Eight years ago this week, Marvel Studios released Iron Man and announced that the film would serve as the cornerstone for an interconnected series of franchises, creating the cinematic equivalent of comic book continuity. Eight years and twelve films later, Marvel is now moving into the third phase of its big screen plans with Captain America: Civil War. It is a movie that is in some part reliant on the development of characters and events from the previous dozen installments. While Civil War can be enjoyed without that level of backstory known, it does add extra layers to the film to make it one of the best offerings from the studio to date.
A world that has already been mistrustful of them following the destruction caused during such events as the alien invasion of Manhattan, the exposure of the criminal organization HYDRA’s infiltration of the security group SHIELD and the attempt by the artificial intelligence Ultron to create an extinction-level event by dropping the entire Baltic country of Sokovia from a mile high in the air finally decides it has had enough after an attempt by the Avengers to stop the terrorist Crossbones leaves several civilians dead. The United Nations drafts a proposal that would place the superhero team under their direct supervision and no action would be taken by them without the UN’s express authority. It is a move that Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), aka Iron Man, thinks is necessary but Captain America (Chris Evans), aka Steve Rogers, wholeheartedly disagrees with. When the meeting to sign the Sokovia Accords is attacked and Cap’s friend Bucky Barnes, aka the brainwashed Winter Soldier,” is blamed, Steve flat out rejects the accords and goes to his friend’s defense. It is an action that leaves Tony no choice but for to lead the members of the Avengers who have signed the Accords on a mission to apprehend both Cap and Bucky.
I was never much of a fan of the comic book miniseries that Civil War is based on. The stories in the comics and the film run parallel in broad strokes – A fight between some superheroes and supervillains leaves innocent bystanders dead and the government reacts by attempting to legislate controls on those with super powers. In the comics, it was just the US government who was not only requiring those with super powers to register, but conscripting them into national service. It was a story idea that raised a number of civil rights and Second Amendment issues which the series outright ignored. The film’s use of the United Nation-generated Sokovia Accords sidesteps many of the Constitutional objections from the comics series and allows the story to focus on the broader moral questions implicit in whether or not the Avengers should stay independent or be subject to an oversight committee. These are the questions that fuels the decisions that Steve, Tony and the rest of the heroes take that ultimately lead them to come to blows. Tony sees the potential dangers of those with superpowers or armored suits may pose and feels that having additional checks in place on that power is a good thing, while Steve has always followed his own moral compass’s true north in doing the right thing and does not want to compromise that by being held to the shifting political whims of a bureaucracy. Adding to the moral complexity of the story, the arguments laid out by both sides hold water. Tony’s side is not suddenly portrayed as the bad guys and conversely, Steve’s side is not necessarily painted as one with the angels. And it may leave the audience with conflicting feelings of their own on who to root for.
Normally, the reason that heroes temporarily come to blows with each other are usually fairly contrived, like the Thor-Iron Man-Cap brawl in the first Avengers film. It is some misunderstanding that could have been avoided if everyone would take a moment to talk to each other and not lead with their chin. Here, however, the disagreements come from their discussions of the issues. Each side is passionate about their opinion and are surprised that the other can’t see their point of view. (Would it be cynical to suggest that the film is an allegory for the experience of social media during the current political cycle?) Even though it is revealed that some of the things that have brought internal strife to the Avengers lineup were engineered by the mysterious Zemo, you get the feeling that the disagreements between the two factions would have lead to their showdown eventually anyway.
And what a showdown it is. The Russo Brothers were praised for the action sequences they created for the last Captain America movie, The Winter Soldier, and here they have stepped up their game. There’s a stairwell fight early in the film involving Cap, Bucky and a number of special ops soldiers that is as imaginatively choreographed as anything seen in recent memory. The headline showdown between Team Cap and Team Iron Man on the tarmac of a Leipzig airport packs a wallop as the two groups let loose on each other. It’s probably the best realization of yet of how these heroes know each other and can work together in ad hoc teams, even when their differences have split their larger community.
As pre-production on Civil War commenced and the amount of heroes who would be in the cast announced, many fans were concerned that the large role call would overshadow Captain America in his own movie. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo stated that Cap would still be the heart of the film’s story and not be overshadowed by his co-stars. And it is a trick that the Russo’s manage to pull off for most of the film, though there are some moments when Cap seems lost in the overall melee.
That is not to say that the other characters don’t get their moments to shine. Every one on both sides of the issue get a few memorable beats all their own. Wanda Maximoff, aka the Scarlet Witch, probably gets the best treatment of the returning superhero supporting cast. Still working through her sadness over the loss of her brother in The Avengers: Age Of Ultron and feeling alone in the world, Wanda’s emotional pain is further exacerbated by her guilt over her role in the accident in Lagos. While providing some strong character moments between her and Steve and the Vision, that storyline is left open at the end of the film, allowing for further exploration in the future.
The film even finds time to introduce two new heroes – Black Panther and Spider-Man. Chadwick Boseman does some great work as Wakandan royalty T’Challa, aka the Black Panther. As one of the many players in the story, the Black Panther’s screentime is somewhat limited, but also has the strongest character arc. Boseman finds the royal dignity in the character, even when he is being fired on by his anger of his father’s death.
Tom Holland’s Peter Parker, aka Spider-Man, is a treat and marks the first time that I have felt like I was actually watching a teenager on the screen and not a late 20s-something actor pretending to be a teenager. Presumably a late edition to the film, the character still integrates into the storyline nearly flawlessly. Having seen two variations on the character’s origins already on the big screen, Civil War just hand waves it away with Peter calling it a “thing that happened.” This allows his screentime to be better spent introducing us to Peter’s character, which really comes across in a chat between him and Tony Stark when the latter comes knocking on his Aunt’s apartment door to recruit him for his team. There is one drawback to Spider-Man’s appearance here. In the comics, Spidey is Marvel’s trickster superhero in that he always has a wisecrack or a quip at the ready. While the Russos do a good job showing Peter’s jocular side, they also have nearly every other hero in the film letting loose with a joke every now and then, making Spider-Man a bit lost in the crowd when it comes to supplying the humor.
Moving forward, it should be very interesting to see where Marvel takes their films over the next couple of years. If anything, we probably won’t be learning the fallout from the events of Civil War right away. The next couple of films in the franchise either introduce a new character and new corners of the cinematic universe (November’s Doctor Strange) or appear to take place off-Earth (next year’s Thor: Ragnarok and Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol 2). It probably won’t be until 2018’s Black Panther that we get to see what comes next in the studio’s grand plans for these heroes.