“Captain America: Civil War”
The increasingly insipid Disney run of Marvel movies comes to an end with “Captain America: Civil War,” based on the mid-2000s Marvel comic book series which pitted the freedom-from-big government Captain America (Chris Evans) against the pro-government technocrat Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) in an epic battle that still resonates politically.
While the movie version doesn’t quite go there like the comic series does—it left Captain America kind of dead—“Civil War” retains its warring sides’ complexity and offers up a revisionist look at superheroes that’s poignant if not quite as dark and cynical as “The Dark Knight” or “Watchmen.” Picking up right after the last Captain America movie, the near-perfect “Winter Soldier” and the stinker that was “Avengers: Age Of Ultron,” “Civil War” finds our heroes literally at each other’s throats over the issue of accountability: How exactly should the government handle superpowered human beings who have no problem enacting justice by, say, dropping buildings on people and endangering the lives of innocents, even if it is in order to save the world? Should the government dictate when and how heroes act or should the heroes use their discretion in picking which battles to fight?
It’s a blockbuster Hollywood movie echo of the country’s super-charged political climate right now wherein a new breed of conservatives maniacally renounce big government and rhetorically duke it out with a neoliberal left that argues for increased government assistance. It doesn’t totally parse—and it shouldn’t have to, this is a comic book movie after all, albeit a very smart one—but it’s basically Captain America as Trump and Tony Stark as Hillary, if well, Hillary, had a millionaire douche playboy schtick like Trump.
For a sense of how “Civil War” differs from some of the more formulaic superhero movies of late, consider a scene where a mother who confronts Tony Stark outside his mansion about the death of her bystander son, who was killed during a superhero battle, a way of humanizing the conflict and tying it to national conversations about wars and drone strikes. In the comic book, the scene stands alone and the mother and son are white, but the writers of the movie, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, both Marvel vets, changed the race of the small but important character, invoking the killing of black youth in America and the larger death toll among people of color by American intervention abroad.
The mother, deftly played by Alfre Woodard, quietly confronts Stark at an elevator following his presentation on virtual reality to a class of privileged students. In the hands of any other actor, this scene would have felt rote but Woodard’s speech to Stark about her young son, who she raised alone in New York and was killed while volunteering in the fictional country of Sokovia where the Avengers took down Ultron is a passionate protest. She is a parent whose child means little to this all-white superhero team, who after saving the world and leaving a pile of destruction and some collateral damage, “fly away back to their billionaire mansions.” It’s surprising that the corporate overlords let this scene stay in.
Directors Joe and Anthony Russo (“Arrested Development”) employ a lot of quiet scenes like this in an otherwise pretty loud movie. And to their credit, they wash out the bad taste that Joss Whedon’s horrible Ultron movie left in fans’ mouths. How they do this is pretty simple: They don’t treat the fans like idiots and they take the superhero world seriously. That’s not to say that “Civil War” lacks humor. It’s loaded with subtle one-liners and well-timed side-eyes that comes naturally to the brothers who wrote some of the smartest television of the past two decades.
The brothers also navigate the complex plot machinations of “Civil War” quite well. “Civil War” takes off when the Avengers are brought before the Secretary of State—William Hurt reprising his role as “Thunderbolt” Ross from “The Incredible Hulk”—following an attack in Africa where hundreds are killed thanks to a misguided power blast from the Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), who was on the trail of Cap’s former partner Bucky, or as he’s called now, The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Sands). While mulling this over, a second attack kills Wakandan king T’Chaka and awakens the wrath of his vengeful son and heir T’Challa, the Black Panther, splitting the team down the middle with one half siding with Stark and one half with Cap.
Before getting into further plot points, let’s stop and talk about the introduction of the Black Panther into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The character, the first African-American superhero, was introduced in 1966 at a time when the country’s Civil Rights battles were being fought, the country was split over government involvement in Vietnam, and Black Power was making its way from Oakland to the rest of the United States. In hindsight, the writers and directors could not have predicted the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement before deciding to add Panther to the hero roster, but his addition feels timely and, most importantly, not forced at all. This is mostly due to the fantastic performance by Chadwick Boseman, who plays Panther as a proud, flawed man appropriately seething with revenge for the death of his father at the hands of a white villain (an important side note: the writers chose not make up some gobbledygook “African” language but instead chose the real South African language Xhosa for its Wakandan characters).
Here, Black Panther doesn’t really choose a side so much as try to keep the heroes in check while going after his father’s supposed murderer. The Russo age of Marvel also features two powerful female heroes in Black Widow, played again by Scarlett Johansson (this time thankfully stripped of all that maternal nonsense created by Whedon in the last film), and the aforementioned Scarlet Witch who have pretty equal ass-kicking screen time with their male counterparts.
Okay, so back to the plot: Following an epic battle showdown on an airfield with some great surprises we won’t spoil here, all the pieces come together as both teams realize that they’ve been played by one of Cap’s oldest foes, Zemo (Daniel Brühl). Marvel has always had an issue with their villains. This time they’ve nailed it. Unlike the comics, Zemo is not some demagogue baron with a red sock over his head. Instead, he’s an everyman whose life was collateral damage during “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” and now has a simple plan to destroy the team from within—and it all comes into fast, sharp focus in the final act, which we won’t spoil here because for the first time in a while, you’ll actually want to see how this all plays out and not just read a Wikipedia’d summary. The Russos and their writing team have made a comic book film that treats both its audience and characters with the respect they deserve. It’s a great way to kick off the summer movie season. And as long as the suits stay out of the way—though we have plenty of evidence that they will inevitably interfere—the Russos have the potential of keeping the genre fresh for a few more years at least. Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, now playing. (J.M. Giordano)
“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows”
Spare me the nonsense that the pop-culture junk from your childhood is sacred. 2014’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” was an engorged hot mess of CGI goofiness that countered both the convoluted complexities of Marvel’s superhero movies and the dead-seriousness of DC’s funnybook flicks and, in that sense, felt anarchic, at least by Hollywood standards. It was also kind of sweet. As Adam Katzman wrote in City Paper about the last Turtles movie, “While the turtles look like ‘Pumping Iron’ tragedies, there’s a Channing Tatum-esque soulful affability that shines through their heavily muscled exterior, along with their indefatigable poptimism.” In the sequel, fan favorite characters Bebop, Rocksteady, and Casey Jones make appearances and there is something about an alien invasion and space—which if you’re a real nerd, seems to possibly nod a bit to the old Jack Kirby-influenced subplot of the black-and-white ‘80s comics books—and some existential stuff about whether or not the Turtles would decide to turn into humans if they could. Also Tyler Perry’s in it? I fuck with this. Directed by Dave Green, in theaters everywhere. (Brandon Soderberg)
All the nerds popped a blood vessel when it was announced that a “Ghostbusters” reboot would feature an all-women cast, whereas all of us sane people were psyched for the possibility of a revisionist reboot that wouldn’t just circle the drain—and from the makers and some of the cast of “Bridesmaids” to boot. Judging from the trailer, the thing looks pretty fun and aims to breathe the same rarefied air of the original 1984 “Ghostbusters,” which was part low-key, character-based comedy and part pretty complicated action movie with a touch of 50s sci-fi/horror charm that never took itself too seriously. And however it turns out, I welcome pretty much any adjustment to the blockbuster formula—let’s acknowledge that a mostly female cast should not be a controversy or all that notable in 2016 but oh boy, that’s where we’re at—and “Ghostbusters” will at least be interesting and won’t play out like the umpteenth retro franchise resurrection. Directed by Paul Feig, in theaters everywhere. (Brandon Soderberg)