Sunday, May 8, 2016

Captain America: Civil War - Are the Avengers breaking up?

Captain America: Civil War (2016) Starring Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Rudd, Emily VanCamp, Tom Holland, Frank Grillo, William Hurt, Daniel Brühl. Directed by Anthony Russo, Joe Russo. Screenplay by Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely. Based on Captain America created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Produced by Kevin Feige. Color. U.S.A. Run Time 147. Action, Adventure, Fantasy

In the ever-continuing and ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), no summer season would be complete without a new installment. This year’s entry comes under the Captain America (Chris Evans) sub-heading of the franchise, but it is in fact all but a reunion of the full Avengers; the only ones missing are The Hulk and Thor, which are more nice-to-haves than required for a quorum. In their stead are three “new” Avengers, the recently introduced Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), the oft rebooted Spider-Man (Tom Holland) and the soon to have his own film, Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman).

The story takes place a year after the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), in which the city of Sokovia was left as a pile of rubble and there were scores of deaths. The final straw comes when some innocents are killed in Lagos, Nigeria during an Avengers operation. The world has suddenly had enough and has proposed regulating the Avengers by having them overseen by a United Nations committee. Vengeance against and regulation of super-powers is as old as The Watchmen graphic novel and was also previously addressed in the kid friendly version of Watchmen, The Incredibles (2004). So the film doesn’t really break new ground here. In any situation, some will follow the law, while others will not.

When U.S. Secretary of State Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross (William Hunt) informs them of this new law, it divides the Avengers. On one side is Tony Stark / Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), James "Rhodey" Rhodes / War Machine (Don Cheadle), Vision (Paul Bettany), Spider-Man and T'Challa / Black Panther. They support the law, though perhaps not willingly.

Team Iron Man includes Black Panther, Vision, Iron Man, Black Widow and War Machine.

The other side of the divide is led by Steve Rogers / Captain America with followers in Sam Wilson / Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Clint Barton / Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Wanda Maximoff / Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Bucky Barnes / Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) and Scott Lang / Ant-Man. As a group they don’t want restrictions on when they act and worry that a committee might wait too long to call them up.

Team Captain America includes Falcon, Ant-Man, Hawkeye, Captain, Scarlet Witch and The Winter Soldier.

It is the relationship between Rogers and Barnes that drives the plot as Barnes is framed for a killing he didn’t commit and then, once captured, is turned back into the killing machine by Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl), a survivor of the destruction of Sokovia, who is seeking his own brand of vengeance.

Zemo manages to play the Avengers and the establishment like a fiddle as they act out just how he predicts they will, leading to several battles, pitting Avengers (and friends) against one another with more than pride getting bruised in the process.

There is also a lot of backstory involving Barnes as the Winter Soldier. What Stark finds out doesn’t help with either their working relationship nor Iron Man’s and Captain America's. Obviously, there will have to be some forgive and forget before the Avengers can all work together again as a cohesive group.

Bucky Barnes/The Winter Soldier's backstory plays prominently into the plot.

One of the problems in following a franchise like the MCU is trying to keep up with the barrage of characters that build up over time. Not only are there nearly a dozen or more super-heroes by now, there are the suddenly important supporting cast that you’re supposed to have kept track of all these years and films later. Ross as an example, first appeared as a Lt. General in The Incredible Hulk (2008). So if he seems familiar eight years later, he’s supposed to be. As is Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp) who first appeared in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), but in that movie she was Agent 13 and got a little more screen time than Stan Lee. Now, she’s back as a mid-level anti-terrorist expert working for the UN. And now she’s gone from girl across the hall to possible love interest for the good Captain.

Also from Winter Soldier, welcome back Brock Runlow (Frank Grillo). If you don’t remember him then you’re not alone. He was one of several S.H.I.E.L.D. agents who was a double agent for Hydra and one of several who attacked the Cap in an elevator at headquarters. Does that ring a bell? Well, he’s back, also seeking vengeance as Crossbones. But is it really revenge when you instigated the attack in the first place? Well, he’s not happy about getting his ass handed to him and having a building drop on his face, so he wants Captain America to suffer somehow. And like everyone who tries, he ultimately fails.

For any franchise to last, there has to be a mixture of the familiar and the new. The Avengers are no exception. Most of these characters, even the minor ones, have been the same actors throughout, so when you think of MCU Black Widow, you immediately think of Scarlett Johansson. For the franchise to continue, it needs to add new characters and situations. New character-wise, we get Black Panther, a newly crowned king turned superhero, played well by Chadwick Boseman, another actor with a relatively short list of credits. Still he’s a good addition to the cast and will get his own feature film in 2018. Hopefully we can all keep good mental notes of him until then.

When you think of MCU Black Widow, you think of Scarlett Johansson.

I think Sony has finally found a suitable replacement for Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man. Like several in the cast, Tom Holland might not have a long resume, but he seems to hold his own with the others, notably Downey’s Stark, with whom he shares the most screen time. His Aunt May also got a reboot and is now a younger and sexier Marisa Tomei.

The new Spider-Man (Tom Holland) makes an appearance and holds his own.

But characters are only a part of the formula. These films require action and there is a lot of action in this film. The action is surprisingly easy to follow and despite the obvious use of CGI, it never loses its sense of humor. Some of that goes with the territory of a MCU film, but one has to give a nod in the direction of the Russo brothers, who are directing their first superhero film. If this film is any indication, then Avengers: Infinity War Part 1 (2018) and Part 2 (2019) are probably in pretty good hands. But I felt the same with Joss Whedon after the first Avengers film.

Having seen all the previous films, I’m not sure if that’s a help or a hindrance. I come into this with certain expectations, both good and bad, that someone who hasn’t seen them wouldn’t have. No film should require you to have seen another to make the story work. Certainly, you could watch Civil War without having seen Ant-Man, though there are subtleties you will miss.

Captain America: Civil War is an ensemble uptick after the somewhat disappointing Avengers: Age of Ultron. Maybe it has to do with resetting our expectations. Maybe it has to do with taking the overall storyline in a new direction so that it can regroup later. While I don’t think this is the greatest super-hero film of all time, it is definitely fairly high up there. But I must say I’m looking forward to the next chapter and isn’t that what a franchise is supposed to do, make you want to come back for more?

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