One of the last mornings of finals week, I awoke abruptly from a dream. In it, I figured out I could move things with my mind, and I was dazzling my Screen Arts and Cultures 300 classmates with my newfound telekinetic abilities. I could make laptops and pencils and backpacks float around the room. I still remember the amazed look on the cute blonde’s face as I made her water bottle tilt in the air and pour its contents into the professor’s coffee mug. I was cool. I was powerful. I felt like nothing could stop me from being happy, now that I could control anything and anyone with the flick of a wrist.
And then I woke up. Half asleep at 8:00 a.m., I trudged into the bathroom and, despite knowing full well my dream was over, I stretched the palm of my hand towards a roll of toilet paper across the room, hoping that somehow I managed to keep even a fraction of the supreme power I held in my subconscious. The universe didn’t bend to my will, and the paper didn’t budge.
I want superpowers badly, but there’s nothing I can do about it. It’s one of those hard facts of life that everyone has to deal with at some point. God isn’t real, death is imminent and you can’t have superpowers — no matter how much you want them.
I think that’s why I appreciated “Captain America: Civil War” so much. Here we have a film that understands exactly what it is that makes superpowers so cool. It executes on the popcorn concept of the superhero as power-fantasy, but it also handles these fantastic concepts with a great deal more maturity than my juvenile wet dream did. Best of all, it accomplishes this assured maturity without succumbing to the dour angst that made “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” so infuriating.
First and foremost, “Civil War” is a great action movie. Simply put, it’s the best and most entertaining depiction of superpowers onscreen ever. “Civil War” uses kinetic camerawork similar to the “shaky cam” technique that franchises like “Hunger Games” and “Bourne” are frequently derided for, but it moves its camera in a sensible and articulate manner. It’s easy to process the message of each visually complex frame as it passes at lightning speed. It succeeds structurally, too — the setpiece action moments always seem to begin and end at the perfect time. There’s just enough of them, and they never drag. In this regard, “Civil War” is the most masterful film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).
This incredible cinematic craft hums in perfect harmony with one of the most talented, charming casts ever assembled in a motion picture. It remains an utter joy to watch this crew of ludicrously sexy people do their ultraviolent thing. Cap (Chris Evans, “Snowpiercer”) and Iron Man (Robery Downey Jr., “Sherlock Holmes”) somehow bring new emotional dimensions to the wonderful characters we’ve seen in countless other films. You’ve already heard everyone sing the praises of Spider-Man (Tom Holland, “In the Heart of the Sea”) and Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman, “Get On Up”). That’s for good reason: they’re heart-meltingly perfect iterations of classic characters. But I think the film’s low-key MVP is Falcon (Anthony Mackie, “Pain & Gain”), who is elevated from a B-tier to an A-tier Marvel hero in an essential and engaging turn as the jetpack-piloting, machine gun-shooting badass.
More people should talk about how gracefully the Marvel films have equalized sexualization. I truly believe that in most of the Marvel films, the female gaze is as discernable as the male gaze, if not even more often. It certainly seems like for every pointless Scarlett Johansson cleavage shot there’s two pointless Chris Evans rippling-abs shots. A particular scene in which Evans arm-straddles a helicopter and a landing pad (it’s in the trailer) is completely and ludicrously sexualized, and that’s great. More movies should sexualize their leading men. It’s only fair.
It’s a shame the bad guys don’t hold up to the wonderful performances of the good guys. “Civil War” continues Marvel Studios’ grand tradition of poorly motivated, completely forgettable villains. I’ve found that the non-Loki MCU villains fall into two distinct categories: video game final bosses and lame knock-offs of Heath Ledger’s Joker. Somehow, “Civil War” covers both categories. Zimo (Daniel Brühl, “Inglourious Basterds”) being the latter, Crossbones (Frank Grillo, “The Purge: Anarchy”) being the former. Crossbones at least made for excellent action scene punch fodder. Zimo is an entirely unfeasible and unmemorable villain, easily among the worst in Marvel history. It’s a shame, too, because his introductory scene is sufficiently mysterious and brutal. It just goes nowhere.
What truly surprised me about “Civil War” was not its superb action or great characters — judging by the studio’s track record, those were basically known quantities. Rather, what really cements “Civil War” ’s ranking in the top tier of Marvel films is its exquisitely handled dramatic ending. It shifts the tone from fun and playful to deadly serious with a deftness and sensitivity Marvel films had yet to display. No spoilers, but trust me on this one. You’ll be impressed.
The films of the MCU have become something of a bi-yearly therapy session for the non-superpowered like me. For $8, we get to spend another two hours in our fantasy world, enjoying the fruits of the labor of some of the most talented filmmakers in the business. There’s a reason Stan Lee used to call Marvel fans “True Believers” — we’re the best pretenders in the world. We know how to fall deeply and passionately into our favorite fiction and find life-affirming wonder in what many would consider schlock. Marvel’s shows few signs of critical or commercial decline, and that’s an exciting notion. If Marvel continues to crank out films this inspired, it will be a long time indeed before we tire of its efforts.