Captain America: Civil War is technically the third in the series of films based on the Marvel Comics character, but it could just as easily have been called The Avengers 3: Sorry About Ultron. That film (which I enjoy, despite some clear flaws) left viewers with the sense that there was something missing from the second Avengers film, and, in that sense, Civil War feels like an apologia, a way to make good on the promise of the series.
This time around, Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is summoned to the offices of the Secretary of State, Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt, reprising his role from the Marvel-produced Hulk). There, Cap, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), War Machine (Don Cheadle) and Vision (Paul Bettany) are dressed down by the Secretary for their roles in the wanton destruction which took place during the events of both Avengers films and The Winter Soldier. Ross contends that a group of “enhanced humans” running rampant across the globe, no matter their intentions, can no longer be tolerated. With more than a hundred countries behind him, Ross wants to make the Avengers a weapon under the control of the United Nations, used only when authorized. Should one of these “enhanced humans” decide not to sign up with this new accord, they have two choices: retire or be seen as a criminal.
This is the crux of the film, creating a philosophical chasm between Iron Man, who suggests that oversight is not a bad thing, and Captain America, who believes the lives lost are the burden of the heroes to bear, and no government should insert its politics into the true aim of the group of superheroes, i.e., to go where they are needed, when they are needed. The fact that much of the action is rooted in the fundamental differences between the ego-fueled Iron man and the duty-bound Captain America lends a thematic weight and consistency that benefits the film tremendously.
Things grow more tense with the reappearance of The Winter Soldier, a.k.a. Cap’s old Buddy Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), the brainwashed assassin that fueled the action of the last Captain America film. As Rogers searches for his friend, who is currently a suspect in a terrorist bombing, Iron Man and his UN-sanctioned team pursue, widening the rift between the characters. As you may expect, all of this comes to a head in a pair of set piece action scenes that pit hero against hero, their philosophical differences erupting into fisticuffs of the most elaborate variety.
The thing that marvel Studios seems to understand about its properties is twofold: the audience is there to have fun, but that does not exclude the ability to discuss ideas of some heft in this fantastical context. Don’t get me wrong, Captain America: Civil War is first and foremost a piece of highly-polished entertainment, designed to careen from set piece to set piece and character to character, drawing oohs and ahhs from the crowd. And on that level, Civil War is one of the most successful entries in the Marvel series. It doesn’t hurt that every actor in the film is playing it just right, another quality of the Marvel Studios’ productions that other superhero films seem to miss wide. Evans, in particular, does an outstanding job of showing the weight of Cap’s decisions without allowing himself to mope through the events of the story. And that’s the other part of Marvel’s trick – making the personal beefs between superheroes matter.
The laughs and applause moments come as quickly as the punches, and the appearance of newcomer to the Marvel Universe Spider-Man (Tom Holland) is note-perfect. In fact, this is probably
the best interpretation of the character, leaning into his youth and wonderment at being suddenly surrounded by figures who have been heroes to him. I’m eager to see where they take this new Wall-Crawler, more pleased that the movie dispenses with the need to retell the well-known origin of the character.
The movie also introduces Black Panther, or T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), who represents the only real origin story, though even that feels more of a reveal than an actual origin tale. His path through the film is an interesting one, and there is no question that Black Panther is going to be a real badass in this world. I’m excited to see more.
For fans of the series and Marvel Cinematic Universe, this is a rollicking and satisfying watch, with spectacular action sequences peppered with enough comedy to keep the tone from wallowing in the more serious themes. Those new to the franchise might find themselves struggling to keep up with the plethora of heroes and their relationships, but, like the comics upon which these films are based, the continuing storyline is also part of the appeal.
Directors Anthony and Joe Russo, who will soon be taking the reins of the Avengers films, do a stunning job of juggling the myriad characters and plot lines, managing to weave in themes of the cost of vengeance and the sometimes inconvenient duties of friendship with equal grace.
Captain America: Civil War is a treat for those who have been swept up in the MCU, offering up spectacular (and joyful) action scenes with a heady enough framework to make it worth discussing afterwards, giving it a staying power absent from many of these films. As long as Marvel Studios serves up films of this caliber, I’ll continue to enthusiastically support the efforts. Maybe the big takeaway from this movie is simply this – the irrepressible smile on my face as I watched, and the sense of wonder that followed me home.