With great power comes great responsibility. As the world leader in franchise development, Marvel faced unprecedented expectations for their most ambitious project yet. Captain America: Civil War takes on the three-pronged task of providing a worthy sequel to Marvel’s best standalone project yet, redeeming the last Avenger movie that left many fans underwhelmed, and introducing the concept of an Avenger house divided. On top of all this you have the ancillary objectives that include introducing multiple new heroes, distributing time between so many major characters, or setting up future movies for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The degree of difficulty here is off the charts. Between this mountain of a challenge and the actual quality of the finished product, I believe Captain America: Civil War is not only the best MCU movie to date, but also the greatest superhero movie of all time.
The Not So Great
Any negative I hold against this movie simply stems from something I personally would’ve done differently. For example, the biggest spoiler in this movie (spoiler alert obviously, as is the rest of this review) is the fact that there really are none. No one dies. They couldn’t even fully commit to War Machine’s paralysis; he seems to be moving around relatively well already. I still, despite the extremely well executed concepts of consequences and emotions in this movie, feel as if my heroes are invincible. I don’t exactly fear for their safety. Given the nature of the Civil War storyline, I thought killing off Steve Rogers would’ve been an easy brave decision to make. This storyline seems to be his character’s peak, one that can’t really climb higher against the likes of Thanos with a bigger and bigger Avengers roster. This was my opinion going into the film but, given the direction of the plot, there wasn’t nearly enough time to take us all the way through that process. If Cap did die, it would’ve been shamelessly rushed and lacking the weight it deserves. Maybe they pull that trigger in Infinity War’s first part, ending that mega-story’s first half on a somber note.
The general public doesn’t love Zemo, and I certainly feel he lacked the depth that was given to each and every hero. But if Zemo had been developed much further, his villainy would’ve diluted the integrity of what is supposed to be a hero vs. hero movie. His more subtle presence dodged just about every copout ending available to the Russo brothers. When the idea of other Winter Soldiers was introduced, the end became clear. The Avengers would reassemble to take out the common threat: Zemo and his wintery army. Then what do they do? They literally take the predictable ending and shoot it in the head. The final confrontation is, as the title suggests, Captain America vs. Iron Man. It doesn’t tie up in a neat bow as our heroes quip into the sunset. And that’s because at the end of the day, Zemo wasn’t what this was all about. Every Captain America: Civil War complaint I almost had can be easily refuted. That’s how you, as the Russo brothers would say, “Honest Trailer-proof” a movie.
Choose A Side
Let’s start from the top. Both lead characters are given a tremendous moment that represents his entire mindset. Tony is faced with an angry mother whose son he accidentally killed while cracking jokes above a crumbling city in Avengers: Age of Ultron. This sad story is one of many that the Avengers are responsible for, despite the fact that they’ve clearly saved more lives than they’ve ended. All heroics aside, Tony realizes that people with such incredible power can’t just march from country to country doing whatever they want in the name of justice. The team needs to be contained and controlled to some degree in order to minimize collateral damage. Steve rejects the Accords, the UN proposition that will accomplish just that. Soon after the team’s initial debate, he attends Peggy Carter’s funeral in London. Her niece Sharon (an aspect of creepiness I won’t get into here) quotes her in a way that speaks directly to Cap. It was even a quote taken from Cap in the comics, referring to one’s “no, you move” mentality when facing a situation he or she simply cannot allow. Both Evans and Downey Jr. deeply express their beliefs through facial expressions alone, but are also given plenty of time to voice them.
One major hurdle facing these superhero “vs.” movies is the fact that almost every conflict in the history of conflict can be solved without punching each other in the face. So it takes some great writing to convince us that two heroes, two good guys, absolutely had to come to blows in a situation that probably could’ve been talked out. Enter Winter Soldier. Without Bucky, this entire concept does not work. Cap and Iron Man would disagree, eventually compromise, and tentatively move forward with the Accords in a way that everyone could support. Over the years, the UN would push the team one way or the other, forcing them to either comply or go rogue. But they’d do it together. Bucky is the wrench that derails this entire scenario, because his presence in the world forces both lead characters towards the extreme end of their initial beliefs. When the Winter Soldier (supposedly) blows up a UN meeting and murders the King of Wakanda, Iron Man’s only option is to get in line and pursue Bucky with full force. Cap’s only option is to defend his friend at all costs, defying the very nations he swore to protect. Like every other Internet dweller, I love to poke holes in storytelling. But there is no possible way to resolve this peacefully.
By the time Cap acquires some information that could maybe calm things down, Iron Man is pushed further by other information and you can hardly blame him for not listening. By the time we get to the airport, and Cap tells him there are other Winter Soldiers, Tony has already witnessed Bucky’s relapse into mind-control mode. Even if they’re right about a greater threat, Barnes has to be taken in. But Cap has already seen what happens when you trust faceless organizations with absolute power. Hydra consumed SHIELD from the inside only two years ago. Thunderbolt Ross and company keep their foot on the gas, preventing either side from slowing the entire process down to reanalyze everything and figure it all out peacefully. On this timetable, both sides see no other way and, I reiterate, the Civil War itself is completely unavoidable. The Russo brothers’ ability to keep that essential aspect of the plot airtight is the framework that holds this entire movie together. All the ridiculous fun, action and emotion we’ll get into now would be meaningless without the solid writing that makes the audience realize there is no way out of this fight.
The action itself is head and shoulders above any action we’ve seen so far in the superhero genre. The first big sequence sets a high bar, as a handful of Avengers take down Crossbones. Could they have sent Vision alone and ended the entire conflict without any casualties? Perhaps. But the mission clearly fed into Cap grooming some of the newer members, which was the purpose of this smaller scale adventure. The entire sequence felt very Captain America: Winter Soldier with tight hand-to-hand combat sequences that make punches and kicks look more devastating than explosions and lasers. The Cap-Bucky team-up against the task force sent to take out the Winter Soldier takes that same style and pushes it even further, culminating in an exciting chase scene with the Black Panther. The scene, and this entire movie, gave the Wakandan prince turned king about as awesome an entrance as any superhero we’ve seen in this universe. Side note...given where Bucky ends up at the end of the movie, I'd literally throw money at the Black Panther movie if we get a Black Panther-Winter Soldier team-up adventure. I think there's a lot of potential in that relationship, especially after Sebastian Stan so strongly proved himself as one of the more compelling characters in this universe.
Those two sequences reminded us how the Russo brothers were able to perfect a Captain America movie. The airport scene, on the other hand, let us know they can perfect an Avengers movie. The tightness was still there, and they don’t get sloppy with CGI or over the top action just because the fight’s scale is greater. They instead rise to the challenge, applying the same attention to detail to each and every character. Even the settings mirror the respective battles’ sense of scope. The first two sequences, as well as the final battle, take place in tight spaces. From hallways to a crowded market or staircase, the location always works for the given conflict. The giant Team Cap vs. Team Iron Man throw-down, adhering to this theme, takes place in and around a huge, vacated airport. Again, the setting fits the conflict.
Think of all the moments we’re given in this sequence alone. Spider-Man acrobatically enters the scene and steals Cap’s shield. I was worried the trailers showed us too much, until Ant-Man unleashed his own acrobatics after hiding in the shield to return it to Cap. At that moment, I realized they showed us exactly what they planned to show us and not a second more. Hawkeye shoots an Ant-Man arrow to dismantle Tony’s armor. Black Panther’s Vibranium claws scratch Cap’s typically unscathed Vibranium shield. The shot of Spider-Man flying behind War Machine is incredible. Cap basically taking Spider-Man to school, perfectly ended by the “Where you from?” moment creates chemistry between characters on opposite sides who had never even met prior to this scene. Think about this, we now have a movie in which Spider-Man makes an Empire Strikes Back reference while taking down Ant-Man (turned Giant-Man) for Iron Man while Captain America escapes with the Winter Soldier because Black Widow zapped Black Panther (who had just defeated Hawkeye) after Vision was kept in check by Scarlet Witch, all followed by Falcon pursuing War Machine. What a wonderful world. The praise for this scene, the other big scenes, and the character development throughout the film can go on forever.
I tend to pick on the MCU for their excessive humor that doesn’t always come at the best times. This isn’t because I can’t stand humor, joy or just basic entertainment in a movie. But when you time your jokes poorly, or if there are too many of them, you deflate any dramatic tension or emotion you’ll want later in the movie. In Avengers: Age of Ultron, I barely felt Quicksilver’s death because that final battle was so stuffed with unnecessary and corny humor. Captain America: Civil War finds the balance struck by Captain America: The Winter Soldier and exponentially improves both sides of the spectrum. The humor is more frequent than the Russo brothers’ first shot at the MCU, but that’s no cause for concern. Because the emotion and depth between laughs and cheers is the most poignant the MCU has ever had. For the first time, we feel as if these super-people face consequences. And once we go beyond the Accords debate itself, this story is incredibly personal for both sides.
Some fans might not love the Captain America: Civil War concept because they want to see friendship between these heroes, not conflict. However, despite some top-notch conflict, friendship is actually more present this time around than any other Marvel Studios film. This movie shows us that friendship isn’t about being on the same side; it signifies a bond between people that keeps them close through the best and worst of times. Steve and Tony share significantly more meaningful moments as friends than in previous Avenger films, where they spent most of their shared time bickering while fighting for the same cause. This friendship, Tony’s friendship with Peter Parker, Wanda’s budding romance with Vision, Natasha’s closeness with both Hawkeye and Cap, and of course the ultimate bromance between Cap, Bucky and Falcon carry Captain America: Civil War. The timing and delivery of the “can you move your seat” sequence is absolute perfection. Yet these friendships don’t dilute the conflict itself. The Civil War is very real, and some of them are out for blood.
One impossible feat accomplished by this movie is the clear representation of each character’s motive and mindset. Iron Man tries to make a difference. Cap stands up for what he believes is right. War Machine searches for order in Avenger chaos. Falcon proves an undying loyalty to his friend. Black Panther (and Zemo, for that matter) seeks revenge. Winter Soldier seeks redemption and answers. Vision foresees disaster and tries to avoid it. Scarlet Witch explores her own power and place in the world around her. Spider-Man and Ant-Man look to become something more as recruits into a bigger picture. Hawkeye wrestles with retirement and acts on his paternal instincts towards Scarlet Witch. Black Widow desperately tries to keep the team together. This movie tells a thousand stories at once, without ever forgetting to tell one. The plot is both centralized and diversified, which is exactly what great comic books do.
More than any other movie we’ve seen, Captain America: Civil War is a comic book come to life. It’s also an amazing movie. The nods toward the future are there, but this isn’t a glorified billboard for Avengers: Infinity War. The nods toward the past are there as well, but this isn’t a Captain America: The Winter Soldier/The Avengers victory lap. One could argue Cap's last solo outing, my previous favorite, wasn’t quite Avengers enough. Maybe it is just a great Jason Bourne movie with a Captain America skin on it. One could argue The Avengers leans on spectacle and charisma, foregoing a weighty narrative. One could argue Guardians of the Galaxy is just popcorn fun. Those are all stretches, but you can say that if you’re looking to be negative. For the first time, Marvel did it all. Captain America: Civil War is the culmination of a decade-long effort, one that earns what this movie is ambitious enough to do. The competition was never Batman vs. Superman, even though those comparisons are naturally going to be made due to similar premises and release dates. The competition was always Iron Man, The Avengers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, or whatever your favorite Marvel Studios movie is. This movie only competes with its predecessors, and it wins.