It’s at the point where I don’t even consider the next installment in the never-ending deluge of Marvel movies its own standalone feature. Along the path, I started looking at their whole cinematic universe as a big, occasional, episodic series, like how I watch Game of Thrones. Actually, it most closely resembles how I watch Sherlock, what with the long gaps, tangentially related storylines, and really long episodes.
Before my screening of Captain America: Civil War (if you want the short version of my review: it’s awesome, go see it, it’s everything Avengers: Age of Ultron wasn’t) a couple of friends complained, or, more accurately, noted that we already know who makes it out alive. Thanks to the current state of obsessive fandom, these sprawling shared universes, and multi-picture contracts that are in the news cycle every day, we already know who’s coming back for the next movie. Hence we know who lives. While that’s very true, worrying about mortality misses the point from where I sit.
Certainly each individual film has its own arc, but this is the way the MCU resembles a serialized show. Or, more accurately, is resembles the comic books on which these movies are based. Each chapter is just that, a part of a larger continuing narrative. They may have different sets of concerns and journeys for the characters, but they’re rarely intended to be final. Over the decades-long life span of these heroes, they’ve had countless adventures with beginnings, middles, and ends, and that wrap up only to move on to the next. We watch them grow and develop across multiple stories. That’s the comic formula, and that’s the formula in the films, even if it’s taken some getting used to.
Yes, these situations are harrowing and perilous and potentially fatal, and these costumed superheroes throw themselves headlong into danger most of us would flee in terror from. That’s why we watch them, that’s why idolize them, that’s why their sagas have such an extended shelf life. Mankind has been telling stories of gods since the beginning, and superheroes are the new pantheon, the new mythology. They’re a version of ourselves, enhanced and idealized, exaggerated and jacked up, but also proud and loyal and arrogant and devoted and flawed like we are. All those traits are likewise amplified. And like the gods of yesteryear, though they feud and fuss and battle, they rarely ever pass for real.
It’s not about who lives and who dies, there’s so much more going on. It’s about these characters, their relationships, and their stories, and Captain America: Civil War delivers all of that by the bucket full. This is fantastic longform storytelling that is very much in line with the source material. It builds on what came before, dovetails into what comes next, and in a world of cinematic shared universes, represents the apex of what can be done with this format and within this framework.
Since news first trickled out that Marvel was tackling a version of Mark Millar’s vaunted Civil War storyline, one of the most game-changing arcs in the comic book giant’s recent history, this film has worn the sarcastic moniker of Avengers 2.5 because of the sheer number of heroes involved. But to be honest, that’s not far off. Captain America (Chris Evans) is front and center, but it’s far from his story alone. Much like the Avengers movies, Cap and Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) form the center around which the rest of the stable of heroes revolves, and their push and pull dynamic drives the narrative.
Captain America: Civil War sees the anti-superhero backlash brewing over the past few Marvel movies reach critical mass. After another very public incident that leads to collateral damage—the political way of saying the death of innocent people—the governments of the world band together to draft the Sokovia Accords. This legislation places enhanced people under the control of an oversight committee that decides when and where the Avengers may intervene. Wracked by guilt, Tony Stark falls on the side of regulation, saying they need to be put in check. Captain America has seen this before, envisions too many ways the situation can go south, and doesn’t want to be constrained by ineffective bureaucracy or someone else’s idea of right and wrong—as he says, the best hands are still their own. The rest of the superheroes fall into one of these camps and the battle lines are drawn. Though there are various external antagonistic threads and threats, there’s not a traditional big bad to be found, and the story is truly about the infighting and conflict amongst the heroes.
From this set up, already pregnant with potential, Civil War sprawls outward into a swirling mass of storylines and characters. I have to give directors Joe and Anthony Russo, the sibling duo behind Captain America: The Winter Soldier, credit for never letting it spiral out of control. With this much going on, and a 146-minute run time, it very easily could have. And, for the most part, all of the players get their moment to shine and even have opportunities to add more depth and texture to their characters.
Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr. give the main conflict an emotional punch, and there are a few moments that catch you like a short shot to the gut. In brief snippets, Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) have the opportunity to flesh out their roles a nice bit—in the comics there’s a romance between these two, and that vibe is definitely thrown into the mix. Most fun is the contentious, antagonistic relationship between Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and Bucky/The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan)—they may be on the same side because they’d both follow Cap to hell, but that doesn’t mean they like each other.
Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) is the character who gets shafted in Captain America: Civil War. Aside from a couple of badass beat downs, she doesn’t have much to do, which is a shame. Her relationship with Cap in Winter Soldier is fantastic, but instead of building on that, the film uses it as a prop—there’s only so much juice to be squeezed from silent, pleading looks, and her part is underwritten. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) pops in for a visit, but aside from a few sharp one-liners and a heavy-handed speech to Tony Stark, he doesn’t have much to sink his teeth into. Again, this is too bad because his best outing thus far was in Age of Ultron, but they never capitalize on that momentum. Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man also only gets a few minutes of action, but they are an awesome few minutes, and he totally steals the frame when he’s on screen.
One of the elements that had fans worldwide quivering with anticipation, to the point of exploding, is the fact that Civil War introduces a couple of important new players. This marks the first appearance of Spider-Man (Tom Holland) in the MCU, where the character belongs, as well as our introduction to a live-action Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman). And we were right to be excited.
Holland’s Wall-Crawler is smartass and funny and awkward and insecure, all the things Peter Parker is in the comics. It’s incredible to finally see him swinging around alongside his comic book compatriots. It’s so fucking gratifying to watch him team up with other Marvel characters in a movie. I actually like both Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield’s versions of the Web-Slinger, even if the movies around them weren’t always good, but Holland kills it and captures the teenage Peter like no one before him—Marvel obviously understands the character in a way that Sony never did.
Less familiar to general audiences is T’Challa, the king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, who also doubles as Black Panther, but he’s no less wonderful to finally meet on screen. Hunting the Winter Soldier, he’s ferocious and regal. Boseman has a quiet exterior that belies the rage and fire lurking just below, threatening to burst out of one twitchy eye. Black Panther has been around in the comics since 1966, but this is a hero I can’t wait to watch grow and evolve in future movies.
Both of these characters have their own solo adventures on the way over the next few years, and Civil War gets their origin stories out of the way in short order here so we can move forward unfettered into those films. I know I’m not the only one who breathed a sigh of relief when we found out we won’t have to sit through the beginnings of Spider-Man again—we get it, radioactive spider, dead Uncle Ben, great power, great responsibility, yadda yadda.
Rarely, if ever, has a Marvel movie been as visually comic book-y as this one. Characters careen through the air, and huge action set pieces play out like they were lifted directly from the printed page. When the two sides finally come face to face, it looks like you opened up an issue to find a massive image that pours across the fold. This is some of the best-staged and photographed blockbuster action in recent memory. Fast-paced and frenetic as it is, it’s coherently edited, never muddy, and remarkably crisp and clear.
At the same time there are these epic group battle sequences, there are also down and dirty, one-on-one throwdowns that give this fanciful action a grounded realism. Bucky and Black Panther have one of the best brawls in Civil War, Black Widow’s highlight is when she rips through a couple of goons in a Nigerian market early on, and as jaw-dropping as the big scenes are, these smaller, more personal fights are every bit as strong.
All of this makes sense when you realize that Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, the stuntmen-turned-directors behind John Wick, handled the stunt coordinator duties. The fights are gritty and rough, but inventive and intricate at the same time. It doesn’t hurt that they have a who’s who of big time Hollywood stunt performers on their roster—once again, Heidi Moneymaker shines as Scarlett Johansson’s action stand-in.
Is Captain America: Civil War a bit overlong? As the longest Marvel movie yet, yes, yes it is. Does it occasionally spend too much time setting up future movies? Of course, though it’s more organic and less intrusive than in many other cases. Are some of the characters underutilized? Again, yes—this includes a few fan favorites as well as most of the new minor players (sorry, Martin Freeman), who don’t amount to much.
Despite these dings, Captain America: Civil War may be Marvel’s greatest achievement yet. Even more than The Avengers, this is the peak of their long form storytelling approach thus far—that movie was a culmination, this one is a jumping off point. It may be a bit like diving into a TV show mid-season for the uninitiated, but there are ‘oh shit’ moments, characters we love going through hell, incredible action, and a pace that never flags. As the first chapter in Marvel’s Phase 3, Civil War leads in a number of interesting, exciting directions and alters the landscape of the MCU in drastic fashion. This is damn near everything I want out of a big summer blockbuster and I can’t wait to see what’s on tap next. [Grade: A]