Superhero movie fans everywhere are about to rejoice. A whale of an action film is about to drop on an excited public and its name is Captain America: Civil War. The completion of a massive story, set in motion with the 2011 film Captain America: The First Avenger, this is a comic movie on steroids. It’s a jaw-dropping slab of character-based mayhem that might be one of the first such attempts to successfully capture the epic fantasy of multi-paneled triptychs comic fans worldwide have been enamored with for 70 plus years. There’s a rich and complicated story at play here, and it’s all done nimbly balancing a massive ensemble cast.
By now, nearly everyone is aware of the concept/business strategy that is referred to as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. For the uninitiated, Marvel Comics had long licensed its most famous intellectual properties to existing movie studios. Results varied greatly. Bryan Singer’s X-Men and X2: X-Men United as well as Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 were beloved, but multiple attempts at the Fantastic Four and the Punisher fell horribly flat. The notion was for Marvel to begin making their own films, and promptly the company constructed a plan to use the best of their characters not already licensed and under contract elsewhere into one massive shared universe. This battle plan began with the Robert Downey Jr.-starring Jon Favreau-directed 2008 film Iron Man and spun a thread that would continue through films including The Incredible Hulk, Thor and our prime subject here, Captain America, culminating in the giant showdown of The Avengers in 2012. The rest is history. Now, Marvel’s dominance at the box office has become the stuff of reverie for other movie studios. Its principal cast members Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Jeremy Renner and Scarlett Johansson have all become superstars in the wake of the franchise’s success and even a far lesser known character such as Ant-Man has managed to gross a half a billion at the box office in his big-screen debut.
This MCU, as it’s called, has slowly crafted a separate thread which pays off with massive dividends in this latest Captain America: Civil War film. Following the events of The Avengers, Captain America: The Winter Solider and Avengers: Age of Ultron — the former featuring a cataclysmic battle with an alien race tumbling out of a wormhole and the latter ending in a malignant artificial intelligence cyborg named Ultron turning a whole city into a homemade meteor — the public has grown tired of the destruction The Avengers and other “enhanced” beings cause in their attempts at protecting the public. With each new super-powered hero born to the world, even more powerful villains and threats rear their heads. There is a legitimate fear of nonstop escalation shared by most of the world’s governments.
The conclusion of Age of Ultron indicated that Downey Jr.’s Iron Man and Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye were retiring from active hero work. Meanwhile, The Hulk has vanished and Thor has returned to Asgard to investigate what he estimates is a larger threat than anything the Avengers have faced yet. The Avengers themselves have shifted to include Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and the newly born Vision (Paul Bettany). We find them at the onset on the hunt for Crossbones, the new mantle for the even more ferocious than usual Hydra agent Brock Rumlow (Frank Grillo). Their chase again leads them to fictional African nation Wakanda. While successful in thwarting the threat, there are accidental civilian casualties. This proves to be the final straw for the world’s governments and the group is abruptly presented with a new United Nations resolution called the Sokovia Accords (a reference to the city-made-meteor by Ultron). While the document is predictably several hundred pages long, the resolution is simple: the Avengers must assign themselves to U.N. jurisdiction and take action only when the U.N. believes it necessary. No more saving the world — or anyone for that matter — when they just find a threat. It’s either sign this document or be branded worldwide criminals.
Therein lies the overarching conflict of this film. The group is immediately divided over the concept of oversight. Can any government really be trusted? Is it right that beings with superpowers act without legal authority? The once staunch soldier known as Captain America, Steve Rogers finds this an untenable arrangement and the man in the Iron Man suit Tony Stark is unable to deny its necessity. The team starts to split down the middle pondering the morality of their role as a protective force. To make matters worse, an even bigger act of violence happens and Captain America’s childhood friend Bucky Barnes (commonly known as the brainwashed assassin The Winter Solder, played by Sebastian Stan) is implicated. Following the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Bucky has apparently gone into hiding. Now the whole world knows who he is, and openly wants him dead. Shoot on sight orders are given and the man behind the spangly shield, Steve Rogers cannot sit idly by without knowing the truth.
Everything rips wide open from there, pitting friend against friend in an ever-escalating conflict. Another ominous character enters the fray at this point, a black-clad fighter known as The Black Panther. Played by Get On Up’s Chadwick Boseman with chilling focus, The Black Panther alone could have made this film, but he’s merely one kernel amidst numerous in this popcorn delight. Even more impressive is the addition of Spider-Man to the fray. Last year it was revealed that Marvel had reached a landmark deal with Sony to share the rights and production efforts for the beloved wall-crawling hero. The once rebooted franchise temporarily played by Andrew Garfield was to be once again, fully rebooted, and the character was recast with newcomer Tom Holland playing the role. Seriously, comic fans are going to freak when they see Holland’s performance as the famous character. Even though Tobey Maguire did an outstanding job with the role during his three-picture run as Peter Parker, this just may be the definitive portrayal of the character. Holland actually feels like the jittery, wise cracking nerd the character was created to be. His portrayal is simultaneously humble, sweet and believably strong. Watching Holland and Robert Downey Jr. chew the scenery together is an utter delight and the difference really comes down to the unbridled acting talent each of them possess.
At the close of the second act there is a giant fight between the two sides at an abandoned airport. The early press for the film has gone in great detail about the quality of the action in this fight sequence and all of the estimations thus far have been correct. This might be one of the best-choreographed action set pieces in any comic book movie ever made. As Iron Man’s supporters square off with Captain America’s, the action becomes a vivid, three-dimensional piece of chaotic excitement, with each hero’s abilities becoming a juxtaposed free-for-all of causality. You get to see how these abilities cancel one another out or give a character an edge in some circumstances but a deficiency in others. The interpolation of these characteristics is a lot of what has always inspired such affinity for comic characters in the first place. It allows you to let your imagination run wild. We will stop short of any outright spoilers here, as the twists and turns in the plot (and part and parcel this immense airport fight) are a wonderful part of the experience of this film. It’s best to let yourself be surprised for this one and roll along with the fun. Though we will say, Ant-Man’s appearance adds a wonderful extra boost of hilarious comedy. Paul Rudd’s comic timing is second-to-none and pretty much any time he opens his mouth here it draws a laugh.
The action choreography is some of the best any superhero film has put on screen, but the sinking soul of this picture is in the interplay between Downey Jr. and Evans. The further they both slide into the morass of the conflict, the bigger the toll it takes on them, the more conflicted they look with every subsequent step they have to take. The Iron Man character has become one of the MCU’s most enjoyable largely anchored by Downey Jr’s off-the-charts charisma and quick-witted delivery. He’s a smartass, but he’s likable in every step he takes, even the missteps. In CA:CW, Downey Jr. finally is given a chance to plunge into other territory, without sacrificing any of his trademark charm. Captain America’s arc is brought full circle, where his wide-eyed, unquestioning patriot now sees himself firmly in a world where trust is earned, not given outright; the world’s too unstable for such naivete. And while Evans pulls off the transition with understated aplomb, he also still manages to successfully bring across the impossible-to-sever bond between Cap and his long-lost friend Bucky.
With so much ground to cover in the plot, certain threads are only briefly explored. Vision developing feelings for Scarlet Witch/Wanda Maximoff, the endless double agent nature of Black Widow, War Machine’s steadfast commitment to service and the greater back story of The Black Panther, are hinted at slyly, but left as pieces to pick up later. What we get here is a cohesive story that profoundly examines the roll of action vs. inaction and freedom vs. oversight. It’s a welcome change from the world-destroying baddies most superhero movies use as the antagonist. For Captain America: Civil War, while there is a shadowy villain pulling strings (played with menacing solemnity by Rush star Daniel Brühl), it’s really the conflict between the super friends in the center of the action that is the real challenge in this story. It’s how the conflict over these ideals and the quest for vengeance or redemption test the bonds of their friendship. You may not leave this movie feeling like cheering because you’re glad evil was defeated, but you will come out of it feeling like a giant pack of characters all grew and evolved appropriately after facing a high-wire act of decisions in a uniquely complex time in their lives.
For comparison’s sake, some may regard Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight as the high watermark of superhero film fiction. Largely anchored by Heath Ledger’s demonic take on the Joker, it probed psychological depths of what reality and choice meant, not just to the characters, but us as the viewers. Civil War stops shy of holding up that giant mirror to the viewer, but does intelligently tackle the themes it sets out to, all while telling a vastly gripping and fun story from frame one to the finale. Recent DC Cinematic Universe entry Batman v Superman has to be mentioned in connection with this film, as the main principles on display are so similar. Superheroes. Stuff breaks. Things have to change. A couple of key heroes get mad at each other. Batman v Superman may not be god awful or quite as bad as critics panned it to be, but there is a dreary tone to the subject matter where the characters seem hell bent to a purpose without giving us the benefit of the full picture of their emotional make-up. It’s an exercise in character serving plot instead of plot serving character. Captain America: Civil War is far the opposite of that. It’s a world where even at the worst of times, and at the heat of the most intense conflict, one wants to journey with the characters through every second of their experience. Even with a two and a half hour run-time, it doesn’t feel muddled or overwrought. We get exactly the slice of the story we need, and just enough that another slice still seems profoundly appetizing. If the paragon of this sub genre is The Dark Knight, this might be just a step shy of it, but that might entirely depend on what you value more: deep psychological pondering or unmitigated enjoyment.
Verdict: 5 out of 5
Unless you’re not a fan of superhero films in any form, it would be hard to imagine a more fully formed and polished movie. The performances by the giant ensemble cast further the great work they all have done throughout numerous Marvel Cinematic Universe entries. The direction by Joe and Anthony Russo takes an intricate political thriller of a script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and makes it explode onto the screen without ever feeling rushed or convoluted. The only hanging complaint resides in how this furthers the entire MCU’s drive to Avengers: Infinity War and the Infinity Gauntlet saga, but assuredly, we’ll get there soon enough.