My Misspent Youth: DC: The New Frontier by Darwyn Cooke

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

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In my estimation, 2004 was a pretty lousy year for superhero comic books from the big two publishers, DC and Marvel. Sales were in their extended descent, leading writers, artists, and editors to consistently resort to the desperation of cheap sensationalism. DC was building their major event comic for the year around the rape and murder of a character who belonged to a more innocent time, and Marvel was operating with a similarly eager bloodlust, building nonsensical storylines designed to do little more than stir internet ire. Any sense of wonder that once existed in those colorful pages was almost entirely obscured by the cynical marauding across the shared universes by creators whose prevailing attitude toward characters and readers alike was pure disdain. Amongst all this printed misery came a little miracle called DC: The New Frontier.

Darwyn Cooke, the writer and artist on the series, had dipped his toe in comics briefly during the nineteen-eighties, but he really made his name working on the various acclaimed Warner Bros. animation series featuring iconic DC superheroes. That was enough to revive the publisher’s interest in Cooke as a comic book creator, and they came to him with one of his old pitches, a nice reversal of the usual process. From there, Cooke was off, delivering distinctive, visually resplendent work. At that time, writer Grant Morrison’s run on JLA had revived the classic DC concept the Justice League of America. Following their standard strategy off relentlessly striking upon the iron that has experienced even the mildest temperature increase, DC asked Cooke if he wanted to do his own take on the characters. After considering it, Cooke decided the only way he could approach such a project was by looking to the past, explaining to The Comics Journal, “We were…at a point where a lot of the characters had been dragged through the mud, and I realized that I didn’t want to deal with all the continuity that had been heaped on them. I thought, well one way to do that is to tell a story in the past, before all that shit happened.” The result is nothing less than the best superhero comic book story of at least the past fifteen years.

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More specifically, DC: The New Frontier is uniquely successful because it’s one of the rare instances of a comic book story created by someone who understands the core appeal of the characters and the resonant fictional universe in which they reside. Taking place in a roughly decade-and-a-half span following World War II, the story is jointly shaded by the booming technological leaps of the Space Age and the spooked angst of the Cold War. Mostly, though, it is defined by its embrace of the comparative simplicity of the comic sagas of the distant era, before Marvel came along and introduced multi-part stories, complicated continuity, and layers of psychological fretting. Those are all worthy contributions, but once Marvel became the dominant commercial force in the field, DC frantically tried to graft those qualities onto their own comics, often without really thinking about whether or not the transplant would take. There’s a directness to most of the DC Comics characters — an archetypal simplicity, even — that causes the stylistic dressing of Marvel to sit awkwardly. The DC heroes are built for adventure, not wounded stewing.

Cooke understood that, and structured his tale accordingly. That doesn’t mean it’s overly nostalgic, basic, or childish. Instead, it moves with purpose and clarity, finding nuance within the the pillars of truth, justice, and the American way, just as the best Westerns of old Hollywood cut countless appealingly different paths across the same landscape of good guys versus bad guys. Cooke’s storytelling feels appealingly modern with offering a clucking implicit commentary on the hokiness of the characters’ past exploits, a common affliction of comics similarly reflecting back across the eras. Grant Morrison will expound on his love of the wild imagination to be found in Silver Age DC Comics stories, but in practice his writing intended to serve as a celebration of those bygone periodicals too often suffers from a helpless, insistent declaration of intellectual superiority that undercuts the affection. In DC: The New Frontier, Cooke doesn’t pander or condescend. He meets his inspiration with a commitment to his own voice and sensibility, but also a genuine respect for the foundation of the characters. In doing so, he rediscovered what was special about them in the first place. Plenty of writers have taken cracks at making Wonder Woman more relevant, usually through trying to save her from her own past by applying misunderstood feminism, but Cooke makes the task look effortless by focusing on the goddess strength that was built right in from panel one.

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To their credit, DC clearly understood that Cooke was a singular talent and gave him ample opportunity to careen through their playground, including a marvelous issue of the late, lamented series Solo. Unfortunately, they didn’t seem to grasp that he was providing them with the blueprint for their entire line and indeed their attempts to carry the characters into the cutthroat media galaxy outside of the printed page. There are recent descendants — the revamped Batgirl, as written by Cameron Stewart and Brenden Fletcher, and the recent television crossover of the Flash and Supergirl — but they usually seem to have escaped unnoticed by DC Entertainment overlords, or were at least produced with no more than begrudging approval while fiscal resources were steam-shovelled into the preferred murky mayhem. There was only one Darwyn Cooke, and his talent was majestic. But there were lessons to be learned from his finest work. With any luck, they may be learned yet.

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Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

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College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 199 – 197

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199. Joan Jett, “Bad Reputation”

While it’s hardly the most pertinent detail to share about the life and career of Joan Jett, the fact that I’m typing this out while seated in a coffee shop in Wisconsin’s capital city makes me feel obligated to begin with the following: Jett is a lifelong Green Bay Packers fan. She reported falling in love with the team as a kid, based almost entirely on the image on a Sports Illustrated cover. Her affection for the Baltimore Orioles was even more pronounced, leading her to add a liner note dedication to the team when she reissued her self-titled solo debut as Bad Reputation, in 1981. The song that provided that album title had a straightforward inspiration. Following the dissolution of her band the Runaways, Jett’s attempts to land her own record deal met with only resistance. By her count, she was rejected by twenty-three labels before deciding the best route was to simply form her own: Blackheart Records. “Bad Reputation” was Jett’s direct response to constantly overhearing her name  followed by the gossipy addition “I hear she has a bad reputation.” When Jett was eventually able to make a music video for the song, it was centered on a spoofing depiction of the disdain the recording industry felt for her, at least until she delivered a huge chart-topping hit. Just as I was required to start with the Packers, I must close by noting that “Bad Reputation” later became a central component of the greatest television series opening title sequence of all time.

 

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198. The Knack, “Good Girls Don’t”

By the time the Knack recorded “Good Girls Don’t,” Doug Fiegler was sick of it. He’d first written and recorded the song in 1972, and figured he’d taken at least three other demo passes at it, all them rejected soundly by any label on the receiving end of a pitch. Producer Mike Chapman, though, believed it was strong enough to deserve a spot of the band’s debut album, Get the Knack. Chapman convinced Fiegler to give it a try in the studio with the band performing it together, complete with vocals, and if they didn’t get it on the first take, the song would be set aside and they’d move on to other things. That’s the exact recording that closes side one of the record. It also became the second single from the album, despite certainty from many that the track would never make much headway on radio because of the salacious lyrics (“She’s your adolescent dream/ Schoolboy stuff, a sticky sweet romance/ And she makes you want to scream/ Wishing you could get inside her pants” are the opening lines, and it only gets raunchier from there). “Good Girls Don’t” also had the daunting task of following up “My Sharona,” which was not only a huge hit, but indeed the biggest single of 1979. “Good Girls Don’t” was  respectable chart success, peaking at #11 on the Billboard chart, but it couldn’t help but look a little feeble held up against its immediate predecessor. As for the creepy male fantasy bound to in the song’s admittedly stellar musical hook, Fiegler’s chief defense would have surely been a repeat of the claim that it was based on a true story. Supposedly, a young woman had once hit him with the come-on line “Good girls don’t, but I do.” Why he would have thought to spin that into a song that he imagined being sung in Johnny Cash’s voice, a tactic he reported as key to that particularly songwriting process, is a whole other mystery.

 

197. —

Here’s an oddity in the list, speaking to a bit of a proofreading problem in the production of the CMJ anniversary book from which it is drawn. There is no song at #197. Instead, the chart glides from one even number to the next at this point in the tally. Since this week’s entry happens to coincide with a very tiring travel weekend for me, I’ll take advantage of that decades-old oversight to close down this week’s countdown a little early.

As we go along, I’ll build a YouTube playlist of all the songs in the countdown. The hyperlinks associated with each numeric entry lead directly to the individual song on the playlist. All images nicked from Discogs.

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From the Archive: Five for Friday, Bettering Edward Elgar edition

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For eight years, I was in charge of the graduation ceremony at Warren Wilson College. Today, I return to view it as a spectator, fulfilling a promise to several dear friends of mine who will be walking across the stage to claim well-earned diplomas.In celebration, I reach back to a post that is almost precisely ten years old. In my former online home, the work week regularly ended with a feature called “Five for Friday,” in which I listed a quintet of songs that suited a specific prompt, inviting folks to “please play along” and contribute their personal choices. This is the entry I came up with to speak to another college commencement. I’ve gone ahead and added a few hyperlinks this time around. 

Five Songs That Would Be Highly Preferable to “Pomp and Circumstance” At A Graduation Ceremony

1. Concrete Blonde, “Everybody Knows.” “Everybody knows the war is over/ Everybody knows the good guys lost/ Everybody knows the fight was fixed/ The poor stay poor, the rich get rich/ That’s how it goes/ Everybody knows.” Since one of the things you want to do at graduation is offer a final lesson intended to impart all that necessary, commonly held knowledge that might have slipped through the cracks previously. Cohen’s lyrics will handle that task nicely. I prefer Johnette Napolitano’s anguished cries to Mr. Cohen’s monotone recitations, so the cover wins out for me. And the cool kids can play “name the movie” during the processional. Talk hard. Steal the air.

2. R.E.M., “Cuyahoga.” “Let’s put our heads together and start a new country up/ Our father’s father’s father tried, erased the parts he didn’t like” seems a pretty fitting way to start a song for people expected to forge forward and become the leaders of tomorrow. On the reflective side of things, the chorus holds a decent metaphor for reviewing the previous four years: “This is where we walked, this is where we swam/ Take a picture here, take a souvenir.”

3. Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, “Shake the Sheets.”

And she said, “Roll out and make your mark. Pull on your boots and march.
Then roll on and meet me where you’ll find me doing my own part.
Roll out your dented car. Maybe it won’t roll far.
But if you do everything you can, well babe, that’s more than a start.

Roll out and make your mark. Pull on your boots and march.
Then roll on and meet me where you’ll find me good and ready.
Sometimes it’s gonna hurt. Sometimes you’re gonna deserve it.
But if you hold on to what you’ve got, I know you’ll keep it steady.

So there’s no end to work, so there’s no end to the murk.
So everything else is dirt, but I am pure and steady.
So cut out the morbid verse. I know you’ll make it work.
And how’re you gonna save the world, when the world ain’t ready?”

4. Arcade Fire, “Wake Up.” “Children wake up/ Hold your mistake up/ Before they turn the summer into dust/ If the children don’t grow up/ Our bodies get bigger but our hearts get torn up/ We’re just a million little gods causin’ rain storms turnin’ every good thing to rust.” There’s some good advice in there, and the song has a guitar-driven majesty that would help it hold up to the stuffiness of a graduation ceremony.

5. The Godfathers, “Birth, School, Work, Death.” Cuz you got the first two licked.

 

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One for Friday: Texas, “I Don’t Want a Lover”

 

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At the college radio station, I was always firmly committed to the idea that we were supposed to dig deeper onto albums. Our commercial competitors up the dial were the sad souls that could only be bothered with one or two tracks from most artists, blandly following the directive of label executives who deemed certain songs more likely to burrow their ways into the minds of helpless listeners. Those of us who staffed the student-run outlet were no sycophants. We still believed rock ‘n’ roll was about rebellion and open expression. Personal choice dictated our playlists, not craven market-researched grasping for that next big hit. There were times, though, that the most hyped albums to hit our heavy rotation really did come down to just one song.

Southside, the debut album from the U.K. band Texas, was released in the United States during the summer of 1989, several months after it had already stormed the charts in the group’s home country. So it came in with a full load of record label excited urging, conveying to the college kids that this group was the next big thing. It was important to get on board early. It proved to be a solid radio album, with all sorts of songs up and down the track listing sounding agreeable nestled in the middle of a summer afternoon set. But it was the lead single that was irresistible. “I Don’t Want a Lover” was a breakup song built out of resilience, unfolding as tender and easygoing, with just a hint of a highly buffed modern blues. Sharleen Spiteri’s rich vocals helped the recall the Cowboy Junkies, who’d claimed lots of college radio airtime with the previous year’s album The Trinity Sessions. But the Texas song moved and glistened in a way the more somnolent Cowboy Junkies material didn’t.

Here in the States, “I Don’t Want a Lover” can reasonably be heard as the beginning, middle, and end of the Texas story. Back home, though, that single was truly only the beginning for the group. They chugged along and even had a string of Top 10 hits, beginning with “Say What You Want,” in 1997. I’ve barely sampled their other material, but none of what I’ve heard sounds nearly as earthy and warm as the material on their debut. That might be part of the reason it became more successful. For me, I’m happy to stick with the pleasing memory of setting the needle in place to play their first single back in my first summer at the college radio station. Like almost everything else I played, it was somehow imbued with possibility.

Listen or download –> Texas, “I Don’t Want a Lover”

(Disclaimer: Okay, so this is one of those weeks where I admittedly cheat a little. While it’s unclear to me whether or not Southside is available as a physical item that can be purchased at your favorite local, independently-owned record store — or, for that matter, if there is some Texas “greatest hits” style compilation, sure to include this song, still in print — I believe the band’s stateside success to be so fleeting that sharing this seems like fair game. Regardless, it should be considered fair use, but I’m aware that concept has been all but obliterated. So, while I mean no fiscal harm to the artist, and, despite the framing of the above piece, actively encourage anyone who listens to and likes this song to seek out Southside, I will still comply with the rules. This means I will gladly and promptly remove this music file from my little corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

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The New Releases Shelf: Lemonade

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As the recording industry continues to get hacked into splinters by a rapidly changing media environment the powers that be resolutely refuse to understand, it’s reassuring to discover that an album can still arrive and truly, deeply matter. Granted, it would be myopic understatement to term Beyoncé’s Lemonade as simply an album. It is a full-on cross-media event, complete with an HBO special, an enormous world tour, and an expertly catalyzed supporting campaign of gossipy chatter and rash reaction think pieces. Delivered as a surprise, as Beyoncé is wont to do, the album is cunningly designed to capture attention, filled as it is with the sort of juicy revelations about her personal life that are usually the province of TMZ and other sleazy intruders upon celebrity. With remarkable speed, the album’s vivid shorthand of a thwarted woman’s anger, retribution, empowerment, and perseverance has already locked into the culture. The audience is the orchestra, and Beyoncé conducts wearing a grin both sly and joyful.

All of this would amount to little more than a passing curiosity, an intriguing meld of performance act and modern marketing, if not for one simple detail: the album, judged strictly on its own merits, is fantastic. From the opening tones of “Pray You Catch Me,” which sound like the album gradually coming to after an exhausted collapse, Lemonade excels at building intrigue. The track somehow carries both unbowed authority and the tentativeness of someone whose well-nursed wounds still smart, and that’s even before Beyoncé delivers the lyrics “You can taste the dishonesty/ It’s all over your breath/ As you pass it off so cavalier.” It’s a pointed but gentle beginning, deceptive in the nestling safety of its lush electronics. That shifts into “Hold Up,” which moves with the sort of hiccuping, jazz-inflected rhythms favored by Fiona Apple, all the better to reflect the mental tumult of a person wrestling with self-doubt in the face of her partner’s infidelity, reduced to asking, “What’s worst?/ Looking Jealous or crazy/ Jealous or crazy?”  And yet there’s a stabilizing pragmatism inherent to the song’s psyche, typified by the refrain “They don’t love you like I love you,” which recalls the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Maps,” but makes the line flatly truthful rather than pleading. In the fraught, complex terrain of the song, Beyoncé wins by being both right and in the right.

The confessional lyrics have snarfed up most of the attention thus far, but the album’s most revelatory aspect is the range of sounds it delivers. While recognizably grounding everything in modern R&B and pop, Beyoncé moves widely from track to track, as if the aching specificity of the words needs a certain amount of sonic sprawl to carry them safely into the world. Many artists opt for the insular as they plumb the personal for material, as Beyoncé-bester Beck did with Sea Change and Morning Phase. Beyoncé goes the opposite direction, operating with a thrilling expansiveness, which instills a quality of endless discovery on the album. At times, the restless questing of the music reminds me of the most energizing efforts of Grimes. There are stealthy musical exaltations to be found darting around within the roiling waters of every song, ranging from the robotic insistence of “Sorry” to the more naturalistic wonders of “Daddy Lessons,” on which a New Orleans jazz intro drifts away to reveal a country-western stomper which could find a happy home on a Dolly Parton record.

Her willingness to explore also stands Lemonade up as an argument for the value of concerted collaboration. Curmudgeonly purists like me sometimes dismiss albums with credit lists that rival the closing spool of names at the end of a CGI-bolstered summer blockbuster movie, trained as we are to genuflect before the performers who, at least according to creaky rock ‘n’ roll myth-making, can claim full ownership of every last note and word (Bob Dylan didn’t need a co-writer, we cry!). But Beyoncé demonstrates that extra cooks can lead to more challenging flavors, mostly through clearly approaching the process with a welcome sense of generosity, and not just because Josh Tillman will probably earn more as one-fifteenth of the team credited with composing “Hold Up” than than from the entire Father John Misty discography. That shared control manifests as tracks that are unmistakably expressions of Beyoncé’s voice but also exhibit the shadings of the varied contributors, effectively making influence and originality overlap. “Don’t Hurt Yourself” reverberates with Jack White’s anxious modernized blues, and “Forward” is drenched in James Blake’s trademark melting oxygen. The pinnacle is reached with “Freedom,” which Beyoncé meets with a thrilling ferocity that matches and enhances the effortless dynamics of guest Kendrick Lamar.

If there was any doubt left, Lemonade solidifies Beyoncé as the defining popular artist of her age, one who has the command and capability to transform the landscape with a flick of her unerring instinct. The album argues that she is a more worthy of to sit on that gold and platinum throne than most. Where Madonna’s provocations of reinvention a generation ago were about little more than the constant bolstering of her own brand, Beyoncé is engaged in an ongoing act of fearless creativity, one that twists the personal and the political into a tight knot. Unlike most others who rampage across the pop charts, Beyoncé is anti-emptiness, filling up every nook of her music with something interesting, unpredictable, or challenging (or, often, all three at the same time). If that leads to staggered confusion among some and protests that mostly reinforce her point, then so be it. She’ll find a way to take charge of that, too. Sure, keep trucking in all that sour fruit. Beyoncé knows what to do with it.

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My Misspent Youth: Silver Surfer by Stan Lee and John Byrne

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

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When I started reading superhero comics, I was enamored with the history I did not witness. Immediately deciding to Make Mine Marvel, I had an endless excitement for studying that publisher’s previously traveled terrain. It helped that it was easy to digest, with fewer than twenty years of stories when I started pulling together the necessary change to purchase their monthly, ongoing adventures. They also had a pure mastery of genial grandstanding in their self-promotion, a vestige of the days when Stan “the Man” Lee signed off on practically every line of dialogue that populated the buoyant word balloons. The comics were made to seem important. Among the things I knew, or at least believed, was that the most aspirational writing of Lee’s comic book career — the material that most clearly reached that promised importance — had its home in the late nineteen-sixties series The Silver Surfer.

Curiously, given the contentiousness surrounding the creation lineage of many of Marvel’s most venerable characters, the Silver Surfer was the one figure who was acknowledged to have sprung completely from a collaborator’s pencil instead of Lee’s typewriter. By all accounts, when Lee gave artist Jack Kirby the plot for the titanic tale that would be known as “The Coming of Galactus!,” for a 1966 issue of Fantastic Four, there was no mention of a sleek, metallic-clad slicing through the air on an outer space surfboard. It was Kirby who decided that a being as formidable as Galactus would have a herald, a servant who flew on ahead of him to announce the imminent arrival of the towering malevolent force. While that’s undoubtedly true, Lee gave the Surfer his anguished soul expressed through the purplest of poetic prose. The impresario of Marvel Comics always noted that his early goal in life was to write the Great American Novel. With the Silver Surfer, he indulged that penchant as he did with no other character, tapping out a modern tragedy one florid monologue at a time.

Lee wasn’t writing many comic book stories by 1982, so the arrival of a Silver Surfer one-shot boasting a script credited to him felt highly significant to me. That it was published on highly glossy paper and distributed strictly through the direct market, both rarities at the time, only enhanced the appeal. Paired with artist John Byrne, still early in a run on Fantastic Four that was already being cited as the closest rival to the Lee-Kirby heyday that the title had ever seen, Lee crafted a tale that drew upon the heavy history of character. The Silver Surfer was imprisoned on Earth after defying Galactus to help the Fantastic Four save the humble orb (it happened back in Fantastic Four #50, True Believer!) and he spent his time morosely pining for his own home world and his one true beloved, Shalla Bal (while occasionally flying into spectacular adventures, natch). In the one-shot, though, the scientific genius of the Fantastic Four’s leader, Reed Richards, allows the Surfer to finally penetrate the cosmically-generated barrier and race across the universe.

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The Silver Surfer heads straight for Zenn-La, the planet he hadn’t set foot on since he was Norrin Radd, a noble man who sacrificed himself to the service of Galactus in exchange for the world being spared. When he arrives, however, the Surfer discovers all is not well. After the Surfer’s betrayal, Galactus venegefully returned and ravaged the planet, leaving the remaining populace to gather in abject misery in a small corner of the now barren world. There’s even worse news about Shalla Bal. She was spirited away by Mephisto, the Marvel Universe Satan stand-in who’d been maliciously obsessed with the Silver Surfer for ages. The perpetually lovelorn Sky-Rider of the Spaceways has no choice but to seek her out, which leads to nothing less than battles against the most dire mystical beasties in Hell.

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The battle escalates until Mephisto reaches his sadistic endgame. In order to rescue Shalla Bal, the Silver Surfer needed to return to Earth, again subjecting himself to the planetary imprisonment he’d recently escaped (the contraption of Dr. Richards was evidently built for single usage only). As she is zapped away, the Surfer desperately imbues her with a touch of the Power Cosmic that gives him his abilities. When she arrives back on Zenn-La, the hastily given gift of the Silver Surfer has an interesting effect.

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For the second time, Norrin Radd has saved Zenn-La.

This was precisely the sort of comic that made me swoon back then, with its veneer of high literature pushed up against the simplest good versus evil tropes. There is an aching poetry to the Silver Surfer’s story, and Lee revels in it. I did, too. I might have missed a lot of that grand Marvel history, but this comic made me feel like I was holding an important new part of it in my eager little hands.

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

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Now Playing: Captain America: Civil War

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I think a case can be made that Captain America: Civil War is mistitled. The skirmish promised there is duly presented, with the crummy crossover comic book series with which it shares its name thankfully providing only the barest of inspiration. Where the disconnect arrives is with the specific superhero cited by name. It is reasonable, I suppose, to position this latest outing from Marvel Studios the latest Captain America film. The star-spangled alter ego of Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, doing his usual exemplary work in the role) is indeed front and center through much of the film, and the plot does extend and wrap up story elements that were in place through the previous two installments. There’s even creative continuity, with sibling directors Anthony and Joe Russo returning after Captain America: Winter Soldier, one of the stronger offerings under the Marvel banner, and the presence of screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley, who’ve trained their word processor on every one of the films in this particular franchise (as well as arguably the worst movie Marvel has yet cranked out, but I’m trying not to hold that against them). And yet the film doesn’t feel all that connected to its two main predecessors, at least no more or less than it comes across as tangled up in the unprecedentedly interwoven world launched with Iron Man, in 2008. More than even the Avengers movies, Civil War plays like everything that’s come before funneling down to a single point. Officially, it’s Captain America 3, but it might be more accurate to simply call it Marvel Cinematic Universe 13.

The plot is dense enough to be a little staggering. Following the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America is still leading a group of heroes in various missions across the world, but the collateral damage of super-powered beings taking swings at each other is starting to wear on elected leaders. The nations of the world come together to call for greater control and oversight of those who put on costumes to practice their vigilante justice, an action that already creates a philosophical rift among these allies in fighting the good fight. Simultaneously, a skulking figure named Zemo (Daniel Brühl) is actively trying to gather information about the nefarious program that transformed Captain America’s longtime friend James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan) into the Winter Soldier, as well as one certain mission the brainwashed agent undertook. As that is happening, Bucky becomes the prime suspect in an act of terrorism, widening the gap between the feuding heroes, as Captain America insists on protecting his old friend and proving his innocence, while a team led by Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) follows orders calling for them to apprehend the suspect. That’s a lot already, and yet it is really only the beginning, barely providing insight on the placement within the plot of no less than thirteen major characters who bound through this stuffed adventure.

The Marvel Studios creators can’t be faulted for a lack of logistical ambition. Besides drawing on what’s come before, the film introduces Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman, as easily magnetic here as he was playing Jackie Robinson and James Brown) and the latest big screen Spider-Man (Tom Holland), the latter proving that Sony finally ceding creative control of the prized character to the Marvel movie braintrust was the smartest move they could have made after their deeply misguided attempt to relaunch the franchise with director Mark Webb. If the plotting is hardly airtight, at least most of the rollicking set pieces are genuine wonders of kinetic ingenuity, infused with panache and fun-loving appreciation for all the possibilities these colorful characters hold. In particular, all involved deserve credit for properly realizing that the best way to create dynamics and friction within these scenes is to let the characters remain true to their established tone, letting the genial goofiness of Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), for example, spark off the bedraggled dourness of Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), or the regular Joe fraying exasperation of Falcon (Anthony Mackie) contrast with the wry certainty of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, continuing to prove herself more and more invaluable in each new turn with the role). The Russos don’t try to wedge the characters into some grandiosely grim framework (as certainly seems to be the case with the spring’s other spectacle of costumed combatants). Instead, they shrewdly exploit the angles that naturally present themselves, and the film is all the better for that embedded respect for the material.

The film’s centerpiece is a multi-character battle on an airport tarmac that is staged with such jubilant spirit and expert construction that it asserts itself as almost impossible to top, even as there remains a whole final act to unspool. Sure enough, the filmmakers can’t draw the remaining narrative anywhere near that dizzying peak, even though they attempt to build greater depth of feeling into the action sequences that follow. While there’s still plenty to admire across the last third or so — led by a storytelling statement on vengeful justice that’s a welcome corrective to the usual path taken when it’s time to complete the long process of saving the day — the film stumbles somewhat by trafficking in heavy emotions that it hasn’t wholly earned. Even that flaw is at least representative of a desire to make something more of the wonderful toys onscreen. In general, the output connected to this big ongoing fiction continues to work better than anyone could reasonably expect. That might seem like grading on a curve, but I prefer to think of it as meeting the films where they are at. Regardless, I sat through Captain America: Civil War amazed, charmed, and occasionally giddy at what flickered before me. Bring on Marvel Cinematic Universe 14.

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