Presidential election years lend themselves to multiplex seat philosophy, perhaps another subtle confirmation of the fact that even escapism is neither complete nor absolute. Especially in years without an incumbent in the running, the culture of the present tense takes on the status of relic with stunning immediacy. As we see the contours of how future generations will remember the era, it gets easier to place a movie within its particular historical framework.
So what is the status of the superhero movie towards the end of the Age of Obama? Look no further than “Captain America: Civil War,” a film far more intriguing for its wide-ranging implications than anything on screen. (Ok, maybe those Spider-Man scenes got me interested in the character again.) It serves the same big budget movie of the moment role that 2008’s “The Dark Knight” played for the Bush era, both smashing the box office and setting the conversation.
Nearly four years ago, The New York Times’ critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Darghis described Marvel’s 2012 “The Avengers” as a tale about the triumph of community organizing in their piece “Movies in the Age of Obama.” Now, “Captain America: Civil War” feels like the response to four years of gridlock and bitter internal divides. Along with “Batman v Superman,” the big trend among 2016 tentpole features appears to be fighting the enemies within our gates as opposed to outside our borders.
At least this rupture among the Avengers crew was a plot development they adequately presaged in their recent plot build-up. (Yes, that was shade at DC. No, I am not being paid by Marvel to write good things.) After many a global escapade causing mass mayhem and destruction, the superheroes finally face accountability from an international governmental body. Roughly half the group believes submitting to authority is a worthy idea, while the others wish to retain autonomy even it means being called vigilantes by the public as a whole.
The internal debates between Captain America (Chris Evans) and the revolving door of heroes – though he primarily clashes with Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) – provides many a worthy chance for reflection on big themes and ideas. Be it the consequences of American military involvement in foreign nations or the byproduct of corrosive civil strife, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely get the chance to really play out some tensions most comic book movies only get to imply. They certainly find a much more healthy balance of intelligence and action than their last outing with the Star-Spangled Man, 2014’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.”
Unfortunately, “Captain America: Civil War” is still a product fresh out of the Marvel moneymaking machine, which means that certain beats must be hit, an action sequence must occur at least every 30 minutes and the groundwork next set of sequels and spinoffs must be laid. In “Civil War,” Markus and McFeely have to introduce one character (Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther), reboot another (Tom Holland’s Spider-Man) and then recontexualize a standalone character as an Avenger in his own right (Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man). They certainly make sure directors Anthony and Joe Russo are skilled jugglers, managing a dozen heroes over the course of the two-and-a-half-hour film.
The segmentation and subdividing of the film drains some enjoyment from the viewing process – not to mention, it leaves countless story threads dangling. Some, like Black Panther and Spider-Man, will get resolved in future standalone films. But others, like the Scalia-RBG moment of friendship amidst fighting between Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) provides a tantalizing taste of a gripping subplot. But clearly the powers that be at Marvel drew another line between the characters – that of a first and second tier. Perhaps another battle ought to brew to restore, or actually instate, some kind of equilibrium among this coterie of heroes. B- /