WARNING: Minor spoilers to follow.
Marvel continues to rule the box office, this week passing the 10 billion dollar mark for the total gross of all its films. Beyond the spectacle, the reason this has happened is simple: Marvel Studios knows how to make a good film. Captain America: Civil War, like its two excellent predecessors, is not just a good superhero movie; it’s a compelling drama with real stakes and true heart.
We are now thirteen films into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The triumph of Civil War is that despite that number, character development still happens; people that we’ve known for three or four movies grow in this film, they change or take even more steadfast stances on what they believe is right. Credit must be given to writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (both of whom were responsible for the two previous Captain America films) for managing to accomplish this given the weight of history that comes with these characters as well as the sheer number that appear on screen; not only does Civil War manage to create a morally gray, complex conflict between established characters, but it also introduces the Wakandan king, Black Panther, and Queen’s very own, Spider-Man to the mix. That being said, Civil War is packed with content, the longest and easily the most emotionally wearying of any Marvel film to date.
The conflict arises from an early tragedy involving the Avengers. Having been involved in a string of catastrophes (the most recent of which being the destruction of Sokovia in Age of Ultron) world leaders in the UN think it is time that the team be given oversight by a committee of elected officials. Steve Rogers, also known as Captain America, is against this idea. To him, ideologically, the Avengers’ function is to do good; people may get hurt along the way, but overall the world is a safer place because of their actions. It’s here that Cap’s roots as a soldier show; he knows there is always a cost and that seeking to eliminate that cost – as Tony Stark attempted to do with the Ultron project – often results in disaster.
Credit again must go to the writers for making Steve Rogers a consistent, nuanced character that is anything but a square; he may be a positive, hopeful force, but he is also colored by his experiences with the darkest parts of humanity, particularly with those that represent governmental authority. These figures failed he and his team in The Avengers as the World Security Council (they tried to nuke Manhattan) and as S.H.I.E.L.D. which was revealed to be infested with agents of the villainous organization HYDRA in The Winter Soldier. Cap’s unwillingness to accept oversight (detailed in a document entitled, “The Sokovia Accords”) is completely in line with the character we’ve come to know. The people in the oversight council would have agendas, individual desires that could not always be trusted; the people that Cap trusts are the members of the Avengers. Cap’s argument is best summated by his question to the team: “What if this panel sends us somewhere we don’t think we should go? What if there’s somewhere we need to go and they won’t let us?”
In contrast, Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, seems to have developed an even more deeply buried, debilitating form of the PTSD we glimpsed in Iron Man 3. Despite his efforts to improve the world and move on (evidenced by the destruction of his suits in Iron Man 3 and his failed attempt at the Ultron Project in Age of Ultron), Tony has finally realized that he doesn’t want to stop being a hero, or rather that he can’t stop. The results of his recent actions caused the dissolution of his relationship with Pepper Potts and the deaths caused by his deeds weigh heavily on him; his guilt drives him to support the Accords, despite protests from Steve.
The catalyst for the “civil war” alluded to in the title comes from the reappearance of Cap’s old wartime buddy (and hetero life-mate) Bucky Barnes. After his supposed involvement in a terrorist act stirs up international controversy, Steve, Tony, and the rest of the Avengers are forced to choose sides in a conflict that will have no true victor. Loyalty is Steve’s greatest asset; his disbelief that Bucky would commit an act so brazen after spending more than a year in hiding leads him to clash with Tony who has already cast judgment. The conflict is further complicated by the involvement of T’Challa, the King of Wakanda, whose involvement in proceedings is extremely personal and tied directly into the apparent actions of Bucky.
Though there is a lot of set up, what follows is two hours of glorious action, dramatic confrontation, and intensely personal stakes that lead to a reveal so painful and so well-done, the film’s ending is completely earned. The true success of the film is that there is no clear answer to the dilemma presented. Both Steve and Tony make compelling cases for their sides, backed by their experiences in the events of the previous films. The moral grayness of the situation and the way in which each of the characters play into it is very impressive; not a single scene or act by the characters rings false. This film only works because of the strength of its performances and everyone here is at the top of their game.
Once again, Chris Evans embodies the near impossible goodness of Steve Rogers with ease. Steve’s commitment to his ideals and, above all, his friend Bucky is beyond touching and you can’t help but be caught up in his moral quandary as the situation spirals out of control.
Robert Downey Jr. turns in his best performance to date as Tony Stark. Just like Steve, Tony’s character has come a long way while remaining true to himself. Though the sharp-tongued, smartass still exists, more than ever before Tony’s quips come off as a defense mechanism and there’s a weariness to him now that wasn’t present before. This is definitely the most somber and dramatic the character has ever been and RDJ handles each and every scene with aplomb; he’ll break your heart with a glance by the end and even if you don’t agree with him, it’s difficult to not feel sympathetic to his pain.
Finally, Sebastian Stan is given more material to work with as Bucky Barnes, ably portraying a man attempting to rebuild himself, ashamed of his past and seeking to make amends. Steve’s relationship to Bucky was very one-sided in The Winter Soldier. Thankfully, here, we’re finally allowed to see more of the the enduring friendship we glimpsed between Steve and Bucky way back in The First Avenger. Bucky’s struggle to become himself once more is compelling and it is easy to understand just why Steve would fight so fiercely for his friend.
The rest of the cast shine in their respective roles, though some are given more material than others considering the difficult position Steve and Tony’s conflict puts them in. Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow struggles with herself, caught between her loyalty to Steve and the constancy and support she desires given her complicated past. Paul Bettany’s Vision must grapple with his developing humanity while also striving to prevent another disaster like Ultron to occur. Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch must contend with the fear she inspires as well as the fear she has of herself and the immense power of which she is capable. Everyone else, from Don Cheadle’s War Machine to Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye get their moments to shine, with Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man in particular having a movie-stealing scene.
However, most of the buzz surrounding Civil War is because of two new characters: Black Panther and Spider-Man. Chadwick Boseman (42, Get On Up) is perfect as the king and protector of the fictional African nation of Wakanda. Black Panther is an intimidating, dynamic presence. Though he aligns with Tony, the reason for doing so is more circumstantial than anything, making him an unpredictable wildcard that lends energy to every scene that he’s in. As an actor, Boseman has such a huge presence; he’s regal and fierce, charismatic and intense in a way that few characters have been so far in the MCU. His appearance here only made me more excited for Ryan Coogler’s forthcoming Black Panther; news that 90% of the cast will be African or African-American only sweetens the deal.
Finally, Tom Holland is Spider-Man. His Peter Parker is just a kid: pure-hearted and joyful in a way that we hadn’t yet seen in a cinematic Spider-Man until now. Beyond the levity lent by his youth, he jokes, quips, swings, and crawls on walls, performing everything you’ve wanted to see Spider-Man do; only this time with the characters you’ve come to love from other Marvel films. His innocence and well-meant heroism is as close to “with great power comes great responsibility” as you could get and I, for one, can’t wait to see him reprise his role in Spider-Man: Homecoming.
Which brings us to the villain of Civil War. Yes, there is a villain and another victory in this film (among a long list of victories) is that he doesn’t wear a costume nor does he need to fight our heroes directly. He’s a manipulator; a man with clear purpose and endless patience. His name is Helmut Zemo, played by Daniel Brühl of Inglorious Basterds and Rush. Though his motives come to be known in time, Zemo’s enigmatic presence pervades the entire film; his exact involvement and the particulars of his plan are not revealed until the climax, but when they are, it’s devastating. Once again, thanks to the strength of the writing, even Zemo’s motivations are understandable and, on the scale of a Marvel film, very small and intimate. Daniel Brühl’s performance goes a long way to make Zemo a layered, somber character rather than a cartoonish villain bent on destruction, and he’s all the more memorable for it. I think he sits comfortably just beneath Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, alongside the exceptional villains of Marvel’s Netflix shows.
Despite the excellent job the writers did wrangling this story into something coherent, Civil War wouldn’t be such a resounding success without outstanding direction. Thankfully, Joe and Anthony Russo (who co-directed The Winter Soldier) return to lend their considerable talent to the film. Their direction is imaginative, their framing (assisted by cinematographer, Trent Opaloch) is artful, and they nail the character drama as well as the action. Their choreography is incredible; the fifteen minute, super-powered airport brawl that takes place about 2/3rds through the movie is filled with so much geektastic joy that you’re unlikely to see a more memorable action sequence this year. Each character’s powers are utilized in a creative, organic way and each of the confrontations highlighted carry their own weight within the context of the world the Russos have helped construct. Black Widow vs Hawkeye means something. Scarlet Witch vs. Iron Man means something. Black Panther vs. Bucky means something. Everything builds, everything pays off. Truly, Civil War is a feat of filmmaking and probably my favorite superhero film since The Dark Knight.
There’s little more that could be said save for this: among one of the film’s greatest accomplishments is that it remains a Captain America movie. Though the Avengers and other heroes are present, this is not Avengers 2.5. This story orbits around Steve Rogers and his immense love for his friend. His struggle to remain true to his ideals in the face of adversity and well-meant opposition is presented in a compelling and mature manner, proving once again that superhero films can be more than just spectacle, but some of the most potent, affecting character dramas of our modern age.
Thirteen films in and Marvel Studios is still going strong. I can’t wait for the next thirteen and beyond.