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Monday, May 9, 2016

Captain America: Civil War (Release Date: 5-6-2016)

        Marvel Studios has always been fairly brilliant in a variety of ways, but 2016 will go down as the year they started gaining real self-awareness. Like the smart-ass A.I. featured in last summer's Avengers: Age of Ultron, figurehead Kevin Feige and his merry band of comic book adapters have assessed the reactions of movie goers to Marvel's not-at-all-pretentiously-titled Phase One and Phase Two, and apparently have no problem with a touch of late-game revisionism. It's an open secret that this film-making collective has a real problem creating compelling villains, and I'm hardly the first to whine about their insistence on including a glowing McGuffin for our heros to wage war over. There's also the unwieldy problem of the individualized movies, wherein singular heros are faced with seemingly insurmountable odds, and yet fail to remember to phone numbers of either Bruce Banner or the Stark residence. Captain America: Civil War is both specific and exacting in its refutation of these complaints, and yet still wears the Marvel mission statement proudly across its chest for all to see.

        It also has no problem stealing Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice's lunch money, and then giving it a swirly for good measure. In a plot you might recognize from Zack Snyder's ill-fated battle royal that hit screens less than a month and a half ago, earth has grown anxious over the presence of her mightiest heros. After the series of catastrophic throw-downs we've witnessed in subsequent films, the United Nations have banded together, and landed on a solution: all superheros must register as such, and may only be deployed when the UN collectively sees fit. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) sees the logic immediately, having been haunted by the demons of his past for several movies now, and implores everyone to sign the paper work. Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) could hardly be more opposed, citing an indestructible impulse to save people whenever danger becomes imminent. Their disagreement tears the Avengers apart, rendering the presence of a super-villain irrelevant. The true culprit here is bureaucracy.

        Which isn't to say that Marvel has lost their signature brand of light-hearted fun. Much of what makes Civil War such an out-and-out success is the way it balances heated political discussions with scenes where Scarlett Johansson throws motorcycles at people, and proceeds to do violent gymnastics with giddy exuberance and joyously unrealistic aplomb. As was the case with their Marvel debut Captain America: The Winter Soldier, directors Anthony and Joe Russo imbue the universe with a seriousness that other directors have strayed away from without ever losing track of what makes these flicks such fun, comforting watches. In many ways, the movie plays like a two-and-a-half hour mea culpa for the aforementioned Ultron, a film that promised to bring dire stakes to a universe that had no idea how to deal with them. Describing this as a Captain America movie is straight-up disingenuous: Civil War crams as many of your favorite crime fighters as will fit into its extended runtime, and somehow even the moments that feel utterly shoehorned manage to register.

        Those wondering how a single film could possibly wrangle all of our previously established characters into one narrative while managing to introduce even more are not wrong in their skepticism. On a purely factual level, there are too many players on hand to do all of them justice, and the studio's much-ballyhooed introduction of Spider-Man (Tom Holland) is a branding exercise of the purest sort. It's also really damn fun, forming a dichotomy that could easily be used to describe the film at large; not everything here is exactly cohesive, but it's all a blast to watch. The Avengers is certainly the more 'perfect' of the two films, largely because of its sure-minded decision to prioritize characters over anything resembling a juicy plot, but Civil War manages to spin a yarn about 7,349 different superheros that, more or less, makes sense and is consistently engaging. For the first time since The Winter Soldier, banter isn't the defining feature of a Marvel film. My favorite remains Guardians of the Galaxy, which is a roundabout way of saying I have no qualms with these movies' sense of humor. It's just striking and refreshing to see it moved lower down on the totem pole of priority.

        Much has been made of the 6-on-6 battle alluded to in the trailer, but the Russo's deserve credit for their action chops throughout the rest of the feature as well. Often playing out like Jason Bourne for 9-year-olds, the action is kinetic, sweaty, and captured with a jittery urgency. The spacial reasoning is occasionally lacking, but it's still a blast to see these demigods participate in combat that actually has some weight to it. Black Panther in particular, expertly played by series-newcomer Chadwick Boseman, is a blast to watch on the battle field, and is even afforded a proper character arc by the film's bloated runtime. The movie feels even longer than its stated two-and-a-half-hours, and while my engagement was consistent enough to forgive the excess, scenes where Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) teaches The Vision (Paul Bettany) how best to prepare food and speak with cinema's worst Russian accent are probably a bit overkill. But who's counting? Capatin America: Civil War is a near-perfect Marvel experience; almost all your friends are here, they all receive ample screen time, and there are finally actual stakes involved, even if they're mostly just emotional. The studio has crossed their t's, dotted their I's, and made one of their very best movies to date.

Grade: B+

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