Cutting to the chase, the MCU’s latest superhero extravaganza is rich in action, circus-act set-pieces, and rife with conflict, both political and emotional. It’s the combination of these elements that make the film a stand-out in the realm of superhero cinema. The film isn’t without flaws but the Russo Brothers deftly manage a smorgasbord of plot, character, and action in a way that few could, and that alone is an achievement.
Warning: there may be spoilers below. Proceed with caution.
I’ll start with the flaws. The main complaint with the previous MCU films has been its inability to tell a complete story. The stories here are culled from decades of comic books, which as a medium is defined by its serial nature. This week’s issue is a continuation of last week’s while also being the precursor of next week’s. Film has never really been that way, unless there were planned installments (i.e. Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Star Trek). The arc created in previous installments is rarely concluded within a single narrative context. In other words, comic book superhero narratives are longer than your typical narrative. They are resolved over the course of several issues, or films, while only black-and-white struggles get resolved. The actuality is, these films prove it is much easier to vanquish a physical enemy than it is to get rid of a metaphysical one (i.e. Steve and Tony’s internal struggles linger long after their enemy has been killed or imprisoned at the end of the movie). So the problem we run into in films such as Captain America: Civil War is one of a structural nature.
What I’m working towards is the reason for the inclusion of characters and moments that don’t necessarily complete the narrative we’re watching, but they add to an existing narrative outside the confines of the current story, or they are planting the seeds for another story to begin.
The most obvious example is the massive shoehorn the Russos employed to wedge the MCU’s returning hero, “Spider-Man”, into Cap’s adventure. When Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark goes to Queens to recruit the high schooler with the superhero abilities, it brings the Civil War storyline to a grinding halt. I am aware that “Spider-Man” was present in the comic book version of the Civil War storyline, but he existed within that world long before the big battle takes place. In this film, he is brought in for three reasons: to give Tony Stark a moment of levity in an otherwise emotionally vulnerable story for “Iron Man”, to provide some humor and fun to the heavy-handed proceedings, and to introduce “Spider-Man” into the MCU. Narratively speaking, he serves no purpose. He doesn’t choose a political side or fight for a reason. He fights because his idol asked him to, which is most dubious considering how well and how long the film sets up the emotional and political reasons for all the characters to fight for their side (except maybe Paul Rudd’s “Ant-Man”, who seems to fight for almost the same reason “Spider-Man” does, albeit on Team Cap).
There are conflicting ideologies at work that truly elevate the story in a way that no Batman v Superman ever could. Both films deal with the collateral damage inflicted upon civilization and the consequences thereof. Where Civil War succeeds is in creating grey areas for the characters to exist within. Steve Rogers understands the ramifications of civilian casualties in the process of stopping the bad guys, but he also understands the agendas of those that would force him to or keep him from taking some necessary risks. Have we learned nothing from the scheming Hydra agents from Winter Soldier? Imagine if they had final say in where, when, and under what circumstances the Avengers were sent into action?
But we are also shown the toll that the events of the previous movies has taken on Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr. is fantastic in this film). The amount of damage resulting from the existence of the Avengers is tremendous and Tony doesn’t want the burden anymore. I’ve seen people writing pieces about the reversed allegiances and the backwards ideologies of the two main characters. This is where that notion of incomplete storylines and serial narratives comes back to bite the MCU. What do we know about Cap? He’s a soldier who fights for truth, justice, and the American way. And we know Iron Man is an arrogant, stubborn loner who revels in the attention of being a superhero and billionaire playboy. So how is it we got to the point where Cap becomes a government outcast and renegade fighter while Iron Man fights for the rights of the government to control the actions of superheroes? You have to read (see) last week’s issue!
The best parts of this film are character moments: interactions between Anthony Mackie’s “Falcon” and Sebastian Stan’s sympathetic, dangerous and conflicted “Winter Soldier”; “Spider-Man” interacting with everyone he meets from the Avengers; Chadwick Boseman’s intense performance as the grieving, vengeful king of Wakanda, T’Challa (A.K.A. the “Black Panther”); Paul Rudd’s what-am-I-doing-here comedic shtick (as well as an amazingly fun action sequence centered around his “Ant-Man” abilities); and one of my favorites, the insecure and frightened performance of Elizabeth Olsen’s “Scarlet Witch”, who carries the burden of causing the catastrophe that sets the story in motion as well as the being the “outcast” of the group because of the intensity of her powers.
The joyous, huge action sequence between the two superhero teams is a much-deserved payoff after we are given ample reasons for each team to fight for their cause. This is why it pays to set-up, set-up, and set-up some more. By the time we have reached the fight, the backstory of political ideologies and emotions have been firmly established. Of the two main fights in the movie, this is the political struggle narratively created into an actual fist-fight, complete with humor and over-the-top action beats. The climactic battle between Cap, Iron Man, and the Winter Soldier is equally rewarding, if not moreso, because this fight embodies the emotional baggage of each character and succeeds in embodying the sheer intensity of an emotional fight. The explosion of emotion that ignites this battle is lit literally from the very first seconds of the film. The fact that we have to wait until the very end to get the payoff makes it even more satisfying.
When we are served a superhero film that combines this many characters with this level of thought and planning, we are all lucky customers. The inherent structure of superhero films begs for the creation of a thousand think-pieces about the nature of story and cinematic narratives, but I’ll leave that to much smarter people and enjoy the ride the Russo’s have given us.
This film is first and foremost a product of the Marvel machine, which means it’s entertaining and fun but nothing more than set-up for future Ant-Man tales.
The story is smaller than those of Thor and The Avengers based simply on character recognition, but rest assured we’ll see this diminutive character alongside the likes of Captain Rogers and Tony Stark soon enough. First we need to see an origin story, just as we saw with every other major Marvel character. And if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Let’s check off the boxes: a reluctant or unknowing character gains a power or is chosen to be wield a power, the character fumbles around during training sequences, a paper-thin villain is introduced, in the last 30 minutes the hero has a dramatic character moment that alters their arc, and finally they gear up for battle and save the day. On a small scale. Let’s not forget, it takes at least 2 movies before we get to see any actual stakes or a formidable villain.
But again, the purpose of this film is to build towards a larger future. Marvel can’t introduce Ant-Man into their future Avengers movies without setting him up within the universe they’ve created. And they certainly do that in this film, going so far as to have a mini-fight with a lesser Avenger right in the middle of the movie, which turns out to be one of the cooler sequences in the film. I personally enjoy when characters and storylines cross over, and maybe that’s just the inner comic book fan in me saying that. The Avengers films have firmly been ingrained in our culture at this point, and a reference to the super team is made very early in this film so we’re aware that they have similarly affected the world within their cinematic world.
The issue with all these movies is stakes, or lack there of. Every audience member is aware that Scott Lang will accomplish the mission and survive the film, so it must be the job of the director to make sure it’s fun and captivating despite the lack of tension. I would say this film has less tension than most superhero films solely because the villain is so one-dimensional and really poorly written, which is tragic considering the run-time is almost a robust 2 hours. I think writers and directors forget sometimes that the strength of a hero is directly affected by the strength of their adversary. In this case the adversary is, essentially, a douchebag. There are some pretty long stretches of time where he leaves the film as we see the family tensions between the film’s two real stars, Michael Douglas and Evangeline Lilly (taking nothing away from Paul Rudd’s “Scott Lang”, but neither Rudd nor Lang are allowed to be anything more than pawn pieces). The villain pops up sporadically just to remind us who Scott will have to defeat later and to add any layer of tension other than familial drama. You could almost say the film only has a villain because it needs one to function as a comic narrative, not because the story dictates it. The villain doesn’t teach our hero anything, he learns everything his character needs to satisfy his arc from his friends and, sadly, that strips the villain of any narrative resonance. Think of what the Joker means to Batman and how he affects him in The Dark Knight. That doesn’t happen in this film.
Where the film succeeds is in Hank Pym’s (Michael Douglas) backstory as the first Ant-Man, the tension with his daughter, any time Scott puts on the suit, and any time Scott’s trio of cohorts (Michael Peña, T.I., David Dastmalchian) are on-screen. There is ample humor spread over the last hour or so of the film, mostly provided by his three amigos, to go along with the action and the final showdown is cool and fun, even going so far as to poke fun at its own size in a pretty funny Thomas the Tank Engine sequence. Sounds silly, but it’s good stuff.
I won’t go into the Edgar Wright controversy, I’ll just say Peyton Reed made a simply told, entertaining film. The fact that two separate writing and directing crews worked on this at various times surely affected the final product. For what it’s worth, if you see Ant-Man you’ll have a good time.
I’ve mentioned this on the podcast recently, but for those of you that don’t know I’ll be out of town for the rest of the week, partly due to my girlfriend and I attending the Ultimate Marvel Marathon. This event is composed of every single Phase 1 and 2 Marvel movie played in chronological order, starting with Iron Man and culminating with The Avengers: Age of Ultron.
That’s right, folks, all the flicks. It will be a grueling 27 hour stretch of back-to-back films and we’re psyched for it. Of course, the ultimate excitement comes from seeing Age of Ultron, which has been building in momentum over the last month or so as the big premier weekend approaches. Considering all the news and rumors popping up around superhero movies these days it’s pretty difficult to keep anything about these films under wraps for very long. I, myself, have avoided all trailers and online featurettes from the film in an attempt to see it without any pre-conceptions.
All I have is my knowledge of the previous films and a smattering of facts about the Phase 3 films and where the MCU arc is headed. So, I figured I’d come up with 5 predictions before Thursday night and see how close I came to seeing any of them happen in the film. Here goes:
1. No major character, aside from Ultron, will die
Most of these actors and their characters are scheduled (re: contracted) to appear in more films, and considering Marvel has already announced a 2-part sequel to this film plus several stand-alone films and cross-over stories I would have to imagine the entire cast would return, though I would say all bets are off for The Avengers: Infinity War.
2. Steve Rogers (Captain America) and Tony Stark (Iron Man) will not see eye-to-eye.
This film will likely see the beginning of the government regulations that lead to Tony and Cap feuding, which serves as the plot to Cap’s next sequel, Captain America: Civil War. They bickered a bit in the first Avengers flick, mostly about Cap’s naivety concerning S.H.I.E.L.D.’s secrecy and Tony’s arrogance/selfishness, but it’s likely that the tables will turn and those ideologies will reverse as the two find an important government matter to disagree upon for their own reasons.
3. Black Widow will be involved in a love triangle.
The first Avengers film hinted at a back-story between Black Widow and Hawkeye and an emotional connection between the two. However, that seemed to be a distant memory a mere 2 movies later considering the presence of sexual and romantic tension in Captain America: The Winter Soldier between Agent Romanoff and Captain Rogers. It seems likely that, with the entire team assembled, there will be some mixed emotions and jealousy between the two men at some point, though I would put my money on Hawkeye being the jealous one.
4. Dr. Banner (Hulk) will go into hiding or be missing at the end.
This film has an Empire Strikes Back vibe going for it as we head towards the opening. It just seems like things are going to go wrong and some characters are going to turn away from the team in the end, unlike the first one. My guess would be Dr. Banner, who was the least inclined to join the team as a fighting member originally, so I think it would be suffice to say that if anything goes horribly wrong (and I’m sure something will) he may turn his back on the whole thing. Or…..he gets physically removed from the team in some way.
5. Ultron will not fulfill his goal of world domination….but he will do enough damage to change it significantly.
Again, things are going to go wrong, but what have we learned from these movies? They’re serials and the most important element isn’t necessarily the actual villain our heroes have to fight, but what kind of damage the villain does to them and the world on an ideological, psychological, and political level going forward. That is what pushes the universe forward. The villain has to die so it doesn’t become too stale, but there has to be an after-effect that sends a ripple through the rest of the cinematic universe and starts another chain of events. My guess is the government becomes more involved in superhero doings as a result of the creation and destruction of Ultron, and there is a fall-out from that.
So, those are my 5 predictions. We’ll see how they play out later in the week. Feel free to comment your own predictions at the bottom!
Podcast: 4/7/2015 Episode #5 – Catching Up, Reviewing Two Movies, Recapping Some Flicks I’ve Watched, DVD’s, Plus a Whole Lot of Other Junk
It’s been quite some time since my last episode of the podcast so I take some time to catch up on what I’ve been watching and also talk about Furious 7‘s box-office take, my plans to attend the Marvel marathon, review the James Brown biopic, Get on Up, as well as It Follows (which I wrote a review for here), and Inherent Vice (briefly). Then I go over the DVD releases for the past month, and, naturally, play some James Brown music. That’s right, this episode got slightly funky. Enjoy!