Before I’d ever heard of the Marvel comic event that would eventually beget this film, I had a vision of a superhero story where collateral damage is used as an excuse to discredit superheroes and to call for their arrest or cessation. Captain America: Civil War more or less is that story, and its often serious tone makes for a compelling if sometimes emotionally unforgiving story that strikes a healthy balance between being fun, without being irresponsible (usually), and being introspective, without being depressing.
As did the Avengers films, Captain America in many ways feels like a sequel to the Iron Man films and several other stories in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as well as a foretaste of what the franchise will hold in the years to come–but rather than simply being a series of movie-length advertisements and product placements, Civil War feels more like the unfolding of a diverse array of character beliefs and motivations that have become increasingly morally difficult to reconcile. Even though some aspects of the premise feel thinly constructed and halfhearted, the movie finds enough value in its action and its interpersonal stories to excuse the gaps in its foundation. If you’re a longtime Marvel follower seeking a realistic treatment of superheroes that isn’t as dark as DC’s Watchmen, this is that story.
Power and responsibility
After a mysterious flashback that gains depth throughout the movie, the modern-day opening is exciting and familiar: bad people do bad things and end up being punched. Captain America and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow fight crime along with several other helpers including the magically empowered Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch from Age of Ultron. Unfortunately, her telekinetic attempt to throw a bomb away instead results in it being sent toward a high-rise, resulting in numerous innocent deaths. She’s brokenhearted over the disastrous results of something she never intended (Elizabeth Olsen’s acting has improved), but the bigger picture is that Civil War revisits the worldwide distrust superheroes gained in Ultron but doubles down on it.
Over one hundred countries have given their support to accords that are intended to monitor and govern superhero/vigilante activity. The oddity here is that the film’s way of justifying this screams, “Why only now?” as clips of tremendous destruction from previous Marvel films are showcased, such as the big, green Incredible Hulk (who is absent in this film) tearing through a building in one of the Avengers movies. The same goes for the depiction of an enormous vehicle crash toward the end of The Winter Soldier, this film’s predecessor. Civil War’s in-universe critics of the Avengers’ tactics don’t dwell extensively on any of these scenarios or provide in-depth practical solutions that would have lessened collateral damage. What would you do if a mythological figure summoned tons of aliens? How about if an advanced intelligence wanted to cause human extinction? Instead, the heroes are viewed as dangerous and apathetic despite the incident that really sets the plot in motion essentially being the result of a misaimed bounce, and moreover, said event with all of its tragedy is still arguably less devastating than other actions our heroes previously got away with.
Poor Wanda blames herself, and while the movie makes an admirable attempt to emotionally rehabilitate her and give her a personal context similar to what Black Widow and Hawkeye each had in Ultron, her otherwise compelling story seems to take a backseat to the ideological conflict brewing between Tony Stark/Iron Man, who despite his formerly rebellious nature is in favor of the Avengers answering to the United Nations, and Steve Rogers/Captain America, who also regrets the needless loss of life but doesn’t feel that government oversight will help the Avengers do their actual job–saving lives–any more capably. One could argue that the heroes and all the good they did do are being taken for granted and disproportionately compared to the lives they weren’t able to preserve, but regardless, Rogers and Stark are both deeply sympathetic in their respective viewpoints. Resultantly, their inability to compromise both sets the stage for much of the film’s action and lends the story emotional weight. Robert Downey, Jr.’s Tony Stark is particularly stellar as a former playboy who’s had to learn the meaning of responsibility the hard way all too many times, despite still finding opportunity to crack a joke every once in a while, and his fantastic and multifaceted acting outshines Chris Evans’ in his own movie.
Know your true enemies and your friends.
Despite the scale and premise, most of the action feels less over-the-top than is often the case in these movies: there are few gigantic vehicles crashing and no exploding cities. Indeed, the central conflict feels–at least for a time–less driven by fists and personalities than by understandable beliefs and grievances. How would government oversight work? How much operational freedom, if any, would the Avengers be given with regard to either rules of engagement or the simple act of deployment? If the Avengers “needed” to save the day at a location they weren’t cleared to go to (this was brought up in the movie but not intensely examined), who would be held responsible for their failure to act? The movie does sidestep many of these questions to a degree and doesn’t go into detail about the exact demands being expected of these superheroes, but it replaces extensive political insight with character interactions that stay relatable no matter how larger-than-life the action becomes.
The young man T’Challa hails from the fictional African nation of Wakanda and is soon thrust into greatness and responsibility, adopting the persona Black Panther and a suitably grim mission. Chadwick Boseman apparently put a lot of effort into preparing for his role, right down to adjusting his accent based on the geographical location of a nonexistent country, and it shows: he remains compelling and charismatic throughout the film, and while his character development is a bit simple, at least it’s there; the end result is likable and rather admirable for a story that has a smorgasbord of ideas and executes those with enough effort to be worthwhile, like Iron Man 2 if its story delivery had remained tightly focused.
A political twist forces earlier events into a new light, and Captain America obligates himself to go to extreme lengths to rescue an old “friend” who is anything but reliable. The reasons behind this character’s unstable personality and demeanor are much more justified than simple I-love-you-I-hate-you drama, and while it’s frustrating when optimism about someone’s nature doesn’t translate into taking necessary precautions when dealing with them, the story puts forth its best effort into bringing a good and reasonable consequence out of a situation that probably could have been somewhat avoided with foresight.
Regarding Rogers, it’s important to notice that some of his actions, even in light of their noble motivations, are blatantly illegal and may even be unnecessary in practical terms, such as one highly questionable choice he makes during a chase scene. His stance, however, is clear: he will not support the accords that would constrain his and the Avengers’ authority to fight crime by their rules and on their terms, while Tony Stark, who knows all about the horrors of good ideas sent out of control, sees the accords as a means of imposing necessary and concrete accountability. As well done as the film’s story is, it doesn’t really give much of an answer to the question, “Would the United Nations be a competent and effective authority over the Avengers,” because its bigger focus is less on whether an external source of responsibility pragmatically decreases collateral damage, and more on the ideals behind whether that source is needed at all.
You may be wondering to yourself two very important questions here: What happens to superheroes who don’t support these accords, and if a superhero goes rogue, who brings him in? Would you want to be charged with bringing a rampaging Hulk, the mighty Thor, or even a mundane yet capable individual such as Black Widow to justice? Steve Rogers learns that his choices carry high consequences, and his pursuer is a brilliant thinker who knows him all too well and is equipped and ready to resist him if absolutely necessary: Iron Man.
“Friendly fire — isn’t.” ~ unknown
Our morally opposed vigilantes begin to assemble their respective teams, with neither side having an easy time of it. Captain America’s beliefs get stretched to their limit as he takes risk after risk in the service of the big picture, while Iron Man’s pragmatism gets stretched to its breaking point as he watches a friend and ally become a person he hardly recognizes. The plot begins to feel like a dark twist of the first Avengers’ recruit-your-crew scenes, which here are sometimes funny and at other times grim. Some sides are chosen because of vendettas, and a few are chosen for the sake of much-needed silliness–it gets milked, but not so much so as to become annoying.
Without wanting to spoil the whole cast list, some of the film’s funniest characters are those who are most detached from the Avengers lineup per se even as Tony Stark develops what is more or less a “dad voice” toward one of them. It’s lighthearted, even if the bigger purpose of these establishing scenes is not, and it keeps Civil War from growing unbearably depressing or–arguably worse–monotone and boring. Some of the participants’ involvement in the titular conflict becomes rather tenuous, but when that is the case, the movie is smart enough to play those people and their actions for laughs. Even still, the movie tries its best to give all of its dozen or so main and supporting characters an actual role in the story and a reason to be present, even if to varying degrees, and it’s one of the biggest and best attempts to tell a large-scale character-driven story that I’ve seen since The Fellowship of the Ring did an excellent job doing the same thing almost a decade and a half ago ago. (For comparison purposes, Civil War is right at half an hour shorter.) Two things are interesting to note in the midst of all the choosing of sides and the drawing of eventual battle lines:
- Loyalties never feel like a random draft. Characters’ reasons for picking their respective sides–“Team Captain America” (opposing the governing of superheroes by an outside body) or “Team Iron Man” (believing such governance is necessary to prevent further humanitarian and public-relations disasters)–are never arbitrary even for characters with shakier loyalties. There’s a lot of raw information to keep track of, but there’s always at least something of a sensible explanation for where a person stands and why, even in cases where that changes with time.
- There’s a story still being told in the background. There is a plot thread that exists mostly separately from the central Civil War, but the latter never ceases to feel important even if obviously superheroes should and do have more important duties than fighting each other. They certainly have much bigger problems, which both sides end up having to deal with.
The biggest “problem”–if it can even be called such–with the story’s fervent emphasis on its characters is that a lot of necessary story information feels crammed into chunks throughout a movie that also wants and readily gets its extended battle scenes, which also do a fine job of developing the characters and the plot. Hence, the movie feels densely packed, but this is in some ways a good thing: there is plenty of room for blockbusters to challenge their audiences and ask genuinely important questions that go beyond the realm of the please-the-crowd popcorn entertainment Age of Ultron polished to a sheen, but know going in that the film, especially the second half and most especially if you’re not readily familiar with the Marvel cinematic universe (minor spoilers in the link, but a good refresher/crash course), does not hold your hand in helping you keep pace with everything that occurs with all of its small- and large-scale implications, many of which form a two-way bridge between past and future films. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a strong recommendation, both for its story ties and its impeccable pacing, especially if you prefer a superhero movie that feels more like a grounded although very intense action thriller. I didn’t watch Iron Man 3 and felt like I missed out on a poignant moment near the beginning of this film, so you may want to study up. Age of Ultron also lays some necessary groundwork, so I don’t recommend skipping it. The Scarlet Witch’s role and place in the story are low-level but deeply interesting, and it’s well worth seeing her progress as a character and a performer between that film and this one.
A lot of my friends have praised one of the climactic battle scenes, which takes place at an otherwise vacant airport, as one of Marvel’s best. What should ideally have been one team united in beliefs and morals has in practice fractured into two, neither of which wants to fight the other, as shown by the trepid steps both sides take before actually engaging in their inevitable fight. Lasers and magic missiles (among other things) fly as the combatants unleash their strength–though not always the worst of it–and these parties know that no matter who “wins,” their ultimate mission lies elsewhere even as they can no longer gloss over and bury their differences.
There’s a wide variety of moods on display in this one scene: Some moments are exciting. After an extensive setup, we get to see these personalities showcase their distinctive abilities without outside interference. Some moments are tense and uncertain. Specific characters do effectively change sides, because they see a goal that is greater than their immediate fight, and this is just one more piece of information on an increasingly heavy yet consistently important pile. And some moments are sad. With unnecessary violence comes necessary responsibility, and Tony Stark’s look of scarcely repressed anger as yet another unintended disaster occurs is horrific to see, due in part to Downey’s terrific acting.
The one thing I will say about the airport battle is that even though civilian lives are not at risk, the movie’s message about collateral damage seems to not apply here as many vehicles including airplanes are demolished, whether to be used as weapons or simply because they’re in the way. It’s a thematic misstep that really isn’t covered in the depth that I would have preferred (Tony Stark’s building-ownership gag from Age of Ultron only feels more relevant now), because a story that on the surface emphasizes the superheroes’ responsibility not only to themselves but to the world around them ultimately ends up focusing primarily on the heroes themselves. Nevertheless, the scene still does a fine job of paving the way for the film’s final act.
No such thing as a civil war
I won’t spoil the depths of what’s really going on. You as the viewer deserve to experience and understand those facts for yourself, but the fight’s still not over. Stark and Rogers take their brawl to brutal figurative and literal lows in one of the film’s and probably its cinematic universe’s darkest scenes. The tragedy in two, then many, sympathetic individuals coming to blows is that ultimately someone has to lose, and while the story tries to make the most of its (in my eyes) premature ending, it does not take an easy way out. There is no glory or pride or even honor to be found here; there is victory, if it can even be called such. The Marvel universe will be feeling the sting of the evils wrought here for years to come, but Civil War most definitely elevates the level of story and thematic relevance I can come to expect from these films and this genre, just as The Dark Knight and The Winter Soldier did in years past.
Technically the movie is both amazing and at times questionable, because while the pictured dialogue may prove a sticking point for some audiences, the special effects are astounding with all manner of powers and gadgets being flawlessly rendered. The 3D looks nice but adds little to the film unlike in The Force Awakens; even still, there’s a strong variety of indoor and outdoor settings and color palettes, with few if any scenes seeming too bright or too dark to easily follow. The sound and music do their jobs capably and help to complete this artistic ensemble.
Beyond all of that, the most exciting quality about the excellent Civil War is arguably not any one scene of action or dialogue, but how all of those things and their realistic consequences create a political Marvel setting that looks very different at the end of this story from how it did at the beginning, and it’s safe to say that the bar has been set too high for future Marvel films to settle for convenient plots and comfortable problems. Sometimes the deepest or most urgent threat isn’t yet another villain wanting to take over the world or commit mass murder in so many terms, just as can be the case in our own world; I’m looking forward to a hopeful generation of superheroes and superhero films that deal with challenging issues they can’t simply punch their way through, thanks in large part to the storytelling risks taken here that deserve to be followed up on. No matter this story’s (important) flaws or shortcomings, I think that in terms of its overall intent, one thing is clear:
This is the film the Marvel universe needed.
Conclusion: Punch you in your perfect teeth
In terms of overall construction, it’s hard to say whether I will applaud this story or the excellent Winter Soldier more highly, because a large part of that is simple stylistic choice–the latter felt like one of the most realistic and physically believable Marvel movies since the first Iron Man, and its pacing was essentially flawless throughout. Civil War is easily one of the most ambitious mass-market movies I’ve ever seen; despite watching the film on its opening day, I prepared and chewed on this review for a week because of the sheer amount of raw substance to take into consideration, even if that at times led to the film feeling overstuffed and primed to burst. I readily think it needed to take that chance, however, and I firmly believe that in large part it paid off and became a film that is well worth being visited and revisited.
Other than The Incredible Hulk, which I’ve still not seen and who doesn’t play a role in this film, the recent Captain America films were among the last Marvel movies I’d gotten around to viewing, since Captain America didn’t hugely appeal to me as a character or a premise. The Marvel cinematic universe has used him well, however, and he’s certainly at his most compelling in this film, even if aspects of that are necessarily hard to watch and harder to stomach, right or wrong. But Civil War strikes a delicate balance–it doesn’t settle for simplistic notions about what either of those things are, and neither does it give up on them. Good and evil still exist, but they’re not centered in a shield, a suit, or a legal document. Where are they found, and what do they mean? I’m more excited than ever to see how this universe answers that.
Image sources (property of Marvel Studios)
Movie poster — source
Scarlet Witch — source
United Nations building — source
Black Panther — source
T’Challa GIF — repository (spoilers; may also be in other links)
Tony Stark — source
Cast size: Expectation vs. reality — source
Captain America versus Iron Man — source/meme
Language! — meme
This post was originally written and published for my movie-review blog, Projected Realities.