Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Cast: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Rudd, Tom Holland, Emily VanCamp, Daniel Brühl, Frank Grillo
Captain America: Civil War kicks off Phase 3 of Marvel Cinematic Universe which will see new superheroes including Blank Panther in their own stand alone movie, plus a soft reboot of Spider-Man. Civil War is also meant to be the final act to the triptych saga of Captain America Steve Rogers.
Considering how much Civil War has on its plate and the number of superheroes featured, there’s a risk of being pulled into too many different directions all at once. But have no fears, directors Anthony & Joe Russo and Marvel Studios have put together a complete movie which has a good flow to the story from beginning to end, thrilling action scenes and a thoughtfulness in handling the characters.
The description a “complete movie” is a slight misnomer in that while a viewer can go in cold and enjoy the spectacle, action and humor, to get the most mileage out of Civil War there are a couple of prerequisite films which should ideally be watched. This is because part of Civil War’s story is about consequences and accountability to events involving the Avengers in previous movies. Going into Civil War already invested in these characters will also help to appreciate the emotional journey of what these superheroes are fighting for.
The story’s foundation is built upon the first two Captain America movies, particularly The Winter Soldier, and Avengers: Age of Ultron. Not all MCU movies hit the mark, but it’s a rich, vibrant universe gradually built over the years. Through it’s diverse superhero line up, Civil War brings into play more elements from the MCU than in The Winter Soldier yet tonally it finds a good balance between the fantastical and the more grounded feel of the other Captain America movies. What also helps Civil War stay emotionally grounded is that the story is the continuation of the relationship between Steve Rogers and childhood friend Bucky/The Winter Soldier.
Civil War is very much a Captain America movie. The story’s primary viewpoint and structure is in clearly establishing Steve Roger’s principles, putting his belief to the test and showing how far and at what cost he’s willing to stand up for what he believes in. It’s a story that only really works through Roger’s perspective because he intuitively understands the difference between the law and what is morally right.
Steve Rogers is also a wartime hero once used in American propaganda in WWII and now awake in the present day world. He’s personally seen how political agendas change in time as do the people in power. It makes sense that because of who he is and what he has been through, Steve Rogers, above the other Avengers, would believe that ultimately what matters most is staying true to one’s own ideals even when many others are willing to compromise.
Of course, ideals don’t always coincide with political realities nor work in real world situations. Points on each side of the equation are brought up without feeling overhanded. The strongest opponent to Roger’s point of view that superheroes should have freedom and no interference from the government is Tony Stark/Iron Man. Iron Man comes at it from an emotional, humanistic angle. Their conflict feels organic and true to their characters. The script provides a good ebb and flow to the conflict; moments where they come close to seeing eye to eye then become divided again.
The strong performances by Chris Evans as Steve Rogers and Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark receive a lot of screen time. The screenplay also fleshes out why the other Avengers pick a certain side, some take a stronger stance than others. Vision’s (Paul Bettany) philosophical approach is an intriguing take on the principles of causality. The trickiest motivation to sort out might be Black Widow’s considering her actions at the end of The Winter Soldier and because at heart she’s a spy with shifting allegiances. The Russo Brother navigate Black Widow’s beliefs and decisions quite well, in a way that makes sense to her character.
In addition to familiar superheroes, the Russo Brothers do a great job of integrating the awesome Blank Panther into the story, complete with his own mini-character arc. Unlike Spider-Man’s origin which is very well known, Black Panther’s introduction didn’t answer where his powers came from, the directors didn’t need to, but they do address why his presence is important to Civil War. Blank Panther has his own motivation that precludes picking one side. He is involved in a huge battle, but it’s not so much what side he’s fighting for it’s who he’s fighting against.
Contrary to what some may believe, Daniel Brühl’s Baron Zemo is not intended to function as the big bad villain in Civil War. Zemo is a story device or force outside of the Avengers who pushes the naturally existing conflict forward. The central conflict throughout the film is within the Avengers, the characters who we are invested in, not Zemo. As the title of the movie indicates, Civil War’s intent is not to have the Avengers united against an overwhelming threat that only they can bring down together. That’s not to say that Zemo is a meaningless character. Zemo’s motivation is similar to that of another character who takes a different path at the end and by contrast shows why he has superhero qualities.
Bringing on John Wick directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch to film the action sequences added another dimension to the tightly choreographed close quarters combat. Civil War’s action centerpiece, as briefly shown in the trailers, works on the idea of toys in a giant sandbox. It’s not the setting which makes this scene memorable, it’s giving each superhero, their personalities and powers, a moment to shine brilliantly. The interplay and interactions between the heroes are just as entertaining as the fighting itself. This is the most ambitious action sequence by a Marvel Studios film and their best to date.
Captain America: Civil War goes against the trend where there are typically diminishing returns in sequels. If this truly is the conclusion to the Steve Rogers as Captain America movie saga, it goes out on a superb high note. Civil War launches Blank Panther and Spider-man into the MCU, giving fans a good taste of what they can anticipate from their upcoming stand alone movies. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo can take the experience of working with a huge cast of characters and epic storytelling to their next blockbuster Avengers: Infinity War, parts 1 and 2. Civil War nicely sets up the next line up of MCU films as much as it greatly benefits from a shared universe which established these characters over many movies.