The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has been on a winning streak pretty much since its inception with Iron Man. By combining great actors with good scripts, amazing action sequences and a sense of humor, they’ve set the gold standard for these “shared universe” franchises that every studio is clamoring to emulate. If there was ever a knock on the MCU movies, it was the lack of compelling villains. The first Avengers movie featured Loki (brilliantly played by Tom Hiddleston) as the nemesis of our favorite team and that turn was probably the most successful of any villain so far in the franchise. Most other movies, including the somewhat disappointing Age of Ultron‘s vengeful android, put forth antagonists who just don’t seem to live up to the hype. We know that the next Avengers-proper films will be the 2-part Infinity War story that will (we assume) finally bring galactic baddie Thanos into the mix in full. Until then, who will challenge our favorite superheroes? Marvel, in their wisdom, realized that now was the time to release their cinematic take on Civil War, a cornerstone comic story arch that pitted our protagonists against each other in a battle of ideals. Oh, and fists.
When this film was announced way back when, Marvel stated that it would feature the largest cast of superheroes yet, even more than Ultron did. But this wasn’t the next Avengers movie, this was Captain America 3. This was always going to be Cap’s movie with the rest of the characters orbiting him and his journey setting the course of the plot. While Chris Evans’ portrayal of Cap anchors the Avengers movies in a big way, his solo films have an aesthetic and feel all their own. After launching the character with a 1940’s-era origin story, the action moved to modern day with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and the feel of the storyline pivoted in an almost genius sort of way. Cap became a sort of fish-out-of-water. He was a “greatest generation” war veteran with all the idealism and patriotism of that era, but was confronted with the much grayer tones of modern America. Hydra had infiltrated SHIELD and grown within it. The government, even his friend Nick Fury, became much harder to trust after witnessing that infiltration and the violent fallout. I love the tone of Winter Soldier because it’s just so different from the other films in this vast series. It felt like 1970’s paranoia/spy thriller. And it was masterfully directed by the Russo brothers (who cut their teeth, ironically, on Arrested Development and Community, two of my all time favorite TV comedies). After the acclaim of Winter Soldier, the Russo’s were quickly hired back for Civil War and soon were tapped to give life to the Infinity War films too. Obviously, they’ve earned the trust of the top MCU brass.
So with Age of Ultron and Winter Soldier as the backdrop to this film, the storyline just makes a lot of sense. The violent climax of Ultron has pushed world governments to enact legislation to regulate the Avengers and “enhanced humans” in general. They want to have a United Nations board decide where and when the Avenges are allowed to intervene. This becomes even more necessary in their minds after a mistake in the opening sequence results in tragic collateral damage during an Avengers mission. Tony Stark, emotionally wounded as he is and dealing with the weight of guilt, sees this regulation as a good thing. He knows he is flawed and makes mistakes (he’s made many in his life) and sees his need for governance. Others, like Black Widow and War Machine, agree with him. Cap, on the other hand, has seen how flawed government oversight can be (hello, Hydra?). He is also very different than Tony Stark in that he has always been a boy scout, able to quickly judge right from wrong and trust himself to act accordingly. Cap worries that this act (the Sokovia Accords, named for the site of the Ultron battle) will deploy the team in the wrong situations and neuter them from intervening in the right ones at times. Early in the film, this conflict seems to be just a difference of opinion that needs more discussion. But then the reappearance of the Winter Solider as the main suspect in an assassination changes everything. Cap has a history with Bucky Barnes and believes that he’s been set up. He and Bucky get together and, with other heroes, work to get to the bottom of the mystery while Iron Man and company work to stop them under the auspices of the new law.
While this plot may seem complicated, it just works in a way that Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice failed miserably. Every single character in this overstuffed film has a chance to speak his/her mind and explain the motivations for his/her actions. We understand while Cap rejects these new accords. We understand why Iron Man is willing to accept them. Other join sides based on their personal experiences and beliefs. It makes sense. Not to rag on BvS too much, but everything could have been resolved in that movie with a simple 20-minute conversation between the title characters. Here, those conversations actually happen and set up the conflicts in a real, organic way.
Oh, and Spiderman is in this movie. After Sony realized their re-booted series with Andrew Garfield was floundering in a big way, they struck a deal with Disney/Marvel to collaborate with the character, helping each other make more movies. They re-cast Peter Parker, tapping young Tom Holland in the role. It’s a super-cool addition to the movie and leaves audiences salivating for what’s to come for Spidey.
The centerpiece of the film is an amazing, climatic battle royale at an airport that has to be seen to be believed. With a huge roster of heroes fighting each other, things can quickly get confusing. And while the Bourne-style camera work does disorient a bit during this sequence, it’s just fantastic all the way through. There’s just so much giddy wish-fulfillment here. From Ant-Man’s antics to Spiderman’s quips it’s just a joy.
Contrast that super-fun fight scene (where heroes just trying to stop each other) with a final fight scene later on in the film which feels ugly and sad because the stakes are more personal and it seems like something really bad is happening (and someone might actually get hurt or killed). It’s the point when the civil war hits home and the audience fully understands the weight of it.
Now, I started out by saying that the MCU has historically had a villain problem. Here, there is actually a villain behind the scenes and his plot sets up the central conflict between Cap and Iron Man. There’s a scene where he talks about his motivation and it’s pretty profound. In essence, he says that he has watched the Avengers from afar and realized that there are no forces equipped to defeat them. Sure, they have had their worthy challengers and Vision points out that their strength invites (and maybe breeds) challenge and that’s part of the problem. But this villain, Zemo, knows that the best way to defeat a team such at this is from within. Turn them against each other and watch them burn down. Maybe that seems cliche, but this is a real world tactic of evil. Terrorists often make it a goal to create chaos in their enemies’ homelands and cause their governments to bicker over how to respond. In the church, our enemy knows that a great way to bring down believers and churches is to turn them against each other. Like the tagline to the film says, “Divided we fall”. With this in mind, Zemo may secretly be one of the smartest, most formidable villains we’ve seen in the MCU. And he was played with a quiet rage by Daniel Bruhl.
I won’t spoil the ending of the film, but I like where we’re left when the credits roll. Things have changed yet again in this universe and our characters have changed, but they’ve also stayed the same. They’ve accepted that they are not always going to agree with each other and made peace with that realization. Complete agreement isn’t a prerequisite for friendship, unity and working together to accomplish something good. Agreement on the pillars under which you stand is essential, yes, but sometimes we believe that if we disagree on the smaller things we cannot even be friends. So in that sense, maybe Civil War is a statement on partisanship. In one scene there’s a speech from Sharon Carter (Agent 13) who, lifting from a Captain America speech in the comic books, says this:
“Compromise where you can. And where you can’t, don’t. Even if everyone is telling you that something wrong is something right, even if the whole world is telling you to move. It is your duty to plant yourself like a tree, look them in the eye and say, no. You move.”
That’s some powerful stuff.
The film is also certainly making a statement on loyalty as Cap nearly kills himself trying to save his friend Bucky even though Bucky committed horrible acts while under the mind control of the enemy. He accepts that Bucky has repented and wants to leave that behind even when almost no one else accepts that. Repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation exist and are worth fighting for in the mind of Captain America. And they should be for us too.
Looking over the history of the MCU movies, it’s clear to me that the Captain America films are the strongest in the series. It’s rare for a second film to fully live up to the first, but Winter Soldier did that. It’s almost impossible for a third film to surpass the 2nd, but I think they’ve actually done it. To me, still sitting in the afterglow, this is the best Marvel movie yet.
Okay, some stray observations on the film as a whole.
- Yes, Spiderman is amazing in this film. We’re now on the 3rd actor to play the character in the modern era and it would be easy to be tired of it at this point. But there’s a fresh new energy to the character with a very young actor in the role. I’m very excited for Spiderman: Homecoming (but I don’t really like the title).
- Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man is so fun. Having an accomplished comedian in this universe adds so much to the dynamics between characters. And his airport antics were a huge highlight for me. I loved the first Ant-Man film and I can’t wait for the announced sequel: Ant-Man and The Wasp.
- “Can you move your seat forward?” “No.” The Russo’s aren’t Joss Whedon, but they may be cut from the same cloth as far as the perfect humor injections. Or maybe that’s their sitcom pedigree showing through.
- Speaking of sitcom pedigree, it’s good to see that The Dean exists in the MCU.
- And I’m told that there is a Bluth staircar hidden in the airport scene somewhere! Second viewing, here I come!
- Also, if Joss Whedon directed this, I think one element of the ending would have been very different. You know what I mean.
- A tiny cameo for Alfre Woodard! Remember when she was shooting Borg with Captain Picard?
- An extended appearance by one of my absolute favorite TV actors: Martin Freeman! I just love him. I hope he’s got more to do in future Marvel movies.
- I mean, even Oscar-winner William Hurt is in this! Everyone wants to try an MCU movie at this point.
- Black Panther was a totally unknown character to me, but they introduced him perfectly and his little arch was super cool. Motivated by revenge throughout the whole film, he comes to a point where he realizes what that can do to a person (by watching Iron Man fighting in the final melee) and makes peace within himself. Beautiful.
- Vision’s sweater! I mean, seriously. I’d love more of The Vision in future films.
- There are just so many small moments in this film that were amazing that I can’t list them all. For being such a huge movie, it managed to include so much nuance.
- From here, we wait until November when we’ll be introduced to a brand new player in this universe: Doctor Strange!
Updated MCU Power Rankings:
|1||Captain America: Civil War||A+||2016|
|3||Guardians of the Galaxy||A+||2014|
|5||Captain American: The Winter Soldier||A||2014|
|6||Captain America: The First Avenger||A||2011|
|9||Iron Man 3||B||2013|
|10||Avengers: Age of Ultron||B||2015|
|11||Iron Man 2||B-||2010|
|12||Thor: The Dark World||C||2013|