Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Starring- Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Rudd, Emily VanCamp, Tom Holland, Daniel Bruhl, Frank Grillo, William Hurt, Martin Freeman
Directors- Anthony and Joe Russo
PG-13- extended sequences of violence, action and mayhem
After an overseas mission ends in disaster, the U.S. government drafts and recommends the Avengers sign the Sokovia Accords — a motion subjecting them to the authority of the United Nations. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) signs right away, as do several others. But Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) and a few of his closest confidants are more hesitant. When his old friend Bucky Barnes/The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), still in recovery from HYDRA brainwashing, is implicated in a terrorist attack against the U.N., Cap chooses friendship over the law and takes the response into his own hands, ultimately pitting himself against Stark — and the remainder of the Avengers against one another.
I’m going to try hard not to rehash all the points I made a year ago in my review of Avengers: Age of Ultron, but it remains important that reviewing Marvel movies is, at this point, somewhat difficult. I’ve never envied the job of a TV critic reviewing a show from one episode to another, attempting to evaluate the success of a small component of a larger story without yet knowing what it’s actually trying to accomplish. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, particularly its late Phase II and early Phase III films are giving me a little taste of what that’s like. It forces me to approach a movie like Civil War from a really measured place — depending on where the series goes from here, there’s a potential future where I like this way less and a potential future where I think it’s almost perfect. Other installments in the series will inevitably impact its quality because it, like Age of Ultron before it, is a stepping stone movie.
That’s the necessary background to understanding the position on which I’ve settled with Captain America: Civil War — on its own, it’s a very, very good movie, to the extent that I think Guardians of the Galaxy and The Avengers are the only Marvel projects I like more; but as part of the larger cinematic universe, several of its implications have me very, very nervous about the future of the series.
Let’s focus on the “very, very good movie” part of that, because that’s definitely the part I’m most excited about. Marvel’s team hasn’t done a movie quite like Civil War yet, and they absolutely nailed it. Emotionally, this is a much more complicated film than the others in the series, most of which have clear good guys and bad guys and a tone of heroism and bombast — you always know who you’re rooting for, and you’re really rooting for them. Civil War is a superhero movie where the heroes are fighting one another, and the actual villains are largely secondary. (And the main villain, Baron Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) still gets an unusually nuanced portrayal that, in moments, makes him a little harder to hate.)
You just can’t play it the same way, not without pulling the rug out from underneath the characters and trying to fundamentally alter the audience’s perspective of them with little or no buildup. Marvel’s spent the better part of a decade making us like these characters; it couldn’t reasonably expect to slide some of them into the villain role without scaring up quite a bit of cognitive dissonance.
So, it doesn’t. The writers behind Civil War invested a lot of energy in ensuring that both sides of the conflict have a really good point and a strong motivation in character. Thor and the Hulk are the only established Marvel superheroes who don’t appear in this, and Civil War throws a few new ones into the mix, so it’s saying something that I understood where nearly all of these characters were coming from and why they lined up on the side they did. Iron Man is nursing a massive guilt complex; Captain America is fresh off the collapse of SHIELD destroying his faith in authority. (One of the most interesting points of this series to date is that Iron Man and Captain America’s arcs have essentially turned them into each other and brought them into conflict at the apex of their development. Originally, Iron Man was the hands-off-my-stuff billionaire uber-capitalist who decried any and all government intervention in his life, even given the kind of reasonable public concern about privately-owned death machines that allow the user to pretty much control the world. Now, after several movies’ worth of confronting his own inadequacy as a human being and a handful of public disasters resulting from his bad judgment, he’s into cooperation and oversight. Whereas Captain America started out as, well, Captain America, a literal symbol of a nation and a government who got his start as a superhero performing in military recruitment shows. Then, his Boy Scout loyalty to SHIELD nearly allowed HYDRA to kill millions; now, he only trusts himself and his closest friends to save the world.)
The interesting thing about the film’s efforts to develop a situation in which both sides are more or less equally right is the side effect of giving this Marvel Comics superhero movie a strange thematic density. It’s a variant on the liberty vs. security debate, one told from the perspective of society’s powerful, the ones asking how much transparency is enough transparency, whether one person’s freedom can infringe upon another person’s freedom, whether tyranny exists in more forms than simply government. Stark thinks the Avengers are at risk of becoming the truly oppressive force and wants them to be answerable to someone; Steve thinks oversight would make them political operatives and restrict them from helping the people who need them most. Neither one of them is wrong. The film challenges both of them — there are, essentially, two climaxes; both Iron Man and Captain America get “What have I done?” moments before they’re over (and yeah, the two prolonged action sequences leave the film a bit exhausting by the end, but it’s a minor point).
It leaves Civil War feeling different from the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe — a film that’s perhaps a little more engaging than it is fun. An action movie where you aren’t rooting for anyone. A superhero flick where you just want the fighting to stop. Watching these characters fight is like watching your best friends fight.
Which isn’t, of course, to say that Civil War isn’t fun, because it’s an absolute blast in the appropriate moments. The humor still crackles. Plus, the film is an almost endless wellspring of extremely cool action sequences — Civil War, more than any other film in the Marvel canon, really digs for clever and creative ways for the characters to use their powers in battle, and now that Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and other characters with actual powers are in the mix, there’s a lot to work with. The movie attaches such a sense of discovery to its characters’ abilities as well; watching each one come into play is a rush of pure adrenaline.
And the character work, of course, is wonderful — unsurprisingly, as it’s the one sense in which Marvel Studios has always, always been consistent. These filmmakers have successfully made us love each and every one of these characters. They’ve given them distinct personalities and know how to play them off one another — this movie sees Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) interacting with the Avengers for the first time, and his presence immediately changes the dynamic they share.
The new heroes are great, too. I’m not quite as head-over-heels about Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) as other people — his motivation isn’t all that interesting; he chooses a side based on simple revenge rather than ideology, and he seems almost by choice not to interact with the other heroes all that much — but he’s still an interesting and fully realized character, and the ending of Civil War leaves a lot riding on his upcoming solo film. The role, as I hoped, seems destined to make a star out of Boseman, one of my favorite lesser-known up-and-comers right now. Not only does he have the presence and charisma of a bonafide movie star, he’s just plain a really good actor — he’s played Black Panther, Jackie Robinson, and James Brown, and he was totally unrecognizable in all three. The guy has serious range, and I’m really happy to see him finally arrive.
And then there’s Spider-Man (Tom Holland). This seems like a bold statement, especially given the regard many hold for the Sam Raimi movies and the fact that the character is only in this for maybe twenty minutes, but I’m going to say it anyway: I’m pretty sure this is the best Spider-Man we’ve seen on the big screen to date. This character is pure joy; he’s 100-percent the Spider-Man of the comics, a cheerful, geeky kid with a dopey sense of humor and a short attention span. Having an actual teenager play him for once really helps — the age difference between him and the rest of the Avengers really changes the dynamic between them. The character is wide-eyed and curious, essentially an Iron Man fanboy losing his cool over getting invited to join. My interest in the upcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming just increased considerably. If they stick that landing, we may very well have the definitive cinematic Spider-Man.
The movie, as its own entity, is not without its problems, but most of them feel like minor nitpicks in light of what it accomplishes. The themes sort of fizzle out as the action increases; the more serious subject matter makes this the first Marvel movie where the humor starts to run afoul of the tone (the much-talked-about airport battle, while a completely insane, hilarious, and entertaining blast of pure energy and imagination, feels like a complete lark, like the characters just up and decided it would be fun to have a big, stupid fight. That scene makes it much too easy to forget that these are lifelong friends coming to blows over a conflict with global implications.
Nevertheless, mostly, the movie itself is top-notch. If I have any shade to cast over it, it’s because of its position in the larger series, whatever that ends up being. This is something I can’t really discuss without getting into spoilers. I’m not going to directly spoil anything, but reading this part will at least allow you to rule out certain possibilities. If you’re strict about that, you may want to stop reading here.
Here’s the thing — I’m getting to this party later than some critics, but as much as I truly am a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this series needs to establish some stakes, and soon. I gave Age of Ultron a pass on this. It drew some criticism for maintaining the status quo at a point where the series needed to become long-form storytelling rather than little episodes of inconsequential adventure. I disagreed — I could see what Age of Ultron was setting up and felt it best to wait for Civil War, the movie positioned to follow through on that.
Well, I’ve gotten through Civil War, and I’m still waiting for pretty much anything to significantly change in the overarching storyline. Too many reviewers are reducing this to the need to kill off a character eventually, but it’s more than that. This series feels not only like it’s straining to keep all its characters alive but to keep them in the same place. It’s beginning to embody the reason I generally don’t get into superhero comics in the first place — the superhero must always be the superhero, and the trappings that surround that must always be in place, so no matter what storylines, themes, or character arcs are adopted, they must lead back to more or less the same place. Batman can’t ever get over his parents’ deaths, because then he wouldn’t be Batman, and there would be no more Batman comics. All storylines about Batman must, therefore, never actually resolve anything.
I feel like the Marvel Cinematic Universe is getting to a place where it’s looking at the the current storyline’s finale — Infinity War — and saying, “We must eventually have all of these characters on the screen at the same time, fighting as one giant uber-Avengers team, so everyone must stay alive until then, everyone must stay an Avenger, and any storyline or character arc that threatens that must either be abandoned or twisted back so it ends in the same place it started.”
Don’t get me wrong — Civil War undoubtedly changes the status quo more than any other Marvel movie to date. The characters are in very different places at the end of the movie than they were at the beginning. But they’re not quite different enough. I look at the end of Civil War, and I see a whole lot of hedged bets — a whole lot of moving the pieces around so the writers can get all the pieces back to square one when called upon to do so. I’m already dreading what appears to be happening at the end of this movie; it’s what always happens. I’m worried that the next time we see these characters, there’ll be tensions between them, then there will be some outside threat, they’ll re-team to fight it together, and they’ll be all hunky dory once everything’s taken care of. And I’m worried the themes explored here — liberty and security, law and order, freedom from government and freedom from power — will immediately be forgotten. The characters who expressed doubts about the Avengers and their operations will quickly forget them, acting as though nothing ever happened. There’s no guarantee of any of this, of course, but I’ve seen it happen a thousand times. I’m concerned this series is going to get dozens of movies in and reach its grand finale without ever doing anything other than have heroes fight villains.
There are, to be fair, some behind-the-scenes reasons to suspect that the upcoming slate of Marvel movies will be even better than their predecessors — that they’ll take actual risks and stray from their formulas and do interesting things with the characters. But right now, this is what I’m looking at. Captain America: Civil War is a very entertaining movie, but it was supposed to be this watershed moment for the Marvel Cinematic Universe — the proof of the overarching storyline, the movie where everything changed, where the story got complicated. I guess I can’t complain when said movie is individually pretty great. But when a studio’s ambitions are this high, it’s disappointing to watch its films fail to go the entire way.