Thimblerig’s Spoilerific Thoughts on Captain America: Civil War

Captain-America-Civil-War-Divided-We-Fall-Poster-Robert-Downey-Jr

One of the benefits of living in China is that every now and then, the Hollywood studios decide to roll out their big films in our corner of the world, rather than in the United States, where you’d think they’d drop first. Of course, there’s quite a bit of irony in the fact that a Captain America movie would not premiere in America, but regardless, it’s still cool for us. And considering the movie has already made $84 million internationally [update: $200.2 mill], and has yet to open in the United States or even in my host country of China, I’d say it’s been cool for a whole lot of people.

So, yesterday my kids and I hopped a ferry from Shenzhen to Hong Kong with the express purpose of eating at McDonald’s Next, and taking in a viewing of Captain America: Civil War. It was a tiring day, but was it worth it?

civil warAbsolutely, it was.

As director Scott Derrickson (Doctor Strange) tweeted yesterday:

I agree wholeheartedly with Derrickson. This is a trilogy where nothing erodes or gets lost from episode to episode. In fact, if anything, each installment builds on and improves on the other. Even my beloved original Star Wars trilogy wasn’t able to accomplish this, with The Empire Strikes Back unarguably the high point of the trilogy.

With Captain America, the films just get better and better, and this last installment is – by far – the high point.

Before I get into my thoughts on the film, I want to discuss the biggest, most glaring lesson that I took from the film. And no, this doesn’t involve spoilers.

The Goodness of Steve Rogers

Captain-America-image-1Ever since Chris Evans and the Russo brothers first suited up, I have been constantly blown away by the unflinchingly goodness of Captain America. This is a character that lives for doing the right thing, even when the forces of the world are arrayed against him. As we saw in Avengers: Age of Ultron, he has a strong moral code, and he tries to elevate his comrades to live by that same code, even as they make fun of him. He would sacrifice everything for the sake of his friends, including friendship when need be. He has such a noble character that he could almost pick up Thor’s hammer, and if he had, we wouldn’t have been surprised.

And while most of the other superheroes we see are tortured about one thing or another, in the Captain America trilogy, Rogers is only tortured by two things: not being able to help is friends in need, and the fact that he is a man out of time, that he was ripped away from all that he knew when he was thawed out in the 21st century.

And yet, Captain America is one of the most popular superheroes to come out of modern superhero films.

chris-evans-shirtless-captain-americaYou could argue that one reason that Cap is so popular lies in the fact that Chris Evans is, as my friend Jasmine said, just so hot. (Yeah, I put that image there just for you, Jasmine. You’re welcome.)

And while that might be the draw for a certain demographic, I don’t think Evans’ hotness has anything to do with the fact that I see kids here in China running around wearing red, white, and blue Captain America t-shirts.

Then what is it? In my mind, it boils down to the truth that Cap is the hero we all wish we had in our lives: someone who will stand up for us, and who will refuse to stay down on our behalf, because it will always be the right thing to do. But not only that, thanks to the Dr. Stark’s Super Soldier Serum, he has the skills to back up the stands that he takes. He’s like the Boy Scout’s Boy Scout, All-American, apple pie, Brooklyn, and all that jazz. Cap proves time and again that in the right hands, our absolutely good characters can be portrayed as absolutely good, and it can work. They don’t always have to go through a dark night of the soul to get there. (Hear that, Zach Snyder?)

This all speaks volumes about the Russo brothers (read their thoughts on Cap here) and Joss Whedon, writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, and Chris Evans. They chose to handle this potentially irritating and absurdly good character with integrity and consistency. Directing, writing and acting tortured characters is not such a challenge. Directing, writing, and acting good characters that maintain their goodness throughout, and doing so in a compelling way is nearly impossible.

But these guys have pulled off the nearly impossible.

But enough Captain America pontification. If you have not seen Captain America: Civil War yet, and you are trying to steer clear of spoilers, then steer way clear of this blog post. Because here there be spoilers.

***SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS***

I’m not going to take the time to summarize the events of the movie, as you can find that just about anywhere, including Wikipedia. Rather, I just want to give my thoughts.

• As anyone would know from watching the trailers, Captain America: Civil War could actually be called Avengers: Civil War. While it focuses most of the attention on Steve Rogers and Tony Stark, the filmmakers would have been hard-pressed to stuff any more Avengers into this film. And the amazing thing is that each Avenger has their moment to shine, and so the film doesn’t come close to feeling overstuffed.

captain-america-civil-war-will-change-the-mcu-even-more-than-the-winter-soldier-say-866418• I loved how both Captain America and Tony Stark are right, in their own way. It’s an interesting metaphor of how wars can really start – with a small disagreement that eventually billows out of control. And in wars, people get hurt. Civil War is no exception. And the fight at the end between the two of them feels earned, as compared to that other big superhero v. superhero film that came out earlier in the year. And I loved that the big issue between them isn’t resolved in the end. It gives us somewhere to go with the characters in the upcoming Infinity War films.

• I’m fascinated that Captain America, who has headlined three movies and been featured prominently in two others, is a character with no arc. Like James Bond or Indiana Jones, Cap changes very little, but rather demands change from those around him. Conversely, Tony Stark has been forced to go through several radical changes since he premiered in the original Iron Man, but with Captain America, this lack of substantial change works.

• The film’s humor is spot on. Considering the destruction of both property and relationships, the film has several laugh out loud moments. The strained relationship between the Falcon and Bucky being a great example, another being the expected quips of Spider-Man (more on him later). But the best example of use of humor in this film was anything that came out of the mouth of Scott Lang, aka Ant Man. If this film accomplished anything, it made me look forward to the next Ant Man film to see more of Lang, who played a decidedly BIG role in one of the best scenes of this, and just about any superhero movie that has come down the pike.

Oh, and while Stan Lee’s cameo was not so impressive, Rhodes’ (War Machine) response to it was priceless and perfect.

• Spider-Man. What can I say? Spidey has always been my favorite superhero, and while I enjoyed Tobey and Andrew’s turns in the red and blue suit, Tom Holland looks to be the perfect choice to carry the mantle. I love that he is actually the age that Spider-Man would be after just receiving his powers, and his immaturity shows. He is skilled, but not as skilled as he will be. And he is immature, just wanting to please Tony Stark, and so starstruck by his new relationship with him that he is unable to think for himself or entertain the notion that Stark might be wrong.

This film (and the end credits scene) are a nice setup to the new Spider-Man franchise, and I look forward to seeing what the filmmakers do with it (especially since we blessedly won’t have to sit through another tired Spider-Man origin story).

My one beef with Spidey in this film was that the CGI wasn’t quite as fluid as I would hope. There were moments that he looked cartoonish, which I hope that they fix when they make the standalone film.

• The trailer bait and switch. As with the trailer for The Force Awakens, the Russos did a great job making a trailer that made you think you knew what would happen, while in actuality, something else entirely was going to happen. Some examples: the almost Luke Skywalkerian Spider-Man trailers made it seem like Spider-Man would play a much smaller role in this film than he actually ended up playing. Also, the trailer made it appear that Bucky shoots down War Machine, when someone else altogether is responsible for that incident. I love when trailers do this, rather than just giving away everything, or not giving enough.

I obviously loved this film, but as I rode the ferry home writing notes, I realized that I had several questions:

  1. How did Zemo know that blowing up Vienna would help him to achieve his actual goal of tearing apart the Avengers? I know that he had studied the Avengers, and he apparently knew that Cap would go off to help Bucky after he framed him for the destruction, but how did he know that Iron Man wouldn’t support his teammate?
  2. Also, Zemo kept referring to December 16, 1991, the night that Stark’s parents were killed. How did he know that the Winter Soldier had something to do with it? Why did he even suspect it?
  3. How did Cap know that the Winter Soldier killed Stark’s parents, and when did he find it out? I didn’t take any bathroom breaks, but I don’t remember this being explained.
  4. Where did the Black Panther get his powers? I know the comic books explain this, but I felt like the film just wanted you to accept that he had them. That wasn’t quite good enough for me.
  5. How did Stark know that Spider-Man was Peter Parker?

These are minor issues, and perhaps some intrepid reader can help explain the answers to me.

So, in conclusion, this film just continues to build on the fantastic MCU that is being developed with such incredible deftness and consistent balls-out-of-the-park by Marvel. It makes me that much more interested and even excited to see what Scott Derrickson and Benedict Cumberbatch do with Dr. Strange, where Guardians 2 takes us, and what will happen with Thor and Hulk in Thor 3. Not to mention Avengers: Infinity Wars.

Let me know your thoughts!

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Guardians of the Galaxy – Thimblerig’s Review

Tonight, I took my kids to our final summer blockbuster of the year before we head back overseas in a week, and Guardians of the Galaxy ended the summer on a great note.  Being that I live in China, I don’t often get to see films on their opening, much less a day before, so this was a real treat for me.

Before I get to the review, I have to ask you, dear reader, if you know the names Jason Heyman or Julie Darmody?  These are the folks who represent Chris Pratt, and they must be pretty proud of themselves at this moment, because Mr. Pratt is on a roll.

First, Pratt has starred as the goofy and lovable Andy Dwyer for years on Parks and Recreation (I like Andy, but I’m more of a Swansonite, myself); then he performs strong supporting roles in such critically acclaimed films as Moneyball and Zero Dark Thirty; Pratt’s next big role was providing the voice of main character Emmet Brickowski in the spring’s uber-popular The Lego Movie; then he won the part of Peter Quill, the lead in this review’s subject film; and finally he took over one of the leading roles in one of next summer’s highly anticipated movies, Jurassic World, after  Josh Brolin left the pic.

Good on you, Chris Pratt, as you seem to be a pretty decent guy.  I wish you all the best in your present and future endeavors.

But now to Guardians of the Galaxy.

I’ve been reading some of the reviews that have been going up for the past couple of days, and was encouraged by the positive responses I was reading.  At the same time, the positive reviews also made me a bit nervous, as they started to build up a film that had previously only moderately gotten my interest.

I mean, I read comics as much as anyone when I was a kid, but the film’s incarnation of the Guardians of the Galaxy came around in the mid 2000’s, when I was living in Kazakhstan and completely out of the loop when it came to comic lore.  When the news came out that Marvel would be making this film, my response may have been a shrug, but I just don’t remember.  I do remember that I just didn’t care very much.

That started to change when the first trailer was released, and I realized that this was going to be a movie that had some interesting characters, and didn’t take itself too seriously (Marvel’s secret formula?).  I didn’t quite get the music from the 1970’s playing in the trailer for a big space movie, but that just made it more intriguing.

But I really started to care when I saw the less-than-stellar summer movie lineup that we were facing.  I remember sitting in China back in early June, looking over the release dates for the summer, thinking, “What a big fat zero of a summer for movies!”  When part IV of a Transformers franchise is the only interesting popcorn flick on the horizon, you know you are in trouble.  And we were, I thought.  I thought so moreso after actually watching the curiously pro-Sino trainwreck that was Transformers: Age of Extinction.

And then I paused as I looked at August 1, and saw that Guardians was coming.  What’s this?  A big summer movie that is not a sequel?  Something original on the skyline?  Something that looks funny and exciting?  A family movie in space?

My interest was piqued.

And so, with a week left on our time in the U.S., I packed up the kids and drove 45 minutes away to Danville, Virginia, for a preview showing of Guardians of the Galaxy.

It was worth it.

Director James Gunn (Super, Slither) opens Guardians with a prologue set in 1981 where we see a young Peter Quill sitting in a hospital waiting room, listening to a walkman play a cassette tape labeled “Awesome Mix #1”, a soundtrack which almost went on to become a character in the film (the sixth Guardian?).  Peter is ushered into the room where his mother lays dying of cancer, and where he’s given a final gift before she dies.  Devastated, Peter runs out of the hospital and is promptly abducted by a massive alien spaceship.

You really don’t have time to wonder about this before we fast forward several years to find a mysterious masked figure making his way across the surface of a desolate alien world.  It is – of course – a grown-up Peter Quill (Pratt), doing his best Indiana Jones in space, taking a mysterious spheric relic from the ruins of an ancient alien structure.  When some obviously bad bad guys show up to steal the sphere that Quill is trying to steal, we get to watch Quill get away in the first of many big set pieces of the film, and this is also when we’re introduced to the fact that this film will have plenty of humor.

It’s still early in the film, so it’s not a big spoiler to say that Quill gets away from the obviously bad bad guys, and then the sphere becomes the central prop in the film to bring together the others who make the title of the film plural:  We have the seemingly cold-hearted living weapon Gamora (Zoe Saldana from Avatar and Star Trek), 2014GurdiansDisneyRocket Raccoon (voiced by a fantastic Bradley Cooper), the little talking raccoon who is anything but cute and snuggly;  Drax the Destroyer (WWE wrestler David Bautista) who is hell-bent on revenge against Ronan the Accuser, the one responsible for the death of his family; and finally my family’s personal favorite, the tree creature Groot (Vin Diesel), who manages to communicate so much with only three words and had some of the best facial expressions of a CQI creation in a while.

We go on to spend quite a bit of time watching this group try to become a group, and failing over and over again (Avengers, anyone?).  Initially, they agree to work together to sell the sphere for a huge profit, but they are finally brought together in earnest when the sphere turns out to be much more dangerous than they expected.  The sphere is stolen from them by the aforementioned Ronan the Accuser, who is a maniacal xenophobe chiefly interested in committing genocide on a galactic scale, and they predictably have to learn to work together in a pretty drastic manner to get it back from him before he can begin his reign of destruction.

When we got back into the car and started heading for home, I asked my kids what they liked the most about the movie, and they both agreed that it was funnier than they thought it would be.  I would agree with their assessment.  The film is not the most original, following many expected beats, and not having any huge surprises, but it was fun.  A whole lot of fun.

Pratt does a fantastic job with his character, mastering and mixing humor and a certain gravitas in a way that is a bit surprising in a film such as this.  The script is quite clever, seemlessly inserting 1970’s and early 80’s references into a space opera in believable and humorous ways.   The five main characters are also quite likable, each in their own way, with each bringing their own unique personalities to the table.  For a CGI heavy movie, I found that the special effects didn’t distract me, as they usually do (Hobbit, anyone?).  We did see the film in 3D, but it’s not at all necessary for this film, and it didn’t really add anything to the experience, except for the scene where Groot makes the cool floating lights.

If you’re looking for a summer popcorn movie to redeem the dearth of choices we had this year, a good movie for escaping the reality of crime and wars and disease that we see in the news each day, then Guardians of the Galaxy is a good option for you.  It’s not the best of the recent Marvel movies, but it is in my top five (behind Iron Man and the Avengers).  I also look forward to seeing how the minds orchestrating the future of the studio plan to link this storyline with the earth-based storylines.

Thimblerig’s Verdict:  We recommend that you go have fun seeing Guardians of the Galaxy in 2D.

But before you go to the theater, take a minute and download a copy of my novel, Thimblerig’s Ark!  Available for the next couple of days for the reduced price of $1.99!  Go here to check it out.

 

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