Review by Curt Holman
They may be massive global hits, but the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe aren’t for everyone. While on vacation in 2014, my family went to see Guardians of the Galaxy. By the time Star-Lord and company got to the space jail, my mother said “I can’t take it any more” and left to see Get on Up instead.
And Guardians is essentially a standalone film, give or take a Thanos appearance. Imagine the plight of someone who wants to check out Captain America: Civil War without having seen any of its 12 predecessors. Civil War is one of Marvel Studios’ best-crafted films to date, but also possibly the most reliant on the world-building and relationships established in the previous entries. Watching it cold would be like starting a continuity-heavy TV show in mid-season.
Usually when critics compare a Marvel movie to television, they don’t mean it as a compliment, emphasizing the drawbacks of serialization and a tendency to homogenous visuals. But if Civil War demands a greater investment in the series than the other movies, it pays greater dividends and finds Marvel Studios at the height of its powers.
Despite the title, it’s arguably more of an Avengers ensemble film, although it largely unfolds from the point of view of Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans). The film opens with Steve leading the new Avengers team on a thrilling assignment in Lagos, which directors Anthony and Joe Russo present like a Bourne movie, like most of the film’s action scenes. With a mix of spycraft, technological magic and actual magic, the Avengers accomplish their mission, but a mishap costs bystanders’ lives.
In a smaller-scale version of the conflict in Marvel’s Civil War comic book miniseries, such deaths have led to the United Nations demanding more accountability of the superheroes. William Hurt’s Secretary of State introduces “the Sokovia Accords,” placing the Avengers under civilian control, with Tony Stark/Iron Man emerging as an early adopter. Despite his open ridicule of government authority back in Iron Man 2, Tony is wracked with guilt after unleashing Ultron on the world in the last Avengers film.
But Steve balks at signing the accords, seeing them as a compromise of the heroes’ freedom, even though resistance may mean either enforced retirement or criminal prosecution. When Steve’s old World War II pal Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), a.k.a. The Winter Soldier, seems involved in terroristic attacks, Steve defies the accords in the name of protecting his friend and unraveling a mystery involving an enigmatic agent provocateur (Daniel Bruhl).
The conflict ratchets up, and Tony and Steve’s colleagues choose sides until they all square off in a spectacular airport fight scene. If you’ve seen the trailers – and with a pop-culture event like Civil War, they’re hard to miss – you know that in addition to the heroes introduced in previous films, two newcomers join the fray. Amid all the other balls in the air, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely do a surprisingly graceful job of integrating T’Challa, alias the Black Panther (Get on Up’s Chadwick Boseman) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland). T’Challa’s African prince has his own agenda for finding the Winter Soldier, reinforcing some of the film’s themes of vigilantism. Spider-Man proves less important to the story put provides such delightful comic relief, he practically swings off with the movie.
As if in rebuke to the heavy humorlessness of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Civil War finds the value of comedy amid the comic-book operatics. Little jokes not only break the tension and convey the roundedness of the characters, they deepen their relationships. Bucky and Sam “The Falcon” Wilson (Anthony Mackie) reveal a rivalry that’s both funny and credible.
Civil War turns Marvel’s voluminous continuity into an asset. Everyone gets a chance to shine, and even characters way, way on the periphery have been established enough in earlier entries (and even the TV shows) that they can effectively motivate Steve and Tony. But it also knows when to dial back on overused elements. The films have been knocked for building to repetitive, overblown finales with big cities under threats from above. Instead of placing the fate of the world in jeopardy, Civil War’s last act makes the stakes far more personal for the main characters, and is the better for it. Ultimately, despite Evans’ reliable, steadfast work, Tony elicits more sympathy, and Downey’s performance does more heavy lifting. You may start the film on #TeamCap, but you’re likely to end on #TeamIronMan.
Tighter, more satisfying and more emotionally resonant than Age of Ultron, Civil War gives you confidence in the creative team’s ability to helm the even more complicated Infinity War 1 and 2, coming later this decade. Yet it also feels mildly inconclusive. The story had begun before Civil War, and will continue after its credits. Even if you want a film with a strong, definitive ending, the franchise isn’t really built to work that way. The show must go on.
Captain America: Civil War. B+. Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo. Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. Stars Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr. Rated PG-13.