Captain America: Civil War will be a beneficiary of comparison, contextualization, recency bias, etc. It was always going to be that. Following up the glorified layover that was Avengers: Age of Ultron and a certain non-Marvel hero v hero movie whose title shall not be mentioned in these musings, Civil War, despite the occasional flaw and branding obligation, feels like a whiff of fresh air. It’s not the best MCU movie, a claim our natural tendency as fans to revert to tall talk has already brought about in waves. It’s not even the best Captain America movie. But it’s sure as hell better than Age of Ultron (and that other movie, too). That’s really all the matters, in terms of immediacy.
Sold as Captain America 3, and directed by Joe and Anthony Russo of Captain America 2, Civil War is really more like Avengers 2.5. The films greatest achievement comes from a script (by Winter Soldier scribes Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus) that manages to give every character legitimate motivations, or reasons to pick a side. The root of the conflict is something Marvel has been building to since The Avengers. Our favorite crime fighting team has caused an awful lot of collateral damage over the course of the twelve movies leading into Civil War. Cities have been destroyed, even lifted into the sky. Aliens and Gods have made humanity feel vulnerable. People have died. The world’s response is a document that would see the Avengers operate only under UN supervision. Tony Stark feels guilty and sees the agreement as an imperfect but necessary compromise. Steve Rogers, the Star-Spangled Banner Man, does not. He believes freedom is essential in making this collective of superdudes and dudets effective peacekeepers. Also, the fact the world is blaming Cap’s best friend turned brainwashed assassin Bucky Barnes (a never-better Sebastian Stan) for the murder of a Wakandan king factors in.
Cap and Iron Man, who’ve always had a contentious albeit humorous cinematic relationship, can’t see eye to eye. The rest of the crew chooses sides for different reasons. War Machine (Don Cheadle) sides with Stark because they’re homies. Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) sides with Cap because she’s partially at fault for the casualties brought on by the latest Avengers-induced explosion. I won’t give too much more away in terms of plotting, since the quiet moments that lay the groundwork for the loud ones are some of the finest moments of the movie. There’s also some necessary hoopla about Baron Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) wanting revenge because his family was killed in Age of Ultron. The movie tries to set him up as the puppet master behind the hero beef, but it doesn’t work. He’s only there to give you someone to root against so you don’t have to pick a side. That’s one of a few ways the movie doesn’t show any true courage.
There are five or six extended action sequences over the films 147-minute runtime, some of which work better than others. Early moments are intentionally made to look a bit defective, with that Paul Greengrass shaky-cam/quick cut method at play. It works because the movie is very kinetic, but can still lose you at times. The movies first hour manages to thrill while also continuing the character work that Age of Ultron started but gave up on. On top of that, the film introduces two of the most iconic characters in the Marvel oeuvre with Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland). Again, this is all in the first hour. It’s remarkable.
Marvel diehards will be thrilled to see the new faces, as casting and costume decisions appear to be homeruns. Black Panther/T’Challa joins the fight out of revenge. He wants Bucky for killing his father. Some close-quarters fight scenes with T’Challa look great. He’s a menace. But it’s out of costume where Boseman really shines, showing this strange regal vulnerability perfect for a Simba-esque character mourning the loss of his father but aware of his new responsibilities. The Ryan Coogler-directed Black Panther movie is scheduled for February 6, 2018. Circle the date now.
Tom Holland brings the youthful exuberance to Peter Parker that Andrew Garfield failed to. His character is A LOT like John Boyega’s Finn in Star Wars (he sneaks in a solid Empire Strikes Back reference, too). He’s in over his head when fighting alongside the Iron Mans and Captain Americas of the world. He responds by rising up, and saying hilarious things. The scene Downey and Holland share is the films funniest moment and implies that the upcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming (which will feature Downey) could be the most humorous entry yet. As much as Peter Parker idolizes the man recruiting him, he also a book report due tomorrow, ya know?
Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) is also in tow. So are Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Vision (Paul Bettany), and Ant-Man (Paul Rudd). The balancing act that is the Civil War script proves that the problem with inferior superhero smorgasbords isn’t simply an issue of quantity. With the exception of Hawkeye –who’s struggled to find a worthwhile role in this franchise- no hero feels unnecessary (the same can’t be said for Daniel Bruhl’s Baron Zemo). Every personal arc is fully formed and, if not concluded, left in a position hinting at fascinating new developments in future films. This can be frustrating, but you simply have to accept it with these shared universes. The idea of a shared universe may create speedbumps for certain films, but it’s also the idea that allows something like the “airport scene” in Civil War to exist.
That scene, the most impressive individual action sequence Marvel’s had so far, is the type of shit a six-year old dreams up with his action figures, and I mean that as praise. The Russos make sure to jump around and really have everyone fight everyone else. Each character is given a chance to show off their powers in a cool way, and there’s this freeform feel to the whole thing. There are a couple of major surprises during the scene as well, one of which shows off the digital artists to great results.
I haven’t said much about Downey and Evans yet, which is strange because they’re obviously the two marquee players in Civil War. It’s interesting how these characters have changed since Iron Man and Captain America: The First Avenger, respectively. Both have seen their strong individual personalities –Stark’s narcissistic flamboyance, Rogers’ almost pitiful sense of righteousness- slowly broken down by the emotional/physical wear and tear they’ve experienced. We all know what Downey’s done for Iron Man and vice versa, but Evans’ work as Cap in these movies has been egregiously overlooked. There’s always a certain campiness that’s going to follow a guy named “Captain America”, but Evans finds a way to seem vulnerable despite his physicality and, to quite Tony, “perfect teeth”. Cap has never been less confident in his morals than he is here, and Evans’ shattered looks fuel that feeling, visually. The quality acting all-around is integral to this movie, since there’s so much happening that there’s little room for expository dialogue. Also, the Cap-Bucky-Falcon bromance appears to be a thing. Get these men a sitcom.
I don’t entirely “get” the ending to Civil War, and that’s really what prevents it from being a truly perfect blockbuster in my eyes. There’s a moment when one major character pushes another major character all the way to the brink, only for them to stop and figuratively hug it out. And there’s a cheesy bow around all of it in the form of a handwritten letter (dear screenwriters, it’s 2016, stop using handwritten letters as a plot device). I do think this movie didn’t quite have the balls to commit to a universe-changing ending, but at the same time, I understand it. These movies work, generally, on both popular and critical levels. And there’s a two-part Avengers movie set to start shooting next year, so only so much can be done to switch things up.
Captain America: Civil War brings with it everything any reasonable moviegoer could expect; great action, hero comradery, a story without lulls. This movie breezes through its bloated run time in ways that [redacted] could not because it was too concerned with self-seriousness and structuring every scene as if where a finale. We love I rank things. I love to rank things. Time (and another viewing or two) will tell where Civil War ranks in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it’s certainly near the top. It’s hard to understand the “superhero fatigue” journalists fill columns with when the movies are this good.