‘Captain America: Civil War’ Review: Marvel’s 8-Year Payoff Picture

'Captain America: Civil War'

Movie Rating:

4.5

‘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.

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51 comments

  1. cardpetree

    Glad to see this is getting positive reviews. Gonna wait to read your review after I watch it. I’ve got my tickets for Friday night. I’m stoked!!!

  2. Cant’ wait…especially since you guys momentarily fooled me with the April Fools review that initially was heartbreaking. I still can’t believe I fell for it…

  3. theHDphantom

    Nice review! Really looking forward to seeing this sometime next week. Just one thing though:

    “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.”

    I think that’s debatable. I actually REALLY, really liked the Marc Webb Spider-Man films and was extremely disappointed when Sony scraped all future plans for the series. I’m just hoping this new Tom Holland Spidey is at least half as good as Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Man.

  4. Csm101

    Got a 7:30 ticket for my daughter and I for Thursday. Very excited but a little bummed the 7:00 at the big ETX auditorium was sold out.

  5. Ryan

    I thought Winter Soldier was a total bore. Antman was just ridiculous. I think I’ll pass on this one.
    Let me know when Guardians 2 comes out.

    • T.J. Kats

      Obviously everyone has different taste but thinking Winter Soldier was a bore is one I’ll never understand.

      • Thulsadoom

        I’m with Ryan, I thought Winter Soldier was a bit boring, especially by the absurd climax. It was better than the first Captain America though… I was rather disappointed in that, since it was Joe Johnston and I love The Rocketeer.

        I think I’ll be waiting for this one on Blu Ray.

        • Timcharger

          “especially by the absurd climax.”

          A million guns mounted underneath 3 ship-planes,
          synchronized to fire at the same time, all from
          Washington D.C., at a million different targets, up
          and down the East coast of the U.S., from a
          thousand miles away, targets chosen because of
          voting and library records (and internet browser
          history?), with a premature bodycount countdown
          clock. You know, cuz it ain’t worth doing unless
          Hydra gets its money shot right on cue.

          Yeah, 3 Days of Captain Condor became absurd.

          • Timcharger

            Josh, a film on Thor, gets a high threshold
            for disbelief given the mythological source
            material.

            Guardian of the Galaxy’s humor earns it a
            high amount of suspension of belief.

            When you set up a 70’s style political thriller,
            the absurd climax is a huge letdown.

            Especially when the absurdity was
            unnecessary. Commandeering Shield ship-
            plane-weapons-of-mass-destruction to cause
            acts of terrorism is evil enough.

            Not all comic book movies should be judged
            on the same criteria on the levels of realism.

          • Phil

            Tim…it was a 70s style political thriller starring a guy named Captain America who was frozen in ice for decades. It was heightened and ridiculous before the story even started.

          • Timcharger

            Phil, so a BILLION synchronized guns,
            more absurdity is a better climax?

            Targets are anyone who searched
            “Star Wars” on their computers,
            Hydra must fire their guns in unison
            on May the 4th.

            All this makes sense because as
            Phil cited, Capt was frozen in ice.
            So any absurdity is justified.

            —–

            Seriously, what is so disagreeable
            to what I’m saying? Calling for
            less absurdity, what’s wrong with
            that call?

          • Thulsadoom

            I agree… I know comic book movies have a certain level of absurdity. Most of it doesn’t bother me in the context of the film universe, but sometimes there is a threshold beyond which that absurdity just becomes mind numbingly stupid.

            I see the ‘But it’s a fantasy/comic book’ argument so often these days, to excuse anything and everything, the excuse itself is becoming absurd. 😉

            The Force Awakens is a wonderful example. The monumentally poor script, story and logic of that film make the worst elements of the prequels feel like Casablanca, but all I hear is “But it’s fantasy! How can you complain about that, if you are okay with (quote some minor flaw in one of the originals)”

      • Ryan

        I was bored by the action (and Cap’s ever changing power level). But then totally lost all interest with Nick Fury’s “death”. From that point on, I just couldn’t give two craps about the movie

  6. T.J. Kats

    48 hours until my showing and I think my wife we’ll happy when the time comes so I stop talking about it.

  7. Charles M

    I liked the movie well enough, but I don’t understand the love it’s getting, other than maybe people wanting to stick it to BvS. The shaky cam+closeup+fast cutting got annoying and were unnecessary since the action seemed well choreographed.

  8. I call it ‘The Avengers 3: Cap v Iron Man – Winter’s Soldier.’ This is just another lazy Marvel effort that mashes up plot lines from already existing (in most cases) Marvel movies. It offers nothing new and carries now weight – whatsoever. The plot is EXACTLY the same as ‘Winter Soldier.’ Cap goes rogue, won’t kill Bucky. Everyone is after him and Falcon. Instead of hydra being the evil force, it’s the United Nations and Iron Man, who with the flip of a switch suddenly has a moral conscious – despite spending the climax of the movie attempting to murder someone in cold blood. There’s only one memorable action piece (which isn’t even the climax). RDJ feels like the new Bruce Willis, meaning that he puts no effort into his performance (with the exception of one final scene).

    What a let down. Loving the previous Cap movies, I expected this one to be brilliant, but it’s nothing more than Marvel’s typical formulaic and completely safe popcorn movie. I understand that their brand revolves are pure fun – which is just fine – but they’re recycling plot points and structures more than Michael Bay recycles his own CG effects and camera shots. Everyone loves them, but I’m at a point where I need more than just “fun” with their re-run products.

    • Ryan

      Haven’t seen Civil War yet (and won’t until BluRay), but you summed up my feelings toward most Marvel films perfectly here.

    • Al

      Luke, this is the best review of ‘Civil War’ that I’ve read, and it’s not even a proper review.

      Amen.

      I agree with every single word.

    • Al

      I have no idea which movie Phil was watching!

      Either he was watching a different movie, or he hasn’t been paying attention during all of the other Marvel films.

      • If they were stand-alone movies, I’d have probably viewed the movie through Phil’s eyes; however, we’re over a dozen movies into the franchise now. For me, I don’t like seeing a variation of the same movie a dozen times. It’s about time they reboot the entire MCU. (Joking, of course.)

        • Al

          That’s precisely how I feel. If I wouldn’t have seen EVERY SINGLE THING that happens in ‘CW’ at least a dozen times — in at least a dozen different ways — before, everything would have carried a lot more weight. Happening in the MCU, as currently constructed, it comes across as nothing more than rehashing old plots and treading water until the Infiniti War begins.

      • Phil

        Yeah, you guys are right. Comic books never recycled formulas or returned stories to stasis to continue the books going. Marvel has totally cheated us out of a comic book movie experience! Thank god Zack Snyder had the balls to make a serious superhero movie for serious people who appreciate seriousness. This Marvel stuff is lame-o!

        • Al

          This is a ridiculous argument, Phil. These are not comic books. These are F I L M S. I think you know that arguing that comics recycle plots doesn’t make it acceptable for an ongoing film series to do the same. Everything that happens in ‘CW’ has already happened in one or more of the other MCU films. We’re just supposed to say, “Oh, well… The comics do this all of the time. It’s no problem. These films are just “comic book movies.” I’m sorry, but that’s not an excuse. It’s sheer laziness.

    • Phil

      You tell em, Luke! Lord knows that the critics and audiences are feeling the same way and…oh…nevermind.

      • 😀

        I came to a realization with this one: while I used to love Marvel movies, I’m no longer their demographic. The path they’ve decided to take is not one that appeals to me and my taste. I anticipated a certain future for it, one that kept the fun and entertainment while growing, stretching and offering surprises. But now that they can make a billion dollars by offering content that in no way raises the bar, yet still brings out the fanboys in repeat-viewing droves, they don’t need to. DC’s universe is riddled with problems, but at least they’re trying to do something new. Marvel Studios arrived on the scene and was warmly welcomed by all – but they’ve been in a rut ever since (Guardians of the Galaxy is the exception) and I desperately want to see them do something new. Perhaps Dr. Strange will do that for me, but since I’m not their demo audience, I’m not going to get my hopes up too high.

          • Quality over quantity.
            Attempting to make “films,” not “flicks.”
            Removing the safe nature of the characters by giving them actual threat.
            DC isn’t recycling plots and formulas. Compared to 95% of Marvel’s movies, that’s certainly something new.

        • Csm101

          I don’t mean this a jab to DC, because I want them to do well, but they haven’t recycled any plots or formulas because they can barely get off the ground. They haven’t even got to the point where they can do that. I think rebooting Batman so soon after a mostly satisfactory run with the Nolan franchise shows me they’re playing really safe by breaking out their golden goose so soon. I give them credit for trying to establish their universe in a different way than Marvel did, but after seeing the little they have so far, it looks like they’re trying to take a shortcut to what has taken many years for Marvel to establish and has proven quite lucrative for them and very satisfying for the audiences. Most of them anyways. If there was one thing I got out of BvS, it’s that rushing to get the two most iconic heroes of all time to do battle so soon without any history or build up didn’t pay off for anyone. Not the fans nor the studios. If they would’ve taken their time to make some tension between them and whet the appetites of the fans while establishing their universe, it would’ve been much more gratifying for everyone involved. Question, will you be pissing in more fanboy Cheerios with a 40 problems with Civil War type post this year?

  9. Ralph Tricoche

    Just saw the movie, its
    Marvel Fisticuffs Movie (plug a number here)
    Wait for Bluray or bootleg.

  10. Deaditelord

    Phil, did you see it in 3D? If so, how was it since Marvel’s track record for 3D has not been all that great.

    • I saw it in IMAX 3D. It was decent, with the exception of the opening scene. For some reason, the opening action sequence is rough. Not only does it feature MTV-fast A.D.D. quick cuts and Jason Bourne-style close-up shaky cam, but it has a strobe-like choppiness. Motion is not fluid. All of those things combined make for an unpleasant 3D opening.

  11. Csm101

    I definitely loved it. The movie did a good job at blurring the line of who’s side to be on because both Tony and Steve’s motivation for their choices were legit. There’s a great scene with the two that doesn’t involve throwing punches, just words, that carried a lot of weight due to great performances and the characters having a history together. Without giving away too much, it’s the scene with the pens. The movie wasn’t just about the action set pieces, there was a good story being told too. There may be a few nitpicks here and there, but overall it was very satisfying on a first viewing.

  12. Shannon Nutt

    I liked it a lot. I don’t agree with those who rank it as among the greatest superhero movies ever made (I’m not even sure it’s as good as THE WINTER SOLDIER), but there were parts of this film that I really enjoyed (most of them didn’t have action in them…which still runs on WAY too long in every sequence…I guess that’s what fans like, though).

    But after two bad Marvel movies (I didn’t like AGE OF ULTRON and I hated ANT-MAN – although I like him in Civil War) and the depressing BATMAN V. SUPERMAN, I can see why CIVIL WAR is getting raves.

  13. Lee Jones

    I didn’t like it. I didn’t like “CAPTAIN AMERICA CIVIL WAR”. Marvel should have saved this story arc for an Avengers film. Worse, the screenwriters allowed Tony Stark to nearly dominate the narrative. In doing so, they have weakened Steve Rogers’ own personal arc.

    If this is the public’s idea of a great movie, you can keep it. I don’t want it. I wish Marvel had stuck with their original idea for “CAPTAIN AMERICA 3”, instead of flip-flopping between “AVENGERS 3” and “IRON MAN 4”.

    Really disappointed. But I loved “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN”.

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