I am beginning to think that any day a Marvel Cinematic Universe film is released should be considered a national holiday. (To be fair, any Star Wars, Star Trek, Harry Potter, or Fast & Furious films should be a half day as well.) The weekend of the release is enough to get me to take a break from my Top 100 playlist countdown to talk about the film as well as the Marvel canon in a bit more detail. It still blows my mind how successful comic-book movies have become in the past twenty years. But Marvel continues to make smart film choices–we just need DC to get their crap together and then we could have three great movie universes. (I can’t imagine Fox will ever give back the X-Men properties to Marvel, but that’s OK–they have enough great characters there to make their own ongoing series of films.
There’s a lot of talk these days about Marvel vs. DC because of the recent release of Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and the natural comparison between it and Captain America: Civil War. However, I’d like to make a different Captain America/DC comparison before getting into a discussion of the new film. In the summer of 2011, both comic-book companies were getting ready to release films featuring square-jawed heroes–Steve Rogers aka Captain America in Marvel’s Captain America: The First Avenger and Hal Jordan, the fearless test pilot turned intergalactic peace officer Green Lantern. Among us nerds, there was great concern about the casting choices in both films. In the comics, both Rogers and Jordan were earnest, serious heroes that other heroes in their respective universes could look up to as a role model and leader. Yet both films hired actors known for playing smarmy douchebags–Chris Evans for Not Another Teen Movie and the first two Fantastic Four films and Ryan Reynolds for pretty much his entire film catalog. Well, Reynolds made the choice to play the choice to play Jordan as a cocky smartass as opposed to the serious and fearless test pilot the comics always presented. Evans played Rogers exactly like you’d expect a cinematic representation of the Captain to be–earnest, patriotic, a little square, but always looking to do the right thing and stick up for the little guy. Green Lantern was savaged by critics and audiences alike, while Captain America: The First Avenger accomplished all its goals–introducing the character to the film-going world, helped to build and connect the Marvel world to an eventual payoff in the Marvel’s The Avengers, and make a little money in the process ($176 million U.S., and $370 globally–numbers that seem small today by Marvel’s standards, but were damn good back then). Evans has been a crucial part of the five Marvel movies he’s made since then–his character being the heart, soul, and conscience of the Avengers. No one has mentioned Green Lantern as a live-action character since.
I don’t want you to think I am placing all the criticism of Green Lantern’s failure at the feet of Ryan Reynolds. I hadn’t seen the film in years until I caught a little bit of it on cable last week. The story and writing are weak, and many other of the casting choices were uninspired as well. The CGI took you out of the story as opposed to enhancing the visuals. The bottom line is that I don’t believe many of the creative forces behind the movie fundamentally understood the source material. Earlier this year, we learned that there was a place for a sarcastic prick Reynolds character in the comic-book world. Deadpool was fantastic and Reynolds was a huge reason why the film worked. This again points to understanding the source material–Reynolds is a huge fan of the Deadpool character and had been trying for years to make the film.
Back to Captain America: Civil War. You will probably not be surprised to learn that I loved the film. I know I am far more forgiving of nerd culture films than others–I am, at my heart, a fanboy. The first question any film like this needs to answer–Is it fun? That box is checked off easily. One of the impressive feats of the trilogy of Captain America films is that each one gets significantly better (and, while not always the case in Hollywood, each one will do significantly better in the box office). It’s a little unfair in this case because many feel like this is more of an Avengers movie than a Captain America film. It’s true that this film is stocked with heroes, but the story is still focused primarily on Captain America and his relationships with Bucky Barnes (the Winter Soldier) and Tony Stark (Iron Man). There is a lot to like about this film:
- Great new characters: The film does feel like an Avengers film with all the heroes in it, but two of the core Avengers–Thor and Hulk–are not present in the film. That’s OK, as in exchange we are introduced to a pair of new characters. The first is the latest take on Spider-Man, portrayed by Tom Holland. He’s a younger version of the character than the Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield big-screen versions we’ve seen, but they handle Peter Parker’s roots and fighting style well. In some ways his introduction here is a way to reboot the character before his next solo film, but he was also an nice injection of light entertainment into a serious film. The other new edition, Black Panther, contributed more on the serious side. He has not been in previous films, but he does have a solo outing coming in 2018, and after this film, I am excited to see where they take him.
- A well-balanced script: I have made my feelings about Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice clear–it’s a slog of a film that takes itself so seriously, resulting in a joyless ponderous journey. Just like that film, Civil War has heroes battling each other as opposed to a villain, but it also has humorous moments as well. Spider-Man is not the only comic relief character, and a film featuring Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man would not be complete without his quips and cutting nicknames, but the film also manages to organically add lighter moments between the more somber characters, particularly Steve’s two closest friends Falcon and the Winter Soldier.
- A great battle scene: A necessity in any blockbuster film is a great action sequence, and Civil War delivers several. There’s a great opener, a fun chase, and a intense personal hand-to-hand battle, but the fight between the two groups of former teammates really delivers. There’s even an exciting surprise and a shocking moment that is something I will want to see again both in theaters and home.
- Interesting philosophical questions: Most blockbuster film are all about memorable destructive scenes. We even saw a meta commentary about that in a trailer for Independence Day: Resurgence, which had Jeff Goldblum’s character mention “they like to go for the landmarks” after aliens destroy a major target. (If you remember the original, one of the most iconic images from the film was the destruction of the White House.) You are supposed to enjoy these big battles and then move on. However, Marvel doesn’t do that in their films. Past releases have seen major damage done to New York, Washington, D.C., and made-up foreign countries, and Avengers: Age of Ultron and this one both ask its heroes to consider the cost of property and more importantly, human lives that these battles rack up. It is the driver of the plot in this film in particular. That also leads to another strength of this film, or at least a strength to come. Like an ongoing comic book series, there will be ramifications to what happened here. How these characters interact going forward will be fascinating to watch. Things will not just go back to normal.
The film was not perfect, so I had a few nitpicks, although I probably seem stupid for bringing one of them up.
- The location font: This is a global film, so they have to tell us every time the action shifts somewhere new. This is true for most films, which usually label the new place with a small phrase in the bottom left or right corner. Not this film. The location is displayed in huge letters across the screen. That’s offputting enough, but there was something annoying about the font as well. It looked like it belonged in an ad for United Colors on Benetton more than a major film. Each time one of these location reminders popped up, it took me out of the film.
- Marvel’s ongoing villain problem: Obviously the studio had a workaround for this issue by having the heroes battle each other for the conflict. But there still was an antagonist in this film and he carries on the major Marvel tradition of being one of the weakest links in the films. Don’t get me wrong–I appreciate the attempt to give him some nuance to his motivations, but the Marvel Universe films still need to build some worthy adversaries for their incredible heroes. Some people point to the fact that these films cannot use some of Marvel’s biggest villains because they are tied to the Fantastic Four (Dr. Doom and Galactus in particular), the X-Men (Magneto and Apocalypse), or even Spider-Man until now (put a bunch of his rogues together to create a Sinister Six). But that seems like a rationalization. There are some good villains from the Avenger, Iron Man, Thor, and Cap universes–there just needs to be more attention paid to their development. They’ve done it with Loki, so they can do it with others.
So overall, I’d give this movie a thumbs up, or 3 1/2 stars out of four, or some other highly positive review on a nonsense scale. It is my third-favorite Marvel movie to date (counting only Marvel Cinematic Universe films–Spider-Man, X-Men, and Wolverine movies are not on the list, and the less I say about the Fantastic Four films, the better). If you actually care about how I would rank this particular batch of films, I have enclosed a blog-ending list of my favorites top to bottom.
- The Avengers
- Guardians of the Galaxy
- Captain America: Civil War
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier
- Iron Man
- Iron Man 3
- Captain America: The First Avenger
- Avengers: Age of Ultron
- The Incredible Hulk
- Thor: The Dark World
- Iron Man 2