The bar for superhero movies is getting lower every year. Look at 2015: Ant-Man wasn’t very good,Deadpool was okay at best, yet both were critical hits and box-office smashes. Lucky for everyone, even by the decreasing standards superhero cinema, Captain America: Civil War clears the average by far. The movie works because it clarifies its themes early and sticks to them at all times. Even when the plotting gets cumbersome, audiences will enjoy the quality of the direction and the changes in story and character. And the action, of course.
It feels strange to set Civil War apart from the recent competition, since it is so very like the superhero movie that immediately preceded it.
Captain America: Civil War is the second major blockbuster in as many months to pit superheroes against each other in a fight over how exactly good guys should fight bad guys. Meaning the Disney and WB spent a combined $400 – 500 million making two movies about muscly men (mostly men, anyway) in magic suits fighting in spectacular CGI combat. That’s not unusual. Today’s movies are expensive and originality is not what we expect in the superhero genre. But it bears mentioning because, damn, that’s a lot of money.
It’s actually quite surprising how alike BvS and Civil War are. Both films are predicated upon the notion of superhero accountability to human governments. In Batman v Superman, the US government–and Batman of course–are upset at Superman’s wanton destruction of Metropolis and the mass death that followed (see: Man of Steel). In Civil War, it is the United Nations that seeks to reign in the Avengers after their wanton destruction of Sokovia and and the mass death that followed (see: Avengers: Age of Ultron).
It may be true that these films are quantitatively similar, but there’s really no qualitative comparison to be made. While I didn’t hate Batman v Superman nearly as much as the horde, compared to Civil War it is a shit sandwich. Civil War exists in another class entirely.
Just compare the major fight scenes; they are the draw for much of the audience after all. Superman and Batman brawl at night, in a clumsy, ill-lit sequence full of clutter and obstructions. It’s hard to see and impossible to care about. The Avengers face-off, by contrast, happens in the sunlight, on an airstrip, with almost nothing to block our view but the contenders. It’s crisp, exciting, coherent action, and the difference captures perfectly the distinction between Marvel’s success and DC’s (so far) misery.
In Civil War, it’s the UN’s Sokovia Accords that establish the weight of the film. Set-up in the first act, they make the political reality of this super-team an actual conflict.The Avengers are asked to sign a UN Accord that will subject their decisions to intervene in any conflict to an oversight committee. There are disagreements, leading to internal super-fights, which are manipulated in one way or another by a villain with some kind of master plan to reek death and carnage of some sort or another. Off-hand I couldn’t tell you exactly what the evil plan was, but it doesn’t really matter, does it? Just that it’s there, and the good guys’ll have to eventually stop their squabbling so they can attend to the real baddies.
The Avengers are asked to sign by the US Secretary of State (William Hurt, whose Thaddeus Ross is back from long exile after Incredible Hulk), and Secretary Ross has a point. Unilateral intervention as a means to justice served by super-people cannot be allowed to go unchecked. Tony Stark, having just faced a grieving mother who lost a son in Sokovia, buys the argument and wants to sign.
Steve Rogers, aka Captain America, doesn’t. He is skeptical of surrendering the judgment of right and wrong to an international panel of UN dignitaries. Captain America cannot refuse those in need just because the blue helmets tell him not to. If Cap’ deems it necessary, then he will go it alone.
And thus the lines are drawn. Cap’, Falcon, Scarlet Witch, Hawkeye, Ant-Man etc are on the side of an independent Avengers team. Iron Man, Black Widow, Vision etc are on the side of being led by the world’s leaders. When the pro-UN Avengers show up for the signing ceremony though, the UN is bombed, and it appears the culprit is Steve Roger’s childhood friend turned Hydra-controlled Winter Soldier, Bucky Barnes (see: Captain America: The Winter Soldier).
Which puts the theoretical dispute between the two sides to the test. Iron Man’s team will attempt to find and kill Barnes. Cap’s team doesn’t believe Barnes was the bomber. They intend to find him, protect him, and search for the “real” villain.
Anthony and Joe Russo return to direct Civil War after their stint on Winter Soldier, and their command of the material remains strong even as their cast and plot elements have ballooned. They’ve taken a page from the Bourne series, here, flitting audiences from Africa to Europe and Russia to the US, following a trail that is often confusing but always entertaining. If watching Cap and Iron Man pound on each other is fun, and it is, the Russos and their writers, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, ensure that their conflict also carries the sadness of a broken bond.
The franchise long personality conflicts of Steve Rogers and Tony Stark ring a somber bell when they are put at odds, and Chris Evans and Robert Downey, Jr. do fine work as they explore their ruptured friendship. Broken friendships are in Civil War‘s DNA, actually, and each member of the Avengers has difficulty facing their friends. Black Widow, especially, struggles with ‘taking sides.’
Loyalty and friendship and history do not disappear because the UN comes calling. But emotions and personal bonds are not always the clearest basis for decision-making. How the Avengers mix the political and the personal is a question that Civil War investigates with depth; I found it the most rewarding thematic piece of the film. We’ve all got family, and in many our families, we have political unrest; sometimes it can be managed, sometimes it causes lasting divides.
If Captain America: Civil War is about anything (lately it seems superhero movies are rarely about anything other than their own propagation), it is about a philosophical dispute that has no resolution. One side is not evil for the choice they make. The other side is not evil for disagreeing. That’s just what happens when a family is faced with a life-changing decision.
All this might sound heavy and dramatic, but Civil War carries the Marvel levity, too. A refreshing source of this levity is provided by newcomer Peter Parker (Tom Holland). Holland’s Spider-Man is young and fresh and eager to participate. If there is anything that Marvel needs, now that they are thirteen movies into their run, it is some youth. The MCU is a stodgy universe filled with middle-age heroes carrying middle-age problems. A high-school kid entering their world with wide-eyed admiration and gee-whiz banter makes the whole Marvel Universe seem a bit more approachable. (Though Tony Stark’s decision to recruit a kid of Peter’s age into his own intra-Avenger war seems extremely irresponsible).
The other newcomer is Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther, yet another hero who debuts in the MCU in Civil War. Unlike Spider-Man’s introductory appearance, Black Panther plays a feature role in Civil War. His father, the king of Wakanda, is killed in the bombing of the UN and T’Challa/Black Panther (now the king himself), vows to find Bucky before the Avengers.
Both of these character introductions are successful, and each deserves their own films (already forthcoming, of course). But they highlight the overarching problem of Captain America: Civil War, and the MCU at large: bloat. There are at least a dozen recurring characters in this film, perhaps just as many plots underway, too. The business model obviously supports this expansion, but surely we are reaching an event horizon, where all stories simply disappear beyond our ability to care about them.
And even if we are not, it’s a shame to call this film Captain America. There’s no real way to spin this film as anything other than Avengers: Civil War.
The multi-franchise model Marvel has built is predicated on a cycle: individual superhero franchise films, then an Avengers film. Which means that if you are particularly interested in one character’s films, it can be a long wait. As it so happens, in the Marvel Universe I wait for Captain America. In the years since his movie creation in The First Avenger, Steve Rogers has become Marvel’s most interesting superhero. His growth has been evident through both Avengers films, and he is responsible for what is (and remains) the best film Marvel has yet made: Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
I knew going in what Civil War was, how many of the Avengers were in the picture, but I had still hoped for a personal story centered on Steve Rogers and his pal Bucky Barnes. So, yes, this is a very good bit of superhero filmmaking. But I am disappointed that Phase III of the Marvel master plan has essentially skipped Captain America. A wasted opportunity for us fans of Steve Rogers.