Captain America: Civil War is a triumph. As the latest entry in the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, it surprises with both its ability to feel fresh despite its status as a sequel (to both Captain America: the Winter Soldier and Avengers: Age of Ultron) and its strength as an action drama – yes, drama, and plenty of it.
The payoff stems from Marvel Studios’ painstaking universe crafting. Audiences have spent eight years with the characters featured in Civil War, in a world that now spans thirteen feature films, as well four successful television series (with many more on the way). Before the first frame, Civil War already comes packed with peak emotional investment from its fans – fans that have watched the players evolve across three separate phases, each one carefully planned and orchestrated by Marvel’s creative team. Civil War may be their masterstroke.
This review serves to highlight some of the film’s best features. I do look at the film critically, but there is little to say in the way of negativism. Captain America: Civil War is a joy, basking in the sweeping grandeur of its storytelling, all the while lifting its audience up to new heights even as it knocks the wind out of them. It has all the power of a summer blockbuster and all the emotional weight of a narrative thriller. And it also has Spider-Man.
Spoilers below. Spoilers below. Spoilers below.
(My thanks to Mike for the category titles.)
1. Chris Evans as Steve Rogers/Captain America: Amidst all the hoopla surrounding Civil War, it’s sometimes easy to forget the man at the forefront. I have complained in the past that Chris Evans’ Captain America is the leader of the Avengers in name only: he’s often outshined by his flashy costars, particularly the action powerhouse duo of Hulk and Thor, and the glimmering charisma of Tony Stark. And yet it can be said that Civil War uses action as a decorative set piece rather than the pivot around which the story turns. Evans is the fulcrum by which the narrative moves forward and whether or not you’re on #teamcap, the audience’s emotional investment in the character is undeniable. Evans delivers in the empathy department, as a man torn between his friends and doing the right thing. Even if you disagree with Cap’s fundamental principle, that the control of the Avengers’ power is an infringement on civil liberties, effectively preventing them from doing their jobs, you will still find yourself sympathetic to his circumstances. Evans plays the loyal friend to perfection, even as it’s killing him.
2. Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow: Black Widow is the most overlooked character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. She has been instrumental to the success of The Avengers franchise, gave Winter Soldier some of its most compelling moments as its undeniable costar, and provided Iron Man 2 with something actually watchable. In Civil War, Widow is a character on the edge. Surely her natural allegiance should have been with Cap, but her choice to side with Tony makes us second guess ourselves and lends credence to the controversial plan to place limits on the Avengers. Her double-crossing Tony is less about surprise (frankly it was inevitable) and more about being true to herself as someone who will always try to do what is right, whether that is within the limits of the law or distinctly outside of it. Only one questions remains for Black Widow: when the f*ck is she going to get her own movie already?
3. Daniel Bruhl as Helmut Zemo: We’ve all said it: Marvel has a villain problem. With major baddies Dr. Doom, Magneto, Galactus, and others all tied up in rights disputes, Marvel has often had to scrape by with a series of clichéd megalomaniacs without any depth of motivation or character. Other than Loki, most Marvel villains are forgotten as soon as they’re defeated, as easily replaceable as Terrence Howard. Inglourious Basterd’s Daniel Bruhl breaks the mold as a Helmut Zemo, a fairly minor comic book villain reimagined as an ex-elite soldier with nothing to lose. His plot to bring the Avengers down from the inside results in the most successful plan carried out by any MCU villain to date, as well as the first to truly succeed. The ramifications of Zemo’s scheme will undoubtedly echo in the MCU for a long, long time.
4. William Hurt as Secretary “Thunderbolt” Ross: One of the few good things to come out of The Incredible Hulk was the delicious menace that is William Hurt’s portrayal of General “Thunderbolt” Ross. In a cinematic universe severely lacking good villains, it was encouraging to see Hurt return to the screen in what is hopefully an ongoing role as an established nemesis for the Avengers, one who has the full measure of the law with which to persecute Captain America and his rogue group of strays. Hurt commands without chewing the scenery and one of my few complains is that I wish his role might have been more expansive. Perhaps I will get my wish in future installments.
5. The Raft: Speaking of things I’d like to see in future installments, audiences got their first look at the Raft: the mid-ocean supermax prison made popular in the pages of Marvel comics. Though there are only a few scenes at the Raft (featuring the newly incarcerated members of Team Cap), viewers could already see the potential within its high-tech walls. What other villains might be lurking in the cells there? It could also be a decent jumping-off point for a Thunderbolts or Secret Avengers movie. Tell me you wouldn’t like to see a Marvel Studios answer to the Suicide Squad.
1. Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man: Sure, it’s obviously Captain America’s movie, but much of the dramatic heavy lifting is done by the Avengers funnyman, here doing double duty as both hero and villain. It’s Tony Stark, and not Captain America, who has the lion’s share of the deep emotional drama in Civil War, as Tony’s past is brought most notably to the forefront. Tony is deeply burdened by the lives that have been lost as collateral in the wake of his Avengers glory; a particularly poignant scene featuring Alfre Woodard really hits home with him, once again causing Tony’s guilt to take charge of his ego, similar to the events in the first Iron Man. What follows is Tony’s struggle to make things right and reconcile the evil within himself, surprised and deeply hurt by Cap’s refusal to comply with measures that would serve as an act of contrition for him. Driven on with increasing determination to do the right thing, Tony collides with Cap and his team of defectors in a high stakes game of good vs. right. Even as Tony finally comes around to Cap’s belief that Bucky is innocent of the charges leveled against him, the revelation that Bucky murdered Tony’s parents is too much to bear. The resulting schism, generated from Tony’s understandable outrage, is one likely to resonate for years to come.
2. Chadwick Boseman as Prince T’Challa/Black Panther: As Batman v. Superman saw, introducing a myriad of new characters isn’t particularly easy and can feel ham-fisted and forced. Rather than watching a trailer for Black Panther on Lex Luthor’s YouTube account, Black Widow encounters Prince T’Challa as a natural part of the established narrative. Boseman shines as the proud Wakandan noble, whose cool confidence is jeopardized by his desire for revenge for the terrorist attack that killed his father. Assuming the culprit is Winter Soldier, Black Panther springs into action, showing off some of the film’s most impressive combat skills, and doing more than just holding his own against the titans of the MCU. By way of intrigue, Civil War does more than just establish Black Panther as a character – it solidifies him as a worthy addition to the universe and a force to be reckoned with.
3. The Falcon vs. Winter Soldier: Both Falcon and Winter Soldier compete for Cap’s affection and “best friend” status throughout the film with hilarious results. The relationship also adds some much-needed levity to the grimness of Winter Soldier. I only wish Deadpool could have been thrown into the mix.
4. The Past Meets the Present: Last year’s Ant-Man led off with a memorable flashback scene featuring more youthful versions of Howard Stark, Peggy Carter, and a breathtakingly de-aged Michael Douglas as Hank Pym. Civil War uses the same trick on the Stark family, including Tony, to give us a peak at the boy billionaire’s complicated youth and his painful relationship with his deceased parents. The scene sets the tone for the entire film, which follows the fall of House Stark (no – not that one) to its doomed conclusion. Coupled with the funeral of Peggy Carter and the revelation that Agent 13 is Peggy’s grandniece, we find that much of Civil War’s substance is grounded in its past. This is a trope utilized continuously throughout the Captain America trilogy, used to its greatest effect in this third installment.
5. Nonlethal Consequences: Other than a few nameless baddies and poor Mr. Crossbones in the opening action sequence, no one dies in Captain America: Civil War. I consider it an achievement that a story embroiled in such dire circumstances can inspire the same level of catharsis without the death of any of its major characters, including Iron Man and Zemo, the film’s more obvious villains. I was particularly soured by the “death” of Superman in BVS earlier this year. There are no such false fireworks commemorating the end of Civil War, but rather the echo of the first shots fired in what is sure to be an enduring conflict in future Avengers installments.
1. Tom Holland as Peter Parker/Spider-Man: From the moment the title card reading “QUEENS” flashes across the viewer’s perspective in Civil War, everyone’s favorite wall-crawling web head utterly steals the show. There’s a reason Spider-Man is the most talked-about character in a movie that has so little to do with him. Tom Holland is the embodiment of charm as the most youthful, most inept version of the hero to date. And while his involvement Civil War does feel like a bit of a stretch, his emotional connection to Iron Man (both heroes who have lost people dear to them due to the lack of responsibility) is enough to ground his appearance with purpose. Coupled with a terrific display of his powers and abilities, a new suit courtesy of Stark Industries, and his trademark quick-witted one-liners, Spider-Man alone is worth the price of admission.
2. The Airfield Showdown: No conversation about Civil War would be complete without mentioning the greatest super-powered fight scene in film history. In what is easily the movie’s most memorable scene, Team Cap and Team Iron Man square off in a five-on-five grudge match against the background of Guile’s stage from Streetfigther II. Every character is given their moment to shine, and no part of the sequence feels tired or repetitive – it is a storm of unique abilities used in unlikely and thrilling combinations: an adrenaline rush of pure joy. MVP status must be awarded to both Spider-Man and Ant-Man, both making waves with unexpected and often hilarious displays of power, including a recreation of a favorite scene from some old movie called The Empire Strikes Back.
3. “Casual Vision”: Few things delight me more than Paul Bettany’s Vision and his desire to become more human. Vision spends most of the movie trying to relate to Scarlet Witch with an Edward Scissorhands-like ineptitude. His unfortunate ploys for her affection would probably go a lot further if an adorkable green sweater and an unfulfilled quest for paprika didn’t encumber him. I sense a great meme in the making…
4. Captain America v. Iron Man – Resolution: An inevitable comparison will be drawn between Civil War and this year’s other superhero schoolyard fight: Batman v. Superman (for a more detailed analysis of BVS, you can check this out). Both films present characters that would otherwise be allies in opposing camps, both supporting different opinions on what is right as opposed to what is merely good. Unfortunately for DC, it seems Civil War proved to be the better entry, not only because it resolved the story in a more meaningful way, but because of the carefully-plotted decade of story-crafting that made it feel as though the MCU characters had earned this level of conflict. And despite the diametrically opposed forces at work in Civil War, neither Stark nor Rogers need a contrived plot point (“MARTHAAAAAA!”) to get them to realize they’re on the same side. In fact, that realization never truly comes. Tony refuses to condemn Bucky for a crime he didn’t commit – but only until he learns of an even more personal crime that he did. Cap and Iron Man cannot compromise their values because they are inseparable from them. Not even their friendship can turn them back from the paths they have been set on, and Zemo’s scheme for a disassembled Avengers succeeds. In the end, we don’t find out who was right or wrong, because in the end they were both equal parts irrational and justified.
5. The Russo Brothers: Credit must be given where credit is due. The Russo Brothers might not be the flashiest directing duo in Hollywood, and Marvel Studios has often been criticized for limiting the creative control of its directors, but the undeniable quality of Civil War cannot be ignored. Perhaps the MCU films feel cut from the same cloth, and I will admit to a certain sameness amongst all their entries, but there is a lot to be said for a sturdy, well-made film. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the Russos previous outing, is widely considered to not only be the best of the Marvel Studios films, but one of the best movies to come out in the year of its release. Unlike Winter Soldier, Civil War is less of a political action thriller and more of an all-out popcorn slugfest, but it still has the same thoughtful qualities and attention to detail that made Winter Soldier so indelible in the minds of its fans.
In way of a final verdict, Captain America: Civil War is one for the ages, undoubtedly as timeless as its eponymous hero. It inspires the kind of joyous cry that rises up as patrons are exiting the theater, recreating the giant Ant-Man and quoting Spider-Man’s charismatic quips. Despite the movie’s dark and menacing core, there are many bright spots to be observed in the shadows.
These are the heroes we deserve.