The Marvel Cinematic Universe consists of roughly two types of films: most are standalone adventures based around one of the MCU’s central heroes, while every year or two comes an event picture – usually with Avengers in the title – that brings multiple heroes together in a story that ends up (in theory anyway) changing the shape of the MCU and having ramifications that echo through all succeeding films.
The Captain America movies, by virtue of the fact that Steve Rogers is the cornerstone of the Marvel universe both in the comics and on screen, have been a combination of the two. Captain America: Civil War continues that tradition and, frankly, almost perfects it: more than any other Marvel film to date, Civil War juggles a number of different storytelling and character responsibilities successfully, resulting in an epic tale that feels incredibly intimate and puts the loyalties and ethics of the Avengers and others of their ilk to the test. Like many previous Marvel movies, Civil War is only loosely based on the comic book arc of the same name, but it captures the intent and tone of the central struggle while adapting it to the ongoing canon of Marvel’s screen counterparts.
Civil War opens with the current Avengers team – Cap, Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) – tracking down Brock Rumlow/Crossbones (Frank Grillo) in Lagos. In the wake of this, as well as the Avengers’ successful but destructive bouts with Loki, HYDRA and Ultron in New York, Washington and Sokovia respectively, the world’s governments have had enough of superheroes acting unilaterally.
And so the team is presented with the Sokovia Accords, a seemingly reasonable but subtly invasive agreement that “enhanced humans” must be kept under close supervision. Cap isn’t feeling it, and neither are several of his teammates; he’s shocked, however, when a guilt-ridden Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) gets behind it. This sets the stage for a widening and dangerous rift between the heroes, complicated further by the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), a.k.a Bucky Barnes, one-time friend of Captain America and now programmed killing machine.
As Cap desperately tries to find Bucky in the hope of saving and redeeming him, another interested party, Wakandan leader T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) gets involved in the pursuit, while a shadowy figure orchestrates some of the proceedings for his own agenda. This all builds to a confrontation between our heroes that no one wants but everyone seems helpless to stop, with Tony bringing a surprise player in the shape of a young New York-based crime fighter known as Spider-Man (Tom Holland).
Just reading that back, it’s one hell of a complicated plot, but full credit must go to directors Anthony and Joe Russo and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely for keeping the action clear, focused and mostly easy to follow (except for a wobble or two in the third act). Civil War is Marvel’s longest movie yet, at just under two and a half hours, but it never drags and it never feels overstuffed, a fate which has befallen earlier Marvel features like Iron Man 2 and Avengers: Age of Ultron. The introductions of both Peter Parker/Spider-Man and T’Challa/Black Panther – Marvel’s most iconic hero and one of its most important, respectively – are especially handled with care. T’Challa has a major role to play in the film, while Spidey’s screen time is more limited, yet neither feels jimmied into the story the way, say, Black Widow did in Iron Man 2.
There’s no way to discuss Captain America: Civil War without also bringing up Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Warner Bros.’ attempt at booting up the DC Extended Universe all in one go. Both films feature similar ideas (collateral damage caused by superheroes) and similar attempts to both introduce and carry a large cast of characters.
But while BvS shoved everything but the Hall of Justice sink into its story and pushed characters we neither knew well or cared much about through a series of increasingly contrived motions, Civil War takes people we have come to know and love over the course of 12 previous movies and sets them against each other in such a way that we feel the futility and pain of what they’re doing to each other. The clash between Batman and Superman felt like two assholes trying to kill each other for no good reason; when Cap and Iron Man go at it here, we’re watching the collapse of a years-long and often turbulent partnership that neither really wants to happen, and it’s tragic.
The genius of this movie too is that while the standard impulse is to go bigger, usually resulting in a climax involving buildings falling and so forth, Captain America: Civil War doesn’t fall into that trap (the less said about BvS’s mess of an ending, the better). Following a much-hyped and massive superhero blowout battle, the Russos and Markus/McFeely know better than to top that. The third act of Civil War makes things smaller and more personal, but the emotional stakes are higher. The only problem is a lack of clarity about some of the machinations that get the players into position – the only time that the story feels like it’s clanking a bit – and a somewhat disappointing revelation involving one of said players.
Other than that, Civil War should easily take its place among the top rank of MCU movies. The cast all bring their A-games, and the screenplay gives everyone something to do. No one ends up in the same place they started. Chris Evans once again embodies Cap to perfection, while Downey ups his emotional involvement this time out and presents Tony as truly torn over his choices.
As for the new members, Boseman is a knockout as T’Challa and seems completely comfortable and confident in both the character and the (excellent) suit. You can’t take your eyes off him whenever he’s onscreen. And then there’s Spider-Man: Holland is the youngest iteration yet, finally giving the character the teen charm that Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield – through no fault of their own – could not provide, and his arrival here bodes well for the character’s future. His webwork – slinging and swinging – is also perhaps the best it’s ever looked on screen, with Marvel taking extra care to get it right.
Speaking of which, that final battle scene is a comic fan’s dream come true, a battle royale lifted right out of 50-plus years of Marvel comics that is truly a jaw-dropping high point for the MCU and its creative teams. The action that comes before it doesn’t slouch either: the opening Crossbones sequence is a stunner, as is the highway underpass chase involving the Panther, Bucky, Cap and others. The Russos still occasionally shake the camera too much, but their style of action and violence continues to hit hard and feels both real and bruising, adding another level of pain to the film’s central conflict.
That’s really what makes Captain America: Civil War – and so many of the MCU films – so powerful: we feel the pain of these characters even as we watch them perform extraordinary feats. This is no band of morose, gloomy, reluctant good guys, by the way – there’s plenty of humor in the movie as well – but that doesn’t mean they don’t have doubts or get hurt even as they perform their duties without question or hesitation. These are real characters, not empty action figures, and they’re the reason the MCU has gone from success to success while other superhero franchises have stumbled or stalled. There are some large-scale changes and challenges coming to the MCU, but it’s always been personal for these people, and it will hopefully continue to be.
P.S. At the press screening, we were afforded a look at one bonus sequence midway through the credits. But I understand that you should, of course, stay through the very end.
Captain America: Civil War is in theaters May 6.