Captain America: Civil War was a lot of fun! I went into the film expecting it to be a bit of a letdown after how much I loved Winter Soldier, and while it’s not as good as the last Cap flick, it’s certainly worthy of the positive critical reception that it has been garnering. I expected that there would be more of a backlash against it given that the negative reception of Batman v Superman was characterized by proponents of that film as being the result of a pro-Marvel bias among the blogosphere. Instead, the film’s 90% positive professional critic score and 92% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes reflects a generally positive reaction, and the film deserves it. While there are some detractors who are critical of the film, citing the distinct division between plot lines (one focused on the titular conflict between the different members of the Avengers and one which is devoted to following up on the plotline surrounding the Winter Soldier and his past), I’m in agreement with the general public in that I found this film a worthy successor and a great introduction to the new direction of the MCU as Phase Three revs its engine.
I’ll be saving my comparisons to other films and my discussion of the spoilery elements of the film for our Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. dual review, but I’ll talk about my favorite elements here. Unlike Age of Ultron, which likewise had a large number of characters and introduced new ones, this film felt neither overstuffed nor imbalanced. There’s more of Cap than anyone else, but that’s to be expected, and every other character gets at least a few minutes of screentime that develops them as individuals and reveals something about their personal philosophy. Notable among these is Scarlet Witch, who is basically filling the Kitty Pryde role on this team as the youngest member/trainee, getting tips on superheroing from Cap and Black Widow in the field. Elizabeth Olsen plays the hell out of Wanda’s insecurities and independence, and it’s a testament to her strength as an actress that the audience fully understands her character after just a couple of films in which she plays a role that doesn’t get a lot of screen time. Although Scarlett Johannson’s role here is much more brief than her meatier presence in Winter Soldier, the Russo brothers effectively understand that her relationship with Steve would be strained by their placement on opposite sides of the Sokovia Accord issue; I won’t get into detail here, but she gets a few scenes that allow the actress to play this conflict, and ScarJo nails it despite being arguably underused. Vision also feels a lot more like Vision this time around: a weird android whose utter incomprehensibility of human social norms is both charming and unnerving at the same time. The movie also gets a lot of subtle comedy out of the character’s uncanniness; there’s something utterly surreal about a blockbuster comic book movie featuring a character whose unusual body shape is covered by the kind of sweater that your grandmother orders out of a J. Crew catalog.
I also really enjoyed that, for the first time in the MCU, we got to see a team fight another group.In most of the films, the final confrontation boils down to a one-on- one fight (Iron Man, Captain America, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Ant-Man), the protagonist and maybe a sidekick facing off against a single villain and his attendant faceless horde (IM2, IM3, Thor 2), or a group facing off against a single villain and his attendant faceless horde (Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers 2). It’s not surprising that the only film from Phases One and Two that doesn’t fit into one of these boxes is Winter Soldier, which sees the individual members of Cap’s team in different places and fulfilling the roles that were best suited to each. This did mean that we didn’t get to see, for instance, a moment of pure four-color glory like Cap using his shield as a refractor for Iron Man’s blasts like in Avengers; what it does accomplish is raising the emotional stakes when the villains are well-developed and individual rather than being mass market Chitauri, Dark Elves, Ultron bodies, or the Sting-Winger things from Guardians. Here, it’s a full team against a full team, using their powers in new and inventive ways and showing how these personalities play off of each other, especially with regards to the more mature members of each team and their more green teammates. Ant-Man is a particular delight (despite some questionable CGI in a few scenes), with Paul Rudd effectively playing up Scott Lang’s awe at meeting Captain America; the serious affectation he puts into the line “Here’s your shield, Captain America” got the film’s biggest chuckle out of me, although Spider-Man’s sincere fascination with Bucky’s metal arm was great as well.
The fight scenes are frenetic in the best way, and they all push the plot forward rather than simply occurring at the anticipated intervals in which we’ve been conditioned to expect them. That’s not to say that this is a fun movie throughout, however. The length of the scenes featuring Holland’s precocious, quipping Spider-Man are balanced out by a conspiracy plot that reflects the darker elements of Winter Soldier. These revisitations don’t resonate as strongly this time around, but the revelations about the Winter Soldier program and one character’s motivations for wanting to bring this information to light are effective in their Manchurian qualities. This actually leads into the question that the marketing for the film has played up, one that was much more straightforward in the source material (which we’ll talk about in the Agents review): whose side are you on?
Where do I stand? There’s a great underlying throughline in this film that shows that, in a way, Tony Stark is right. It’s almost easy to write off Steve’s motivations as being too personal and lacking in professional distance; his desire to not only save but redeem Bucky may be the most ethical motivation in play, but it’s undeniable that this morality isn’t what motivates Cap. Steve Rogers’s desperate desire not to lose one of the last tenuous connections that he has to a home that no longer exists is understandable. On the other hand, it’s not hypocrisy on Cap’s part that he does not want to defer to the potentially unethical whims of a questionably impartial caucus while engaging in ambiguously unlawful activity himself to defend Bucky. It’s totally in line with what he claims is his goal: assuming personal responsibility. It’s also understandable that Tony would be the person most in favor of the accords: his ego and compulsion to take personal responsibility for protecting the entire earth led to the creation of Ultron. Of course Tony feels more of a need for oversight than Cap, who had heretofore never been on the wrong side of any moral conflict. In the end, however, the stakes become as personal for Tony as they are for Steve, leading him to act out violently using his technological advantage. Further, this conflict comes as a result of manipulation by a basic human for whom the stakes are also too personal. Supersoldier, genius inventor, and haunted family man: all give in to their worst instincts, tearing down empires and threatening worldwide political ramifications of the future because of the limited horizons of their own pain. This movie is both an embodiment of the need for accountability as made manifest in the lives of three different men, but also a demonstration of the infeasibility of the accords themselves.
Some situations require action faster than a committee can authorize it. This is a world where an alien portal can open up over New York or interdimensional monsters could appear in London and end life as we know it while some U.N. page is just trying to get enough people together to make a motion to deploy the Avengers. What if everyone was at lunch? And then, boom, humanity is enslaved to the Skrulls or consumed by Galactus because all they had to do was attack during everyone’s smoke break or a particularly nasty flu season. There really is no side that’s entirely right or wrong, which is the film’s greatest strength. There are a lot of people making comparisons to Batman v Superman and with good reason, considering that there is a weird overlap in some of the plot elements, but what really stands out to me is that BvS has what is essentially a sitcom stock plot where Character A and Character B are in conflict because they don’t communicate with each other. Then things get blown further and further out of proportion while shenanigans ensue, until they realize that, hey, being honest is important and everyone learns a lesson about teamwork and friendship. In Civil War, the conflicts are ideological and thus more rooted in the humanity of its characters. That’s the core of what makes this film work, and it’s a great start for the next wave of Marvel’s flicks.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond