It's a long-standing convention in comics to pit superheroes against each other. It's possibly the only thing more exciting than sending a superhero off to battle the latest megalomanical villain bent on world domination. But it can also be a highly problematic narrative device if it's not handled properly. When a hero goes after the bad guy, there tends to be a clear-cut reason why. Save the world, save a friend, save the whales, whatever is most convenient. When heroes square off against each other, though, there better be a damn good reason for it, because there guys are all supposed to be fighting on the same side. That's the heart of Captain America: Civil War, the 13th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and one that not only offers hero-on-hero combat of the best possible kind but also gives a compelling reason why that combat should happen in the first place.
WARNING: MAY CONTAIN MILD SPOILERS
Taking place a year after the events of Age Of Ultron, Captain America (Chris Evans) and the Avengers have been brought to task for the collateral damage they've caused in their previous exploits, including an opening set piece in Lagos that results in the side of a populated building being blown to smithereens. The United Nations calls on the Avengers to sign an accord limiting their authority and removing their ability to act unilaterally; they would only act when sanction by an international oversight committee. Cap is against the idea, believing it to be a hindrance to doing what's right instead of what's politically expedient, while Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) believes it's necessary to prevent more collateral damage. When events involving a person from Cap's past result in more casualties, Cap and his allies go rogue in an effort to find out who's behind things while also trying to evade Tony and his team, who have been ordered to arrest them for going vigilante.
Let's get this party started right.
That basic plot description, though, doesn't truly begin to plumb the depth of the complex web of emotions and motivations that drive the film and drive allies against each other in the most dramatic of ways. Much like Capitan America: The Winter Soldier was much a political thriller as it was a traditional superhero film, so too is Civil War much more than just a 147-minute men-in-tights slugfest. It's an examination of not only the myth of the superhero, but how or even if a superhero should operate on the same level and under the same rules as non-powered humanity. Boasting the same creative team as the previous two Captain America films — directors Anthony and Joe Russo; screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely — Civil War is an assured, confident conclusion to a trilogy that builds organically upon its established elements.
A large part of what makes the film work so well is the dedication of its players, nearly all of whom seem to fully inhabit their roles. Chris Evans perfectly embodies the Captain's unflinching devotion to the greater good, while Robert Downey, Jr., is still the sarcastic, egocentric flip-side of that same devotion. Both men play the characters as more subdued this time, with Downey, Jr., even bringing new and exciting facets to Stark's character that were only ever previously hinted at. The supporting cast of the film is so large that this almost feels like a third Avengers film, but none of the characters seem extraneous, and each one contributes to the tangled mass of humanity that makes up the film's core conceit. Of the other heroes, it's the women who seem to be doing some of the heaviest lifting. Scarlett Johansson once again beautifully underplays Natasha Romonoff/Black Widow as someone always looking for a new angle and new opportunity.
The couples counseling isn't going so well.
Even more impressive is Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch, one of the most damaged and vulnerable heroes, but also potentially the most powerful member of the cast. She's the only hero with inherent superpowers that defy basic scientific laws, and because of that, she's more a subject of fear and derision than any of the other Avengers, a fear that she's deeply internalized. (Just don't call her a mutant unless you want to hear from 20th Century Fox's lawyers.) When she comes into her own during the climatic battle, however, it's exciting to behold. After she telekinetically separates a dueling Black Widow and Hakweye (Jeremy Renner), she calmly reprimands Hawkeye with “You're pulling your punches” in a way that's almost terrifying in its complete lack of emotion.
Of course, what would a Marvel film be if we didn't introduce a couple new heroes, and thanks to the trailers there aren't any surprises as to who those are. The first is Black Panther, played with savage grace by Chadwick Boseman. One of Marvel's oldest heroes, and one of the few African heroes to grace superhero films, Panther is a potent mix of nobility and primal energy. His calm, almost stoic public identity is a sharp contrast to the furious, no-holds-barred warrior he becomes while in his indestructible super-suit. The other new addition is a little-known hero called Spider-Man, here played by Tom Holland. While Sony has rightly been criticized for rebooting Spider-Man for the third time since 2002 — and for giving us yet another iteration of Peter Parker instead of someone like Miles Morales — at least they hired an actor who fully connects with the giddy, whiz-bang attitude the web-slinger is supposed to have. For the first time, a teen-aged Peter Parker is played by an actual teenager, and Holland perfectly captures both the geeky, egghead side of Peter Parker as well as the “wow! cool!” side of a kid suddenly getting to fight alongside the world's biggest heroes.
Characters aside, a film like this largely lives or dies by its action sequences. After all, that's the main hook of the whole thing. It was the be-all and end-all of this year's Batman V. Superman, but while that film seemed intent to lean solely on a couple of growling comic book titans punching each other repeatedly for two-and-a-half joyless hours, the fights in Civil War often come close to pure comic book excitement. (And unlike that film, the screen is full of actual colors and plenty of light.) The team-on-team face-off that makes up the end of the second act is a sprawling, epic smackdown that never feels too long or too confusing and grabs hold of the audience's attention right from the start. All the fights in the film are well-choreographed, and each hero is given a very specific style and move set, from Black Widow's brutal lucha-libre leg holds to Black Panther's wire-fu leaps and spin kicks. If anything else, the mere fact that a fight with this many diverse combatants could be staged at all is impressive in and of itself.
Sadly, when the film steps away from the fights and away from the Team Cap/Team Iron Man conflict driving them, things do tend to slow down significantly. There's an actual villain beyond any of the heroes, but he's thinly-drawn and remarkable shallow, with the actor playing him giving a flat performance that doesn't even try to add any depth. Instead of focusing completely on the pro- and anti-authority sides of the intra-Avengers conflict, the film tries to marry that story to a different plot thread featuring a different threat, and it doesn't always work well. That also means that after the huge, second-act team battle, any fights afterward seem that much more less exciting, no matter how well-staged they are. Likewise, it takes a while to get to the point where the Avengers have no choice but to fight each other, and the first-act lead-up to that is uncharacteristically rough and slightly unfocused, sometimes bouncing from scene to scene with the same jarring transitions that marred Batman V Superman. Once the seeds of the team conflict are planted, the film finds a perfect pace and balance, but the lead-up is certainly a bit of a bumpy ride.
The film's other setback is one it also shares with Batman V Superman in that it can be a tad impenetrable to people outside the comic book fandom. While there aren't quite as many easter eggs or fanservice moments, the film does assume that you've kept up with the Marvel Cinematic Universe since the first Iron Man (although it doesn't really reference anything in any of the Hulk or Thor solo films). While the fight scenes and set-pieces are certainly enjoyable regardless, a lot of the character drama and narrative heart of the film is lost if you aren't invested in the characters. Given the MCU's massive reach and popularity, it may seem like an odd criticism, but it's still warranted at least a little bit. The Scarlet Witch's personal story arc in particular loses a lot of heft if you haven't seen her previous appearances, for instance.
No pain, no gain.
Even with these criticisms, it's hard not to be thrilled and captivated by Civil War, a film that continues Marvel's history of not only making exciting, enjoyable films, but also ones that ask deeper questions and explore themes beyond fisticuffs. The heroes in Marvel films are, with perhaps one or two exceptions, real human beings with real human motivations. It's telling that aside from the Captain himself and the Vision (Paul Bettany), the characters are almost never referred to by their code names but by their actual names. When the Avengers try to find their place in the world, it's something many of us can sympathize with because they face recognizable problems, even if they face those problems with extraordinary abilities. A scene where the Captain tries to keep a helicopter from taking off with his bare hands is not only visually captivating because of Chris Evans' straining every bulging muscle in his pumped-up body. It also contains a surprising amount of honestly-won drama and empathy not only built up over the course of the film itself but over years of careful world-bulding and character development. Marvel has proven time and again that it's possible to make a film that's not only as exciting and fantastical as any comic book, but also as down-to-earth and compelling as any character drama, and Civil War is certainly no exception.
FBOTU Score: 8 out of 10 / B+