Captain America: Civil War is a 2016 American superhero film directed by The Russo Brothers, Joe and Anthony. It stars every major superhero from the previous Marvel Cinematic Universe films with the exclusion of Chris Hemsworth’s Thor and Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk/Bruce Banner. Two new, sustaining additions to the Marvel Cinematic Universe are Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa/Black Panther and Tom Holland as Spider-Man/Peter Parker. Daniel Bruhl also stars as Colonel Helmut Zemo, the driving force behind the majority of the events of the film.
Civil War is the 13th film in the shared Marvel Cinematic Universe. It serves as both “Avengers 2.5” and a direct sequel to what I regard as the second best film in the megafranchise up until this film, the brilliant Captain America: The Winter Soldier. This film builds off of the tension, emotion, and impact felt in Winter Soldier and succeeds where Age of Ultron arguably failed. Whereas the first Avengers film had razor-sharp focus and excelled in connecting the characters with the audience, Age of Ultron suffered from a lack of focus and while it was an entertaining spectacle, it suffered a lack of emotional connection. Civil War is everything Age of Ultron should have been and more, and is now my single-most favorite entry in the franchise.
The reason the Marvel Cinematic Universe at large is so successful isn’t spectacle or CGI. Spectacle and CGI makes money for sure, look at Avatar, but why has the MCU been able to completely change the landscape of the Hollywood blockbuster machine to such an extent? It’s the characters. We love these characters. Iron Man would have been entirely forgettable without Robert Downey, Jr’s incredible talent.Guardians of the Galaxy would’ve been a complete disaster without a cast of the most charismatic,personable, and funny actors and actresses in Hollywood. We love them, we want them (and the films, subconsciously-speaking) to succeed. That is the main draw of Civil War.
What stories are most commonly associated with superheroes? World domination via fantastical means that cross into magical/supernatural or science fiction themes that will end billions of lives. Stories like that happen on a weekly basis and have been since the 1930’s. They work because the stakes of the story are automatically huge. What the powers that be pulling the strings at Marvel Studios realize that it doesn’t always have to be that way. If Obadiah Stane succeeded in Iron Man, there would be another weapon (the Iron Man armor) to be used in warfare. The same structure was used in the unexpectedly pretty darn good Ant-Man with the Ant-Man suit. If the heroes failed, we the people would still wake up tomorrow in comfort and continue our lives unimpeded. What then, you may ask, is the point of these very low stakes? Character development. It allowed Tony Stark/Scott Lang to grow into better, more wholesome, spectacularly gifted people. It got us to like them, a lot. That’s what Age of Ultron failed, in my opinion. I remember thinking it was amazing, but looking back, there wasn’t much of an emotional impact. Yeah, the Hulkbuster fight was awesome and Vision picking up Mjolnir was cool and a really good shorthand answer to the question “Is this new character one of the good guys?” in a way that didn’t add more screentime to a film that had way too much going on. I don’t remember much about the film that didn’t pertain to massive explosions, and in hindsight, I should’ve waited a while to review the film and let my lizard “big boom pretty” brain simmer down. It wasn’t a bad film, not at all. It just had a lot of problems, problems I somewhat consciously chose to overlook because… well….
OK, enough hindsight bashing of Ultron. My point is when it comes to wanting to build a sustainable franchise people will pay good money for, character will whup spectacle every single time. If not character, at the very least you need an interesting, fully-realized and rendered world full of interesting aspects you can build off of, like John Wick. I need to refocus back on Civil War, but this connects, I promise.
The perk of being the 13th film in the franchise is that Civil War had both of the aforementioned things straight off the bat. I was immediately invested in Stark, Rodgers, and wanted to see them grow and develop as characters. And they did just that. Oh, Lordy did they do that.
Following the events of Age of Ultron and a disastrous yet supremely entertaining Avengers operation, the governments of the world chose to ratify the Slovakia Accords, which would once again lead to the Avengers being a government-sponsored team. If they don’t sign, they cannot operate legally at all. Tony Stark is a staunch proponent of the Accords; saving the world with heavy restrictions is better than not saving it at all. He has a point. Rodgers, knowing firsthand the corruption inherent in the governments of the 21st century, feels the opposite. What if there’s somewhere they need to go, but bureaucrats and politicians say no? What if those same people use the Avengers for dirty work instead of protecting the world? Another valid point. Right off the bat, the conflict isn’t an evil robot or a norse god, it’s a conflict of personal ideologies. Even with an ensemble cast, Civil War is, at it’s core, the most personal story Marvel Studios has ever told. It is more emotional and impactful than any film in the MCU. It’s been a week, and it’s still stuck with me. (I promised not to make the mistake I mentioned earlier with Ultron.) The stakes are low. The world will still spin regardless of how things pan out. That’s a good thing. There’s no potential mass genocide to prevent; no excuse to distract from the characters, their relationships, their challenges, their flaws, or their conflicts. With a script written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the narrative superbrains behind The Winter Soldier, the narrative maintains focus on the characters 100% of the time, even in the midst of a massive, ridiculously amazing, ripped-from-panel battle at Leipzig.
I know I spent a chunk of this review seemingly ripping into action and spectacle, but that wasn’t my intention. It’s a problem when action and spectacle is prioritized over character and emotion (in most cases). If you can have spectacle, action, character, and emotion and present them all simultaneously, freaking do it. The more elements in a movie that you can get to blend together in harmony, the better your film will be received by an audience, It’s a near-impossible tightrope act that few have been able to pull off, leading to most films leaning to one side or the other, because balancing multiple elements is extremely difficult. Markus, McFeely, and the Russo Brothers pull off this balancing act with perfect efficiency. I give a lot of credence to character development… but SWEET MARY MOTHER OF GOD THAT AIRPORT FIGHT!!!! With this extended sequence, this film manages to deliver not only the most entertaining, straight up epic battle scene in the entire MCU, but one of the best climactic battles ever put to film. And at that point, the film still has about 45 minutes to go.
The airport sequence, though worth the price of admission alone, is not the only action to be found in this movie. Far from it. The most interesting and entertaining bits of Winter Soldier involved tightly, neatly shot and edited hand-to-hand combat sequences.
In Winter Soldier
, the Russo Brothers manage to perfectly balance the intensity and realism of the spy films which heavily inspired it, while keeping with the fact that it is primarily a superhero film. The same rings true for their second effort. With the exception of the grand, large-scale airport fight, the other action sequences are gritty, rough, kinetic, reminiscent more of Mission: Impossible Rouge Nation
than Iron Man
. It is, honestly, what I personally prefer. We have been fighting with fists since the dawn of man. A fistfight is a true measure of a man’s skill, the ultimate competition. Anyone can shoot a bow and arrow, or more recently, fire a gun (I’m crippled and I’ve done both). But fighting with fists takes skill and a primal sort of intelligence that you cannot learn academically. It activates something in our brains that we, for some reason, like. I don’t think it’s bad, just basic primal instinct. It’s why most of the world knows and loves the names of Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee, But why does it work so well here? In Winter Soldier?
Sure, the choreography is great, but it’s the characters. It’s two characters we’ve connected with working out issues not with micro-missiles or repulsors, but with the two weapons God saw fit to grant every human being straight off the bat. Like the rest of this film, the action is personal. I’ve said it countless times and I will say it again: the characters are what make this film, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole, so engrossing.
Civil War is not the greatest film of all time. It is not an avant-guard experimental piece, and although I will argue it has several layers that can be dissected and analyzed, (even the crappiest films do) it is not an exceptionally deep film. It is not groundbreaking or gamechanging in the way Iron Man was in 2008, Sam Rami’s Spider-Man was in 2002, or Richard Donner’s Superman was in 1978. This film (most likely) will not have a permanent spot in collective pop culture like the aforementioned films.I hope it does, but I doubt it. It is in no way a perfect movie, just one without any glaring or detrimental flaws to detract from my experience (at least after a single viewing). It is not a landmark cinematic experience. I challenge you to find a more entertaining film that hits as many checkmarks for audience relation (and therefore enjoyment) released in the past few years. Though I am not ready to champion Civil War as the best superhero film (I’ll be honest, in the heat of the moment, people tend to blow things out of proportion.), it is, I can say with confidence, the best Marvel Cinematic Universe offering to date, and I believe it will remain so for quite some time.