Note: Please refrain from spoilers, hints, or any other such nonsense in the comments. First one gets deleted, second one and it’s your ass.
It is hard to sit through Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War without making some inevitable comparisons to the boneheaded Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Both are long, epic, dramatic superhero sagas that feature heroes fighting heroes for often nebulous-seeming reasons, both due in some part to the machinations of a behind-the-scenes antagonist. Both feature extended, intense hero-on-hero fight sequences. Both feel like both are the end of something, as well as a beginning.
There’s a difference, of course. Everything that Dawn of Justice did wrong, Civil War does right.
It’s nothing less than astonishing to see what Anthony and Joe Russo have done with the Captain America franchise. Not content to rest on the laurels of the excellent Winter Soldier, they pick up shortly after the conclusion of Age of Ultron and return to many of the themes that made their first effort so successful. Here, the basic storyline essentially revolves around the idea that due to the massive collateral damage caused by this new era of superhero, there must now be some sort of checks and balances process, and they must be formally reined in by the United Nations, only to be dispatched upon command. It’s a fascinating premise to be explored, and it’s done in a fashion that makes sense. Of course normal humans would want such a thing, and they don’t want to extinguish heroes, they simply want them controlled. This idea is championed by Tony Stark, trying to use it as a mechanism for coping with his own guilt, but ultimately opposed by Steve Rogers, who sees it as a way for governments to turn heroes into tools for their own agendas, rather than independent operators who can fight all threats. It’s a terrific, organic way to create the conflict between the two of them, and it’s made better by the fact that right up until the first punch is thrown, their relationship remains as strong — if strained — as ever.
There’s far more to the story, but I won’t delve into it further in the interest of avoiding spoilers. Suffice it to say that there’s more at play here than meets the eye, and the eventual consequences will be world-shaking. The film is fraught with its plot problems — as with Dawn of Justice, sometimes it feels like some of the central conflicts could be solved simply by people sitting down over a cup of coffee — and as a result sometimes the conflict feels like it was created as a clumsy way to reach the endgame, rather than it being a naturalistic conclusion. But so much else is done so terrifically well that it’s easy to forgive its flaws. The Russo Brothers, much like they did in The Winter Soldier, created much more than a superhero movie — the first half of the film is essentially a political espionage thriller with superpowered fight scenes. It’s intense, murky, and cleverly manipulates its characters (and its audience) through a complex series of events and political maneuvers, and it often feels like a really well-crafted spy thriller. This serves the characters and the story well, and when things break open in the second half, beginning with an all-out brawl between the two sides, it feels fantastic, as if all that tension built up and exploded like a perfectly timed bubble.
That the story is well-crafted is no real surprise, as the Russos and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely proved themselves capable in the first film. Similarly, that the fight scenes are wildly exciting and fun to watch is expected. However, the greatest challenge they faced was that Civil War is crowded. In addition to every one of the Avengers, excluding Thor and the Hulk (whose exclusions are one of the film’s best ideas — more on that later), we now have Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man, Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther, and Tom Holland as Spider-Man. It’s bursting with characters, and even more complicated is the fact that the film is essentially the launching point for two new franchises (Black Panther and Spider-Man). Yet the two characters are integrated seamlessly and enjoyably, both terrifically depicted by their respective actors, with satisfying story arcs for each of them that never feel shoved into place (something that often happens in Marvel movies as they try to forcibly integrate their long-term goals into their projects). Boseman is perfect as T’Challa, the Black Panther, the aggrieved leader of Wakanda who is on a mission of vengeance that entangles him in the story. The most enjoyable surprise, however, is Holland. It’s not a large part, but it’s well-executed, bringing back all the childish zeal and joy to the character that we’ve so badly needed. I’ve often said that we’ve never had a perfect Spider-Man — Maguire was a good Spider-Man but a lousy Peter Parker, and Garfield was the opposite. Holland may be the solution to that problem, and suddenly I want to see a Spider-Man franchise again.
Perhaps most enjoyable, once all the punching and shooting and flying is set aside, is that the film spends an admirable amount of time focusing on relationships, both old and new. The conflict between Stark and Rogers, the friendship between Rogers and Bucky Barnes, the amusingly odd relationship between Vision and Wanda Maximoff, the often hysterical interplay between Barnes and Anthony Mackie’s Falcon, and the complicated positioning of Natasha Romanoff as the conscience of both Stark and Rogers — all of those are given time to develop and make the film that much more enjoyable. Chris Evans continues to simply be Captain America. His performance is so natural and feels just so damn right, and has come such a long way since its inception in The First Avenger. He’s more than a Boy Scout, more than an anachronistic joke. He’s often a moral absolutist, yet he’s also a voice for reason and understanding. Similarly, Stark remains a wise-assed, condescending prick, but he’s also evolved into a nuanced, deeply contemplative character, well-depicted by Robert Downey Jr. Each of the now-familiar characters continues to be a joy to watch, although I will say this: Scarlett Johannson’s Black Widow remains one of the Marvel franchise’s best characters, a grounded, smart, wicked fighter who thinks her way through things as much as she fights through them, and the fact that she hasn’t been given her own franchise is, frankly, shameful at this point. Also, whoever her stunt double is deserves a raise.
After all is said and done, it’s a great film filled with great performances and amazing, exciting action sequences. The story is dense and complex and while it sometimes staggers under its weight, in the end it comes out strong. Its action is fast and spectacular, but never overwhelming or edited into incomprehensibility. There’s a nice mix of tightly-shot, violently intimate, almost Daredevil-esque fight scenes, as well as large-scale punchy-smashy-shooty superhero battle royals. By leaving out the most powerful characters (Thor and Hulk), the Russos are able to create much more even matchups and it feels less like city-destroying devastation and more like superpowered fisticuffs. Sure, there are times when airplanes are being torn in half, but even then it never feels like too much. Perhaps most importantly is that even though its themes are complicated, and its tone is often grim, there is a remarkable amount of joy to be found in Civil War. Its action is harrowing, its storyline labyrinthine, but damn it, it’s also just fucking fun, and that’s what makes it my kind of superhero movie, and one of the best in Marvel’s franchise.