Saturday, December 31, 2016

Better Late Than Never Thoughts: CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016)

Well! That certainly was a big movie.

I'm not exactly sure what I was supposed to be feeling after watching Captain America: Civil War. Happy that Steve was proven right? Sad that his friendship with Tony had to get wrecked? Relieved that all the punching was over? I definitely got that last one.

I suppose I could nitpick about the internal logic of the movie like some internet dork (as if everyone isn't on the internet these days - all being dorks all the time) the whys and wherefores of the hero-fight premise, but it's a means to an end: just as in the comics event that shares half of the movie's name, the heroes have a big disagreement that leads to them having a fight, or series of fights, because since the beginning of time - seriously - it's more interesting to watch good guys hit each other than bad guys. That's why Marvel vs. DC put Batman against Captain America in a fistfight and not Magneto. Because there's no suspense in seeing a good guy beat a bad guy, compared to wondering who would win between two good guys given equal time... even if they normally put their differences aside in the end and realize there is a truer evil at work. Usually.

The big disagreement is over whether superheroes should have bosses. Call me crazy but I seem to recall the Avengers having a boss. His name was Nick Fury. He had bosses too, the Secret Board of Shadowy Figures from Clone High. They wanted to blow up New York with a nuclear missile because it had aliens in it and they didn't have a single better idea. You know what, this is coming up in favour of "no bosses."

Tony, who steered said nuke into a hole in space that allowed him to enact genocide on mindless (we think?) robot alien soldiers, thinks having a boss again would be a good idea, because since not having a boss, they fought a killer robot James Spader, that he designed, who wanted to drop a city from space and wipe out mankind (in Avengers: Age of Ultron) but thanks to the Avengers only fell from a few thousand feet up and wiped out a small eastern European city-state. If he doesn't have a boss, who is going to keep him from doing things like that?

Tony's motivation in this movie is actually characteristically impetuous, dating all the way back to his decision in the first movie to stop making weapons because he saw one get used. It takes only one person upset with what he has done to convince him that an extreme course must be taken. If I have learned anything about billionaires this year it's that they are disproportionately concerned with the opinions of individuals and prone to changing whims. Tony is confronted with the face of the person whose death he is responsible for and decides this can never be allowed to happen again. Or, he needs to ask the authorities for permission if he is going to let it happen again, so that it is their fault, not his.

How come the good guy in the movie is never the one preaching oversight and transparency? Do I feel this way because my girlfriend works in HR and I've absorbed much of her line of thinking? Well, America loves Cowboy Cops. They love the concept in movies and, horrifyingly, in real life. This is an uncomfortable thought that occurred to me when I realized where Captain America's "we don't need no stinking badges" line of thinking ends for some people. Steve, the career soldier, is worried that superiors won't be able to distinguish between Avengers-level threats and petty international grudges.

As it happens, Steve is morally in the right when a bomb goes off and everyone blames his friend Bucky (a trained covert operative who was not caught for many years despite rocking a cool metal arm and Kurt Cobain hair.) He finds Bucky first and protects him because he knows he is innocent. Well, he doesn't know-know, but he knows in the sense that you know your friend will offer you the last slice of pizza before taking it for himself. Because you're friends. Anyway, he seems pretty sure that Buck is innocent. And in doing so, goes rogue.

Then War Came.

Iron Man gets the bulk of the Avengers on his side because his position makes a certain amount of sense. You can't just go traipsing onto foreign soil and declare yourself The Law just because you have superpowers ("Enhancements" as the movie calls them.) Unless, I reckon, Loki or Thanos comes to town with an army of mindless (I hope?) robot alien drones. Then anything you could do to help would probably be welcomed.

So there's Iron Man, who didn't want to sell the government the plans to his Iron Man suit a few years ago because he lives a capitalist teenage dream - again, that whole impetuous whim thing. He gets War Machine, the lifelong military man, of course, and Vision, the pacifist robot messiah, and Black Widow, who reasons that "it's better to have one hand on the wheel than none." In Steve's corner is the Falcon, who has a history of operating outside the law with Steve, and Scarlet Witch by default, because she started this mess by saving Steve from a bomb. Steve also gets Bucky on his side, of course, and Hawkeye for reasons that are never made clear, and also Ant-Man, who has a grudge against Tony Stark because Michael Douglas had one against his dad. But Iron Man gets to draft Black Panther, who has a suit made from the same material as Cap's shield, and who is mad at Bucky because he thinks he blew up his dad, the king of Wakanda (Panther's dad, not Bucky's.) Iron Man also recruits Spider-Man, because Marvel paid for the rights to Spider-Man back and they weren't going to waste any time using him.

I was about to say that this version of Spider-Man felt very true to the character's nature, given how he was so youthful and impressed by all the heroes he was meeting, but honestly, the version of Spider-Man I'm most familiar with has been a super hero for about 50 years of (maybe a decade of comic book time) and has met everyone and done everything and been married except it was erased from history. Even my favourite interpretation of Spider-Man, from the 1990's animated series (hey it has to be someone's) has him in college and going steady with Mary Jane (I mean his girlfriend, not that he's a huge pothead.) This Peter was still enjoyably youthful, but TBH I've never had a problem with any of the actors portraying Spider-Man, just the various movies they were in... and even then I think they sometimes get a bad rap.

As for Ant-Man, I'm not sure he belongs either, since Paul Rudd, bless his heart, has a way of making it seem like he's just in an SNL skit about superhero movies, not in a real actual one. I loved Ant-Man because of him, but context is important. But both he and Spidey were responsible for some pretty enjoyable moments during the big hero fight.

Obviously, Bucky isn't actually guilty, and so he and Cap are ostensibly absolved, and there is a bad guy at work here, if not engineering the downfall of the Avengers then at least taking advantage of the situation for personal revenge. Black Panther has some choice words at the end about the destructive cycle of vengeance, which Iron Man can't hear because he's in the middle of a knock-down drag out fight with Cap and Bucky because he wants revenge. Iron Man does not come off great in this movie despite coming from a position that starts out pretty reasonable. Someday, superhero movies will broach topics besides "is it right to kill someone because he killed your parents?" (Um, spoiler I guess?) But I guess if it was good enough for Hamlet, it is good enough for 15 to 30 superhero movies.

Incidentally, I wish there was room for more John Slattery as Howard Stark and CGI young Robert Downey Jr as Teen Tony. Excellent casting there.

In the end, what we have here is a 2.5-hour movie designed to showcase the heroes fighting each other in a variety of settings, over something not as flimsy as a misunderstanding but not so dramatic as to make you actually hate one of them. To that point, it's a pretty agreeable movie, directed with great skill by the Russo Brothers. The action is good and it's a shade less lightweight than either of the Joss Whedon Marvel's The Avengers movies. It is stronger on the plot, with all the contrivances needed to make the setpieces and fights happen being easy enough to digest, and the characters are handled better too. Perhaps that's the semantic difference between a "Marvel's The Avengers" movie and a "Captain America" movie. In the former, all the characters need equal time, so the plot develops "tall poppy" syndrome. In the latter, particular attention is paid to Captain America and his problems, and the characters are served the closer they are in orbit to that. (Iron Man and Bucky plenty, Hawkeye not so much.) There's even time for a juicy subtle love connection between Vision and Scarlet Witch that feels less tacked-on than the Black Widow/Hulk ship that cropped up in Marvel's The Avengers The Age of Ultron. (Which, for the record, I was for, since Mark Ruffalo has chemistry with everybody.) And let's never forget that Captain America and Iron Man's cinematic friendship consists of about ten minutes of screen time each at the end of the first Avengers and the beginning of the second, prior to Tony creating Ultron, after which they're mostly at odds. By and large, the two characters, and their problems, feel more substantial in their own previous movies. (I'm particularly partial to Iron Man 3, which gave us the best version of Tony to date.)

What it comes down to is the question at the heart of most superhero literature: to uphold the letter or the spirit of the law? This was also at the heart of about half the episodes of Drop Dead Diva. I find that most people are comfortable with "spirit" as the answer, feeling they have the proper judgment to know right from wrong (they don't, that's why we have laws, to tell you what you did wrong and how you are going to be punished.) Superheroes, and lawyer Jane Bingum, get special dispensation on that one, though.

Perhaps the movie would have benefitted from seeing Cap try it Tony's way and realizing the flaws in practice instead of making it about abstract ideals, but that would have added another 15-30 minutes onto this movie's gargantuan running time, and we've got Spider-Man to get to. The movie never comes out and says whether having a boss is good or bad, and most would agree that most organizations benefit from some level of management, although my experience has always been that there's such a thing as too much. I think the premise of superheroics is supposed to be that if you're really super you're probably a good enough person that you don't need a boss. But you also should know better than to resort to punching your friends? And that's the climax of the movie, one being punched hard and left for dead, with the villain basically successful? Am I expecting too much from my superheroes?

That's probably why the superhero movie I'm most looking forward to at this point is The Lego Batman Movie, which promises to leave the "real" behind, as its protagonist is both a Lego minifig and an animated character, so for some reason we have different standards for him and the world he inhabits. If the movie feels the need to address the tropes of the superhero genre and wonder what it's all for, it will probably do so with enough self-awareness so to make it all part of the show, as the Lego Movie did. The Lego Movie was great. Captain America: Civil War was only okay.

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