It’s been interesting seeing the development of this series of movies within the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe. When The First Avenger debuted in 2011, there were serious questions as to how the character of Captain America could even be adapted for a successful movie. Fast forward three years later and The Winter Soldier becomes one of the best reviewed movies Marvel has put out. Consistently, the “Captain America” series has been the best Marvel has done. Part of it has been their luck at getting the right people and part of it has been the decision to make Cap’s movies the ones dealing with the fallout from the big Avengers battles.
Such is the case here in Civil War, which picks up just months in the aftermath of Age of Ultron and the Battle of Sokovia. Captain America (Chris Evans) leads the new Avengers – Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), War Machine (Don Cheadle) and Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) – into action. When things don’t go as planned during a mission, the world takes stock of the actions of these heroes and decides that enough is enough. The superheroes of the world must be reigned in so that collateral damage can be avoided. Secretary of State Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) lead the charge towards the Sokovia Accords – an United Nations resolution that will put the Avengers under the control of an overwatch group and will deem any unsanctioned heroes to be the same as criminals.
Things don’t go so easy, unfortunately, as the actions of certain, shadowy forces lead to a terrorist attack that is pinned on the shoulders of the still-at-large Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). This immediately puts Steve Rogers and Tony Stark at odds. Steve wants to rush out and bring his friend in alive while Tony demands he agree to the Sokovia Accords and stay out of the fight against Bucky. This inevitably leads to a split amongst our heroes: recognize authority and work within the system or reject authority and do what you think is right. Before long, both sides are having to call in old friends and new allies like Vision (Paul Bettany), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) to try and bring this fight to a close. All the while, there’s a sense that the villain in the shadows is guiding this fight towards an end that will result in the end of the Avengers.
Let me start with the obvious: Yes, this feels less like a solo Captain America movie and more of an Avengers 2.5. The cast is huge. At one point, a character quips about where are Thor and The Hulk and you honestly have to stop and consider it. But for their absence, it isn’t the full-blown Avengers sequel that this movie really should have been. This is a far-cry from even the situation in Winter Soldier where Natasha, Sam, Nick Fury and Bucky were all present. Here’s the crux though: you don’t feel like the film is overburdened by all these characters as the movie gives everyone a little story arc while devoting the bulk of its time to Cap, Tony, Bucky and Black Panther.
The veterans to the Marvel universe do their normal thing and that’s not a bad thing. By this point, Robert Downey Jr and Chris Evans know their roles inside and out. They slip easily into Tony Stark and Steve Rogers and their relationship is one we know and accept – before it gets splintered down the middle. Their conflict of high-minded ideas eventually boiling down to emotional reactions and personal reasons. Both manage the various aspects of their roles so well that it really passes you by in its lack of effort. Downey is Tony Stark/Iron Man. Evans is Steve Rogers/Captain America. It’s just the way it is.
Rather than go down the entire cast, who all acquit themselves well, let just highlight a few of the key performances. Scarlett Johansson continues to be the underrated glue that holds a lot of these movies together. Her performance as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow allows her the opportunity to work with all sides of the Civil War divide and its key figures. She acts as the voice of doubt in the ears of two men who are so certain that their path is the right path (and may even be the only path). Really, she deserves her own movie by now. Stan’s performance as Bucky/The Winter Soldier continues to be one of the highlights of this series. He’s a man conflicted with all he’s been – terrified of the monster he was forged into and unsure of the good man he was even exists. It’s not a question of if Cap’s old pal is there. It’s more a question of if he can reconcile the various aspects of his life and what his actions have wrought. Meanwhile, the two new big additions — Boseman’s T’Challa/Black Panther and Holland’s Peter Parker/Spider-Man — acquit themselves well. Of the two, Holland’s is the smaller role. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t work, because he does. Holland is able to embody both aspects of the role well and feels more like the classic Steve Ditko/John Romita Spidey than any has up until now. Bonus props for the new Aunt May (Marisa Tomei). Can’t wait to see them all in action in Homecoming.
Boseman, it has to be said, travels a road far more complex through this story. His is no mere cameo. Instead, we are introduced to T’Challa and the people of Wakanda in this story and he has to embody the complexities of a young man, born to power and needing to balance his personal vendetta with the greater cause. He’s a man of action who must temper it because his every action is the act of a national leader. It creates a dynamic that no other character really has to balance. This might be his introduction to us, but he’s a fully-formed character and it’s never a question of whether or not he’ll be a hero, but of what kind of hero he will be. He does tremendously well here and you can just tell that his role will continue to be big in the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe. I cannot wait for Black Panther in 2018.
After delivering one of the best Marvel movies in The Winter Soldier, the Russo brothers basically brought back the same crew as before for Civil War. They re-team with writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely to adapt Mark Millar’s eponymous comic crossover. They bring back everyone from cinematographer Trent Opaloch, editors Jeffrey Ford and Matthew Schmidt and costume designer Judianna Makovsky to the wizards at ILM who lead the vast number of SFX companies embroiled in this undertaking. Henry Jackman returns to give the movie an epic score that plays off The First Avenger rah-rah music with the complexities of modern tehcno/industrial music that were present in The Winter Soldier. All of this allows the Russos the opportunity to just work towards putting together the best film they can – and they do.
I’m not going to deny that this movie is on the larger size. Bigger cast, more stars and big set pieces. This means that some of the nuance in the plot’s key argument – whether or not to agree with the Sokovia Accords – gets lost in the shuffle. It feels like they only took the key component of Millar’s “Civil War” and instead used it along with where the MCU’s story had taken it after the events of Winter Soldier and Age of Ultron to craft this story. Truth be told, I don’t know where else they could have fit this story within the larger MCU frame that would have worked as well as this. It doesn’t mean that the more esoteric debates are as on solid ground. The Accords are only the cause for creating a rift between Captain America and Iron Man that the film advertises.
The surprising thing is that the rest of the story works very well because it is based on the history that came before it between our heroes. It is their individual as well as their shared history that gives this conflict weight. Tony’s past history as a merchant of weapons keeps haunting him as he sees his new life as a superhero crashing against his failures with Ultron. At the same time, Steve is fearful of obeying a new overlord given the failure of S.H.I.E.L.D. to keep Hydra out. So the movie does the smart thing and twists the knife by pitting friend against friend in the decision to back or reject the Accords and then to follow Steve or Tony. The friendship of Steve and Bucky is pitted against the friendship of Steve and Tony. For their friendship, Sam follows Steve while Rhodes goes with Tony. Despite of their friendship, Natasha and Clint end up on opposite sides. In spite of growing affection, Wanda fights Vision. It is like these for the heroes in this story. At every turn, they’re being challenged on whether or not they’re choosing the right side or not. Because to be on the other side means a fight.
And what the movie does best is set up all these fights between them. The big highlight is the Leipzig Airport battle in Germany that everyone’s seen glimpses of in the trailers. It’s the culmination of the story and it lives to its billing. We get to see everyone’s powers and abilities unleashed. Fighters like Captain America and Black Panther square off. High-tech warriors like Iron Man and Ant-Man take on one another. It not only features plenty of good fight choreography, but it also manages to have several beats that leave it in doubt as to who will end up winning the fight. It’s as much a battle between wills as it is one of fists. Besides that set piece, there’s also the opening fight in Lagos, the chase in Bucharest and the final fight that brings everything together. And when that fight happens, there’s no certainty as to how it will end. All in all, the Russo brothers continue their fine work adapting the best aspects of Marvel’s comics to the big screen. Only this time, their eye for large-scale battles rivals that of Joss Whedon’s in The Avengers.
When the movie focuses on the personal – the friendships, the losses, the pain – it works really, really well. When it tries to go towards the more high-minded issues of control versus freedom, it kind of gets lost. After all, there’s value in both positions Cap and Tony take. And it’s easy to get why they feel the way they feel. But whereas Winter Soldier managed to balance the emotional with the political deftly, Civil War just cannot manage that feat. Maybe it was just going to be impossible with this large a cast and story.
I do have a few more words I want to share but they require spoiling things in this movie, so I’ll save them for later. Ultimately Captain America: Civil War does a great job of moving the MCU forward. It adapts one of the biggest Marvel stories in a good way that fits the MCU and allows for the kind of emotional storytelling that is their hallmark. Where they go from here is anyone’s guess – and that’s a good thing. (We know that it all will lead to Infinity War.) Civil War continues to show that Captain America — the dull, boring, old Captain America — is arguably the most important character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Others may have more power or more toys, but he’s the representation of the best that all these heroes aspire to be — self-less, heroic and true. If this is the last solo outing for Cap, it’s as fitting a send-off as we can want.