December 21, 2016

Superhero Catch-up: A Civil War, an Apocalypse, and the Dawn of Justice

Chris Evans, Elizabeth Olsen, and Jeremy Renner star in Captain America: Civil War.

One side effect of making fewer trips to the movie theaters is bypassing so many prominent Hollywood releases. When I do have the chance to see a film on the big screen, I’m not going to waste it. I’d prefer to support projects that aren’t guaranteed to earn hundreds of millions at the box office. This isn’t a hard and fast rule; I’ll make an exception for Rogue One very soon. I just don’t feel the need to see your everyday blockbuster right away. The window before a DVD or streaming release is shrinking, and that trend should continue in the future.

Another benefit is always having so many options for home viewing in any genre. If I’m ready to watch powerful superheroes punch each other for two hours, I have plenty of choices. In the past few weeks, I finally spent (wasted?) my time and caught up with Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and X-Men: Apocalypse. I also re-watched Captain America: Civil War to continue this trend. They’re all superhero films with huge budgets, but each film is quite different from the others. By the end of the three viewings, there were no doubts about how I’d rank them.

I’m 40 years old and sometimes think of myself as a discerning movie watcher at this stage of life. On the other hand, I’ll admit to finding great joy in watching the CGI spectacle of so many comic book characters battling on screen. In the best cases, there’s also still a will to glean affecting drama from these conflicts. The trick is balancing the carnage with engaging characters and a light touch. Darker themes only click if there’s something beneath the surface. Let’s take a look at each of the three superhero films and how well they struck the right balance.

Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman fight Doomsday in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (Zack Snyder)

Why did I subject myself to this mess? Despite many warnings from reliable sources, I couldn’t help myself. The giant square on HBO GO kept calling to me, and I couldn’t resist. Man of Steel wasn’t great, but the origin story and early scenes with Kevin Costner were interesting. The conflict with Zod fell flat, particularly with the excessive use of 9/11 imagery. Batman v. Superman is basically two-and-a-half hours of what I disliked about Zach Snyder’s first Superman film. The components all exist, but they’re put together in the wrong way. There’s no forward movement or logical progression from scene to scene. It’s just a disaster on every level.

The shame with this project is how many talented actors are involved. The cruelty in Ben Affleck’s Batman was strikingly different from other takes on the character. Henry Cavill has been good in other films; this Superman is just impossible to play. Gal Gadot has a good screen presence as Wonder Woman and could shine as the main character. Amy Adams, Jeremy Irons, Holly Hunter, and Diane Lane do what they can with thinly written parts. The only real miss for me is Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor. Eisenberg plays eccentric better than insane, and this Luthor is barely connected to reality. Gene Hackman showed how less is more with this character. Dialing up every scene to ridiculous heights just takes us right out of the movie.

Digging further into the plot, it’s a poorly crafted set-up for the moment every fan wants to see. In similar fashion to Civil War, the movie only works if the Batman/Superman fight is compelling. Instead of an exciting clash of the titans, this battle is just brutal and nasty. The stakes don’t feel real, even when Superman appears to face real jeopardy. The resolution is a cop-out that springs out of nowhere. It also diminishes the raw emotion that Affleck throws into Batman. Bruce Wayne is a guy on the edge who’s inches away from descending into madness. The “mother’s name” twist reduces that anger to a glaringly obvious theme.

Batman v. Superman does the heavy lifting to help create an extended universe for DC, but it’s hard to care too much about it. We catch glimpses of The Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) to set up next year’s Justice League, but they’re a distraction. World building can be exciting in the right hands, but it also can make filmmakers take their eyes off the ball. This film seems rushed and rarely takes a breath, which just wears out the audience. I know it’s not this simple, but cutting 10 minutes from the finale against Doomsday would make a huge difference. In fact, I might just cut Doomsday out of the movie altogether. The gigantic being is a symbol of the entire movie. It’s powerful, loud, and has no soul.

Oscar Isaac is the evil Apocalypse in X-Men: Apocalypse.

X-Men: Apocalypse (Bryan Singer)

I’ve generally enjoyed the X-Men franchise since its first installment way back in the ancient days of 2000. At that time, just setting up a sequel was enough! Now that my old man rant is over, I’m ready to talk about this silly movie. There is no way that Bryan Singer can make the stakes feel high with a villain like Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac). He’s basically a strangely voice bad guy right out of Stargate SG-1. That isn’t a criticism either. I love it when a comic book film leans into its ludicrous premise. Apocalypse and his four horsemen spend the movie walking around and causing havoc. The climactic battle is bombastic yet rarely seems dull. We’re free to have fun in this world despite the potential for the end of all humanity.

Another thing that separates this franchise from the DC universe is the fantastical aspects. When the big fight happens in front of a giant pyramid, the environment doesn’t feel real. Magneto tears up the ground and kills countless people, but there are few shots designed to connect us with reality. Despite some dramatic moments, it’s largely a cartoon. We don’t need anyone to comment about how a place is deserted before the destruction begins. We can care about the characters but don’t feel manipulated by obvious tropes either.

I don’t want to over sell Apocalypse, however. It feels like a step backward after the time traveling complexities of Days of Future Past. Fassbinder’s Magneto also is treading on familiar ground in his third appearance. He can only flip around from good to evil so many times. Fassbinder and McAvoy have an easy chemistry that makes us care about both characters. They just aren’t delving into much new territory. Newcomers like Sophie Turner (Jean Gray), Tye Sheridan (Cyclops), and Kodi Smit-Mcphee (Nightcrawler) don’t stand out as much. Turner has the largest role and does her best (particularly at the end), yet Famke Janssen still owns that part.

I was skeptical during the opening act but was largely won over by the way Singer and the production designers go for it. By the time Quicksilver (Evan Peters) was saving a dog with a pizza in its mouth, I couldn’t help but smile. It feels like the logical conclusion for this chapter in the X-Men saga. The grim apocalyptic world of Logan (based on the trailer) is here at just the right time. It’s time for a smaller story that doesn’t involve saving the planet from a super villain. The Wolverine had a similar vibe, and I’m thrilled that James Mangold is back from another outing with Hugh Jackman here. Next March can’t come fast enough for this intriguing release.

Captain America fights his last battle with Iron Man in Captain America: Civil War.

Captain America: Civil War (Anthony and Joe Russo)

I caught up with the third Captain America film in the theater during a very busy time in life this past summer. Instead of being a much-needed escape, it mostly slipped from my mind. I enjoyed Civil War the first time, but it took a second viewing to solidify it as really good film. It’s basically the antithesis of Batman v. Superman. There’s a serious rift between two super heroes, but it’s an ideological one. Tony Stark and Steve Rogers both are right in a certain way, and that makes the conflict resonate. It’s more than just an excuse to bring together the Avengers (and quite a few others) into one gigantic battle. Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans sell the emotions of the split between two close friends. The Russo Brothers make it all feel effortless too.

Despite its epic length, this story doesn’t seem bloated or filled with unnecessary subplots. Spider-Man and Black Panther make their first appearances, yet they fit within the main plot. Neither pulls the spotlight away from the disagreement that drives the narrative. I was skeptical of yet another Spider-Man, but Tom Holland’s Peter Parker is a different guy. He’s younger and just getting started, so there’s glee in the way he approaches the others. Spider-Man gets a cute introduction and then shows his skills in the main battle. That’s it. This is an ensemble film where everyone has a role to play. There’s a team atmosphere even across the two sides.

The airport battle is amazing and lives up to expectations, which is an incredible feat. But it’s hardly the only reason to watch Civil War. I didn’t spend the first hour just waiting for everyone to fight. The story is gripping enough to make us forget that it’s leading to such a large confrontation. Individual character moments are just as strong as the action and are fun despite the high stakes. Slowing down the pace is also crucial to avoid pummeling us too much. Quiet scenes like one with the Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) aren’t just ways to pass the time before the action. The fights only work if these scenes connect with us.

I’ve largely been a fan of the Marvel films, though I haven’t gone back to missteps like Age of Ultron since the theaters. What separates Civil War from that film is the feeling that we’re covering new ground. Iron Man and Captain America are shaped by what’s happened in the past, and references to previous films seem natural here. This success has re-invigorated my interest in Phase Three (I haven’t seen Doctor Strange yet) going forward. It’s my favorite blockbuster of 2016, and it would take a lot for another release to unseat it. I can’t wait to watch it again.

Other Marvel Reviews

Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Guardians of the Galaxy
Thor: The Dark World
Iron Man 3

2 comments:

  1. Not yet subjected myself to Dawn of Justice, "saving" that one for god knows when. I will watch it. One day. Eventually.

    I felt a little let down by X-Men Apocalypse. The reinvention of the X-Men films with First Class felt like just that—something new. With Apocalypse, it feels like we're treading old ground, with new characters being brought in for the sake of it.

    Civil War was good. Though as the number of Marvel comic book films ramps up, I find myself forgetting them all too quickly after I've seen them. The mark of a really good film for me is how long it stays with me, and have to admit as much as I enjoyed watching Civil War, I'd pretty much forgotten about it the next day.

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    1. I can understand your thoughts on X-Men Apocalypse. I'd heard so many bad things about it and had just watched Batman v. Superman, so I liked it more than I expected. It's a step down for the franchise but still was fun in a goofy way.

      With Civil War, I had a similar experience the first time I saw it in the theaters. It surprised me a little to like it that much on a re-watch.

      Don't rush to see Batman v. Superman; no one deserves to lose that much time on it.

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