To quote “The Godfather Part Three”: “Just when I think I’m out, they pull me back in.” Michael Corleone was lamenting his ties to organized crime and his inability to find light from beneath its shadow. How does this fit into this week’s review? Well, I am talking about the endless glut of superhero movies—a genre I was once so fond of but by which I have started to become bored.
When I was a kid, the idea of an infinite supply of comic-book adaptations felt like a pipe dream. We were lucky to get a “Batman” movie every three or four years. Cringe-worthy television adaptations of comic books would be cancelled before anyone could say “The Tick.”
I keep hearing this phrase, “The Golden Age,” uttered by middle-aged geeks when it comes to the current state of pop culture. We live in a time where we’re getting a “Star Wars” movie and a half-dozen comic-book adaptations every year. There are countless hours a week of comic-book television shows; “Arrow,” “The Flash” and “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” pepper network television. More mature adaptations, like “The Walking Dead,” have become the most popular programs in the country. Lately, it hasn’t really felt like much of a Golden Age—unless “The Golden Age” refers to a steady flow of asparagus-infused urine. All of these superhero movies and TV shows are so similar it’s all starting to become a melange of the same story told ad infinitum.
I was feeling this way until recently when a few new comic-book adaptations seemed to flip the script, and the musty odor of mediocrity was replaced with a fresh chimichanga scent. “Deadpool” started off 2016 by delivering an R-rated superhero film brimming with energy and humor. Then Zack Snyder delivered a wicked acid-trip fever dream that was “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice”—which could have easily been named “Murderman v. Mr. Intensity: The Brutal Death of Your Attention Span.” Now, we have the most recent film from Marvel with “Captain America: Civil War,” which might be the best superhero movie ever made.
Remember as kids spending entire afternoons having hypothetical debates like, “Who would win in a fight: Captain America or Batman?” “Civil War” is the ultimate fulfilment of such childhood discussions, pitting a half-dozen of Marvel’s most popular heroes versus the other half—because if I learned one thing from comic book movies: Superheroes have to punch each other in the face before they can ultimately decide to be friends and take on a common enemy.
It’s so weird to try and review these films as singular experiences; earlier Marvel movies are required viewing to have a clue as to what’s going on. I can just imagine the poor soul who wanders into the cineplex and has no prior knowledge of these films, trying to figure out what the hell is going on. ‘Who’s the red robot man, Morty? Does he like that Olsen girl?’
In this installment of the endless Marvel money machine, Captain America and the Avengers are dealing with a nebulous villain who is trying to unearth their darkest secrets. When the Secretary of Defense (William Hurt) approaches Earth’s mightiest mortals with an ultimatum, the Avengers have to decide whether to agree to oversight from the United Nations or go rogue. Half the team is behind the idea of having checks and balances from a recognized body of power, while the other half is convinced that signing away freedom of choice is the pathway to disaster. Of course, the only way to settle this existential crisis is beating the hell out of each other.
“Captain America: Civil War” works extremely well because of its multiple levels. It delivers the visceral thrills of an action movie. In fact, the directing team of brothers Anthony and Joe Russo might be the best action directors working today. There are a lot of fight sequences that feel like 1990’s Hong Kong action films. They’re also able to stage those massive special-effects heavy set pieces that most $200 million blockbusters demand. However, the more quiet moments help set “Civil War” apart from other Marvel films. All of the dozen featured characters get an earned moment. The plot seems plausible in a way most superhero movies do not, and the villain, Baron Zemo (Daniel Bruhl), is a fascinating dichotomy of tragedy and sadism.
“Captain America: Civil War” feels like another massive Avengers movie. It’s a major action epic that gets it all right. From the grand spectacle down to the quieter character moments, this one really does manage to be all things to all people.