existence. In spite of this some people are bitching that Tony Stark is waaaaay outta line, Steve Rogers acts far too pig-headed and civilians shouldn't be so churlish after they've been rescued by the Avengers. Based on what I've seen thus far in the series I firmly disagree on all three counts. First off, Tony was personally responsible for Ultron who, we all know, wiped out an entire city. Frankly, if I was Tony I'd be wondering why I wasn't locked up. And thanks to the events in The Winter Soldier, Steve already knows that absolutely power corrupts absolutely. He also knows that Bucky isn't acting of his own accord and has been H.Y.D.R.A.'s monkey boy all this time. As for civilians bitching about being saved, just take a minute to think about all of the moronic forms of litigation that your fellow human beings have inflicted on the legal system over the years. Even if you want to completely dismiss this out of kind, the Vision (Paul Bethany) is on fleek to drop some major science on us, noting that "In the eight years since Mr. Stark announced himself as Iron Man, the number of known enhanced persons has grown exponentially. And during the same period, a number of potentially world-ending events has risen at a commensurable rate. There may be a causality. Our very strength invites challenge. Challenge incites conflict. And conflict breeds catastrophe. Oversight is not an idea that can be dismissed out of hand." So, with these three things firmly established, I willingly crawled into the lead car, lowered the bar and proceeded to enjoy the shit outta the insane roller coaster ride that followed.
- Not content with getting all of their logical ducks in a row, Markus and McFeely weave an intriguing "secret puppet master" story thread into the fabric of the script. When the presumptive "big" bad is finally revealed, his motivations are refreshingly small-scale. Part and parcel with this is a wonderful fake-out where a glaringly hackneyed and anticipated conflict is telegraphed in lieu of a gut-crushing revelation and a considerably more emotional show down between the two leads. * slow clap *
- By some miracle, Anthony and Joe Russo have found a way to eclipse the action sequences in The Winter Soldier. In spite of its epic scale, the opening tiff with Crossbones (Frank Grillo) always keeps one foot firmly planted in the material world. Then comes a gritty and creatively-vicious sequence in which Cap and the Winter Soldier plow their way through an entire special forces unit while fleeing an apartment complex. This, in turn, segues into a stunning foot / car chase that belongs in the same pantheon as Bullit or The French Connection. Next up is the euphorically-fun airport rumble which is definitely the best donnybrook between a bunch of super-powered characters that we've ever seen thus far. The creative synergy produced when all of these nutty special talents interact is an absolute joy to behold and everyone gets a chance to shine. As if that wasn't enough, we get a smaller-scale, but even more emotionally satisfying, final confrontation that works like a charm simply because all of the character's motivations have been firmly established.
- It almost feels redundant to talk about the cast but they're still a major component of the film's success. None moreso than Chris Evans who leads the way with a stalwart and resolute portrayal of Captain America. With his propensity for proselytizing and blatant flag-wavery I've always hated the comic version of Cap. But thanks to the MCU and Evans's unearthly charisma, the character has been reborn as a no-nonsense individualist who is positively baffled by self-absorbed, weak-willed and easily-led sheeple. Since Bucky is literally his one and only connection to the past, it makes perfect sense that he'd go through hell and back to protect his friend and clear his name. Words can't express how excited I am to finally see a protagonist that sticks to his moral code, even in the face of so much compelling, if wrong-headed, adversity.
- Some fans are also whinging that Tony Stark is, in Black Widow's parlance "uncharacteristically non-hyper-verbal" but, hey, guess what, he should be. It's called an "arc", morons! After creating Ultron in a moment of hubris and parting ways with Pepper Potts, Stark's confidence is essentially shattered. Arr Dee Jay does his usual awesome job, dialing the once-cocksure maverick down a few notches to the point where he's completely cowed and filled with doubt. Check out the genuine sorrow he exhibits when his dream of the Avengers starts to circle the drainpipe or when major revelations cause him to snap. All is not dour and depressing, however, as evidenced by the Peter Parker (Tom Holland) recruitment scene, which virtually demands his return to form.
- Another source of chronic bellyachin' is the supposed flip-floppery exhibited by Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) which, curiously enough, is a trait that she's well known for in the comics. Frankly, after she was publicly raked over the coals in front of Congress at the conclusion of Winter Soldier it makes perfect sense that she would exercise some prudence and stay on the straight n' narrow path, at least until the facts shake out. In fact, a case can be made that she's the smartest, most level-headed character in the entire film. I love that her early warnings to Cap are basically designed to see just committed he is and her turnaround only happens after she's gathered enough insight to make an informed decision. Through it all, Johansson is formidable in battle and a persuasive proponent for calm, rational thought.
- After seeing the original Captain America: The First Avenger back in 2011, I would never have guessed that Sebastian Stan's Bucky Barnes would emerge as one of my favorite characters. But thanks to visionary producer Kevin Feige and writers Markus and McFeely, they've collectively forged one of the most tragic fictional characters in cinema history. Stan is more than up to the challenge; when he's on point as the Winter Soldier he's a terrifying, nigh-unstoppable killing machine but when he has a moment of clarity as Bucky he's sweet, sad and contrite, justifying Steve's unconditional faith in him at every turn.
- Antony Mackie's Falcon gets a surprisingly-welcome amount of screen time here. Since Cap's intuition RE: S.H.I.E.L.D. proved to be spot-on, Sam doesn't require a lot of arm-twisting to become Steve's most trusted and unwavering ally. But things get very interesting when Bucky is added to the mix because the two of them are like oil and water, leading to a hilarious exchange in, of all places, a Volkswagen Beetle. Mackie does a fantastic job with the presumably-acrobatic, wire-related action scenes as well delivering his lines with a wry sense of perspective. Plus I was pretty jazzed to finally see his sidekick "Redwing" added to the mix.
- Paul Bettany's Vision and Elizabeth Olsen's Scarlett Witch have also seen their roles expanded, to the point where hints of their budding comic book romance are starting to emerge. Thanks to the Infinity Gem embedded in the Vision's noggin', Bettany has inherited a character with some interesting and subtle dichotomies which he's really running with. At one turn I'm chuckling at his "trying too hard" Abercrombie & Fitch look and the next minute I'm shocked to see him lose focus during a pivotal moment in battle. In many ways, Wanda is the perfect match for him. She's still coming to grips with her unearthly powers so between her Sokovian trial by fire and the incident that kicks off the registration furor, Olsen has to temper Wanda's raw might with a vein of fragility and hesitance. And even though she reflexively falls into Stark's guilt trap, she soon starts to rail against the threat of internment, regardless of how benign it is. Together they serve up a few tender moments as well as a few wince-inducing confrontations.
- This entry also brings us the wonderful Chadwick Boseman as T'Challa, a.k.a. the Black Panther. As a fan of low-powered superheroes with bad-ass costumes, I've always liked Black Panther and I was positively stunned that (A) he's integral to the plot and (B) he's relevant to the film's conclusion. His is an economic origin story of sorts and since the character is virtually unknown to the general public, that's probably for the best. Boseman himself is a great pick for Black Panther since he's regal, erudite and cool as fuck. Bonus points: the writers wisely give him the sort of enlightened arc that you really wish the two main principals should have embraced.
- As Peter Parker / Spider-Man, Tom Holland is another welcome addition. Given Sony's only-recent change of heart RE: lending him back to Marvel Studios, he's not nearly as well integrated into the plot as Black Panther is. He's basically an "out of left field" wringer that Tony Stark's been conveniently keeping tabs on for the past little while. None of this should negatively reflect on Holland, however, who proves to be the most accurate on-screen incarnation of the character I've seen thus far. And even though he doesn't physically resemble who I'd personally cast as Peter Parker, he also doesn't have the "born loser" qualities of Tobey Maguire nor the emo-hip persona of Andrew Garfield. Despite being dirt poor, he's smart, earnest, upbeat and enthusiastic, clearly jazzed to join Team Iron Man just because he hero-worships the famous industrialist. Fortunately this same level of awesome is sustained well into the web-slinging scenes. I really have no idea how much of Holland is physically present during these moments but his line readings strike the perfect balance between fanboy-ism, nervous babbling and smack-talk. To make his introduction even better, the John Romita-influenced Spidey suit is something I've always wanted to see on the big screen.
- Meanwhile, Ant-Man is Cap's insect ying to Tony's arachnid yang. Paul Rudd is absolutely delightful in the movie. At first he's star-struck after meeting the Living Legend but as soon as he's hurled into action he immediate starts livin' life large. Literally. Nope, no Man of Steel-style hand-wringery or overt mopery on display here; Rudd literally revels in his ability to surprise himself and his opponents in battle. Between infiltrating Iron Man's defenses and recklessly mashing the reverse button on his shrinky-suit just for shits n' giggles, Rudd is single-handedly responsible for some of the film's most memorable moments of giddy joy. It also doesn't hurt that he delivers some of the movie's best lines with impeccable comic timing, to the point where I'm hankering for another Ant-Man movie.
- Daniel Brühl is also solid as Helmut Zemo. Although I wish they'd given his character any other name, I still dig his humble origins and simple, thematically-appropriate motivations. Personally I don't know how feasible his scheme would be in the "real" world but Brühl is one-hundred percent committed to it and displays the sort of cold, remorseless intensity that only a completely ruined man would exhibit.
- Yes, the cast is a tad inflated but every single player adds an additional layer to the film. Like the Falcon to Cap, Don Cheadle's James "Rhodey" Rhodes / War Machine is Tony's stalwart number two, floating some very compelling and persuasive reasons to sign the Sokovia Accord. Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye is his usual pragmatic, self-depreciating self, and I'm never gonna stop rooting for a solo flick for him. It's also great to see Cap finally get some long over-due play courtesy of the tough and highly capable Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp), who clearly shares his pragmatic world view. She expertly presides over several key sequences that not only solidifies Cap's resolve it also locked mine down as well. Also, Frank Grillo and William Hurt make continuity-a-riffic appearances as Brock Rumlow and Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross respectively. Given his messy fate in Winter Soldier, it's great to see Grillo back as a rage and hatred-fueled super-villain while William Hurt reminds us that The Incredible Hulk was a thing that happened way back in two-thousand-aught-eight in the most sure-footed and infuriating way possible.
- Not much to speak of, really.
- IMHO, Winter Soldier is still superior to Civil War mainly because it's sleeker, more mysterious, the sub-text is ballsier and it's more tonally even. But I wouldn't be surprised if Civil War ultimately turns out to be the "funner" film, the one that stands up to repeat viewings better. I suppose that only time, and a few more re-watches, will tell.
- Even though I'm kinda bummed by how Baron Zemo got "Mandarin-ed", I have to appreciate the script's gutsy bait n' switch move with him. Nice move, Markus and McFeely.
- As I mentioned before, I loved how the Russo Brothers never once cheated the action in The Winter Soldier. They created dynamic set-ups, shot a ton of stuff practically and pulled the camera way back so we could see what was going on at all times. Now, I'm gonna hold off turning this into a negative until I see the movie again in a non-IMAX 3-D format 'cuz the opening action scene in Lagos looked like it was filmed in FRENETIC ZOOM-IN-O-VISION. Maybe it was a stylistic choice for that particular set piece or maybe it was just my shitty perspective in the theater but, man, it was super-easy to loose track of the action during that scene.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Civil War might have more excess fat on its bones than The Winter Soldier but it also shares that movie's penchant for sharp writing, witty dialogue, solid acting and social commentary. Most importantly, the film introduces something totally original: the first real on-screen tilt between two A-list groups of super-heroes.
A lesser production probably would have gone ahead and started shooting with this as its centerpiece but instead the producers of Civil War cared enough to keep a laser-like focus on theme, heart and emotion in order to justify their visual delights.