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WATCHING THE MOVIES: Fighting With My Family, Captain America: Civil War

I watch a film that's received surprisingly good reviews, along with a spectacular superhero flick.

FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY

You, dear reader, probably don’t know this, but I’m a wrestling fan. I first saw a WWE match about four years ago, and I was hooked. So hooked, in fact, that I wrote a series of wrestling articles for SB Nation back in the day.

WWE is the last mass-market form of scripted live entertainment. Imagine a stage play that never ends, a running storyline filled with heroes and villains that moves from city to city like a pocket dimension of awesome, inspiring and enthralling millions of people around the world on a weekly basis.

The wrestlers on those shows are played by real people. But the nature of the business is that the actor becomes the character in the eyes of fans. Behind every performance is a backstory.

Paige (real name Saraya–Jade Bevis), for instance, grew up in a small-time wrestling promotion in the UK, putting on small shows to scanty crowds with her brother and parents. Plucked from that world after a WWE tryout, she beat the odds and made it all the way to WWE’s main roster.

When I started watching wrestling, Paige had been on TV for more than a year. She quickly became my favorite female wrestler. Even as recently as 2015, the women of WWE were mostly a sideshow, relegated to cliched feuds and five-minute catfights, giving the audience time to rest. They weren’t taken seriously.

What’s changed? Well, Paige sadly retired due to injury a few months ago. But WWE seems set to let a women’s match main event this year’s biggest show, Wrestlemania. That’s a huge shift, one that Paige helped kick off.

Paige was different than the average bright-haired, bright-eyed WWE woman. Her misfit look, her technique in the ring, the way she spoke – all of it was unique and electrifying.

Fighting With My Family tells how Paige reached that fateful night when she debuted on Monday Night Raw (WWE’s weekly wrestling show) and unexpectedly won the championship, fulfilling her lifelong dream.

The script makes this movie. It’s brimming with a surprising amount of humor and heart. And the actors are pitch perfect in their delivery. I expected made-for-TV quality, like the average fare from WWE’s in-house movie studio (yes, they have one of those). Instead we have Nick Frost and Lena Headey as Paige’s wrestler parents, neither of whom phone it in. Vince Vaughn’s comedic timing and serious touch as a WWE trainer is spot on. Florence Pugh stuns with her heart and fire, headlining this film in her mainstream feature debut.

The story itself feels formulaic and predictable, but the main beats track with the true story. So while it’s Hollywoodized (yes, The Rock’s here in a glorified cameo), it’s mostly accurate.

It’s a feel-good film with tight direction by comedic genius Stephen Merchant. Nothing’s really done wrong. A lot’s done right, even excellently. You don’t need to be a WWE fan to appreciate this crowd-pleaser.

RATING: 6/10


CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR

Before I explain just how slam-bangingly good this film is, I need to talk about stories.

A good story has three main features: a dynamic main character, a challenging conflict, and an interesting quest. Let me unpack that a bit.

If a character is dynamic, their choices are the driving force behind the story and they change in a meaningful way during the story. Static characters, on the other hand, are driven by the story and do not meaningfully change. It’s fine to have static characters in a narrative, but your main character at least needs to be dynamic. Generally, the more dynamic characters your story has, the better.

But for a story to happen, the main character needs a challenging conflict to overcome. In other words, the conflict must be fundamental, pointed, and daunting enough that overcoming it will require hard work. Here, it’s best if your audience can relate to the conflict, and perhaps struggle with it too.

Finally, the main character must go on a journey of some kind to overcome the conflict. I call this the “quest,” but it doesn’t have to be a literal walkabout. It can be an internal struggle, or a training program. On this quest the main character gathers resources, learns lessons, and (literally or metaphorically) “bulks up” to beat what stands in his way. And as he does, the audience must remain interested. The true art of storywriting comes in here, because for the most part, the quest is the story.

As I said last week when reviewing noted excuse for a movie Alita: Battle Angel, the best way to make a bad story is to write static characters, weaken the conflict, and make the quest a cliched bore.

Captain America: Civil War does everything a good story should, and more. SPOILERS AHEAD.

An astounding number of characters get an arc – not just our main men Cap and Tony, but the returning Black Widow and Scarlet Witch, along with the debuting Black Panther. They all make choices that push the story forward and change noticeably, impactfully. And their less dynamic buddies are still incredibly entertaining to watch. I have a soft spot for Paul Rudd’s Ant Man (much better here than in his own film), and Tom Holland’s Spider-Man.

Cap and Tony are both confronted by reality at the beginning of Civil War. Both Scarlet Witch’s blunder in Lagos and Stark’s encounter with the mother of a child that died in Sokovia raise the question of whether the Avengers’ actions are really a net positive for the world’s innocents. This is Tony’s deepest belief, deepened further in Age of Ultron: “peace in our time” can only happen if the Avengers are somehow made obsolete. And his failure to accomplish that end by creating Ultron means Tony is at a tipping point: he realizes his fear is a flaw, but deals with it in the same way he always does, by trying to control the outcome.

So Tony sees the Sokovia Accords, which place the Avengers under the direction of the United Nations, as necessary. They will relieve him of fear, be a comforting security blanket that lets the Avengers exist while minimizing his guilt.

Cap doesn’t. He knows the Accords wouldn’t solve the central problem that led to their creation: the massive, chaotic destruction of life and property often caused when powerful good guys try to stop powerful villains. Cap correctly points out that the Avengers’ mission is to save as many innocent people as they can from evils they cannot counter – as Nick Fury once said, “to fight the battles we never could.” And that mission is self-evidently good. While some will die in the process, if the Avengers don’t act, no one is saved. And operating at the UN’s behest could prevent the Avengers from acting.

Cap sees the Accords as a compromise that would hamper the Avengers further in their mission and could lead to even more destruction. “The safest hands are still our own,” he says. And when his old friend Bucky is drawn slantways into this brewing conflict, things  explode between Cap and Tony.

The conflict draws the audience in as well. Tony’s position is at least understandable: look at all the harm the Avengers cause in their quest to save the world! And Tony sees himself, not Cap, as the first Avenger. He’s the leader, and he feels intensely guilty. We feel along with him. Maybe the Avengers do need a check.

As for the quest, oh boy is it engrossing. The film balances its characters so deftly, giving them space to do incredible and impactful things. I maintain that this was the film that got the Russos the Infinity War gig, especially the mid-movie airport fight. It has room for dialogue and actions that make it clear that all the participants are still good guys, fighting for what they believe in. It’s a tightrope that this movie walks with cleverness and constant flourish.

The presumed villain, Zemo, is more a force the film uses to make the Avengers fight, and that’s fine. He’s not what the characters need to overcome to win the day. And most notably, they don’t. The film leaves the team, like in Ultron, battered and separated. What Tony truly fears has come to pass, and he can’t stop it, no matter how hard he tries to force his mates together. So by the movie’s end, he recognizes that Cap is doing what he thinks is right, and lets him (and the Avengers who opposed him) go.

Even superheroes can’t save everyone. We live in a fallen world where even our best efforts may have tragic consequences. We’re left with a choice: do we (1) retreat into a forced utopia that lets us avoid responsibility, like Tony; (2) react out of vengeance and anger like Zemo and T’Challa; or (3) keep trying to help others as best we can knowing the possible cost, like Captain America?

It’s a hard question, and a good one.

This was my favorite Marvel movie going into this series rewatch. It still is.

RATING: 10/10

Post a comment below and tell me what you’d like me to review next. Until then … roll credits.

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