Captain America: Civil War is as exemplary as any Marvel film about what they can and have achieved. It uses the past 12 films as a huge canvas to paint a personal story. It maintains the insane balancing act of telling, first and foremost, a Captain America story, second an Avengers movie and third, the thirteenth film in the ongoing MCU series. The film mentions that, as in our universe, it’s been eight years since the Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) revealed himself as Iron Man. So much has changed since then, but Civil War proves Marvel remains ahead of the curve.
After an Avengers mission against in Africa goes awry, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and his team of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Scarlet Witch (Wanda Maximoff) and The Vision (Paul Bettany) are ordered by the new secretary of state Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt), with the support of Stark, to sign the Sokovia Accords, a registration act that would put the Avengers under the authority of the United Nations.
The Accords issue becomes more complicated with re-entrance of Cap’s best friend and fellow time traveler Bucky Barnes aka Winter Soldier, who becomes a lightning rod that draws the new king of Wakanda T’Challa aka Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and the mysterious Zemo (Daniel Bruhl), both with their own agendas for Bucky. And that’s not even mentioning Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) or the new Spider-Man (Tom Holland).
The fact that it is as good as it is obfuscates any flaws that lurk beneath the surface. Because directors Anthony & Joe Russo have complete tonal and narrative control, they can indulge in expert misdirection, juggling the largest cast of superheroes in any movie yet.
They compose beautiful shots and translate comic book action better than anyone. The airport scene that sees the Team Iron Man and Team Cap full-on fighting gives due to every character, whether it’s Hawkeye or Vision. Amazingly visceral fight scenes mirror and feed off the intensely personal story, one that doesn’t pull punches but doesn’t feel gratuitous. When we are horrified, it has a point and that makes it all the more potent.
Cap’s story from the beginning has been inextricable from Bucky’s. In the comics, he began as a rote sidekick, an asswipe of the highest order. But later writers re-imagined him as Cap’s competent peer and then his popularity exploded with Ed Brubaker’s Winter Soldier story, which was the basis for the previous Cap film.
While the filmmakers likened that film to a political thriller, they curiously cast Civil War as a psychological thriller. At one point, they said they were inspired by the uber-dark serial killer thriller Se7en. Let’s put it this way: Aa Devin Faraci points out in the latest Heroic Insider, upon seeing the film it actually makes complete sense.
In this film, amidst the massive set pieces and fight scenes, it’s the moments of character stakes that stick out; when Tony and Cap are in a room, when the Avengers pair off such as Vision and Scarlet Witch, Falcon and Bucky, Spidey and Tony, the list goes on. These relationships establish the stakes.
We as an audience didn’t need to think these people were going to fucking murder each other to buy why they’d go at it. What I was skeptical of prior, how they would treat what amounts to a “family dispute” with gravitas, I was completely sold on during. This is a movie that understands payoff in a way most other movies are almost allergic to nowadays.
It’s long but it doesn’t feel overly stuffed because even the lesser roles get character beats and miniarcs. Everyone from Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp) and Hurt, missing since Marvel’s red-headed stepchild The Incredible Hulk (and they should bring him back again as Red Hulk, just saying) get a chance to shine. They also craft a villain as good or better than Loki, in Zemo, a righteous antagonist whose lack of superpowers somehow makes him all the more threatening. A great villain in a universe that has been steadily improving in the area.
Black Panther was hands-down my favorite character and, while his solo film was already at the top of my Marvel must-see list thanks to director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) it’s Chadwick Boseman’s controlled rage, his soulful yet furious balancing act of a performance and fucking killer dialogue (consisting mostly of badass boasts delivered badassly) elevate it into the stratosphere. The mid-credits scene is a Black Panther tease and I can’t even praise it anymore because it’s so good.
Everyone is also talking about Spider-Man and he’s truly as good as they say. He pops in and out of the film very easily and feels natural, which was a shock actually. Holland’s rapport with Downey is nice but it’s the other bug hero Scott Lang aka Ant-Man that I think is even better with the best reveal of the movie given to him. But yet again, how all these characters bounce off each other is so natural and effortless and evocative of each character that you can’t help but be swept up in it, along with inevitable comparisons.
The elephant in the room is the film’s rival, the Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice of it all. First, the films are as similar as we we suspected. They’re so similar that not comparing them almost doesn’t make sense. Second, in almost every regard Civil War is better. It’s almost a factual statement (but not, because it’s my opinion, natch). It performs all the tasks that the former did with none of the flaws i.e. orchestrating a legitimate rivalry between heroes into epic fights motivated by a secret villain and introducing a ton of new elements. Compare the introductions of Spider-Man and Black Panther to what they did with Flash, Cyborg and Aquaman and there’s little to talk about. But I’m not here to shit on either, just get perspective.
Captain America: Civil War succeeds on its own terms. Where others’ would zig, the Russo brothers and Kevin Feige zagged because they know the story they are telling. Why? Because they have past decades of rich veins to tap for further decades to come. Do you have a favorite comic book? Hell, a favorite comic panel? Chances are you’ll see in the next 10-15 years. And you can probably bet as of today that Marvel will be leading the way.