A Review of “Captain America: Civil War”

7324239866_785eb0d421_mSometimes, you go into a long-awaited movie wondering if you’ve already seen the best it has to offer in the trailers. Certainly, this thought occurred to me as I stood eagerly in line for Captain America: Civil War on opening night. In true geek fashion, I had been anticipating this movie since before Age of Ultron, and had devoured every hint, rumor, teaser and trailer in the preceding months. I had discussed theories and possibilities with friends and colleagues, and still felt as though I was unprepared for what I was about to witness. There were so many possibilities here, my head was swimming, giddy with what could be about to take place.

As it turns out, the trailers were as carefully composed as the film itself, because they led you to believe that you knew what would happen, giving you just enough to inform, yet still leave you gasping with shock in the theatre.

Civil War is the third MCU installment for Captain America, and the thirteenth Marvel film in its modern universe. I have, as I suspect have most fans, entered a bit of a comfort zone with these movies. That is, I’m not nearly the kid in the candy store as when I waited in line, pre-purchased ticket in hand, for the first Avengers movie. That’s not to say that I love these movies any less…if anything, the opposite is true. The reason is because I love the characters. Having read their adventures for most of my life, of course, helps, but I think that every viewer who has engaged in this genre since the first Iron Man movie all those years ago has become emotionally invested in these characters. We’ve watched them grow and develop, lived through their struggles and (sometimes Pyrrhic) victories with them, and, while we’ve come to awe at their heroism as they confront the evils over which we could never possibly hope to triumph, we’ve also come to appreciate their humanity.

That’s what I walked away introspective about at the end of Civil War, and, while it’s what I expected, it’s not what I expected.

The tone of the Civil War story arc in the comics, upon which this movie is based, was highly political in nature. Certainly, the character of Captain America is uniquely positioned to explore questions of politics and national identity, and we’ve seen that used to great effect in previous films. I expected that, not the emotional weight of the way in which we see each character struggle. The struggles are not just external, although there’s plenty of that, and the fights are not the fun, fanboy match-ups from the early minutes of the first Avengers. This is what you feel when you watch loved ones fight, when you can see from the outside that both are right in their way, that all motivations are honorable, and that no one is going to win while everyone will lose.

The internal struggles are just as real, with deeper implications. Steve Rogers has been attempting to find his identity since the truth that he assumed he fought for collapsed in the Winter Soldier. He is refusing to follow logic because his first allegiance is to his best friend, the one friend who can begin to understand what he has survived. He wants to do what’s right, and isn’t certain what that is any longer. Tony Stark continues to battle against his past, to try to make up for the horrible mistakes that he seems to continue to make even while attempting to atone for other mistakes. Bucky Barnes struggles to undo the evil into which he was made against his will. Wanda Maximoff struggles with her identity, wondering if she is still who she was in a more innocent time. The Vision struggles to find what it is to be human. Natasha Romanoff struggles to balance pragmatic survival with loyalty to the closest family she has known. And these struggles are only some of what are carefully developed and tracked throughout these two hours as these characters whom we’ve come to love, this family to which we feel we’ve become observers, split as their own best intentions consume them.

Civil War is never meant to have a happy ending. The implications of this movie have rightly been predicted to forever alter the Marvel Cinematic Universe moving forward, and that’s a fair assessment. Just as in the conclusion of the same story in the comics, there is no going back. Just as in the arguments that we wish we had never had, those words can never be unsaid, their wounds never reversed, only, hopefully, healed.

So, the political inferences are there in Civil War, if you want to see them. Certainly, though, they are not the focus. The characters are, and that is a wonderful decision on Marvel’s part.

There is humor interspersed at just the right times during the fights, keeping the script from becoming too weighty while simultaneously adding to the tragedy of these events. The movie introduces new characters, of course, and unless you have no idea what was coming, you were as excited to see Spider-Man done well as the rest of us.

Spider-Man was my big disappointment in the movie, though, I have to confess, mostly because a young Aunt May is something that I’ve never seen in any incarnation of this iconic hero. It makes sense to focus on a teenage Peter Parker, though, because this gives much more room to develop the character as we move forward, and I have no doubt that the writers will continue to take as great care with this as they have to date. Visually, of course, Spider-Man’s great, and, even with his flaws, we’re already exponentially better off that the last tragic attempt to put the Web-Slinger on the screen.

The Black Panther could not be introduced in a better way. T’Challa grounds the film. He serves as the center of gravity as both sides spin further out of control, an outsider who brings clarity to the conflict in a very unexpected way. His monologue at the end as the climactic battle wages nearby is simple but unbelievably profound, and brings out what we as the viewers know, a quiet but powerful expression as we are screaming for the fighting to stop.

If you’ve paid careful attention to the previous films (and I mean careful…there are details in the Winter Soldier specifically that are critical to know), you’ve seen this conflict coming. Still, while we want to see our heroes in action again, we don’t want this, and that makes Civil War dramatically different from every other film to date. These are events that we didn’t want to see happen, a conflict in which our heroes do not win, and, in fact, a conflict in which no one else wins, either, especially not those who depend on them.

When heroes are proven as weak as we are in important ways, it damages our view of them. Their power and dedication seem unimportant when built on the same emotions and experiences that the rest of us have. Perhaps that’s unfair. Perhaps their humanity makes them even more heroic, knowing that they overcome it far more than they succumb to it.

Perhaps we have cause to fear them, however, when they fail in their responsibilities.

Perhaps we all fall down if we don’t learn to talk to each other instead of fight.

Civil War leaves us wondering where we go from here. Make certain that you watch this film.

Image attribution: Andrew Buckingham under Creative Commons. follow us in feedly

A Review of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”

Batman vs Superman. Image used under Creative Commons.I was sort of numb.

Really, that sums up my entire journey with this film, from the first teaser all those months ago, to leaving the theatre this week. To be honest, it began with Zack Snyder’s less-than-impressive Man of Steel, the entire purpose of which seemed to be “how dark and brooding can we make Superman?” Superman isn’t a character that’s particularly dark and brooding. In fact, while recent incarnations of the character have made good efforts toward the sorts of questions with which someone with his level of power would struggle, he remains sort of the antithesis of darkness.

Really, that’s what should position him opposite of a character like Batman, who, when written well, is always walking a very thin line between hero and vigilante, at times not in full possession of his faculties, struggling with a trauma that would overwhelm someone without his sense of purpose.

And, when permitted to develop, those sorts of distinctions can be fascinating. There was none of that after this movie, though. I was just numb.

The numbness wasn’t born simply of the overwhelming darkness of this 2-and-a-half-hour mess (many critics have noted, with some exaggeration, that no one smiles in this entire movie. In Snyder’s defense, there is one scene where Lois Lane laughs with Clark Kent, but that’s just to relieve tension from his brooding). The numbness was caused equally by the sheer speed at which this film moves.

Comics have a phenomenon called the gutter. That is, something often happens between the image in one frame and the image in the next. The reader’s imagination fills in the gutter. In order for this work, one must be aware that there’s a gutter to fill.

Superman’s adventures, both in rescuing Lois Lane (a perpetual damsel in distress instead of the strong character that she should be) are disconnected. Only knowledge of the previous movie leaves any idea for the viewer as to why he’s struggling (or, for that matter, why the public is struggling) with who he is and what he can do, and even that is fragmented. Superman is just generally unhappy with life, here, and we can only guess why.

Still, Superman is developed extravagantly compared to Batman.

Now, let me say up front that I have always been a huge fan of the Dark Night Detective. His is a character that has so many possibilities when done well, so I’m even more sensitive to a poorly written adaptation of Batman than I am of Superman. That personal issue aside, though, let’s understand something about comic books that makes what Snyder did with the character incredibly risky and, in the end, an incredible failure.

In comic book literature, there’s an event called a retcon, or “retroactive continuity.” In a retcon, characters are taken in dramatically different directions, and writers often explore various “what-if” scenarios and facets of a character that would otherwise be left undiscovered. Retcons, when done well, are really interesting journeys. In 1986, Frank Miller, arguably one of the greatest writers in comics, published a miniseries called The Dark Knight Returns. In this retcon, set in a future Gotham City, Bruce Wayne has retired as the Batman, and he’s gone a bit insane. Batman has become a second personality, clawing to get out, with Wayne holding him at bay. Eventually confronted with a horrendous crime wave in Gotham where unspeakable acts of violence are taking place, Batman resurfaces, except, this time, he hurts people. He uses firearms (something that he swore never to do because of how his parents were killed). Superman is essentially an agent of the government in this story, and is sent to bring Batman under control. The battle ensues.

Dark Knight Rises was also influenced by this miniseries, but didn’t alter the character to fit.

The issue here is that a retcon never works in the mainstream continuity, and this movie is supposed to launch the Justice League franchise for the DC Cinematic Universe. This is to DC what the Avengers have been to Marvel. This movie defines the mainstream universe for the film, and it was written based on a retcon. By definition, this doesn’t work.

So, I expected to not be impressed.

Let’s suppose, for argument’s sake, though, that this could work. One of the reasons that Miller’s story was so compelling is because we see how Batman ended up as angry and disturbed as he is. Snyder gives us no such reason. There is a brief glimpse of a Robin costume in the Batcave with words scrawled across the front. Batman readers will assume that this is indicative of a well-known event in Batman’s past where the second Robin is killed by the Joker. We don’t know for certain, though, because this is never explained. There is also a brief line of dialogue by Alfred (who is something other than a butler, here…who knows…) about cruelty resulting from a feeling of powerlessness. Certainly, Batman has felt powerless as the conflict between Superman and Zod in Man of Steel left many of his friends dead, and this would be more compelling if we weren’t pushed through the memory so quickly. These events, though, are the only explanation we have as to why Batman hates Superman, why he wants to kill him, and why he is vindictively harming criminals, and they seem to somehow fall short of the end result.

A hate-filled character with such little backstory…particularly when that hatred is superimposed on a character that we know is not normally possessed of this trait…is more than difficult to accept. It just doesn’t work.

This is to say nothing of the machine guns on Batman’s vehicles, or his willingness to use villains’ firearms against them, one scene of which nearly made me walk out of the theatre I was so disappointed. This is tremendously out of character. Adapting a character and re-writing a character are two different things. Snyder apparently felt justified to do the latter.

The fast-paced disconnection doesn’t stop, there, however. There are dream sequences that are bordering on delusional and add nothing to the film except an excuse to portray Superman as a warlord and Batman as a gun-wielding purveyor of vengeance. Batman’s sudden change of heart in the end of his conflict with Superman is so abrupt and without motivation that it leaves one with emotional whiplash.

The film isn’t without positives. Eisenberg’s performance as Lex Luthor, which I expected to be disappointing, was gripping and a pleasant surprise. The combat sequences were well-paced, making for the sort of fan-boy matchup that a large part of the audience was expecting to see. Certainly, Snyder excels in visual storytelling. If only a fully-developed plot and fully-developed characters had been there to accompany his visual acuity.

Of course, one of the aspects of this movie that fans were eagerly awaiting was the appearance of Wonder Woman. I’ve talked before about how important a character Wonder Woman is, and I wasn’t impressed with the choice to cast Gal Gadot in the role. This was another pleasant surprise, however, as Gadot brought a good performance. Still, there wasn’t time for her to do anything other than fight for the brief five minutes in which we see her as Wonder Woman. Again, this moved too fast. Of course, the over-arching problem with Wonder Woman here is that she is one of DC Comics’ three most important characters. Introducing her in a minor role in someone else’s film is simply unacceptable.

There has been a conscious decision here move in the opposite order from what Marvel did with the Avengers. That is, the Justice League is beginning with a team film, and moving forward from there, without giving most characters their own films to begin with. This is a great idea, but it isn’t working in execution, because there simply isn’t time to develop major characters in a team film. Our glimpses of the rest of the Justice League here happen…you guessed it…very fast, in one case condensing an origin story into about 30 seconds, and leaving a good deal of the audience confused, I imagine.

(Warning: Spoilers!)


 

By the time we see Superman’s rushed death in the end, I wasn’t just numb, I was completely numb. Partly because it was so rushed as to feel fake (although fans really should have seen this coming knowing that Doomsday is the villain), and partly because we know that a Justice League film can’t be made (I certainly hope they don’t try) without Superman. So, this was an emotional stunt to bring back viewers.

I left the theatre feeling nothing at all, hurried to a state of being completely anesthetized. After a couple of days, I felt profound disappointment. I’m a big fan of these characters, and I really wanted to see them done well. This film places the entire Justice League franchise on extremely shaky ground.

I hope it recovers.

Image attribution: a_marga under Creative Commons. follow us in feedly

Moment to Moment

This weekend, I attended a funeral for a college student who left us entirely too early. We’re close friends with the family, so it was a weekend (and, indeed, a week) fraught with a myriad of emotions and events that, while healthy and necessary to experience, leave one exhausted at their conclusion.

Something said during the service was a tribute to the deceased young man’s love of life, how he lived every day that he had to its fullest, and how he lived it to the good of those around him whenever he could.

When confronted so harshly with our own mortality, it is normal to question the application of these words to our own lives, to consider what sort of imprint one would leave behind. There’s a natural tendency as a parent, I think, to understand the often experimental nature of raising your first child. That’s to say, it’s not a question of if you’ll make a mistake, but a question of minimizing the seriousness of your mistakes as you guide your child into adulthood. A tendency of mine has been to shrug off the moments when I haven’t handled a situation well…when I’ve minimized my daughter’s feelings, or been inconsiderate of her emotions, or raised my voice in frustration when I could just as easily have taken another deep breath and reasoned things through. I’ve assumed that these moments would be lost to her young memory as she grew, and that I would just get better at what was happening as I gained experience.

I’m not sure that these events are, in fact, lost to her memory though, and, as she’s now four, they’re not currently even if they once were.

Her quality of life, and the kind of person that she grows into, depends very largely on my actions and reactions during these years, and, while this is something that I understood in theory, the weight of it in practice is something entirely unanticipated.

Added to the fact that I’ve been unable to forge any depth of connection with our youngest daughter, this means that I’m leaving much to be desired in each moment that passes. Those moments are no longer just mine, if they ever were. They are impacting two other young lives in ways the depth of which I may never understand.

As I sat in the warm glow of stained glass windows this weekend paying tribute to another life lived, I considered the love of life and the importance of making it count in each moment. And while, yes, I understand how cliché that may sound, I think what strikes me here is redeeming the time…redeeming each moment…not for my own sake, but the sake of my daughters. To expect to handle every event, incident, and interaction perfectly is a superhuman expectation that I couldn’t hope to keep any more than anyone else can. What I can do, though, is do better. I can be more conscious of each moment, and how those moments carry repercussions into the lives of others.

If I do that, perhaps it won’t make any difference on my own life, but that isn’t the point. The point is the impact that will make on my daughters’ lives, and, perhaps, on others as well.

follow us in feedly
Quote

On Faith and Politics

“When the church aligns itself politically, it gives priority to the compromises and temporal successes of the political world rather than its rightful Christian confession of eternal truth. And when the church gives up its rightful place as the conscience of the culture, the consequences for society can be horrific.”

-Chuck Colson

follow us in feedly

Motion

There’s an old adage, I’m certain you’ve heard it, that a “body in motion stays in motion.” I believe that its meant as a physical truth, encouraging one to remain active and fit. I remember, though, a conversation that I had with a young colleague in a Boston office building years ago, while he worked his way, as we all do, through relationships and life. I reminded him that none of us are static. That we change. That the people whom we know change.

On an emotional, psychological and spiritual level, we are always bodies in motion. We’re always moving forward or backward, but I don’t for a moment think that we’re ever stagnant. If we are, we don’t stay that way for long.

I’m thinking of this because I remember a teacher with whom I worked many years ago during my first career. She was struggling when I knew her, both personally and professionally. She wasn’t received well by her peers, and, whatever the details of her battle, the fact that she would not be returning after that semester became increasingly obvious. I remember respecting her strength as she worked to hold life together during the final few months of that academic year. She didn’t return the following year, and I have no idea what happened to her. If I remember her, though, I remember a person struggling through a difficult season of life, wearing all of the frustration and insecurities that go with that on her face, displaying it with her eyes and averted gaze.

Not so long ago, I was beginning a new career, and had taken a position with a company which surrounded me with people much better than I was at what I do. I had viewed this role as a learning experience…and it ultimately was exactly that…but I was a source of frustration to my more-experienced colleagues as they had to stop and explain things to me that were, for them, elementary concepts. When one has to meet tight deadlines in an environment where communication is not a priority, mentoring someone less experienced in one’s field is a burden, not a privilege.

I’m much more experienced at what I do now, and I’ve grown into an expert in my  niche. I have a skill set now that I wish I had possessed in that job, for the sake of my colleagues, because I could have been so much more productive and helpful to them. I occasionally encounter one of them on LinkedIn, congratulating them on a new role or something similar, and I wonder how they remember me. I think that, in their minds, I am still the inexperienced and troublesome novice whom they believed would have no success in this new career.

The teacher that I knew all those years ago, whatever happened to her, is likely in a much better place in life, now. I imagine that she no longer carries the stress that she did when I knew her. I no longer carry the stress of being inexperienced and needing to ask constant questions now, because I have learned and grown. I no longer carry the burdens that I did when my colleagues from two years ago knew me.

We are not static people. We stay in motion.

We all know people like me, or like that teacher. We’ve helped someone through a difficult time in their life, and, whenever we see them now that they are doing better, we begin our approach with a practiced empathy that is no longer warranted or even helpful (perhaps even the opposite), yet engrained with a sort of emotional muscle memory when encountering that person. I’ve been on the receiving end of that, and it’s not fun.

Just as our children will not be the same next year as they are now, neither will the people that we know. I think that recognizing the growth that someone has experienced…actively seeking all the ways in which they are better…is the sort of unconditional positive regard that has an enormous influence on all of us, something that helps us to live our lives that much better.

Because we are in motion. Always in motion. And that is a frightening, as well as a really cool, thing.

follow us in feedly