Friday, 6 May 2016
Review: In ‘Captain America: Civil War,’ Super-Bro Against Super-Bro
If you release a movie called “Captain America: Civil War” to an ideologically polarized nation in the midst of a notably contentious presidential campaign, you can expect to reap a whirlwind of think pieces. In spite of occasional public scolding about the rampant misuse of allegorical interpretation, hard-pressed, click-seeking cultural journalists and political pundits can be counted on to take up the hard work of finding echoes, resonances and subtexts in a big pop-cultural pseudo-event. If you hybridized Donald J. Trump and Elon Musk, would you get Tony Stark? Would Captain America’s endorsement have made a difference for John Kasich? Is Ant-Man a Bernie Bro?
I hate to disappoint, but I have to say that I’m not really feeling it. The cues are there, of course. An aura of vaguely topical importance is as vital to a superhero-franchise movie as a merchandising deal. So “Civil War” pauses for a few moments of chin-scratching and speechifying about whether a group of genetically advantaged, highly weaponized individuals should be brought under the supervision of the United Nations. More seriously — because, come on now, do you really think Captain America is going to put on a blue U.N. helmet? — the film glances at some of the moral complexities of modern warfare. The designated good guys are responsible for the deaths of innocents, and the question of their accountability hovers over the movie and sets its plot in motion.
But this very crowded, reasonably enjoyable installment in the Avengers cycle — written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and directed by Joe and Anthony Russo — reveals, even more than its predecessors, an essential truth about the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s not so much a grand science-fiction saga, or even a series of action-adventure movies, as a very expensive, perpetually renewed workplace sitcom.
New characters are added as the seasons wear on. Cast members are replaced. The thing gets a little baroque and tests the boundaries of coherence, but we keep showing up because it can be pleasant, in a no-pressure, low-key kind of way, to hang out with these people as they banter and squabble and get the job done. Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows both your street name and your nom de cape. (And yes, thank you, I’m perfectly aware that these Marvel superheroes don’t wear capes.)
In this episode, based on a run of comics written by Mark Millar, some of the usual crowd is missing. No Hulk. No Thor. No Nick Fury. The newcomers include Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), whose first solo adventure is prophesied during the final credits, and a very young Spider-Man (Tom Holland), whose solo adventures are the property of a different movie studio.
Do you need a list of the rest of them? There are a lot, and my space is limited. The headliners are Cap (Chris Evans, of course) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr., of course), and most of the others you hope will show up for at least a brisk punch-up, a bout of soul-searching or a self-conscious joke or two. “Captain America: Civil War” is like the last number at a big benefit concert, when a mob of pop stars squeezes onto the stage to sing “This Land Is Your Land,” or whatever. Some performers sing a whole verse. Others shake maracas for the cause and stare off into the middle distance.
Scarlett Johansson is on board. Also Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Olsen and so many more. You can go ahead and match them with their superhero identities and civilian alter egos. I’m not here to do your homework for you.
The Russo brothers, whose résumés include “Arrested Development” as well as “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” are better at dialogue than at action. The early chases and fights are hectic, stroboscopic messes, evidence less of the innovative power of digital effects than of the creative fatigue they can induce. It’s difficult to see exactly what’s going on, but you’ve seen it before anyway, so it hardly matters. People and vehicles are tossed around. Buildings blow up. Glass shatters. It all serves a cumbersome and not very original narrative.
As in “Batman v Superman,” a dude with a grudge (Daniel Brühl) is determined to set the superheroes against one another. To call the fighting that ensues a civil war seems a bit grandiose, though. A more honest title would have been “Captain America: Collegial Misunderstanding” or “Captain America: Intramural Pickup Game.” The differences of opinion and temperament that cleave the Avengers — it comes down to Iron Man’s arrogance versus the Captain’s stubborn rectitude — provide a pretext for a few sequences of brawling and yelling that are actually kind of exciting to watch.
The best part of the movie is a six-on-six rumble at an airport, in which two teams of costumed co-workers, with a few ringers in the mix, face off to work out their issues. The battle is entertaining precisely because the stakes are relatively low. No planets, cities or galaxies are in peril, and you can enjoy the spectacle without any of the usual action-movie queasiness about invisible and extensive civilian casualties. (Someone will have to clean up the mess, of course, but that just means overtime for the maintenance workers, who may even be unionized). And there is a solid, satisfying physicality to the effects. That’s true of the climactic mano a mano as well, though the mood is grimmer and the sense of personal grievance more intense.
“Captain America: Civil War” does not in any way transcend the conventions of the genre. On the contrary: It succeeds because it doesn’t really try. The dialogue is peppered with movie and pop-cultural references — at one point, Spider-Man draws inspiration from “a really old movie” called “The Empire Strikes Back” — and there is even a sly joke about the proliferation of “enhanced” battlers of evil and world-threatening events. The movie seems aware that it risks wearing out its welcome, which would be disastrous, given that Marvel and Disney have already locked in release dates into the next decade. Tune in next time? Sure, why not. It’s a job somebody has to do.
“Captain America: Civil War” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). A little more swearing and a lot less killing than you might expect.Running time: 2 hours 27 minutes.