“Victory at the expense of the innocent is no victory at all.”
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is an unprecedented series of stories. Civil War is the thirteenth film in eight years, and it has a quadruple responsibility: it must continue the story of the last Captain America solo film, The Winter Soldier; it must follow up on the events of the last team-up flick, The Avengers: Age of Ultron; it must justify the presence of its massive cast, including second lead Robert Downey Jr, aka Iron Man; and, most importantly, it must tell a complete story and stand tall on its own two feet. Does Captain America: Civil War succeed at any and all of these tasks?
The third-act battle of most Marvel films to date have incorporated some kind of heavy-duty destruction, from the climactic fight in the streets of Harlem in The Incredible Hulk, to The Battle of New York in The Avengers, and beyond. The initial crux of Civil War is the consequence of the collateral damage any and all Avengers inevitably leave in their wake. The Sokovia Accords call for The Avengers to be beholden to the will of a United Nations council when it comes to intervening in foreign affairs. Tony Stark and those on his side agree this is the only way to secure a future for super heroes, while Captain America and his ilk refuse to be at the mercy of an outside force; what if they can help people, but are ordered not to? “I know we’re not perfect, but the safest hands are still our own,” Cap rationalizes. This central conflict is a compelling narrative, although it is only part of the story, as the mysterious new villain Zemo has his own agenda against Earth’s Mightiest Heroes…
Without spoiling anything, Zemo is a threat unlike anything The Avengers have ever faced. While he borrows some elements from the villains of earlier films, his methods and capabilities are completely new in the realm of the MCU. He’s an easy character to sympathize with, and, while he may be an “in name only” version of his comic book incarnation, this version of the character is perfect within Civil War. Marvel’s films are often accused of having a “villain problem,” but I would argue that they make a conscious choice to focus on their heroes, instead.
Despite the presence of resident scene-stealer Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man, Captain America, as played by Chris Evans, is still, without a doubt, the main character of the film; at no point is he lost within the mega-ensemble cast of the film. Falcon (Anthony Mackie) also shines brightly as Cap’s sidekick. Cap’s search for Bucky Barnes, the erstwhile Winter Soldier, takes center stage at the start and is cleverly integrated into the broader scope of the film; Cap’s willingness to break the law to help his friend certainly fuels the growing conflict between the myriad heroes of the story. The tension between the factions makes the movie, while still a spy film/political thriller like The Winter Soldier, more of a character and dialogue-driven piece, which occasionally slows things down, but not necessarily in a bad way. After all, it’s important to understand everybody’s motivations, lest the inevitable fighting scenes come across as patronizingly superfluous fanservice. Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch fares very strongly as part of the cast, though Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow is practically chomping at the bit for her own film, as her character is one of the strongest in the ensemble, and sparkles with energy and stunning depth.
The visuals are spectacular, though not without their rough edges, as a handful of conspicuously obvious CGI imagery really breaks the immersion when most of the visual effects are so believable. Black Panther works unbelievably well in the film, both as a human character and an ass-kicking superhero. His suit is a gorgeous example of costume design, although he sadly looks like a cartoon puppet during certain CGI beats. Meanwhile, the other highly-publicized new character is the web-slinging kid genius, Peter Parker, aka Spider-Man. While the character performs exceptionally within the film (Tom Holland recalls the best parts of Tobey Maguire’s take on the character but more endearingly youthful and witty), I personally hated his outfit, which looks way too cartoonish and ill-fitting within the established aesthetics of the MCU. But at least it’s different from previous incarnations, which is arguably more important for now. Also, on the subject of aesthetics, I didn’t like Ant-Man’s new mask, which is too shiny and lacks the color and character of the one from Ant-Man… But maybe that’s just me, and I’m a weirdo.
Civil War is the film’s name, so of course, there’s going to be some action; the hero-on-hero violence ranges from a relatively good-natured brawl between friends to more dramatic and furious instances of murderous intent. It’s to the credit of directors Joe and Anthony Russo (returning champions of The Winter Soldier and future directors of Infinity War) and editors Jeffrey Ford and Matthew Schmidt that the dissonance between the varied tones of the combat is handled so well. The airport battle, the star centerpiece of most trailers, is where the film’s massive cast, and eight-years of universe-building, gets to shine; while characters like Spider-Man and Ant-Man don’t have particularly important roles to play in the narrative, every single character present at the airport brawl gets their chance to shine, without overstaying their welcome. Meanwhile, the more overtly life-or-death battles carry as much of an emotional punch as an physical one.
Captain America: Civil War is a game-changer. It takes our characters into uncharted dramatic territory while delivering Marvel’s traditional brand of action, adventure, and witty dialogue. To Marvel’s chief stockholders, Civil War might just be another cog in a money-making machine, but to the writers, directors, stars, and the crew who made the film, it’s much more than that: Civil War is the end of one story, the beginning of many others, and further proof that a mainstream big-budget blockbuster starring old-timey comic book heroes can be an intelligent and discussion-provoking exercise for long-time fans and newcomers alike.