Posted on Monday, May 9th, 2016 by Jacob Hall
If the box office was any indication, you probably saw Captain America: Civil War over the weekend. And how could you not? The thirteenth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe officially kicked off the summer movie season with a bang, delivering one of the strongest superhero movies yet (which is saying something, considering how many of these things come out every year). And now that we’ve all had to chance to witness the showdown between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark with our own two eyes, you know what that means – it’s time for a spoiler review, where we take a closer look at individual elements of the film and invite you to politely bicker and disagree and converse.
Naturally, spoilers follow. You know what to do.
A Full Plate
The most impressive thing about Captain America: Civil War is how much the film has on its plate and how well it manages to serve every single element on that plate. The film looks like a buffet – busy, crowded, prone to things tasting a little overdone – but it’s really a finely honed three course meal. It gets it, does its job, and gets out while never feeling the burden of the sheer amount of stuff it’s dealing with. Civil War is a lengthy movie, but it flies.
This is a case where the credit must be given to a number of parties. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely were tasked with finding a way for a dozen Avengers and a dozen more allies and enemies to end up tangled in the same web. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo were tasked with finding a way to make each and every one of those characters feel vital to the plot, to let them carry weight alongside the people more central to the conflict at hand. And, of course, the actors themselves (even those with significantly less screen time than their co-stars) make the material sing. The Marvel Studios movies have been accused of being entertainment created by committee, movies crafted by an industrial machine, and that accusation isn’t entirely off-base. However, it does ignore how all of those moving parts, all of those smart people sitting around in rooms putting their heads together, have built a machine that gets the job done better than just about anyone else in Hollywood these days.
As its title implies, Captain America: Civil War is a Captain America movie first and foremost (and we’ll get to that in a moment). However, it carries the energy of a comic book crossover, telling the broad strokes of the main event and allowing us peeks at the margins, the invisible one-shot tie-ins that fill in the blanks. If this version of Civil War existed on the page, the regular Ant-Man series would take a break from whatever story it was telling to explore how Scott Lang ended up in Berlin. But I digress. The point is that Civil War feels like the best kind of a crossover, the best kind of main event – it brings everyone together for a purpose that is too big for one story and lets this diverse collection of characters bounce off of one another for two hours. That’s always been the appeal of Marvel comics, it was the appeal of the Avengers movies, and now, thanks to a cohesive movie universe where audiences understand the dynamics of everyone on screen, it’s the appeal of even the solo MCU movies.
The Central Showdown
Although much of the buzz surrounding Captain America: Civil War centered around which heroes were Team Cap and which were Team Iron Man, that choice is actually a relatively minor aspect of the final film. When stripped down to its core, Civil War is really about three men: Steve Rogers, Tony Stark, and the man that divides them, Bucky Barnes. Strip it down further and you’re left with a movie that is entirely about Steve Rogers and a series of difficult choices. Tony is a compelling antagonist because we know him so well by this point and because we understand each and every decision he makes, we’re forced to challenge the choices made the character whose name is in the title. Here is a superhero movie where the two guys who spend the bulk of the film brawling are completely in the right. Captain America: Civil War doesn’t always come down on the side of Captain America.
The greatest trick Civil War pulls is that it allows you to leave the theater and actually discuss whether or not you’re Team Cap or Team Iron Man. And that discussion isn’t a matter of which side is cooler or which side has collected the better heroes. It’s a question of what you genuinely think is right. Since seeing Civil War on Thursday, I’ve spoken about the choices Steve and Tony make throughout the film and I’ve encountered a smorgasbord of differing opinions and arguments. Steve Rogers is selfish. Tony Stark is putting his faith in a broken system. Steve values a single friend over the lives of countless innocent people. Tony is letting guilt blind him to the bigger picture. Both sides are right and both sides are wrong. I’ve had to discuss this film in the context of the “real world” and the context of Marvel Universe, because the same rules don’t necessarily apply to both. Civil War is fine popcorn entertainment, but there’s meat on the bone. It wants you to question its heroes. It wants you to debate the what it means to be a superhero.
This is a discussion Batman v Superman tried to kickstart a few months ago, but Civil War is more upfront with its intentions, more clear in how it depicts character motivations. By this point, audiences have been through the gamut with Captain America. We’ve seen him evolve from a good kid to a loyal soldier to man-out-of-time hero to a jaded skeptic. His third solo film, his fifth appearance in the MCU, feels like a climax to his saga thus far. In order to represent what he thinks is right. he can no longer operate within the system. He needs to break it. He needs to become a criminal. Civil War isn’t shy about this – the film ends with Cap decimating a representative of the United Nations in a final battle and breaking his buddies out of prison. It’s the Robin Hood thing. The Zorro thing. Hell, it’s the Batman thing. Sometimes, the law stands in the way of doing the right thing.
Or at least the right thing in Captain America’s mind.