Captain America: Civil War is out, and, to be blunt, lives up to the hype. It thrives in the hyper-expectation that surrounded the superhero genre this winter/spring, with both Deadpool (20 Century Fox / Marvel) and Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice (Warner Bros. / DC) preceding it, and Deadpool blowing up all expectations, and Batman vs. Superman faltering with a weak story, it seemed like Civil War would wind up being one or the other: brilliant or bust; indeed, it is brilliant, but for reasons that people may not see coming. Since fighting against comparing Civil War with Batman vs. Superman would be futile, I’m capitulating and just going to admit that it will happen. Also, I’m assuming you know the background on the film, if you haven’t seen it already, so as to focus on commentary rather than rehashing plot points.
NOTICE: there will be spoilers. You’ve been warned. You’re sure? Okay, here we go.
Captain America: Civil War. One review I saw said that it could have just been called Civil War; I recognize the point, with so many characters in play, and several scenes that contain neither Captain America, Falcon, nor the Winter Soldier, it is as much a group adventure as a Captain America film, right? Wrong. The most identifiable Captain America characters are the three aforementioned characters, but this is about Team Cap and Team Iron Man, and even the scene between Vision and Scarlet Witch, and subsequently Hawkeye, are about the ripple effects of the schism dividing the Avengers, all of which ties back to Captain America’s choice to resist the Sokovia Accords. It speaks not only to Captain America’s, but also Chris Evans’s, charisma that he could divide the Avengers so quickly, with people joining him with little hesitation.
The Russo Brothers handle everything brilliantly: they do not pick sides in the conflict, and consequently neither does the film. The whole film is a balancing act: they need to balance the fact that it is a Captain America film with an unusually high amount of characters, each of which needs their own mini-arc to supplement the main story; they need to balance the massive scale of the choices the characters make with the need to keep things grounded; and finally, avoid damaging the characters’ relationships beyond repair whilst still having them really pissed at each other. I’ve already addressed the first point, so I’ll jump to the second.
Civil War is far more about the implications of the Sokovia Accords than the accords themselves, and both sides are shown to have legitimate reasons for why they believe the way they do, making the film a tragic tale of two sides, each noble and honorable, each coming from justified, and legitimate, perspectives, which cannot reach an agreement; the irony of which is that things turn out as best as they potentially can, given the circumstances. I say the implications of the accords because they’re never really implemented in the span of the movie, but rather towards the end as Stark and Secretary of State Ross are shown to have a strained relationship in the face of the conflict, although they are now forced to work together, an arrangement of their own making. The accords are not shown to a whiplash reaction, but rather something with forethought by world leaders, which Ross exploits to bring superheroes, who he despises, to heel. Of course, as most fans know, and Stark and Ross choose to ignore, the events in New York and Washington D.C. were not their fault, but rather defenses against hostile forces who initiated the events; it does amuse me that no one in the film mentions that, by the way, because if Captain America had said that, it would have reinforced his point that the Avengers are about defense and not aiding people. Maybe the Russos thought it was too strong an argument and would make Stark look the bad guy, when that wasn’t what they wanted. Of course, Captain America’s actions are not exactly clean either, and he violates numerous policies and implied agreements with the rest of the Avengers to save his friend, who is an admitted and known former Soviet/Hydra assassin; you can imagine that in another time, Stark would have backed Captain America, but in this context it was not to be. Both sides feel like the accords will have an impact on the world that will forever change them, and their choices reflect their attitudes and characters.
Probably the one thing I appreciated most was that the Russo brothers kept the overall scale of the movie small; it feels human, it feels real, as though it could have actually happened. The issue with Batman vs. Superman is the lack of humility; the only character who regards Superman as being human-like is Superman himself, and the major lines Lex Luthor has both in the trailer and the movie, “if man won’t kill God, the devil will do it!” reflects that issue perfectly; it seems like almost every character believes in their own infallibility at times, except Batman, who views the situation as a no-win scenario, rooted in humanity’s flaws. Instead, Civil War discusses the flaws in people, and their decision making, which drives both the Sokovia Accords and Cap’s resistance to them, whilst making it clear that those same flaws come to haunt all those characters.
So, I’ve been nice and dodging spoilers as much as I can, but here are spoilers indeed.
The film’s ending is about as perfect as it can be, especially when all factors are considered. Being the culmination of every film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to this point, the story is a progression of all previous films, with particular emphasis on The Winter Soldier; as such, the Russos utilize plot elements they figure work best, such as the budding romance between Cap and Agent 13, who is (formally) revealed to be Peggy Carter’s niece, Sharon. They don’t overplay her, and instead set up a future storyline for her to step into; she is also the x-factor: not being in the Avengers, she can get Cap and Falcon their gear back and get them to safety. Ant-Man is likewise a nice element that works out, and he’s used perfectly; a great revelation (Giant Man), but not overdone. Beyond that, every other character, including Black Panther and Spider-Man, has a natural progression both into and out of the story. No one, even Hawkeye, feels out of place, which is really saying something given how many characters are in the film. This is the issue that Batman vs. Superman had: how to work the story with that many characters; indeed, it feels like BvS focused entirely on characters and not enough on story, whereas the Russos went out of their way to write the story first, then add the characters later; this ensures that the plot will work even facing character issues.
So, the villains; I got to say, one thing I really don’t like, both in this film and Avengers: Age of Ultron, was the easy and damningly quick ways the films dealt and eliminated Crossbones and Strucker. I really wanted them to carry on Hydra’s legacy; indeed, the scene in Ant-Man where Hydra operatives seize valuable cargo seemed to foreshadow a major plotline, and given that Captain America was the only Marvel superhero to have a repeat villain, I hoped that this film would see him topple the last remnants of the organization. Instead, all we see is a short fight with Crossbones and then he’s dead. I get that they feel like Cap needs to be victorious, but the film’s opening would have worked much better had Crossbones gotten away; a massive international incident on a failed mission would have pushed Cap and his principles to the brink, giving the film a better reason to support Stark. In any case, I think that Hydra’s been getting a raw deal in terms of its post-Winter Soldier portrayal.
So, Helmut Zemo, played by Inglourious Basterds’s Daniel Bruhl, is definitely the most underplayed villain yet in the MCU, and the film benefits from that. He does not have megalomaniacal intentions to conquer the world, nor does he have the hot-burning anger common in most vengeance seekers on film; instead, he has the dangerous mix of determination, patience, and cold, smoldering anger that a proper Bond villain has, but perhaps most dangerous of all is his brilliance to lure his prime targets to the same place together. Unlike Batman vs. Superman, where Lex Luthor’s plot is contingent on his ability to manipulate many very intelligent people in a seemingly dumb way (like I said, story first), Zemo is extremely subtle, manipulating events and people with the lightest touch possible; indeed, all he really does, during the events of the film anyway, is blow up the UN Summit in Vienna, interrogate Bucky Barnes, and ensure the hotel staff investigates his room at the hotel; this light touch leads me to wonder if perhaps he is how Cap and Company find Crossbones in the first place; or perhaps he is a driving force behind the accords, later counting on Ross to press the point home with the Avengers. In any event, he is a brilliant villain, in character, portrayal, and execution, and I’m very glad he survived the events of the film.
The painfully obvious: how does this compare to Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice?
Well, the blunt, easy explanation is that Civil War achieves everything Dawn of Justice tried, and mostly failed, to achieve. Whereas Civil War has the ability to call upon the previous films, Dawn of Justice tried, painfully at times, to insert new characters, kick-start a franchise, as well as reboot the Batman franchise, which was coming off an all-time high under the leadership of Christopher Nolan. In short, Dawn of Justice is what Civil War would have been, had it been the second or third film in the MCU. There’s really no way around the fact that while Dawn of Justice had a massive amount of interest, Civil War had the audience already built-in. Civil War also had a lot more firm interest, by which I mean fans who were committed to seeing it multiple times, myself included, before it came out; the DCEU still has to build that audience, and from the money Warner Bros. invested into it, it’s a damn good thing the film recouped its losses to allow for Wonder Woman to go ahead without issues. Intriguing enough, Suicide Squad, the DCEU’s follow up to Dawn of Justice, looks like it will be better, and possibly the better comparison to Civil War.
Where is the story going? Warning: fan theories imminent
So, what exactly happens at the end is extremely open-ended: does Tony forgive Cap for not telling him about his parents? I got the distinct impression that Tony has no interest in pursuing Cap and his accomplices, which is really as it should be. It does two things in particular: it opens the door for new heroes, such as Dr. Strange, Captain Marvel, and potentially even the Guardians of the Galaxy to join the Avengers since there are open slots, as well as provide an interesting B story for the MCU with an “illegal” crew of Avengers resolving international problems the sanctioned ones can’t, or won’t be allowed to, handle; that is how I believe the true reconciliation will occur, when Cap realizes that a little government oversight might be useful, and Stark chafes at being limited by the same body he chose to sign with; somewhere in the middle lays the answer. Agent 13 is undoubtedly on the run, and the romantic part of me likes to think she met up with Captain America and joined his squad, alongside Black Widow potentially, although she may want to lay low for a while.
However, one key point to remember is that the same crew who made this film are making Avengers: Infinity War, the two-part film that will complete the first major saga, aka the first three phases, of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Thus, it is not impossible that before they handed off the keys to the MCU to the people who came after them, they made sure to map out where the story was going, and thus this film is the first major step towards that goal.