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Captain America: Civil War

#138 - Captain America: Civil War
Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, 2016

When the U.S government plans to put a collective of superheroes under their control, one of their number launches his own rebellion in order to protect his friend.

After a dozen feature films and multiple off-shoots in other media, it's easy to get fatigued by the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Though the individual films make a reasonably strong effort to build off of one another while creating new worlds and characters with each successive installment, that's not necessarily a guarantee that each film will hold up on its own merits. Even characters getting not just one but two or three stand-alone outings aren't guaranteed to maintain a consistent level of quality between films. This seems rather true when it comes to Iron Man, whose initial solo venture served as the launching pad for the MCU but whose subsequent movies demonstrated diminishing returns. Conversely, Captain America got something of a rocky start with wartime prequel The First Avenger, yet immediate follow-up The Winter Soldier marked a noticeable improvement and resulted in one of the most solid MCU films yet. Between the extrapolation of that particular pattern and the fact that the film's central conflict sees these well-established heroes square off against one another due to a complex ideological difference, it's understandable to have high expectations for Civil War, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it will live up to those expectations.

Captain America: Civil War begins with the latest Avengers line-up carrying out a mission that, while ultimately successful, results in a significant amount of destruction and even a handful of accidental deaths. When combined with the catastrophic events of previous MCU films, it causes the powers that be to propose that some regulations and direction be imposed on the Avengers. The affected individuals are naturally divided on whether or not such a course is such a good idea, with two figureheads emerging on both sides of the issue; Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) feels that the new ruling is a vital necessity, while Captain America (Chris Evans) sees it as a potentially debilitating restriction. As if that wasn't enough trouble for the heroes in question, there is still the matter of a mysterious foreigner (Daniel Brühl) carrying out his own fiendish agenda that ties into the sudden reappearance of the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), who has been in hiding since the events of The Winter Soldier and is struggling to come to terms with his true nature even as it threatens to bring everything crashing down. There are quite a few narrative threads to juggle here as characters old and new enter the fray, yet the film pulls it off reasonably well with nary a dull moment in sight. It even manages to find a new approach to handling the well-worn origin story of a certain costumed crusader while dedicating a significant and well-spent time to developing a genuine interesting new character in Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman). Of course, this does mean that Brühl's actual villain does fall by the wayside a bit but is given enough to work with so as to stand out from your typical megalomaniac supervillain.

A trend I've seen gain some prominence in recent franchise sequels involves narratives that examine the consequences of the heroes' actions, often in a way where certain authority figures decide that the heroes should at the very least be held accountable for the collateral damage caused by their actions and possibly prevented from carrying out their ostensibly well-intentioned missions. Of course, it's pretty much a given with these types of movie that the heroes will be vindicated by the story's end as their actions not only stop the villain but prove the naysayers wrong - this can be a hard thing to pull off effectively without condoning some genuinely questionable or reprehensible actions on the part of the heroes. Civil War has its work cut out in trying to surmount this challenge; as if the title doesn't give away a certain amount of bias as to which side of the issue the film will lean towards, it still has to set up two conflicting approaches to the issue of superhero control and try to give each side's views some decent representation. Though Civil War still isn't able to give the most nuanced take on such material, it certainly gives it a good shot that is not ponderous enough to drag down the film nor is it flimsy enough to really feel like a manufactured excuse to see superheroes fight. It's also remarkable in that this particular narrative concern doesn't get dropped completely as the film proceeds, informing much of the story's action from start to finish.

Of course, if there is one thing that does especially bother me about Civil War, it's the rather haphazard quality of the action itself. The main flaw that keeps the action from being great is a tendency towards the exact kind of frantic, high-speed action camerawork that can't help but feel insincere in its attempts to inject excitement into fights and chases. While not every action scene in the film is dependent on it, its presence is still very unwelcome. Fortunately, the film still has its fair share of good action scenes in spite of this approach. In keeping with the plot's decision to factor in the ramifications of the heroes' actions, there are the odd spots of destruction in populated areas. While this may tie in with the aforementioned camerawork issues, it's good to see that the film gets that out of the way before too long and instead gets to scenes that emphasise combat between characters in genuinely isolated areas. Seeing various heroes come to blows in a number of scenarios is definitely the main selling point here and the film definitely delivers in that regard, capturing the sort of giddy excitement that characterises the MCU at its very best. Having the characters exchange constant banter mid-combat is at once a plus and a minus as the hit-miss ratio of the jokes and one-liners can vary quite wildly from scene to scene, but it definitely provides some much-needed personality when certain parts of a given sequence may start to get a little tiring.

There doesn't seem to be much point in recommending MCU films to anyone who's not already keeping up with each new release, but Captain America: Civil War is up there as one of the franchise's better stand-alone installments and might actually be worth a look on that basis. It serves as a fairly solid response to some of the superhero genre's more tiresome narrative clichés, though it does have a habit of playing into some of the less tiresome ones in the process. It boasts an impressive enough casts of MCU veterans and newcomers that can hold their own against one another in both physical and verbal exchanges, with much of the appeal coming from the colourful interplay between the cast more so than any displays of visceral thrills. Though I can already feel the effect wearing off as I organise my thoughts and type this, I can't deny that this was fun to watch and delivered reasonably well when it came to backing up its hype.