Written by: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
Directed by: Joe and Anthony Russo
Rated ‘PG-13’ for cinematic violence, national security, intense situations, revenge and splosions
Runtime 146 minutes
So, at last we come to it. The entire MCU, which started eight years and 12 films ago, has been leading up to this moment. Captain America: Civil War, the third film in the Cap series, and fifth MCU titleto feature Chris Evans in the title role, is the promise of the comic book movie fulfilled. A thrilling, witty, dazzling and intelligent movie that yes, features a kid in tights and a man who can shrink to the size of an ant; it is a surprisingly nuanced look at the state of the modern world, between responsibility and freedom that also happens to be a heart-pounding, edge of your seat blockbuster of the finest order.
Civil War is, above all else, a movie about consequences. The consequences of continuity. Every piece of the intricate puzzle that began with Tony Stark declaring boldly “I am Iron Man!” has been moved and manipulated into this position. When New York City was nearly destroyed by an alien invasion, or when Helicarriers crashed onto Washington, the world didn’t just forget. Resentment builds in the face of destruction and it is human nature to lay the blame at someone’s feet, even if those someone’s are superpowered and simply trying to do the right thing. One of the biggest, most satisfying melees in the film is not a grand battle royale (more on that, though), it is of all our friends, The Avengers, sitting around a table and debating the right thing to do. We understand those heroes who wish to sign the Sokovia Accords, a document granting the UN oversight on The Avengers; and those who wish to operate freely. Not outside the law, because, as Cap says, ‘The safest hands are still our own.’ But who gets to decide? And who is right? What makes Civil War work above the rest of the very black and white MCU is that there is no right or wrong side; it is just a difference of opinion.
Those dissatisfied with Avengers: Age of Ultron last summer (review) will be very happy with the near-effortlessness of Civil War, which with its tremendous cast of characters, is absolutely Avengers 2.5. It is very clear why Marvel has tapped Joe and Anthony Russo, who also helmed The Winter Soldier (review), to tackle both parts of the upcoming uber-event, Infinity War. If a character does not have an arc, and a surprising number do, then at least everyone in the ballooning cast (and budget!) gets a moment to shine.
The film, however, never gets away from the Russos in the same way that Ultron got away from Whedon, despite the latter’s best efforts. Perhaps by not also penning the screenplay, written by Marvel vets Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the Russos could focus better on crafting the best version, without having to fight for a particular and personal vision of what they wanted out of Civil War. Where Ultron swung for the rafters and fell a little short, Civil War goes for the RBI double and scales back the focus; there is no floating city or alien invasion, no talk of cosmic gemstones; the final confrontation does not come between a large group of actors versus a CGI army, but rather three characters, caught in a conflict that has no easy resolution. And when the winner of that fight walks away, it is a cold and sad victory. Yes, he won, but what has been lost?
Despite the sheer size of the cast, which features plenty of newcomers to the roster, the Russos never lose sight of the basic conflict that has been brewing between Captain America (Evans) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr) and for the majority of the film’s running time, the focus is not on the plot intricacies, but rather the ideological differences that have cropped up between the two heroes and the fallout from each of their decisions. Those keeping track at home will note the series long character arc of both Stark and Cap, and how their positions on the way of the world have “starkly” shifted. This is not the same Tony Stark who declared that he was not giving up his suit to government control in Iron Man 2; and nor is it the same Steve Rogers who signed up to fight the bad guys because it was the right thing to do in the original Captain America. The world is different now thanks to New York, DC, Sokovia and countless other brushfires the Avengers and their ilk have either put out or started. And someone must be held responsible.
Evans, who no doubt grows tired of the stars and stripes, continually excels in the role of Steve Rogers. Disavowed by the Avengers for aiding his friend Bucky, aka The Winter Soldier and attempting to get to the bottom of a much grander conspiracy, Cap and his ragtag team of renegades – including Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and others, are on the run, hunted by the remaining Avengers for effectively being outlaws. Evans wears the disillusionment, that all of us in these times of the NSA and Donald Trump understand completely. He’s not rebelling because it’s fun, he’s doing it because he firmly believes what is written in the Declaration of Independence, ‘When in the Course of human history it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another…’; not that he would say that. That would be a little too on the nose, but the sentiment remains. He is Captain AMERICA, after all.
Stark, meanwhile, is trying to do the right thing as he sees it. When confronted with the personal cost of his hubris and the Avengers’ actions in Sokovia, he tries to rally the group to the side of lawfulness. Downey Jr, the biggest star on the roster, is perfect. He’s an old cad, fast-talking and charismatic, who is tired of the fight. The point of the fight, after all, is to end the fight. He sees the Sokovia Accords as a way to end the fight; or at least, lessen the impact of them. More than anyone, he’s borne the brunt of the consequences – personal and financial – of private entities running outside of the law. He was the father of Ultron, after all, and that has cost him most dearly.
We pay to see Downey Jr and Evans go nine rounds in a battle of wills, but we stick around for the newcomers: Tom Holland as Spider-man and Chadwick Boseman as Prince T’Challa, the Black Panther.. Holland’s role as Your Friendly Neighborhood is glorified fan service; it’s a quick and easy way to introduce the character, but it plays like absolute gangbusters. At last, we have a Peter Parker who will also make an incredible Spider-man. Plus, and this is my personal bias, I think we will absolutely NOT be getting that goddamn origin story when his solo film hits next year.
The real breakout star of Civil War, however, is Boseman. Having made a career out of playing iconic black heroes, such as Jackie Robinson and James Brown, Boseman has officially arrived as one of the most iconic black super-heroes. His T’Challa is bold, driven, charming, intelligent and dangerous. Boseman smolders as the devastated son on the hunt for revenge; but is not above yukking it up when the screenplay requires it. He has great moments both in and especially out of the suit, where he’s clearly modeling literally every piece of clothing he wears. You better believe that a star was born and I am now aching to see the Ryan Coogler directed Black Panther film!
Everyone gets their moment, though. Scarlett Johannson plays the conflicted heroine perfectly; she is Cap’s best friend but knows the Accords are the right thing to do. And if conflict of the heart is the truest form of drama, then Black Widow is the most well realized character in the film. Despite her penchant for punching people, she doesn’t want to see anyone harmed. Paul Bettany as Vision steals every scene he is in; especially when wearing that ridiculous sweater. MVP of Age of Ultron, Hawkeye, gets in a few good licks; while Anthony Mackie absolutely deserves his own film. I mean, the guy is in every other movie out. But to me, the real show-stealer is Paul Rudd as Ant-Man (review), who has one of the very best lines, the very best reactions and the very best ‘Oh shit!’ moment that helps push a particular scene into the stratosphere of ‘amazing’.
There is surprisingly little action in Civil War. That’s not to say that there isn’t any – every set piece is quite wonderful – but the film is incredibly talky, in the best way. The Russos approach every line of dialogue as a punch, pushing the plot and the characters forward. Even the actual punches reveal bits of character or plot, creating a more satisfying experience. A lot of action, especially in the MCU, is divorced from the greater story. The characters talk, figure something out and then have to fight, only to repeat the process at least three more times. The action is relegated to a pause in the story. Civil War successfully incorporates it. The epic showdown between the warring sides is every bit as stupendous as the trailers make it out to be, only moreso. The Russos are consistently changing up the beats, so that each individual melee in this battle royale is different; every pairing makes sense and you never even lose track of the location or where everyone is. A true sign of a master vision. None of the fights in the film ever feel stale or become boring, because when they threaten to overstay their welcome, the Russos and the writers inject it with something new and exciting but still totally believable within the realm of the film. Civil War may run long, I definitely felt its nearly two and a half hour runtime. I would never once call it boring, however.
The best part of Civil War, and this is the petty fan in me speaking, is how it basically succeeds at everything Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice (review) failed to do. The clash of titans is richer and deeper, a by-product of a natural progression of years of history between characters and not some ridiculous ploy by the studios. There’s even a sub-plot of someone’s family – and mother – being used as an impetus for a major conflict. Handled way better than ‘Wait, is your mother’s name Martha, too? Did we just become best friends?!’. Even the manipulator character, which gives Steve something to hunt for during his downtime, is light years ahead of the absurdity that is Lex Luthor. The best part of all of this is that Civil War, being filmed at the same time, was not even trying to twist the knife in Batman’s side, it manages to do everything better without having to call out BvS in any way. It’s like some of the 90s rap battles, but only one side is actually engaged in it. The other is just doing what it does and being better at it.
In a film as rich as Civil War, the inclusion of that aforementioned manipulator character is a little unnecessary. The conflict between Iron Man and Captain America is deep and strong enough that we don’t need Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) playing with plot mechanics. Zemo exists to give Steve something to do, something to search for. The Cap films are at their heart conspiracy thrillers and Zemo is the ultimate conspiracy, but he’s a little too neat, a little ‘Nolan terrorist’ – too smart until the end – that the film falters a bit because of him. It also robs the ever-present and growing ideological tension between our two mains of its power. Conflict from within which exerts itself without is far more satisfying than the other way around. Which is not to say the Russos do not make the Zemo angle work; far from it. Unlike Luthor, Zemo has a personal motivation and when the time comes to pay the piper, you find yourself empathizing with the man, despite him being a cold – yet not heartless – bastard. His plan is a little far-fetched, but it works well within the context – and also provides a nice arc for T’Challa, too.
Captain America: Civil War is proof that the episodic, inter-woven Marvel model can pay off. Many of the plots and loose ends dangling in the MCU are wrapped up, while giving us enough of a jumping off point for the next major entry (The Infinity War). Civil War is best viewed after the previous 12, yet would still stand up very well on its own; it is surprisingly self-contained in terms of its conclusion. It is the period at the end of the long sentence that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Like The Winter Soldier before it, Civil War leaves the universe in a much different place than when it entered and I cannot wait to see what happens next. Thirteen films in, and I am already looking forward to the next thirteen.