Lukewarm Takes #11: Captain America: Civil War

My super-hero-obsessed three year old son Declan remains in thrall to Batman and Superman and Spider-Man, as well as Peppa Pig, who is not technically a super-hero, but is super-charming. But recently he's been getting really into Captain America. He has Captain America light-up shoes and a Captain America cup so when he and the wife were at my in-laws for the evening I figured I would make the most of my time alone by watching Captain America: Civil War for the thrilling return of Lukewarm Takes

It felt a little ironic to be watching a movie about my son’s new favorite superhero without my son but Captain America: Civil War is nearly two and a half hours of grown-up entertainment, and for once, I am not using the word “grown-up” with withering irony. I’m glad I watched Captain America: Civil War after Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice because the two film’s aspirations and themes are a lot like. Captain America: Civil War just happens to realize its ambition.

Like Batman v. Superman, Captain America: Civil War is about a battle of ideology as much as a battle of brawn. The second Captain America sequel takes itself seriously. The common denominator in seemingly all of its characters, beyond super-powers, is hurt, is damage, is betrayal and death and hopelessness and despair. Everyone here has lost someone essential to them, someone irreplaceable, someone whose death inspires not just sadness or hurt but a hunger for righteous retribution. 

When the mega-bazillion-dollar franchise welcomes superhero T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) into its weird world, it wastes little time ushering him into its prestigious Dead Dad Club by killing off his old man T’Chaka (John Kani), King of the fictional African nation of Wakanda. This makes T’Challa King but more importantly it imbues him with a righteous hunger for vengeance that is so often the superhero world’s sadistic cost of entry. 

Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) is nearly as defined by loss as he is by power. He hasn’t just lost people close to him, he lost an entire world, his world, when he went to sleep in the 1940s and awoke in the present. And Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, AKA Iron Man, is actually introduced re-living, through the magic of technology, the moment in his young life just before his parents both died young. 

The Avengers, meanwhile, are grappling with the unexpected fallout of their latest mission, as well as the almost unimaginable collateral damage resulting from the Earth’s greatest superheroes (Suck it, DC!) continually clashing with its greatest super-villains. Individually and collectively, the superhero team is wrestling with guilt over the lives and buildings destroyed in the course of their many years of super-heroism. 

In an attempt to minimize the potential damage caused by superheroes acting without oversight or guidance, the UN decides to form a committee to control the Avengers. This provokes the titular Civil War between a conscience-stricken Tony Stark, who supports international oversight as a way of heading off potential tragedies and Captain America, who trusts his gut and his instincts over the rules and regulations of others.

Nice posters, needs to be busier.

Nice posters, needs to be busier.

The Avengers are pitted against each other as well as a mysterious, malevolent villain played by Daniel Bruhl who, like the film’s heroes, is defined largely by having lost something he can never possibly get back, that seems stolen not by the often cruel dictates of fate so much as the super-humans in his midst. 

Civil War is not a laugh riot. It shouldn’t be. Too much silliness would compromise its fundamental seriousness. Yet Civil War is, thank God, a movie with a sense of humor about itself. It understands, for example, how ridiculous a character like Vision, a red-hued former operating system turned superhero android who dresses out of costume like a Sears’ obsessed dad from the 1980s, might seem. But it also understands the sadness and melancholy of Vision, the way his unique origins and distance from humanity renders him a misfit and an outcast even among misfits and outcasts. 

Where previous Marvel movies seemed weighed down by all their world-building and exposition, Civil War is enlivened by it. I found myself getting excited rather than irritated when the movie kept introducing, or rather re-introducing characters, like Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man, whose role here is appropriately small in screen time but big in impact. 

Captain America: Civil War is consequently a better Ant-Man movie than Ant-Man was. It skips straight past all the requisite superhero mythologizin to Ant-Man being awesome. Returning directors The Russo Brothers let Paul Rudd be Paul Rudd. The moment when Ant-Man goes from Ant-Man to Giant-Man gave me more pleasure in a minute or two than Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad did in over four ponderous hours. 

The filmmakers similarly let Robert Downey Jr. be Robert Downey Jr., confident, perhaps that he’s got a pretty solid handle on the whole “Iron Man” thing by now. And all of the hype about the movie’s teenage mutant Spider-Man turn out to be true. Newcomer Tom Holland plays him as an ebullient pip-squeak who functions as an adorable audience surrogate. He’s a fan as much, if not more, than a contemporary to the Avengers and Holland plays up the character’s potent combination of boyishness and fan-boyishness to charming effect.  

When I was a kid in the 1980s, if there was one movie with a superhero in it a year you considered yourself lucky. If you got Superman IV: Quest for Peace for the year, you counted your blessings. Then those movies became more commonplace and the stakes were raised. These days, movies like Captain America: Civil War have to include pretty much all of the superheroes just to keep pace. 

I’m not just talking about all 14 million Marvel super-heroes with their own franchises that Civil War diligently features. No, if you look closely in Civil War you’ll be able to spot such non-Marvel heroes as Blankman, Meteor Man, Duckman (who is not even a superhero!), Stripperella, Rainn Wilson’s Super, several of the Specials, one of the Mystery Men and Howard Stern’s Fartman. 

Fartman appears in every scene here and has, in many ways, the most complicated and nuanced emotional arc of any of the superheroes here, but when the character tested poorly, they took away all his dialogue and moved him to the background. 

The Russo Brothers, who honed their chops on Arrested Development and Community before moving to the big leagues with Captain America: Winter Soldier, have been given hundreds of millions of dollars to realize every child’s fevered fantasy of every superhero fighting every other superhero, with the extremely notable exception of the Incredible Hulk, who is off having his own trippy outer space adventures with Thor in Thor: Ragnorak. 

My inner child squealed with delight as these meta-humans squared off against one another like some manner of superhero Royal Rumble but my inner adult appreciated that Civil War has a lot more on its mind than mere bone-crushing spectacle. It’s a thunderously loud movie full of quiet character moments executed by an absurdly over-qualified cast. 

Captain America’s relationship with one-time best buddy turned brainwashed super-assassin Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Shaw) has a tragic heft that comes from these films spending so much time with these characters. They’re both soldiers whose bodies and minds were taken over by science at a pivotal point. They were once all-American every-men before science transformed them into something at once more heroic and powerful and more terrifyingly dangerous than before. 

Civil War and Batman v Superman are like the Goofus and Gallant of the superhero team-up world. They do pretty much the same things, only one does it a whole lot better than the other.  With Marvel, everything’s at least pretty good and sometimes much more. Within the context of the Marvel movies I’ve covered for this column, Deadpool and Doctor Strange definitely fell on the “pretty good” side, while Civil War is that elusive something much more, putting it in the same league as superior Marvel movies like Iron Man 3 and Guardians of the Galaxy. 

When Batman v Superman clumsily morphed into a singularly unappealing trailer for spin-offs involving such uniquely limited characters as Cyborg and Aqua Man, it made me roll my eyes and scoff out loud. Oh, but you should have heard the thunderous volume of my scoffing! I scoffed so loud the very Gods themselves heard my scoffing and wept! I also wondered who on earth could possibly be excited about a Cyborg movie, other than the dude playing Cyborg.

When Captain America: Civil War just as shamelessly and nakedly transformed itself into a two hundred million dollar trailer for upcoming spin-offs for Black Panther and Spider-Man, it made me desperately want to see those movies. Civil War is unashamedly commerce. It has to be. At this point Marvel movies make up roughly 70 percent of our gross domestic product. 

It would be irresponsible for the filmmakers to ignore their role single-handedly keeping our economy afloat by diligently setting up not a spin-off but a whole series of spin-offs involving a wildly disparate group of superheroes, ranging from an exuberant teen from Queens to a charismatic, sleek African king. 

At this point in the Marvel Cinematic universe, exhaustion should have set in a long time ago. I’m not sure how much more these movies have to offer someone like Robert Downey Jr., beyond the promise of staggeringly enormous paydays. But if Downey Jr. is bored it does not show here. 

Downey brings a melancholy and a gravity to the role that’s partially rooted in the character and partially rooted in Downey’s own history of self-destruction and improbable survival. Like Stark, he’s a consummate narcissist but when he’s onscreen with Holland he’s secure enough to let the younger, hungrier actor steal their scenes. 

Marvel should feel depleted by now. Instead, Civil War suggests the work of a rejuvenated organization. 

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was supposed to be a glorious beginning to a Marvel-style universe for the Distinguished Competition. Instead, it ended up illustrating the paucity of vision and imagination of D.C Films. Civil War, in sharp contrast, highlights Marvel’s strengths both as a commercial powerhouse and as a refreshingly dependable creator of crackerjack entertainment. 

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