Thursday, May 5, 2016

MOVIE REVIEW—CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR


Captain America: Civil War has to serve several masters, and it serves all of them remarkably well. First and foremost, it is a sequel to Captain America: The Winter Soldier—one of the best superhero movies ever made, in my opinion—and it continues that film’s storyline in a manner that feels completely organic, logical, and dramatically satisfying.

It also functions as the third Avengers movie, and is notably superior to Joss Whedon’s Age of Ultron.

In addition, the movie is a launching pad for two new major players in the growing Marvel Cinematic Universe: the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and the new, fully rebooted Spider-Man (Tom Holland). Both characters are integrated seamlessly into the tapestry, and show an abundance of promise for their upcoming solo films (Spider-Man: Homecoming hits theaters next year, and Black Panther arrives in 2018.)

As played by Boseman, the Black Panther is fascinating—a noble and regal man with a code of honor that he wears proudly, and who can stand toe-to-toe with the most powerful of super-beings. He is T’Challa, the young prince of the technologically advanced African country of Wakanda, and the latest to take on the mantle of the feline crusader. Boseman was born to play the part, and delivers such a thoroughly convincing accent that I was surprised to find out he’s American.


As for Holland’s Peter Parker/Spider-Man—nailed it. He’s a delight, and pretty much steals the film. Without a doubt, this is the best version of the web-slinger that we’ve ever seen in live action. Not to take anything away from Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield, both of whom had their virtues, but Holland owns the role from the moment he first appears. And the costume—despite a few deviations here and there from the classic suit, it is literally a John Romita Sr. illustration come to life. And for those of you who don’t know what that means, take my word for it—it’s a very good thing. (If they paired the bodysuit from The Amazing Spider-Man 2 with the mask from Civil War, it would be absolute perfection.)


Admittedly, Aunt May is way off-model here. As many of you undoubtedly know, May Parker has traditionally been portrayed as an elderly, often frail, and occasionally exceedingly ill woman. Well, not in this film. Here, she’s played by Marisa Tomei. Yeah, it’s a bit of a head-scratcher. But on the bright side, it’s a chance to see Marisa Tomei, who manages to exude effervescence and boundless charm in her relatively brief screen time.

Civil War shares some plot similarities with the crossover storyline of the same name that ran through numerous Marvel comics in 2006-2007. In a nutshell: The Avengers are on a mission to stop a major threat in Lagos, but something goes terribly wrong and innocent lives are lost. The major governments of the world want to rein in the superhero team, and to put the group under the control of the United Nations. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is in favor of this kind of oversight, believing that it is inevitable. But Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) refuses to sign on. A schism forms within the Avengers, with some members siding with Stark and others with Rogers.

To make matters worse, the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan)—formerly Cap’s best friend Bucky Barnes, who was captured by the Russians decades ago and turned into a brainwashed assassin—has resurfaced, and has apparently committed a brutal act of terrorism. Iron Man wants to take Bucky down, but Cap wants to protect him, convinced that his old friend is either innocent or being mind-controlled by evil forces. The conflict between Stark and Rogers only escalates, until the entire Avengers team erupts into an all-out battle between heroes who had once been trusted friends and partners.


The film tackles some of the same themes as another superhero film that came out recently. You may have heard of it. But there’s a big difference between Captain America: Civil War and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (which, you may have noticed, I could not even bring myself to review). While both films take on some serious and thought-provoking subject matter, Civil War is not afraid to lighten up and go for moments that make the audience smile. There is a perfect balance between drama and humor, between action and characterization. It is thoroughly enjoyable and fun from start to finish, and never presents the heroes as anything other than likable, admirable, witty, and wonderfully human—or close to human, in the case of the android Avenger known as the Vision (Paul Bettany).

Civil War is the perfect antidote to the dark, grim, humorless, and depressing Batman v. Superman. Civil War is the film that Batman v. Superman director Zack Snyder THINKS he made.

All of the heroes on display in Civil War—and there are many—get their moments to shine. (Wait till you see what they do with Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man.) Of the main Avengers, the only no-shows are Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). But they aren’t forgotten. They are mentioned, and there’s even a callback to some major continuity from Ol’ Greenskin’s 2008 solo film (the one that starred Edward Norton), embodied by William Hurt, who returns as former General (now U.S. Secretary of State) Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross. 

There are no obligatory cameos or momentary walk-ons. That alone is an incredible feat on the part of screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and co-directors Anthony and Joseph Russo. There is also significant character development among the various players, particularly the Vision, the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), James “Rhodey” Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle), Agent 13 (Emily VanCamp, introduced in The Winter Soldier), and of course, Captain America and Iron Man.

The acting is great across the board. Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow provides one of my very favorite moments in the film, and functions pretty much as the soul and the conscience of the Avengers throughout. Anthony Mackie continues to delight as the Falcon. And Sebastian Stan masterfully reveals new layers of depth and complexity to Bucky Barnes and the Winter Soldier.  

As the two anchors of the film, Evans and Downey Jr. are a joy to watch, radiating strength, heroism, compassion, and firm commitment to their respective points of view. At no time do you root against either of them—you just feel sorry for them, as you watch events unfold in such a way that they can’t help but end up on opposite sides. And that’s yet another way in which this film differs from that earlier superhero movie from the other guys.           
          

© All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2016.

          

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

A CHAT WITH J.J. ABRAMS


Star Wars: The Force Awakens arrives in stores on Blu-ray and DVD today, so to commemorate its home video release, I thought it would be fitting to post the full transcript of the interview I conducted with the film's director, J.J. Abrams, on December 1, 2015, seventeen days before the film opened in theaters. A shorter version of this Q&A appeared on the TIME For Kids web site. Enjoy!


GLENN GREENBERG:
I used to write the Star Trek comic books for Marvel when they had the license.

Star Trek: Untold Voyages #1 (May 1998), by Glenn Greenberg, Mike Collins, and Keith Williams

J.J. ABRAMS:
No way! Oh my God. Now that’s a starter! So we’ve both been there, then.

Director J.J. Abrams (center) with the cast of Star Trek (2009)

GREENBERG:
Absolutely! You initially turned down the offer to direct The Force Awakens. One question changed your mind: “Who is Luke Skywalker?” Without giving anything away about the movie, in your mind, who is Luke Skywalker?

ABRAMS:
Luke Skywalker represents a righteous defender of justice and an incredibly powerful figure. And I can imagine for someone who has never seen anything like that before, who doesn’t have anyone to fill in the blanks of what has happened before, he’s a kind of mythic figure. And what got me excited about that question, and Kathy Kennedy, the producer, raised it, was the very idea that there would be young people in this world for whom the history of Star Wars would be like a story from another age. And I just realized that’s kind of the feel of what this movie needs. This is going to be about discovery, and about these new young characters realizing that they live in the “Star Wars universe.”

GREENBERG:
Was the idea always to pick up the story a generation later? Was there ever any consideration of not skipping a generation and picking up where Return of the Jedi left off, even it meant having to recast Luke?

ABRAMS:
The idea was, mostly because this amount of time had gone by, and these actors are still here, it was always the discussion that we would say it is now nearly 40 years after [the original] Star Wars. And so it was never, for this film, a discussion to recast. I know that there are other movies that they’re working on, I’ve heard of a [Han Solo] origin story, and I know that that, of course, would require [recasting].

GREENBERG:
Of course! Who is your favorite Star Wars character and why? Do you have a favorite from the original movies, or the more recent ones?

ABRAMS:
Obviously, the power and coolness of Darth Vader—he’s my favorite bad guy, maybe ever. But I always felt a connection to Luke because of his “everymaness.” . . .  As much as Han is probably my favorite character now, as a kid, he was someone to love and adore, but I never felt I could be Han. You’d always want to hang out with Han, but I felt more connected to Luke because he was so much more the ordinary kid. But now . . .  Han is the character who holds a real fascination for me.

Abrams on the set of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, directing you know who

GREENBERG:
You first saw Star Wars when you were 11.

ABRAMS:
Yes.

GREENBERG:
What is it that first appealed to you about it, what made you connect to it in a way that, as you’ve said, you didn’t connect to Star Trek?

ABRAMS:
The thing that I connected to most about Star Wars, I think, was the comedy, the sense of humor that the movie had. It was constantly funny, and in a kind of sophisticated way too. It was about character, it had a huge heart . . . Its sweetness, and care with the characters, felt profoundly important in those [original] movies. And I think the look of the movie—when I was 11 years old, no movies looked like that before. And this was a movie that wasn’t a family film like they had existed before. This was far bigger, far funnier, far more epic in scale and scope, far more inventive in design, far more believable in its narrative and the world it was creating, it just sort of did everything. It had better music. It had better visual effects. It did everything brilliantly. As a result, the feeling that I was left with was amazement, and a sense that anything was possible. And that to me was the most profound impact.

GREENBERG:
George Lucas has said that when he was developing Star Wars, he was inspired by myths, fairy tales, and heroic fiction. Did you draw upon the same influences and sources when you were developing this film?

ABRAMS:
It’s funny, there was a serialized (multi-part) film series called Flash Gordon that was a huge influence on George Lucas . . . He wanted to do Flash Gordon and couldn’t get the rights. And of course, in coming up with a story [for Star Wars], he, as a great filmmaker, had all of his influences, including [movie director Akira] Kurosawa and certainly, in terms of storytelling, [mythology expert] Joseph Campbell. … I did try to broaden my horizons as much as possible and watch and read as much as I could—not just to remember or be inspired by great filmmakers, though it never hurts to watch [Kurosawa’s film] Seven Samurai . . . You know, Star Wars is a kind of crazy collision of a bunch of different styles. It’s fairy tale, it’s myth, it’s King Arthur, it’s a Western, it’s Flash Gordon, it’s a samurai story—it’s an amazing mélange of different genres. 

What I tried to do in working on this, and I wrote the script with Larry Kasdan, who wrote The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, is find the master we were serving.  Which is to say, what is the story we’re telling? Who are the characters we care about? Why do we care about them? Why do we love them? What is their adventure that they go on? And approach it from what the story needed. As a director, I try to go with the right visual style for each scene . . . but there isn’t one influence that I can point to and say, “I was trying to do exactly what he or she did.”

GREENBERG:
Were there any specific qualities that you tried to recapture from the previous movies? A visual, a concept, a mood, or a theme?

ABRAMS:
Yes. For me, the mood was critical. Which was, a sense of authenticity. Those first movies, whether you’re out in the deserts of Tatooine or the snowy fields of Hoth, or the forest of Endor, you felt like you were in these real places. It was transportive, because you really knew this world, this landscape, is real. That was one thing. There was a very worn-out feeling in the early Star Wars movies, which I just loved. These were not stories of people in halls of power, these were stories about underdogs, about people who were the everyman, or in some cases, people thought they were nobody important. They were always desperate, and they were desperate for reasons that were entertaining and viscerally important. I wanted to make sure that this movie felt more like those kind of, sort of more Western approach to storytelling than stories of people who were in positions of power. And that was just a mood that was profoundly important for me when I saw those early films.

It also provided great contrast. The shiny black floors and the pill lights of the Empire, I remember, were in stark contrast to the dusty, dirty, cluttered worlds of our heroes. And I just feel like that to me was part of the fun of Star Wars, that these two things could co-exist; the kind of sleek, gleaming, terrifying power of the bad guys and then the kind of upstart, homespun, crappy underdog world of the people who you fell in love with.  Someone I work with said that Star Wars is a Western, that you’re going to have fundamental things in every story, and you need to embrace those things. [In a Western,] you’re going to have the saloon, you’re going to have the small town, you’re going to have the bad guy who’s going to be dressed in black, you’re probably going to have horses. There are just certain things, and when you’re doing Star Wars, okay, TIE fighters, X-wings, lightsabers—you know certain things have to be part of this world and the question is how to use [them].  

GREENBERG:
What new qualities would you say you were trying to bring, that could only come from you doing a Star Wars movie?   

ABRAMS:
I have no idea—I can’t look at myself from outside. It’s like asking someone what it was like growing up in that place—this was all I knew growing up, I can’t tell you what it was like compared to anything else. But I can say that working with Larry Kasdan on the script, it was a gift to work with him. There was a great continuum of what had come before, in a way that was priceless. That was really important. I think we both tried to bring what felt right to us.

Abrams on the set of The Force Awakens with his co-screenwriter, Lawrence Kasdan (right)

I wanted this movie to be for everyone. I just got in trouble with my daughter, who’s 16, and my wife, both of whom love Star Wars, because I had said I want this to not just be for boys and fathers, I want it to be mothers and daughters. They were like, “Thanks—we’ve loved Star Wars since we first saw it.” And I apologize to them and anyone else I offended by saying it. What I meant was, I know there are countless women and girls who love Star Wars. But I’m saying a lot of the selling of Star Wars has been primarily to boys. And even as recently as a couple of weeks ago, a major department store chain had the advertising for action figures from the new movie and they only had the male figures. And all I’m saying is, this movie is for everyone. And it was important for me not just to have females in both good-guy and bad-guy roles, but also to make sure the movie looks more like the world looks. 

When we cast Oscar Isaac, who is a Latino actor, it was not in the script that he looked a certain way, he was just the right actor. John Boyega—we didn’t know that [his character] would be any color, white or otherwise. We were just looking for a guy who was going to be great in the role. But I knew it was important that the movie be inclusive. And it’s important to me that people see themselves in this movie, in roles of drama, comedy, and hopefully great adventure.

GREENBERG:
It’s been 10 years since the last Star Wars movie was released. For some of my readers, they weren’t even born at that point. How do you think Star Wars speaks to kids today? Is it any different from the way it spoke to us, our generation, when it first came out?

ABRAMS:
I think the very first Star Wars was sort of gorgeous in its simplicity. It was a very simple story, and I think that’s profoundly important. Somehow kids today are born knowing about Star Wars. It’s almost like it’s ingrained in them at such a young age. In some cases it might be because they’ve seen games or the animated series or whatever. But I think kids sort of know about aspects of Star Wars somehow through osmosis. At the same time, we knew this would be the first Star Wars movie for many people. And not just kids in this country, but grown-ups in other countries where Star Wars had never been released before. And it was really important that this movie not rely on people’s knowledge and understanding of Star Wars for it to work. 

But I do think that it speaks fundamentally still in the most important way, which is, it reminds you that we’re all connected in some way. It reminds you that you are capable of extraordinary things. It reminds you that the people who are going to be the most powerful connections in your life are out there to be found. And that you will find trust and loyalty and friendship in the most unlikely of places and situations. And for me as a kid, I would have liked to think that if things got desperate and intense, that I would run into some of the characters that I found in Star Wars, that I would become bonded to them, and that together we would have an extraordinary victory. And I’d like to think that kids today would want and need that message as much as I did.

GREENBERG:
I have a question from a 13-year-old girl in Queens, New York. (NOTE: I’m referring here to my daughter Maddie.She wants to know how it feels being the boss of the two biggest science-fiction franchises in movie history.    

ABRAMS:
I will tell her that I don’t feel like I’m the boss of any of these things. I feel like I am, if anything, the temporary guardian. The answer is, I feel honored to have been involved in Star Trek in any way, as I’m sure you do. And Star Wars, which was more meaningful to me as a kid growing up . . . it is still to this moment so surreal that I got to be involved in it at all. I feel very grateful to all the work that everyone’s done on this thing—and I hope more than anything that she likes the movie.