Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Release Date: May 6, 2016
Cast: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Chadwick Boseman
Director: Anthony & Joe Russo
Studio: Marvel Studios
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Review Spoilers: Low
Based on characters by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby
As Marvel closes out its second phase of movies with Ant-Man, it opens up the next phase in their non-stop, superhero, money making machine with Captain America: Civil War. Seemingly the last in a trilogy of Captain America movies, Civil War is a strong opening to the third phrase. It addresses a lot of the standing issues after Ultron, it plays on all the most powerful dynamics within the Avengers, and it successfully brings in a new line of characters while strengthening the relationship between the cast.
But, is it really even a Captain America movie? The plot deals with the traditional issue of superhero registration within the Marvel comic book universe, something that sparked the original civil war between superheroes, but the MCU has played it a different way. With the identities of all our superheroes leaked by Nat, keeping superhero identities a secret isn’t exactly a big deal anymore. Instead, they focus on oversight for the Avengers, signing what is called the Sokovia Accords — a document that places strong boundaries on the Avengers by the United Nations — intended to keep them in check. After the devastating results of Sokovia, the fall of SHIELD, and the attack on New York, the world feels more threatened than safe with the Avengers around.
Tony, appropriately bearing a large part of the blame for Ultron’s actions, feels responsible for the deaths that they left in their wake. He’s ready for boundaries, because he honestly thinks that’s what they need. He’s a man who has never been kept on a leash, and after reaching the height of his own genius and hubris, he’s fallen fast and hard. Meanwhile, Steve sees the Accords as a shift of blame and a political tool. Instead of protecting the people, they can be manipulated by the terms of the Accord. Their agency is taken away and they are left simply as tools for the United Nations. All political powers have agendas, and what happens when their agendas don’t match? He’s a man who has been a soldier, he’s seen what power can be in the wrong hands. He’s not ready to be treated like a puppet.
Civil War feels much more like a story between Cap and Tony, they have a push and pull that they’ve been dancing around since The Avengers. Despite this being a movie with Captain America’s name on the billboard, it hinges heaviest on Tony. It touches on Tony’s past, on the Starks as a family, on Tony’s guilt, on Tony’s ego, on Tony’s pain and loss. You might be buying a ticket for Captain America: Civil War, but you’re actually watching Ironman vs Captain America: Dawn of More Avengers.
While there’s nothing actually wrong with the movie — it touches on some very classic tropes of heroism and guilt and collateral damage — this is undoubtedly an Avengers movie. All of the fight scenes include the Avengers, all of the dialogue revolves around them, and its conclusion suggests more about the Avengers than Cap. This poses the question of whether it’s possible to have a standalone Captain America story ever again.
If you were to only watch Captain America: The First Avenger and Captain America: Winter Soldier, you’d be lost. But that’s the confidence of Marvel Studios. They rely heavily on the fact that it’s target audience are loyal Marvel fans, and let’s be real, most of us are. Marvel has undoubtedly summited the mountain of popular opinion and come out on top. It’s becoming more and more obvious that, in order to keep up with the stories that Marvel tells, you can not be a casual viewer.
How will this fair for some of the lesser known Avengers in the group who are getting their own movies? There’s no doubt that Tom Holland’s Spider-Man will be safe after the incredibly gratuitous welcome he gets in Civil War, he’s projected to be welcomed into the MCU with open arms. What about Black Panther? Chadwick Boseman’s role as T’challa, the newly made King of Wakanda, is damn near perfect and his part within Civil War should chase away any doubt of the standalone film. Boseman’s performance is genuine and incredibly warm, and his story thematically falls in line with many of the other heroes. If anything, Civil War is a better launching pad for the future of the franchise than it is for Cap’s personal story.
His momentous battle with Tony is poised as the climax in this film, but it is downplayed as he leaves with Bucky in tow and puts the Winter Soldier back into stasis. For many people wondering if either Sam Wilson or Bucky would pick up the shield after Steve leaves (especially with Chris Evans’ contract running out after Infinity War) it’s unclear what will happen. Steve drops his shield and abandons the mantle completely. It leaves us wondering where they are going to take the Avengers and Steve’s mantle of Captain America.
Despite a confusion in titles and a protagonist, Civil War is a solid superhero movie. It widely surpasses Ultron, which feels clunky and suffers from delusions of grandeur, and it improves upon the same emotional quality of Marvel’s The Avengers, while adding more depth and better action. While facing the task of maneuvering a story full of main characters, the Russos manage to touch on each character a little bit while focusing on the civil war between Tony and Steve.
Even with a huge cast that has the potential to drown out Cap, it still highlights some of the best aspects of Cap. He’s the golden boy and the ideal, he’s a good man who doesn’t feel disingenuous or overbloated. Sure, he’s the leader of the Avengers, but he’s still that underdog from Brooklyn. He’s incredibly likable and loyal to a fault. While there’s a lot to dislike about Tony — and really you could blame this entire thing on him — Steve can only really be blamed for wanting to see the best in people and trusting in them infallibly.
The scenes with Steve and Sam and Bucky stand in place of simply seeing Cap go at it alone, but the trio have such great chemistry together it’s actually a wise choice. Sam brings Cap down to earth and Bucky connects to the man behind the Shield, they both are able to treat him simply as Steve.
Bucky’s role in Civil War, despite having the whole movie named after his character, is much larger than Winter Soldier. He plays an indispensable part of catalyzing the civil war, and Sebastian Stan makes a mark as one of the most interesting new characters that should see a rise in phase 3. Given his status at the end of the film, it’s a little unclear as to how that will happen, but as a fan favorite and given the depth of emotional treasure you can mine from his relationship with characters like Steve and Tony, it’s doubtful he’ll be in stasis for long.
Stand-out characters and moments include…
Daniel Brühl’s Colonel Zemo, who is more a catalyst than a true villain, Wanda and Vision’s relationship (and my surprise at Marvel actually attempting this ship with some measure of success), Ant-Man’s hilariously powerful new ability, Sharon Carter’s expanded role and relationship in Cap’s life, Chadwick Boseman’s origins as Black Panther, Tony’s surprisingly deep evolution as a character, and of course, the Amazing Spider-Man.
Brühl’s adaptation of Zemo fits perfectly within the scope of the universe. He’s no crazed Hydra supporter, he’s a broken man bent on revenge. He’s another victim and creation of the Avengers’ callous decisions. He’s not a man without purpose, and he’s the first to understand that in order to defeat the most powerful team in the world, he must destroy them from the inside out. His plan isn’t to unleash super soldiers, but to lure them in and break the team apart completely to take away everything that the Avengers have taken away from him. If you’re keeping count, he’s pretty much successful. He can call this op a win, even if he is locked away.
Wanda and Vision share a romantic relationship within the comic books, and although it seems difficult to imagine in reality, Civil War actually takes the time to not only flesh out Wanda’s character and relationship with big-bro-Steve-Rogers, but also a potential relationship with Vision. Wanda is still pretty powerful within the MCU — lesser than her comic book counterpart — but she can really find an equal with Vision. The two of them share a connection through infinity gems, and I’m honestly looking forward to this weird relationship come Infinity War.
Paul Rudd makes a great entrance to the Avengers as Scott Lang, and is equally impressive in the Team Cap vs Team Ironman fight as he debuts his powers of maximizing himself into giant Ant-Man. If you somehow haven’t seen Ant-Man, you need to. It stands as one of my favorite MCU movies for working off the beaten path, and Scott proves himself to be a strong individual against the other Avengers. Also, “Hank Pym always said not to trust a Stark.” Same, Hank. Same.
Emily VanCamp reprises her role as Sharon Carter, playing on her chemistry with Steve from Winter Soldier. Although it’s hard not to hold a torch for Peggy and Steve, this movie made a good case for Sharon. As a standalone character, she shares a lot of her Aunt Peggy’s personality traits; she’s tough, determined, loyal, and stands firm in her beliefs. Her interactions with Steve are compelling, but despite their budding relationship and its potential it feels a bit rushed to suddenly have him making out with her. This is a relationship that needs to be expanded on, and not pushed. There’s a lot of good potential for expansion between the two of them.
A story that developed perfectly in Civil War was T’Challa‘s story. His mission of revenge really gilds the essential themes of the plot. When Crossbones attacks in Wakanda and the Avengers are sent out to deal with him, the mission ends in another building destroyed and more civilians harmed. T’Challa’s father is one of the leaders who calls for the Sokovia Accords, and when the UN Building is bombed (supposedly) by Bucky and his father is killed, it’s heart wrenching. Of course a superhero’s father dying is hardly striking at new ground, but it never fails to gain empathy if done correctly. His mission of revenge against Bucky fuels many of his actions, and yet his reconciliation of his vengeance plays out as authentic even if his revelation is largely off-screen. His interaction with Zemo, the true killer of his father, is muted and defined by nuance between the two strong characters. Boseman’s T’Challa is definitely one to keep an eye on.
Tony spends much of the movie being the most conflicting character. Although I rag on him a lot, and I share a pretty strong hatred for him sometimes, he is one of the most diverse and dimensional characters. He stands as a strong foil to Steve but also as a character that has truly grown from the first version of himself nearly a decade ago. Struggling with his actions and the results of his ego, he waffles between loyalties. Being Ironman hasn’t changed his personality, he’s still brash and arrogant, lashing out at his friends and allies when his temper flares, but he’s a man with more scars than when he started. He’s a much more broken man in Civil War; he and Pepper have hit a rough patch, he’s plagued by guilt, he’s haunted by ghosts, he’s just trying to keep it all together.
The Accords are seemingly his penitence, and he readily signs himself away, hoping to absolve his sins. But not only does this cause a huge rift between his friends, but it does the opposite of what he hopes it to do. He wants resolution, some sort of peace for all the wrongs they’ve committed, but instead he only finds more conflict. Through the story, he struggles with Steve in trying to appease him and keep their group together. He locks Bucky away, he keeps Wanda in her room, he confines Steve and Sam, he does his best to conform to the wishes of the Accords while trying to preserve what he has. It’s a thin thread that keeps it all together, but it snaps so easily.
He must fight his allies and his friends, he sees Rhodey suffer a shocking fall from the skies that paralyzes him, he uncovers the truth about the death of his parents, and all this culminates up to severing the Avengers. The end of Civil War only sees the beginning of a resolution between him and Steve through Steve’s letter. It isn’t an apology, but it’s a sort of understanding. The two part on bad terms, with Steve incapacitating Tony’s suit by slamming his shield into the arc reactor and leaving his shield behind. While this letter doesn’t settle their differences, it does open a path to potentially mending their group. It’s one of the most compelling relationships in Marvel, and the Russos do it justice.
And then there’s Spider-Man. Tom Holland makes his debut as the nerdy fanboy Peter Parker, already suited as an amateur Spider-Man and living with his (much younger) Aunt May, played by Marisa Tomei. And here is where I have a serious gripe with the movie. It’s very clear that they are playing out some of the most likable traits of Spider-Man, with his character largely being a caricature of the beloved webslinger. The way Tony recruits him, while funny given their pithy repartée, is rife with questionable motives.
Let’s think about it: this is a minor, a teenager, that Tony plucks from a relatively safe home and recruits into his personal war. Tony doesn’t recruit him as an Avenger, he recruits him as backup for Team Ironman to face-off against Captain America. He brings in a child to fight his battles and be his muscle. Hell, Peter’s first impression of the Avengers is that they fight viciously amongst themselves and are willing to damn near kill each other in order to achieve their personal goals.
Peter doesn’t make it out without some bumps and bruises from being tossed around. What Tony is willing to do and use the Avengers for seemingly has no limits. Even as he draws boundaries for himself, he continues to step outside of them. He’s a conflicting character and it plays heavily in characters like Peter and Wanda.
Some of the most problematic scenes lie in what happens to Avengers who step out of line. They are jailed and kept locked up without trial or jury, and while characters like Clint and Scott are simply locked up, Wanda’s imprisonment looks and feels so deeply wrong. She’s tied up in a way that harkens back to the days of asylums. He spends the majority of the film imprisoning Wanda in one way or another, and this type of protective-yet-restrictive characteristic really doesn’t look good on him.
Ultimately, Civil War feels like more of a conclusive chapter for the MCU than it does as a new beginning. New characters are introduced, but the main plotline concerning the characters we already know is frayed at the ends and we are left with a massive weight of uncertainty in where we will go and how we will end up fighting together again during Infinity War.
Final Thoughts: Captain America: Civil War is hardly the best Cap movie, it stands more staunchly as a fight between Steve and Tony, spending an equal amount of time on both characters. It is one of the most involved films in the MCU to date, requiring a vast amount of previous knowledge to understand the implications of the plot. However, after the tragically shaky plot by Joss Whedon for Age of Ultron, the Russos’ take on Marvel’s Civil War is refreshing and bookends two phases of the largely successful Marvel Cinematic Universe.