Captain America: Civil War (PG-13)

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This is the zenith of Marvel’s storytelling method. Over the past eight years – a time period winkingly referred to in the film – the studio has built an intricately interconnected “cinematic universe” through thirteen feature films. This model has drawbacks and benefits, both of which I discuss at length in my essay on The Avengers: Age of Ultron, but it has never paid off as well as it does here at the start of “Phase Three.” The simple pleasures of The Avengers may be equally visceral, but they are less substantial; Civil War is as well-rounded as Marvel films can get, at least for the foreseeable future. This sense of complexity and fullness comes in no small part from the fact that, perhaps more than any other film in the series, it feels like a direct continuation of all that came before. This is the third Captain America installment, yes, but it is also building on the Iron Man and Avengers films (not to mention an incursion from Ant-Man).

That sense of history lends weight to Civil War in ways both big – the film’s plot hinges on the aftermath of the various climactic battles that have concluded previous films – and small. Characters’ arcs progress naturally from, and are informed by, their exploits in past films. The dialogue is peppered with subtle callbacks. A grieving mother (Alfre Woodard) spits that Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) fights only for himself, recalling a similar accusation by Captain America (Chris Evans) in the first Avengers film. Spider-Man’s (Tom Holland) avowed desire to fight for “the little guy” echoes a repeated refrain from Captain America’s WWII-era origin story. Civil War’s respectful, affectionate treatment of its many characters would be impressive in a vacuum, but is especially successful primarily because it is counting on viewers’ preexisting connection to them. As Devin Faraci wrote in his review, “Civil War is not great despite being the third Captain America and thirteenth overall Marvel movie – it’s great because of those things.”

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On a filmmaking level, Marvel’s work has never been more polished. Civil War is an astonishing balancing act. Tonally, it moves deftly between comedy and tragedy, transitioning between uproarious wit and striking dolefulness. In the past, Marvel’s films have often undercut pathos with humor, but there are scarcely any laughs to be found in Civil War’s final reel. The script, written by Marvel veterans Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, is largely to thank for the film’s success. Such a crowded story could easily collapse under its own weight, but Civil War is never less than propulsive, weaving efficiently and economically through a rather outrageously complicated plot with clarity and ease. Real ideas are introduced and discussed, but “theme” never becomes overbearing. Kudos are also due to directors Joe and Anthony Russo: the film’s earlier set pieces, while enjoyable, aren’t as coherent or meaningful as those in predecessor The Winter Soldier, but a much-talked-about battle royale in the second act is an absolute joy to watch, and the action climax is unlike anything seen in a Marvel movie before: brutal, emotionally draining, and deeply tragic. Remarkably, both of these virtuoso sequences are in the same film, and neither feels out of place.

For all the spectacle on display, though, Civil War shines – as Marvel’s best films tend to do – on the strength of its character work. The cast is a huge ensemble, but the film distributes its time just right, and few characters feel underdeveloped – with the exception of Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), the Winter Soldier, who still matters more as a catalyst for others’ arcs than as a character in his own right. Still, the strength of Marvel’s casting has rarely been more evident, and all the performers here have grown so gracefully into their roles that we accept them like old friends. Newcomers fit into the ensemble with ease; Tom Holland’s Spider-Man, in particular, is a scene-stealer. It’s a surprisingly intimate, quiet film, boldly culminating in wrenching tragedy. This is how Marvel’s storytelling method really pays off: not in the construction of increasingly grand and elaborate CGI extravaganzas, but by doubling down on characters we’ve come to know and love in order to tell more substantial, weighty stories rooted in personal, emotional stakes.

“This doesn’t have to end in a fight, Buck” Captain America says at a crucial juncture. “It always ends in a fight,” Bucky sighs, with a sense of weary resignation. In the same way westerns like Once Upon A Time In The West often play with the inevitability of the big gunfight, Civil War engages in a bit of meta-textual commentary here: it epitomizes Marvel’s formula, but also subverts it in subtle but substantial and gratifying ways. Even as it juggles a massive cast of characters, the story is surprisingly small in scope, foregoing the now-expected danger of world-ending catastrophe to zero in on a small handful of crucial players. There are no glowing MacGuffins here; when the film introduces super-soldier serums that seem disappointingly tangential to the main plot, they’re revealed to be misdirection. The second-act climaxes with the much-lauded airport battle, a microcosm of the studio’s most fan-servicing tendencies. It’s the most “Marvel-y” thing Marvel has ever done, and not in a bad way. The film doesn’t end there, though; it epitomizes the formula right before subverting it. As it moves into its third act, Civil War seems to be heading for a fairly standard Marvel conclusion: the feud between Captain America and Iron Man is forgotten, and our heroes have teamed up to fight a gang of faceless bad guys and save the day. Instead, a shocking revelation eschews the conventions of the genre and redirects the story’s focus to the complicated, often painful relationship between the two protagonists, drawing on every shred of history between them and every bit of information we know about their psychologies. The movie ends in a fight, yes, but this climax could hardly be more different than that of The Avengers.

Yes, Captain America: Civil War situates itself in a broadly political context. The issue at play – whether superheroes should be subject to government supervision (in the form of the UN-ratified Sokovia Accords) or be personally responsible for their actions – is unique to a comic book context, but could be seen as metaphor for any number of political discussions. As a central dilemma, it ties into themes of power and freedom that have been prevalent in Marvel’s previous films (particularly Winter Soldier and Age of Ultron – more on that in my previous essay). In the end, however, Civil War – in keeping with Marvel’s strengths – is far more personal than ideological. Iron Man and Captain America begin from positions that are reasonable enough, but by the end, their clash stems not from political differences but from personal, even irrational conflict. The film does not abandon its themes, it sublimates them into character and action.

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Those characters have rarely been as compelling as they are here. Downey Jr., in particular, has never been better as Tony Stark, who remains tortured and utterly sympathetic even as his choices become increasingly questionable. Not even in his first film was Stark so compelling a character; here, every gesture and decision is charged with history and pathos, coming from deep-seated insecurities we understand more clearly than ever. It’s a thrilling performance, never losing Stark’s flawed humanity even as it takes him to emotional and moral nadirs. Evans gives the less flashy performance of the two leads, but is no less compelling; note the way he wrings quiet, understated grief out of Steve Rogers in reaction to a loved one’s death early in the film. Since his debut in The First Avenger, Evans has invested what could be a boring boy scout of a character with a winsome decency that’s utterly compelling precisely due to its rarity in modern fiction. In Civil War, he subtly conveys the agony inflicted on Rogers by the increasingly dubious moral choices he’s presented with, expertly allowing doubts and fears to permeate the character even as he stands steadfastly by his principles. The film adds shades of grey to Captain America, but only as an inevitable reaction to a grim situation – never for the sake of textural “edginess,” and never in a way that crucially undermines the character’s moral foundation.

Early on, the film sets the two on a collision course by way of their seemingly insurmountable differences on the subject of the Accords. However, even as it charts their mounting tension, Civil War is careful to highlight the mutual care and respect between the two men. “Sometimes I want to punch you in your perfect teeth,” Stark says, “But I don’t want to see you gone.” When Rogers hears of problems in Stark’s personal life, he responds with earnest sympathy and concern. Even as two factions of Avengers come to blows in a pitched battle, none of the combatants truly want to hurt each other. (Zack Snyder’s Batman would be appalled by the decency of these superheroes – yet Batman v. Superman inverted Civil War’s structure by having its characters start off hating each other, before awkwardly forcing their animosity to the side in favor of an unearned and joyless team-up.)

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All this buildup makes the film’s climax, in which the two heroes pummel each other till they are bloody, almost unbearable to watch. It’s the finest stretch of cinema Marvel has produced, and if critics have compared Civil War to The Empire Strikes Back, the scenes in the Siberian bunker are psychologically rich and complicated in a way that recalls the throne room scenes from Return of the Jedi. Iron Man and Captain America don’t make ugly and foolish choices for mere shock value, they choose to hurt and lie to each other for reasons rooted deeply in who they are and what they’ve experienced.

While much of its success relies on the relationship between these two well-established characters, Civil War also sets up a crucial dynamic in the contrast between two new additions to the universe: T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), also known as Black Panther, and Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl). Boseman instantly makes an impression, bringing regal presence to the part. T’Challa enters the fray after his father is violently killed, ostensibly at the hands of the Winter Soldier, and spends much of the film seeking vengeance against Barnes. Zemo, on the other hand, is an understatedly chilling villain seeking revenge against the Avengers for the death of his family during the climactic battle of Age of Ultron. Brühl plays the character not as a mustache-twirling megalomaniac but as a quiet, even sympathetic man driven by crushing, all-too-human grief. He’s one of Marvel’s best and – so far – most underappreciated villains.

Civil War uses T’Challa and Zemo to foreground an examination and critique of the cycle of violence and vengeance. While Iron Man and Captain America come to blows as a result of Zemo’s machinations, T’Challa confronts the mastermind and pronounces: “Vengeance has consumed you. It is consuming them. I am done letting it consume me.” While Zemo and Tony Stark are unable to let go of their losses and seek destructive revenge, T’Challa transcends the cycle of violence by choosing to stop Zemo from committing suicide, committing him to lawful justice rather than taking vengeance with his own hands.

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Moreover, the film’s action is incited by acts of vengeance in the first place. The opening set piece focuses on the Avengers’ attempts to stop Brock Rumlow (Frank Grillo), a mercenary whose grudge against Captain America leads him to detonate a suicide vest. The discussion of the Sokovia Accords prompts the Avengers to question whether their presence is inherently destructive. Rogers argues, “We try to save as many people as we can. Sometimes that doesn’t mean everybody.” Stark, on the other hand, internalizes guilt for the innocents killed in the wake of the Avengers’ battles. Ultimately, though, Civil War places the blame on those who – like Stark, Zemo, and Rumlow – would respond to violence with violence. Like Age of Ultron, it’s about how to best deal with the consequences and inevitability of violence: not by returning it, but by trying to prevent it.

Vengeance stems from a fixation on past losses, and Civil War urges reconciliation and moving forward as an antidote to the cycle of violence. It is a story about seeing the best in people’s future, rather than defining them based on their past. This theme is uniquely suited to the film’s place as a chapter in a continuing story – the past these characters struggle to come to terms with has been dramatized in our own past as moviegoers – and also cements it as a fitting conclusion to the Captain America trilogy. Although Civil War feels more like an Avengers film than a Captain America film in some ways – Rogers is almost lost in the ensemble, and many of the film’s strongest passages center on Tony Stark – in the end, it is crucially keyed into the core themes and values of Steve Rogers as a character. Bucky’s role at the heart of the film’s central conflict neatly encapsulates this: both Stark and Zemo view him as the Winter Soldier, reducing him to his past misdeeds. Zemo refers to Siberia as his “real home,” and when Rogers tries to reason that revenge won’t change the past, Tony responds, “I don’t care. He killed my mom.”

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On the other hand, Steve Rogers has had to move on from his past in the most concrete and tangible of ways. Every Captain America film has ended with him ripped from a home and set adrift. First, he lost his whole world and was rudely awakened in modern times. Then he lost SHIELD, the organization that gave him purpose and structure. Over the course of Civil War, the last reminders of that past are slowly taken away: first with Peggy’s (Hayley Atwell) death, then with Bucky’s return to hibernation. Rogers even gives up his shield and role as Captain America. He becomes a fugitive and outlaw. However, even though he has every reason to become embittered, to withdraw from people, Rogers is never defined by past traumas.

For a Marvel film released during an election year, Civil War’s subject matter seems apropos for the current climate. Various commentators have seen the film as taking one political stance or the other, but the very fact that such disparate positions have been fervently argued for indicates that it is concerned with neither. Although the film’s marketing has suggested a binary “Team Iron Man or Team Cap” mindset, the film itself is making another point: it ends with an offer of reconciliation and a promise: “If you need me, I’ll be there.” The dramatic question here is not who will win in a fight: it’s whether or not those involved will allow their disagreements to destroy their friendships. The question is not whether conflict can be prevented: of course it can’t. The question is whether, in the face of its inevitability, we will choose to perpetuate it by vengeance or transcend it by reconciliation, as Captain America does. And that might be one of the best, most noble things a superhero could inspire us to do.

Timothy Lawrence

Timothy Lawrence is studying screenwriting at Biola University, where he also attends the Torrey Honors Institute. He writes unceasingly, and enjoys reading books, watching films, and discussing both. He is especially fond of the works of the Coen Brothers.

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