It’s been a strange year for superhero movies. Deadpool connected with people in a big way. Batman and Superman didn’t. Thinkpieces about the end of the superhero movie genre woke up from their winter hibernation to make their annual rounds. In a year already hopping with superhero activity, Captain America: Civil War clears the waters. 13 films in and three movies into the Captain America franchise, Civil War makes a strong, and immensely watchable case for the future of logform superhero movie storytelling.
The plot: After the hunt for renegade Hydra agent Crossbones (Frank Grillo) results in the deaths of innocents in the collateral damage, Captain America (Chris Evans) and the Avengers are given an ultimatum by the US Secretary of State (William Hurt): agree to be regulated by a UN panel or be labeled as criminals. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), fresh off of nearly destroying the world by creating Ultron, agrees to sign the “Sokovia Accord”, but Captain America (no stranger to government corruption) refuses. When a bombing at the document signing that kills the king of the reclusive African country Wakanda is blamed on Bucky Barnes, the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), Captain America goes searching for him before the Avengers and T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the prince of Wakanda out for revenge can. After learning that a man named Helmut Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) is really responsible for the attacks, a fugitive Captain America and Winter Soldier set out to capture him. With the Avengers ordered to hunt down Captain America, a rift is opened, with The Winter Soldier, Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), The Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) standing with Cap, and Iron Man, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), War Machine (Don Cheadle), The Vision (Paul Bettany) and a 16-year-old Spider-Man (Tom Holland)
With Civil War, Marvel manages to have it both ways, trimming away the fat that’s haunted previous efforts for a movie that’s at once bombastic and personal. One of Marvel’s flaws in past efforts has been a lack of focus, such as in last year’s bursting-at-the-seams Avengers: Age of Ultron. Like Captain America: The Winter Soldier before it, Civil War forgoes teasing a looming cosmic threat in favor crafting a tight plot around the existing characters while adding new ones to the mix with ease. Though the film focuses on the renegade trio of Cap, Bucky, and The Falcon, there’s ample and unforced screen time for Captain America’s allies and opponents alike. Black Widow and Emily VanCamp’s Sharon Carter are afforded the screen time the richly deserve, and Tom Holland’s Spider-Man and Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther steal the spotlight.
What Civil War does right that the comic from which it’s loosely adapted struggled to do is develop the plot first and foremost from its characters. The debate over the necessity of superhero registration and the resulting #teamcap and #teamironman debates amount to marketing* for a story that’s much more personal and much more complicated. Captain America: Civil War is undoubtedly from Captain America’s perspective, but not at the cost of vilifying Team Stark. For my money, Tony Stark has never been more vulnerable and sympathetic than he is here. Reeling from a string of losses and the failings of both his literal and figurative defense mechanisms, Robert Downey Jr. plays the character with a raw vulnerability and a world-weary look that lingers in his eyes. Tony is the antagonist here, but far from the villain. Cap, by the same turn, is presented as the hero the viewer wants to trust and follow, even when he’s making a bad call, raising a debate over moral right vs practicality that’s never easily settled in the world of superheroes. Civil War, Marvel’s comic book event from 2004 faltered with characters acting far out of character in the name of a political stance, Captain America: Civil War is about the wiggle room we have within our personal politics and the ways that policy and experience are frequently at odds. The comic series promised a tragedy, but the movie actually delivers it.
The thing is, though, tragedies aren’t supposed to be this much fun. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo balance levity and light-hearted comic book fun so well they make it look easy. The action is personal and played out on a large, flashy scale. The introduction of Ant-Man and Spider-Man midstream add splashes of genuinely funny humor. For my money, the airport battle between teams Cap and Iron Man teased in trailers and TV spots is the best pure superhero brawl ever put to screen.The characters fight distinctly and banter in that way that never makes sense out of the superhero realm, and there’s a moment between Spider-Man and Cap that crystallizes everything I’ve loved about Marvel comics since I was a kid.
What little there is to pick at here is largely due to the screen time afforded characters. The heroes are given juicy, character-developing bits with limited screen-time, but the non-powered folks around them don’t do as well. Martin Freeman’s role feels like impressive stunt-casting for an oddly two-dimensional snarky bureaucrat role. Similarly, William Hurt as Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross is a bit thinly sketched for a character last seen 8 years ago in The Incredible Hulk, and as such, some of the reveals at the end of the movie seem a tinge abrupt. Daniel Bruhl beats the rap that’s haunted most Marvel movie villains with a plot that tears down the heroes while rarely engaging them. He’s sympathetic in a way most aren’t. He operates from the shadows, which only somewhat obscures the logic leaps in parts of his plot. Zemo has a plot that depends on some degree of coincidence, and there’s more than a shade of the “this was my plan my whole time” bit that’s intrinsic to so many movie villains since The Dark Knight.
While, er, a certain other superhero movies that came out this year has been indicative of many of the flaws of modern superhero comics, Captain America: Civil War represents modern mainstream superhero comics at their best. Civil War is mature and thoughtful without being grim and gritty. It never sacrifices theme and concept for fun and vice versa. It’s exciting and suspenseful, and ultimately, ends with a note of hope. If Marvel movies have finally set the bar this high 13 films in, I’m excited to see what the next phase brings.
*Okay, there’s more to the politics here, and many articles that can and will be written about them, but let’s put that deep dive aside for a later day.