This seems to be the summer of consequences for those decked out in tights, boots and capes. Perhaps in a calculated inversion to the recent sling of comic book adaptations that have ended in fiery bombardments on cities or a response to criticism of such, two of this year’s biggest superhero movies, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Captain America: Civil War deal with who’s watching the watchmen and whether superheroes should be kept in check.
That’s where the comparisons end for the most part—though people have compared and will compare the two in the coming weeks. Whereas Batman v Superman was meant to launch DC’s cinematic universe, Civil War is the culmination of years of character development and conflict, tearing a rift between The Avengers (minus Hulk and Thor, who’ll be doing their own buddy road trip flick late next year). Taking its namesake from the 2006 comic event, the film finds Captain America and Iron Man leading two opposing sides when the government attempts to regulate them.
The Civil War comic event was quite successful if controversial, adopting the paranoia of a post 9/11 landscape. I remember buying up issues as a preteen from a local comic book shop. At the time, the series and its many crossover comics were great, offering an encompassing look at who these heroes were as people and what happens when heroes morally oppose each other. It had everything you could want from a comic: epic, brutal fights, character development, high-stakes deaths (most famously Captain America himself), and shocks like Spider-Man unmasking. It also had problems that were more apparent on rereading: Iron Man was turned into a villain, and it was hard to ever see Captain America’s side as anything but heroic.
Fortunately, Captain America: Civil War skirts around these faults, and never once do you feel like Captain America or Iron Man are morally right or wrong. Instead, there’s a split, much like when one’s parents get divorced, and the two heroes find themselves on opposite sides of the Sokovia Accords, an edict by the United Nations meant to police them. There’s danger in having this storyline so early in Marvel’s cinematic history. For one, there’s nowhere near the amount of heroes available for the massive battles that took place in the comics—not that the film isn’t already bursting at the seams.
Another is that Captain America and Iron Man haven’t ever been the close, trusted friends they were in the comics. Allies and teammates, sure, but they don’t have 40 years of comic history between each other. But the split’s believable, mostly because of Chris Evans’ and Robert Downey Jr’s natural chemistry. There’s that level of antagonism that’s been building since The Avengers, but also mutual respect and trust that comes from surviving two world-ending cataclysms together.
First of all, Captain America: Civil War is a good film, one of the best Marvel has produced, though it never reaches the shock and awe of the comic series or the pure joy of The Avengers. It’s a smaller-scale and more focused flick with less bite and grit than I was expecting, but the emotional turn of the third act provides a poignant end that leaves the Avengers in a rocky state. Those expecting a direct adaptation might be disappointed, but it was never going to be a direct adaptation.
Much debate has been made about whether it is a true sequel to Captain America: The Winter Soldier or just Avengers 3 in disguise. The truth is somewhere in the middle. It’s more of an Avengers film that focuses heavily on Captain America and continues the storylines from The Winter Soldier, most notably the search for Bucky. That being said, Captain America often feels overshadowed by the more flashier players. It’s somewhat disappointing that he never feels more badass than his elevator fight in The Winter Soldier, and that the Russo brothers couldn’t top that with the sequel.
The search for Bucky is a major component of the film, to the point that it often overshadows the Accords and the idea of superhero registration. The third act almost forgets them entirely, settling on Captain America’s friendship with Bucky. Maybe, it would have been best to separate the stories into two separate films, giving the Accords more time to breathe, but the way Bucky is tied into the main events is effective. When a bomb goes off and Bucky is framed, Captain America goes against the Accords to find him.
Sebastian Stan is given more to do than scowl this time around as Bucky deals with resurfacing memories and the remnants of Hydra’s brainwashing. As Captain America’s right hand man, Sam Wilson, Anthony Mackie has his usual amount of charisma, offering a nice repertoire with Bucky. Continuing from Avengers: Age of Ultron, Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff and Paul Bettany as The Vision make the most of their screen time, with hints of their romantic relationship from the comics. Jeremy Renner continues his wisecracking shtick as Hawkeye, though he’s once again sidelined for the most part. Likewise, though she gets a lot of screen time, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow simply seems to be there as a Jiminy Cricket on Steve Rogers’ and Tony Stark’s shoulders. Fans of War Machine and Don Cheadle will likely be disappointed as he’s often either sidelined or someone’s punching bag. While most get their moment to shine, his moment seems to be left on the cutting room floor.
You may notice that I left out Ant-Man, Spider-Man, and Black Panther—but that’s because they steal the show. Anytime Paul Rudd is on screen, he is consistently funny, continuing his laid-back, sarcastic, amazed view of the other heroes, and he has probably the biggest moment in the whole film. Though it took years and a cyberattack, Spider-Man has joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe to the collective squeals of fanboys everywhere. This is the definitive version of Spider-Man, springing forth from the pages of the comics. Tom Holland’s performance is a cross between Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield, bringing a nervousness to Peter Parker and a zing of one-liners to Spiderman. Not that he’s trying to be funny; he just doesn’t know how to shut up, bringing an earnestness to the role that prevents him from being annoying or coming across as cocky. Chad Boseman’s portrayal of Black Panther makes me optimistic for the character’s future. Boseman’s Panther is at once an angry, relenting specter and a total badass. Without giving too much away, he factors heavily into the themes of the story and is set up as an independent third party.
Marvel is known for mostly striking out when it comes to their villains. Too often, we get another Mandarin or Malekith rather than a Loki, which makes Civil War so frustrating in that it has both one of the best villain portrayals and one of the worst. Daniel Brühl as Helmut Zemo makes the most of his limited screen time, showing a master manipulator and a broken man all at the same time. His plans strikes at the heart of the movie, and he comes the closest to achieving what Loki and Ultron could not: the self-destruction of The Avengers. Meanwhile, the portrayal of Crossbones made me angry. Most notable for killing off Captain America, Crossbones is a villain that could easily go toe to toe with The Avengers, and the way he appears in the film throws all of that out the window. There were better ways to handle him, which leaves the ultimate decision on his character a bit of a headscratcher.
The film is action-packed, starting with an effective opening sequence, but there’s a lull in the middle that made me wonder when the rest of the players were going to show up. Indeed, Hawkeye, Ant-Man, and Spider-Man seem almost shoehorned in for the sake of the second act’s airport battle scene. Not that, they don’t more than make up for it, but their appearance—Hawkeye and Ant Man in particular—is a little jarring so late in the game. It may have been better if there was a scene or two recruiting them or showing their reactions to the Accords.
Is Captain America: Civil War the greatest film Marvel has ever produced? No, but it’s up there. It tries to do a lot, and it doesn’t always succeed, especially with some characters getting sidelined, but it gets more right than it gets wrong. Besides, it has Spider-Man fighting alongside Iron Man and the other Avengers. If that doesn’t deserve a watch, then I don’t know what does.