**** THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS!!! CONSIDER THIS YOUR OFFICIAL SPOILER ALERT!!!****
MY RATING : 2 OUT OF 5 STARS
SEE IT IN THE THEATRE IF YOU LOVE SUPER HERO MOVIES, IF YOU ARE LUKEWARM ABOUT SUPERHERO MOVIES, WAIT TO SEE IT ON CABLE.
My 2016 movie going has been pretty limited due to an insanely busy schedule, but with 'pilot season' fading quickly into the rear view mirror, I found some time to sneak off and see a movie this week. The last time I went to the theatre was when I ventured to the art house to catch Terence Malick's mesmerizing Knight of Cups. This time I decided to do my patriotic duty as a citizen of the United States of Disney and spend time in the dark with the great unwashed masses at the local cineplex and go see Captain America : Civil War.
Captain America : Civil War is the third Captain America film (Captain America : The First Avenger 2011, Captain America : Winter Soldier 2014) and the thirteenth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The film is directed by brothers Anthony and Joe Russo and is written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. The film boasts an all-star cast which includes Chris Evans reprising his role as Captain America and Robert Downey Jr. doing the same as Iron Man, along with Scarlett Johansson, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Rudd, to name but a few.
Captain America : Civil War is a pretty strange movie. In some ways it is an interesting, dare I say noble and courageous attempt to examine the ethics and morality of U.S. foreign policy and military actions and the struggle of Empire to maintain a uni-polar world while under great pressure from without and within to create a multi-polar world where cooperation among nations rules the day. On the other hand it is a terribly uneven and long (it runs for two and half hours) exercise in propaganda and corporatism that is little more than an elaborate commercial for itself, American exceptionalism, future Marvel franchise films, and the auto maker Audi.
To the film's credit, it is much better than either of the recent Avengers films. The Avenger films were an unmitigated mess, more spectacle than storytelling. The problem with the Avengers is that it is near impossible to create any drama when it is difficult to imagine a villain that could match up with the murderer's row of super heroes which include Thor, Hulk, Captain America and Iron Man. Captain America : Civil War avoids that problem by having the "villains" as equally as powerful as the heroes, because the "villains" are superheroes. Iron Man is a match for Captain America and each super hero faction matches up pretty well against the other up and down the line.
Another reason that Captain America : Civil War is better than the Avengers movies is because the fight sequences are toned down to be less universally and randomly destructive, there are no city-wide rampages that leave New York looking like Aleppo, but instead the fights are more personalized between equally matched super hero combatants. The side effect of this is that the violence is more targeted and meaningful, and less chaotic and random. It also means that the film is less loud and over bearing in its bombastic destruction, which is a plus for anyone who isn't an adolescent and has a brain rattling around in their head.
To the film's credit, it raises a rather complex issue for a super hero movie, the issue of "collateral damage", with the super heroes contemplating all the innocents that have died as a result of their epic battles with various super villains like Loki and Ultron in the previous Avenger films. Captain America and his team believe that, while tragic, these civilian deaths are the price you pay for stopping evil. If you live in the U.S. and watch, read, or listen to any mainstream media, that will sound awfully familiar to you. Although on the surface they clash, Iron Man actually agrees with Captain America in principle about the collateral damage issue but he disagrees with how to strategically handle the fallout over civilian deaths.
Iron Man is the symbol of American ingenuity and capitalism, so he just wants to stay in business by any means necessary, and so he believes the Avengers should fall under U.N. control for the time being until this whole mess blows over. At the end of the day the disagreement over whether the Avengers will give up sovereignty to the U.N. gets pushed to the background as all agree that the Avengers are a universal good and are morally righteous having never intended to kill any innocents, so they are neither morally nor ethically culpable in any way. The disagreement which starts the Avenger civil war is really about how to handle the logistics going forward and Captain America's stubborn attachment to his principle on maintaining sovereignty.
As I watched Captain America talk about the specter of the U.N. having control over the Avenger's , I was reminded of the first time I ever heard of Americans being afraid of a tyrannical UN. I was driving through central Pennsylvania about 20 years ago with an incredibly sexy native Pennsylanian woman whom I will call The Amish Minx, and we saw two huge signs on trailers in someone's yard, one read "Keep the UN out of the US" and the other "Don't let the UN take our guns". The Amish Minx, who was born and raised in central Pennsylvania, had always told me the state was basically Pittsburgh and Philadelphia separated by Kentucky, and she used these signs as evidence backing up her thesis. She often referred to the state she loved as Pennsyl-tucky.
I think Captain America's message of defiance against the U.N. will deeply resonate in the heart of Pennsyl-tucky and the rest of the American heartland….which is what it is meant to do. Captain America refusing to give up his freedom to decide which bad guys to kill to the meddling, feckless and corrupt U.N., is perfectly American, which makes sense since he is Captain America after all, and not Captain International Political Organization, while Iron Man, the international businessman, is willing to compromise by appeasing the U.N.…for now. As the story progresses though, it is revealed that the real beef between Captain America and Iron Man is, as these things always turn out to be, actually very personal, as Iron Man feels betrayed by Captain America over the death of Iron Man's parents many years ago.
Oddly enough, for a film trying to tackle the heavy consequences of innocents being killed during Avenger battles, the fight scenes between the warring Avenger factions have an incredibly light, fun and playful tone to them. This uneven tone does the film and its alleged serious intentions a terrible disservice. The fights are little more than one-liner battles of wittiness and super heroes trying to out-cool each other. The other drawback is that while the Avengers can feel a little bad about killing innocent people while fighting evil, they themselves never have to fear death because they are never in any peril whatsoever. The fights and the film would have been much better served if the fights between the super hero factions carried some real danger to them. If the teenage Spider-man gets killed by Captain America over a nebulous principle, we have a much more dramatic and interesting movie…but the studio is out billions of dollars in the form of, yet again, another whole new re-boot of the Spider Man franchise.
Another thing that detracts from the collateral damage issue is that when the Avenger factions square off they do so in an airport that has been evacuated, thus it is completely devoid of the danger of civilians being hurt, a central theme in the movie. This big airport fight would have been so much better, so much more impactful and so much more meaningful, if the warring Avenger factions had to not only fight each other but take into account the innocent civilians that could be harmed by their fighting. This would have kept the collateral damage debate front and center in the film and it also would have complicated the battle, giving it much more drama, depth and dimension.
In terms of the acting…well…this is a super hero movie so...there are actors in it. Actually, to be fair, the actors all do very solid work. Robert Downey Jr. in particular is, as usual, terrific as Iron Man. He is a skilled and talented guy, and his Iron Man has never failed to be lively, smart, energetic and compelling. Chris Evans as Captain America is not exactly Laurence Olivier, but he is well suited for the role in that he is an all-American, impossibly handsome guy and he is comfortable letting his biceps do all the heavy lifting and serious acting. Scarlet Johannsen and Elizabeth Olsen do some quality work with the garbage they've been given in the script. Everyone else is pretty forgettable, although to be fair, the entire film, while entertaining, is pretty forgettable, so they fit right in.
The B-level super heroes that Marvel has scraped off the bottom of the barrel for this one are pretty funny in that they are nowhere near being ready to be prime time players. Black Widow, Winter Soldier, Falcon, Hawkeye, Black Panther, Vision and Scarlet Witch aren't exactly the '27 Yankees…they are more like the 2016 Yankees. That said, A-lister Spider Man does make an appearance, and is spectacularly and incredibly annoying. As I said, previously, the film would be better if the young Spider Man is convinced to fight for Team Iron Man, and then like so many young men drawn into the glory of battle, dies too young for a worthless cause. Admittedly, that would be a pretty heavy thing to throw into a Captain America movie, but considering the civilian deaths/collateral damage theme the filmmakers bring up it would, in theory, have been appropriate. Of course, that would make this a real, genuine film and not just some summer, popcorn movie fun…but I would argue you can have both. Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight is the gold standard for comic book films, balancing dark material and Super Hero entertainment, and Captain America : Civil War is no The Dark Knight…but it is better than the previous Captain America and Avenger films.
Not surprisingly, since the Captain America comic was originally created back in 1941 as American propaganda during World War II, when you dig a little deeper into Captain America : Civil War, you realize that it is little more than updated and more sophisticated propaganda for American exceptionalism in the twenty first century. The film is designed to reinforce what Americans have been conditioned to believe for generations through education and the media…that we are a special people and nation, and that when we kill innocent people it is not immoral, only an unintentional accident. This is the "good intentions" argument that self promoting nitwit Sam Harris likes to parade around, until a real super hero, Noam Chomsky, goes all Hulk on him and smashes his vapid argument for all to see. (CHOMSKY SMASH!!!) This is also the same thinking that brings cries of "moral equivalency!!" anytime someone tries to hold the U.S. accountable for its evil deeds.
While the film appears to be about the Uni-Polar v. Multi-Polar debate and the collateral damage issue, it is actually very deceptive, because at its core the film never questions the morality or righteousness of the American/Avenger cause. In cinematic terms, doing that would mean that Team Iron Man would have to have a true come to Jesus moment and realize that Team Captain America must be stopped no matter the price….but that is not going to happen in the Disney owned Marvel Universe or this coprorately owned one either.
It is easy to make the argument that the Avengers have always been good and acted properly by stopping Loki or Ultron from destroying the entire planet because Loki and Ultron are comic book villains who embody true evil, and the Avengers are comic book super heroes who embody pure goodness. The comic book world is comfortably Manichean which is why we love and crave it so much. The clarity and surety that comic books and their films give us is reassuringly simple, even when it appears to be complex, as in the case of Captain America : Civil War. The real world rarely gives us such Manichean clarity, and it is almost always much less clear cut in the real world who is good and who is evil. The shaded area of grey in which we all live, which can be so uncomfortable for its moral ambiguity, will find no home in Disney's Marvel Universe.
Sadly, that won't stop audience members from unquestioningly swallowing the obvious propogandic lesson of the film, that the US, just like the Avengers, is always and every time right, morally and ethically, even when it does wrong, and that the U.S., just like the Avengers, is always and every time morally superior in each and every way to his opponents/victims, no matter who they are. When people or a nation put themselves morally above others, it gives them free reign to do anything because no matter what they do, it is good because they are good. The most obvious example of this…**WARNING: Godwin's Law in full effect!!**… are the Nazi's, who didn't think they were evil, they thought they were good and right ("If God is with us, who could be against us?"). The German thinking was that invading Poland or slaughtering Jews, though ugly, was acceptable because it served the greater and higher good, which was Germany and all its mythic glory. The Avengers and the U.S. aren't the Nazi's, but they are compelled by the same sense of self-reverence and moral superiority, which is an uncomfortable, but important idea to contemplate.
Even though at its core, Captain America : Civil War is a piece of propaganda for American exceptionalism and militarism, it is an entertaining piece of propaganda. I readily admit that I enjoyed the film. I thought it could have been a hell of a lot better, but for what it is, a summertime, popcorn, super hero movie, it is very entertaining. It keeps a solid pace and tempo, and never lulls or loses steam. Although it runs for over two and a half hours, I was never bored and never looked at my watch. It is for these reasons that I would say that if you like Super Hero films, you will definitely like Captain America : Civil War. If you are on the fence about these types of films, I would say, due to the issues of an uneven tone, save your money and wait to see it when it is on cable. Also, the film is not cinematically or visually vibrant enough or stylistically unique enough to demand that you see it in the theaters on the big screen.
Whether you do what I did and venture out to the theatre to watch the film with the hoi polloi, or if you wait to see it on cable, my one piece of advice is to try to watch the film consciously, being aware of how you are being manipulated and how propaganda works on both the conscious and unconscious level. It is ok to enjoy a piece of propaganda, as propaganda can be well made and entertaining, as long as you don't become an unwitting victim of that propaganda, which will teach you to accept things without thinking and to never question the propagandists assumptions and basic premises. The only antidote to not thinking brought on by propaganda…is to think. So enjoy the film, stay conscious, and keep thinking and questioning.