Captain America: Civil War is another win for Marvel. It works as a taut and muscular action thriller and as a thoughtful character piece. It’s heady without ever succumbing to ponderousness, and fun without ever succumbing to frothiness. It’s a testament to the Russo Brothers’ directorial skills that, for a film that’s absolutely packed with incident and intrigue, it flows so smoothly and efficiently.
Not to mention a lavishly staged superhero brawl that is so damn unexpectedly charming and complicated, but we’ll get to that.
The film kicks off with Steve Rogers, Captain America, leading the New Avengers on what seems to be a fairly routine mission: stop a terrorist group from unleashing a biochemical weapon.
In fact, it begins in a similar manner to Joss Whedon’s Age of Ultron. Except the Russos have pulled the Avengers out of Whedon’s zany and quip-y world that demands that a cape-wearing thunder god and green rage monster effortlessly clear a field full of Hydra goons, and have inserted the new team into a world that is far more dangerous and raw: think the Bourne trilogy with superpowers. The mission takes a turn for the catastrophic as the New Avengers accidentally bomb a building full of relief workers.
As a result, the UN demands that the New Avengers be held accountable to a governing body. This divides the team – a guilt-ridden Tony Stark believes they need to be put in check, having been responsible for the deaths of many during the events of Age of Ultron, and Steve Rogers, having been a soldier for a government institution that was rotten to its core, believes that they need to continue to operate as independent superheroes.
This proposition of government oversight divides the team. The schism escalates as Captain America’s best friend and brainwashed assassin, The Winter Soldier, is framed for a terrorist act.
There are some who say that in Marvel’s commitment to a cinematic universe – where each film functions as a part of a larger whole – they have sacrificed good storytelling. This film proves that this is demonstrably untrue; every frame is laden with the weight of history – Tony Stark’s descent from carefree playboy to a paranoid, haunted man, and Steve Roger’s increasing disillusionment with the system. It’s the kind of history that is rooted entirely in subtle character development that has been carefully crafted over the years. Their clash is a thrilling payoff to that development. It’s also tragic because neither one of them is wrong. This is the apex of long-form storytelling.
Two new superheroes are added to the roster – Black Panther and Spider-Man. Their presence, particularly with the mightily popular character that is Spider-Man, threatens to be the drop that spills the glass, but they aren’t that because their inclusion feels natural to the conflict. And after three lethargic films, it’s just so cathartic to witness a Spider-Man that is the note perfect scrappy little goofball/genius. His one scene with Tony Stark paying him a visit in his little hovel apartment in Queens is as giddily delightful as you hoped it would be. With Black Panther, we are given just enough to know that he’s different from the others (a warrior/king of a country is definitely something new) and enough left off the table to be expanded on in his solo films.
The main reason these two new heroes are here is to promote their upcoming solo flicks, if we’re being absolutely cynical about it. But that reason has absolutely no bearing on why they are so functional within the confines of the story. They shine fiercely in the moments and few scenes they are given – in fact, all of the Avengers do when it comes to the main action set piece of the film.
The superhero brawl that closes out the second act (Cap’s team and Iron Man’s team coming to super-powered blows) is this film firing on every possible cylinder – we understand who’s fighting who and why, the action is cleanly staged, and the geography is clearly established.
But beyond the competent filmic mechanics, this set-piece is so oddly charming because each display of power is a dazzling articulation of personality, much like a musical, and the poignancy in that they’re all doing their best not to kill one another. But nonetheless a fight is inevitable – neither can back down because both teams are doing what they know is right. We, the audience, wouldn’t want them to back down – we root for them because they adhere so firmly to their principles, yet there’s an undercurrent of sadness to seeing the Avengers disintegrate so thoroughly. We’re paradoxically complicit in and resistant to this colourful clash; it’s pleasingly complex.
The final set piece between Steve Rogers, The Winter Soldier, and Tony Stark opts for a different, and more straightforward tone – brutal and emotionally harrowing. It’s an intensely personal third act that eschews the large cgi things crashing and bashing into other large cgi things that have mostly defined Marvel’s third acts.
The central conflict of this film is shaded with emotional nuance and is tightly plotted. Captain America: Civil War is the crowning achievement of Marvel’s cinematic universe.