A civil war with pathos 

New Marvel blockbuster exceeds predecessors.

click to enlarge MARVELOUS: Heroes spar in "Civil War."
  • MARVELOUS: Heroes spar in "Civil War."

By all appearances, "Captain America: Civil War" looked like a magnificent mess as it was coming down the pike. The 13th Marvel Cinematic Universe film, with a cast that included heroes from nearly all the predecessors, was always doomed to be a yearbook collage come to life. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo, back from the dour if well received "Captain America: Winter Soldier," were again at the helm, along with a cast of action figures made from actors. What they and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely managed to construct, though, feels like one of the strongest entries in the genre. It's overwhelming, ambitious and complex — and suffers from a 30-minute slow simmer in the first half — but is ultimately as exciting as anything from the previous "Avengers" installments, with some actual pathos stitched in.

There's also a hell of a lot of movie here. It's almost two-and-a-half hours long, with a cast that includes all the non-Hulk Avengers, plus a new Spider-Man (Tom Holland, a promising Peter Parker redux) and Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman, formerly Jackie Robinson of "42"). You've also got Sebastian Stan as the Winter Soldier, a nigh-invincible mercenary killer who goes way back (like, a hundred years) with Captain America himself (Chris Evans). With the Winter Soldier behind a heist in Lagos that the Avengers foil but that leads to bystander deaths, the team has to reckon with the collateral damage trailing them around the globe. The State Department and the U.N. want to cork up the Avengers' power, and send them into crises only on an ad hoc basis. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), shaken by survivor stories, sees this as the way forward, as do Black Widow, War Machine and Vision. But ol' Cap doesn't want a committee to put the brakes on crime fighting, and he's committed to trying to bring in the Winter Soldier his own self. Falcon, Hawkeye and Scarlet Witch agree. Thus, factions arise from the political impasse, and factions lead to whiz-bang fisticuffs.

Take two steps back, though, and it starts looking like a real parable. Thirteen years after anyone articulated the Bush Doctrine, here's a movie perfect for 13-year-olds that spells it out in accessible terms. If you're the strongest force on the planet, and you perceive threats that only you can quash, should you wait for anyone to give you the go-ahead? In 2003 America the country said, definitively, and to its deep regret, that the answer is yeah, we'll kick an ass whenever we see the back of pants. And America the Captain, in "Civil War," determines much the same thing. Iron Man in this polarity winds up being, say, France, but in a way that will have you wondering what France would do the next time Ultron tries to kill everyone on the planet — wait for roll call?

Admittedly, this analogy falls apart when comparing, say, the decision to invade Iraq on trumped-up pretenses and the decision to protect New York City from a wormhole Thanos opened to dump Chitauri warriors and flying trilobite monsters into midtown Manhattan. And yet, the tension is strong enough to hang a pretty ripping summer tentpole blockbuster on.

Netflix's serial TV hit "Jessica Jones" last fall reckoned with many of the same themes; there, people had become embittered toward superheroes because of the calamities they seemed to invite. Vision, who as a hyper-intelligent sentient A.I. endowed with weird cosmic powers ought to know better, makes a version of this argument in "Civil War" as well. Maybe the great power the Avengers possess invites challenges, he says. What if power itself, then, invites these disasters?

It's easy to write this off as facile, which it is, but "Civil War" was already pushing the boundaries of too damn long and doesn't need to skirt off into "Frost/Nixon" conversations. In truth, the comic book universe does operate the way Vision suggests: These fantastic stories about super, heroic people, need villains as fuel, ergo, writers tend to orient villains as a response to heroes. But in the real world, things tend to work in the reverse: Everyone's pretty much content to do his or her own thing until villainy happens of its own accord, and we figure out ways to respond to it. We hire cops, we file lawsuits, we report, we put ourselves in harm's way. A hero without a foil is just a citizen.

To its credit, "Civil War" stops shy of making any final pronouncements on which faction should rule. Instead, it sticks to solid action sequences (creating more Ant-Man fans along the way) and after some soul-searching and face-punching by Cap and Iron Man, drops everyone into more miserable states than they began. It's gritty, ambivalent and at times harrowing, befitting a serious kids' movie that tries to reckon with the America in its title.


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