Captain America: Civil War starts off with an incident suggesting the “new normal” for Cap and company. That new squadron of Avengers assembled at the end of Age of Ultron is stationed in Nigeria, where they’re forced to prevent a threat from stealing a biological weapon. As tends to be the case when the Avengers show up to prevent a disaster, another one breaks out in its place, ending in a crucial error by Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). By the time Civil War reaches the 20-minute mark, it’s already established something that’s been clear to regular Marvel viewers for some time now: the coming of superheroes to this world has been a mixed blessing from the moment Tony Stark identified himself in public as Iron Man. Where there are heroes, there are bigger threats rising up to challenge them.
Civil War feels like the film that Marvel has been building toward for a while now; despite Age of Ultron being the direct sequel to The Avengers, Civil War feels like more of a proper continuation of the stories and characters established in that corner of the franchise. Due in part to the city-lifting fiasco during Ultron’s big finale, the global community is understandably worried about whether the Avengers are doing more collateral harm than focused good. Tony (Robert Downey Jr.) is especially concerned, since the grander costs of superhuman war have been his burden for a while now. As established in Iron Man 3, Tony might have overcome the worst of his PTSD, but he still carries the moral weight of the world he had a significant hand in creating.
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Under pressure from world governments to institute some kind of control protocol, the Sokovia Accords are born, a peace agreement stating that the signed Avengers will agree to leave war to sovereign territories and will only report for battle if approved beforehand by the United Nations. Tony spearheads the effort, Vision (Paul Bettany) agrees that from a standpoint of objective risk it’s the right thing to do, and the Avengers are united in hopes of bringing an end to their periodic fits of catastrophic destruction. Captain America (Chris Evans) knows that the accords will only work up to a point, that the door Tony opened years ago cannot be closed, and that the evil the Avengers have unleashed will not stop simply because they’ve decided to do so. There’s also the issue of Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), the Winter Soldier. An early flashback is reprised throughout the film, harkening back to December 1991, when he was sent on a retrieval mission, one with lingering implications. Cap wants him protected and returned to his onetime self, Iron Man wants him somewhere he can’t hurt anybody ever again. Ergo, Civil War.
Up to a greater point than your average modern-day superhero movie, Civil War has to serve many masters. It’s an adaptation of a beloved comic arc, a sequel to Captain America: The Winter Soldier and essentially Ultron as well, the beginning of Phase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and crucially, the introduction to two new, essential characters. One is T’Challa, or Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), the Wakandan prince who’s dragged into the fray when the signing of the accords leads to him suffering a grievous loss. Even by the reluctant standards under which some Avengers joined the team, T’Challa wants no part of their inter-group squabbling. It’s an interesting performance given what Marvel has established, with Boseman delivering a turn of dignity and strength where so many Avengers deal in loose banter and varying degrees of attitude.
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The other is a teenager in a red jumpsuit. Peter Parker (Tom Holland) has finally made his way into a Marvel Studios production, and for the heaping doses of fan service that Civil War doles out, his Spider-Man might be the most immensely satisfying. Adaptations of the character, even the exceptional ones, have to date framed Parker as an old soul in a teen’s body, an uncertain teenager who doesn’t particularly seem like one. Holland’s read on the character, by contrast, is relentlessly giddy. He’s still a boy genius, but for what feels like the first time, Spider-Man comes off like a kid.
You may have realized by this point in the review that there’s a lot going on in Civil War. And what’s perhaps most notable about the film is how well it manages to tie its many stories together. By firmly rooting all of the film’s sprawling drama in a singular conflict, directors Joe and Anthony Russo manage to do what many superhero films have struggled with in recent years: find a truly effective reason to pit superpower against superpower. Here’s it’s not only the ethics of the accords at stake, but the ethics of the personal as well. The key to the film’s mostly successful storytelling is that Cap and Iron Man are both right and both tragically wrong. There’s no chance that Steve will abandon his longtime friend, after all the violence and actual domestic treason he’s been through to save him. There’s no chance that Tony will let a walking powder keg go free; even if Steve is right about Bucky being somebody else’s pawn, the Winter Soldier is still a legitimate threat to every Avenger, and to the larger world.
It then stands to reason that, inevitably, Avenger will fight Avenger. But to their endless credit, the Russos manage to take the film’s centerpiece action sequences in directions that feel fresh, even by the studio’s 13th release since 2008. The airport tarmac brawl that breaks out halfway in, when Steve and Bucky attempt to flee the country, might be the closest a Marvel film has come to date to feeling truly akin to a comic book. As an extravagant team battle breaks out, the Russos frame each individual scrap as its own spectacular splash page, in a way that’s been approximated in other Marvel films (those hero shots from the Avengers films come to mind), but rarely with such an earned sense of grandeur. A dozen films have given these characters value, and if there’s something to be said for the universe model of storytelling, it’s that it lends even the smaller fights some gravitas. There’s a simple joy in watching Spider-Man swing his way around Iron Man as Ant-Man crawls through Stark’s suit that speaks to what makes the best of these films worth watching, and the Russos capture it ably.
Their visual approach still features some of the hallmarks of modern action’s less desirable instincts (shaky camera work, rapid cuts that distract from some of their more striking visuals), but the Captain America films have always been refreshingly straightforward. The Russos understand how to pace action better than many of their MCU contemporaries, and as such, Civil War moves at a rapid clip despite all the table-setting and it being the lengthiest Marvel film to date at 146 minutes. And wisely, Civil War takes a break from the climactic “put every dollar on the screen” property demolition of so many modern superhero movies (and action films, for that matter). A battle late in the film might be the most subdued in the Marvel canon to date, in a fashion. It’s punishing, and for all of its flash, it’s rooted in something painfully intimate as well.
Civil War doesn’t break new narrative ground, necessarily, with its questions of domestic responsibility and the morality of inhuman power essentially breaking down to “who watches the watchmen?” and its schisms in the group having been explored in previous Marvel movies, The Avengers in particular. But what it does accomplish is a substantial feat for the long-form cinematic storytelling that Marvel invented and every other Hollywood studio is now attempting to approximate. Civil War is a story with no simple solutions to its conundrums, fit to scale. It’s grand blockbuster storytelling, even if the nature of the endless production cycle does and always will draw the ceiling for dramatic stakes into question.
Civil War doesn’t fully work as its own singular, stand-alone film in the same way as the previous Captain America films, as it’s too invested in pushing forward even as it does a fine job of tying up a high number of the loose ends preceding it. It’s very much the middle chapter of an ongoing saga, but it’s a preeminent one as well. And for all the cacophony taking place onscreen, Civil War finds itself operating on a deeper intellectual level than the surface pleasures of watching a paragon of absolute American good triumph over evil. It’s a soon-to-be-massive summer movie about what happens when even good people make terrible mistakes, and the cost of those, and what good even means in a modern landscape marred by sectarian violence. It’s also a movie where Captain America and Iron Man wail on each other. Like the best escapist filmmaking, it offers a little bit of everything, just as long as finality isn’t high on your list of expectations.