Captain America: Civil War

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The third Captain America film cements the series’ place at the top of the Marvel movie food chain. While the first Iron Man is hard to beat, later installments haven’t been up to snuff. You liked the Avengers films better? Good news: Captain America: Civil War is a better Avengers film than either of Joss Whedon’s entries. It’s also arguably the best film of the Cap series.

Captain America: Civil War

Directors: Anthony Russo & Joe Russo
Starring: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Sebastian Stan, Scarlett Johansson, Don Cheadle, Anthony Mackie, Paul Rudd, Chadwick Boseman
Review: 4.5 stars (of five)

The story picks up on the catastrophic destruction wreaked in Avengers: Age of Ultron to build a case for reigning in super-powered vigilantes, and it does a fairly good job of framing the points of view of Chris Evans’ Cap and Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man. While I would’ve thought that Tony Stark would chafe at the idea of government control, his acceptance of oversight—and almost immediate response to its reality—is well-handled. The film also dials in some heavy emotional rationales for the core conflict, which involved Cap, Iron Man, and Sebastian Stan’s Winter Soldier/Bucky Barnes.

That the film manages to balance character moments—among such a huge cast—with plot mechanics and visually dazzling violence is a hell of an achievement. If anything, there’s too much character melodrama, with the finally confrontation between the core trio running too long, with just a touch too much bathos. But who’s buying their tickets to this in hope of subtlety, am I right? And for all the “It’s personal for me!” “It’s more personal for me!” angst, the film is also asking interesting questions about freedom, individuality, and trust in government. And while we’re of course meant to come down on Captain America’s side (it’s his movie, after all), the deck is not so stacked as to rule out debate.

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Telling a complete story

In a film with this many past threads to pick up, and this many story arcs and key moments to deliver, it’s easy to lose an audience, expecting them to remember earlier films that they might have seen once, a year or three ago, or might have missed entirely. The filmmakers here seem to go out of their way to organically catch viewers up.

It’s a shame that such attention to storytelling detail is noteworthy, but it’s nice to see filmmakers not taking their audience for granted.

The movie’s enormous cast of heroes is necessitated by the “choose sides and fight” conceit of the story. Juggling all these characters—making them feel real, making them matter—when some of them are making their Marvel movie universe debut, and some have barely been developed in past episodes, is a hell of a challenge. Directed by the Russo Brothers and written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, this movie is a textbook case in how to tell a fast, dense story without ever losing the audience. Underdeveloped characters from the latest Avengers flick (The Scarlet Witch and Vision) are decently fleshed out here, and Paul Rudd’s transition from the light, personal Ant-Man to this intense slugfest is, if not perfect, then highly serviceable.

The highlight of the film is the introduction of two new characters to this film series. The arrival of Tom Holland’s Spider-Man is a welcome relief, because this kid feels more like Stan Lee/Steve Ditko four-color creation than either of his cinematic predecessors at Sony. (That Aunt May has gone from the frail, elderly figure of comics lore to the hip, youthful and gorgeous Marissa Tomei is … weird. But hey, who doesn’t like to see Marissa Tomei?)

3cap02The second debut, though, is the most impressive. Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther is second only to Chris Hemsworth’s Thor (wisely absent from this flick) in terms of nailing the casting. Boseman feels like royalty, exuding physical power and authority, from the moment he’s on the screen. Getting the stature and dignity of the Panther, who is a monarch as well as a “super-hero,” is essential. As with the new Spider-Man, this film leaves me breathless for the character’s upcoming solo installment.

If there’s a drawback, it’s one familiar from Whedon’s second Avengers film: Action scenes combine shaky, handheld, closeup camera work with footage sped up to a distracting degree. The action isn’t impossible to follow, but it’s not fun trying. Later in the movie, I was bothered less by this than in the opening action sequence, so either the Russos toned that crap down, or one simply gets used to it.

That said, the action overall is fantastic. Where Cap 2 felt like too much of the action was just bullets, bullets, bullets, this one features a final superhero battle that feels more like a comic book sequence than anything I’ve ever seen on screen.

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