Tuesday, 3 May 2016
Captain America: Civil War (Film Review)
Sometimes you just have to praise something which works in spite of itself. Really, when you see these reviews on here, often even the near glowing recommendations highlight at least one or two big failings here and there. There's rarely anything which is truly perfect after all, as even the greatest of classics have some minute flaw somewhere, and fans always need to learn to love something despite their failings more than anything else. With that in mind, Captain America: Civil War runs a very fine line between success and failure. It's hardly a bad film by any means, and dodges many key failings which have dragged down more ambitious productions, but there's more than a few innate problems which severely hamper its potential. The big one though? Simply this: Marvel's Civil War will never work, no matter how many mediums they adapt it into.
After attempting to take down Crossbones during a raid on a disease research lab goes south, the United Nations declares that the Avengers require greater oversight. Torn on the subject as much due to their experiences as their backgrounds, fractures soon begin to emerge within the group. However, there is a spanner in the works. The Winter Soldier has emerged once more, this time bombing a UN building in a mysterious act of terrorism. Even in the face of his oldest allies turning upon him, Captain America is ready to go through hell and high water to see him redeemed.
Now, let this be made clear: This is a vastly better story than the original Marvel event. For starters, the film pays close attention to the fact that the Marvel world is still adjusting to the existence of superheroes, and many laws have yet to be laid out. Furthermore, the focus is upon controlling the Avengers in particular rather than superheroes as a whole, and it's a direct error in judgement which leads to a disaster rather than a supervillain being a villain. Even the resolution itself at least tries to take the time to avoid a lot of the bitter spite, hatred and preaching found in the original comic, and there's no point where a superhero crosses the line into outright villainy themselves.
So, what's the problem then?
Well, in a move which is going to sound very odd; It makes many of Batman vs. Superman's key mistakes, albeit in a severely toned down form. Overstuffed to the gills, the film is extremely tightly cut and fast paced but still feels as if it needed to somehow be even longer to fit everything in. Every corner is cut and shorted down, but many sub-plots still feel extremely malnourished even with a full 147 run-time. For starters, the film basically jumps right into things, cutting right into the Avengers themselves in action with little real introduction. True, most folks know who these people are now, but even Star Wars made a point of starting each film slow to ease people back into things. Here? Wham, it's in and it never slows down from there. It serves to lock out people, and it highlights the key issue behind these films - They've becoming far too focused upon linking into one another than merely standing as individual productions. Even great as they are, we still need more solid films which can stand on their own.
Linking into that failing, we have the problem of Spider-Man and Black Panther. While certainly introduced as a core part of the plot, they're almost satellite characters who end up as little more than fan service. This hits Spider-Man especially hard, as he comes in out of near nowhere, is set up as a key character, joins in with the big fight, and then disappears. Black Panther makes a stronger impression, yet he undergoes a similarly problematic arc, as he's barely introduced before thrown straight into the big battle. Sure, we see more of him and we get a halfway decent idea of who he is, but as the film progresses it seems less and less natural, like the directors were looking for ways to hammer him into the story wherever possible. It's sadly disingenuous to both characters, as it turns them into little more than action fodder and fan-service moneymakers; showing up just to add a bit of additional interest and to help promote their films at a later date. While other characters have worked out that way in the past, usually such a role has been put down to a cameo or brief apprentice, then allowing them to be fully introduced in their own focus film. In this case, what we have is sadly torn between the two. They're in there, they're introduced, but they're pushed just out of the spotlight the second they might become prominent.
However, the greatest failing is the subject of Civil War itself - Regulation vs freedom. It's an interesting subject to be sure, and one well worth exploring properly; yet despite a strong start, it quickly devolves into little more than an excuse for heroes to punch one another. Oh, it's not all bad to be sure, we get a strong start, some good discussion and some even a few interesting points to consider. However, by the end this is almost completely forgotten, as we get no closure nor conclusion on the subject, and the plot meanders off to give Stark reasons to want to kill the Winter Soldier. To put it simply, the film doesn't want to actually delve into the real meat of the very subjects it brings up.
Having the story just forget about things would be bad enough, but even before this there are some big cracks showing up in terms of logic. In the U.N.'s speel, they bring up the disasters the Avengers have caused or supposedly made worse by being involved, specifically Loki's attack on New York, HYDRA's hellicarrier assault, and Ultron lifting a city into the air before dropping it on others. Here's the problem: The collateral damage and even the very event itself is blamed upon the Avengers. Yeah, apparently the U.N. seemed to think that not having Cap and co. there would have helped avoid everything, and seems to just think that the genocidal supervillains wouldn't have been a problem otherwise.
Even the very fact that the Avengers stopped a U.N. board nuking a city is forgotten, and it only gets worse once General Ross (yes, someone decided to make him the U.N. liaison) claims that the group can't control its members. He rhetorically asks where Thor is, as if this proves that they're completely disorganised and can't keep track of their most powerful assets. Well, A. He's on Asgard, a fact well known to anyone who asks. B. He's not a US citizen, but a political leader from another power, so he should fall under a completely different set of laws. Again, never brought up.
So, why are we focusing so much upon these points? Because no one else will bring them up. Honestly, every other review will be a five star no-failings-at-all listing, and sidesteps these bits. It's not like these are small things either, these are just the ones most crucial to the main story itself. There's more minor points which could easily be brought up, and with any superhero story, there's a good deal of suspension of disbelief required on the audience's part. Elements this big though, they can't simply be ignored because a few people have superpowers and capes.
So, what are the truly good elements here? For starters, we do get one of the single most entertaining fights since the first Avengers film. While we've seen the heroes fighting wave upon wave of villains plenty of times before, seeing a group of well rounded, iconic heroes entering a full blown brawl is quite refreshing. No combatant here comes off badly, and each fighter gets a solid chance to really show off their own personal skills here. It's a fast paced and exciting, taking up a solid chunk of the second act, with no end of fun twists. Really, the second you think the brawl might be coming to a close, some new superpower will be revealed or someone will get their second wind, allowing an entirely new series of skirmishes to unfold. Just seeing this several minute battle is well worth the price of admission alone, and it's made all the better thanks to no hero becoming dull, dour and serious. There's some good upbeat humour when needed, and it never loses sight of the fact that even seeing heroes fighting heroes is supposed to be fun. A fact the actual comics could do with being reminded of.
The first act, while suffering from a few of the problems outlined above, is serviceable at worst and pretty damn great most of the way through. The opening battle really helps set the tone for the film, and we even see a few new developments here and there. While Scarlet Witch and Vision are sadly given little to really do in terms of showing off their abilities, the few scenes the two are given help to offer some much needed levity during the more intense moments of the main plot. Add in the fact that Falcon is being treated as more of a main character than any past outing - and it's about damn time too - and there's a real sense of how this team actually works. Honestly, it's enough to serve as a solid reminder before things come crashing down that they were effective, and they were left to their own devices for so long with good reason.
There's a solid action-to-drama ratio in the scenes, and despite being tightly cut and sadly quite bloated, it never seems to be veering too much towards one or the other. You can go more than a few minutes without anyone swinging a punch, but the solid pacing and character dynamics never makes that seem like a step down from the action scenes. Dramatic moments, humourous bits or even just exposition all fit together fantastically, and the direction behind the film really shines through in the Cap plus Stark scenes.
The cinematography is great throughout, and while it has more in common with Winter Soldier than any other Marvel film - for obvious reasons - there's a few quirks here. The more grounded or realistic moments do keep to the more conventional and traditional shots expected of a political thriller, but once the superheroics really kick in they go for for fun but unconventional takes. Really, once you do see it, keep the chase scene with Black Panther in mind when you're watching Ant Man's big moment, and you'll see just how wildly different each take is. It's really saying something when arguably the most pedestrian take of a scene is two teams of superheros charging into battle with one another.
The actual conclusion does also manages to close things out on a high note despite the grim tone and an extremely violent last battle. While this sadly does require the near erasure of a big moment which should have left Stark utterly livid, it's definitely welcome over the alternative, and the somewhat bittersweet tone is certainly fitting. It might be problematic, with some dark days ahead, but it makes it clear there's still hope. A move which many other films simply would not have bothered with. Finally, the film never makes the mistake of turning this into a mini Avengers production. That was a fear more than a few people had, but despite the sheer number of characters involved on all sides, the focus remains squarely upon Cap, Winter Solider, Iron Man, and Falcon with the other characters varying in terms of importance. It's good to know, as it means that while we might end up seeing more multi-character sagas in the future, they at least know to keep the attention placed upon the titular hero during such crossover events, rather than muscling someone out of their own film.
So, how is Civil War really? Honestly, extremely fun despite the above. There are a lot of problems here, but it needs to be stressed once again that we only went into such detail because any other review seems to ignore them. To better explore them, and to get a more varied opinion, I do advise you look to those reviews as well, to get a more rounded view of the film. Really, there are more than enough positive qualities to allow any established Marvel fan to get a kick out of seeing this one, and it's a reasonable start to a new chapter in this franchise. It's just a shame you kind of have to switch off your brain to get to those bits.