'Captain America: Civil War'
‘Captain America: Civil War’ plastered a big, dopey, childish grin on my face from start to finish due to how much it truly feels like a comic book brought to life. The movie is unapologetic to unfamiliar audiences like any good comic, picking up in the middle of a large ongoing narrative involving dozens of characters and breathlessly ramping viewers into the next chapter without a moment wasted.
New colorful characters are introduced, longstanding relationships are tested, subtle subtexts are explored, emotions run high, and above all else the film presents a costumed battle royale that is the envy of every sandbox action figure skirmish ever staged. It’s a glorious romp that runs deep with continuity and reverence for a carefully established world, and it’s also more than happy to smash the castle to pieces just to build it back up again. If things ultimately feel slightly unsatisfying by the time the credits roll, that’s only because, well, it’s the nature of any good comic book to leave you wanting more.
Things kick off with the new Avengers team executing a mission on foreign soil to stop Crossbones (Frank Grillo) from getting up to no good. The plan goes wrong, a building blows up with plenty of casualties, and Avengers newbie Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) is to blame. When the team returns to the U.S., Secretary of State Ross (William Hurt, officially confirming the Edward Norton ‘Incredible Hulk’ movie as canon) presents the team with a mandate from the UN insisting that they stop causing so much ruckus without the official sanction of the international organization.
A particularly guilt-ridden Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr., obviously) is anxious to enforce limitations on his super-powered brethren, while Captain America (Chris Evans) doesn’t take too kindly to that idea. It interferes with his plans to track down and redeem his old childhood-buddy-turned-killing-machine the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). This causes a fracture within the former super-friends, and things get tense in a way that can only be resolved with fisticuffs in a superhero universe. Meanwhile, a mysteriously evil man named Zemo (Daniel Brühl) is out tracking down HYDRA agents and using deadly methods to get information on a mission the Winter Soldier carried out in 1991. Oh boy, things are going to get messy.
That’s the basic setup that you likely already know from the trailers, and revealing more would be unfair. Not that the movie has a vast treasure chest of surprises that no one will see coming, more that it has so many characters and plotlines involved that merely describing their basic beats would spoil all the weird and wild places the Russo brothers take audiences to over a densely packed 2.5 hours. The tone is very much in line with the more stripped-down and somewhat gritty ‘Winter Soldier’ movie from last time. In fact, the movie so seamlessly mixes together concluding strands from that story and new incidents from this epic tale that it’s a pretty amazing feat of ongoing episodic film narrative.
‘Captain America: Civil War’ is an extraordinary juggling act that weaves together dozens of characters, storylines and ideas with a constant state of forward momentum, while also setting up new ones to pay off down the road. It feels like the culmination of Marvel Studios’ eight-year experiment in comic book cinematic storytelling. A big, beautiful superhero blockbuster like this could never have existed before now, because 13 movies worth of groundwork were required just to get here.
The big standoff between Cap and Iron Man is of course the meat and potatoes of the picture, and both sides of the moral superhero quandary are equally empathetic. Evans is as charmingly sweet as always (even under pressure), while Downey mixes some genuine pathos into his wise-cracking tycoon routine with surprising depth. They carry the movie and drama with ease and make the tale of two ridiculously-named characters in costumes feel surprisingly human.
Surrounding them, the directing Russo brothers find the right place for every MCU hero (minus Thor, Hulk, or the Guardians) and give all the actors a satisfying arc or string of jokes to play. No one feels wasted, no matter how little their screen time. Whenever Cap or Tony need to voice their side of the hero debate, the Russos plug in the perfect Marvel character to add to the conversation rather than just acting as a sounding board. Plus, there’s also plenty of fun to be had by mixing together so many dynamic characters. You honestly haven’t lived until you’ve seen a miniaturized Paul Rudd rattling around inside the Iron Man suit cracking wise.
As for the new characters, they fit in beautifully while still serving a single story. (Well, maybe the villains are somewhat underwhelming, but that’s always been the Achilles’ Heel of any Marvel movie without Loki. The beauty of the ‘Civil War’ concept is that it’s mostly all heroes all the time.)
Chadwick Bouseman’s Black Panther brings a regal nobility to this roster of heroes as well as a gorgeous costume and some fluid, badass powers. He figures prominently in the story, but it feels more like a teaser for what he’ll become in his solo movie. Fans will be positively giddy to see that come to life when this flick wraps up.
Tom Holland’s Spider-Man gets only a meet-cute with Tony Stark and a place in the big battle, but already feels like a welcome addition to the universe and a version of the character that will become definitive. He has a sweetly adolescent innocence without a hint of precocious childishness and spits out one-liners out of giddy discomfort while fighting, just like longtime Webhead readers have always dreamed to see on the big screen. It’s a goofily awkward take on Peter Parker and a powerfully mobile vision of Spider-Man. The Russos were clearly fans and brought the character to life vividly in a way that hasn’t felt this good since Sam Raimi was at the helm. Their Spidey fights are gorgeous. It’s a good thing they love the character so deeply, considering how little screen time they had to introduce him to the MCU. Fortunately, they’ve done it well enough that all memories of Sony Spidey failures will be erased by the time you hear his final snappy comeback during the big fight.
Oh yeah… the action… it’s amazing. The Russos start with the visceral physical action they used so effectively in ‘Winter Soldier’ and then, one set-piece at a time, expand into full-on comic book fantasy. The big airport fight from the trailers is a jaw-dropper guaranteed to make any child weaned on underpants heroes in funny books tear up with joy. It’s an extraordinary juggling act of larger-than-life characters, spectacular powers, and gentle slapstick that’s sure to be the most popcorn-pleasing climax of the summer.
That’s not the final battle, though. That comes down to the central duo with personal stakes and emotional resonance that feels deliberately reminiscent of ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ (a movie that’s not coincidentally name-checked in the dialogue at one point). In fact, ‘Civil War’ very much feels like the concluding story of Marvel’s Empire-influenced Phase 2, and the first one that actually delivers that uneasy emotional payoff rather than just aping the concept of dark twists in brightly colored tales.
Ultimately, the film feels like an important piece of an overall narrative puzzle that leaves the Marvel Universe in a lonely, broken place before being reunited for the grand ‘Infinity War’ finale. Its only real weakness is that it plays more like a chapter in an ongoing story rather than a standalone effort. While it’s a rousing and vitally important new chapter, it’ll leave unfamiliar viewers feeling left out in the cold and won’t even give familiar viewers the same soothing sense of catharsis as ‘The Avengers’. There’s something uneasy about that approach, but the good news is that Marvel has made the whole world comic nerds now, so they should appreciate the sad cliffhangers as much as the giddy thrills.
‘Captain America: Civil War’ brings all the charms of a crossover event comic to the big screen, and those who appreciate such things will likely leave the theater with such a head rush they’ll lack the ability to discern whether anything is lacking from the experience for quite some time. That’s a pretty good trick to pull off. I can’t wait to see what the gang has in store for Act 3 of this unprecedented experiment in long-form cinematic superhero storytelling. It’ll need to be absolutely massive to top this satisfying sideshow.