The more I think about Captain America: Civil War, the more I like it even though it is an absolutely exhausting film. It’s draining in the same way of running a marathon—rewarding, leaving you high on endorphins, but absolutely spent nonetheless. It’s a movie where they should give out orange slices at the end. There’s so much to chew on, so much to admire, and so much gravitas, that it advances what we’ve come to expect and demand from the superhero genre both in terms of themes and in terms of sheer spectacle.
Captain America: Civil War is a superhero film that undermines its superheroes. It’s not grimdark, all-heroes-must-die, hating gods-among-men like this year’s other superhero brawl, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. It undermines its heroes to turn them into humans, and while I admired Captain America: The Winter Soldier for not giving Captain America (Chris Evans) feet of clay, directors Joe & Anthony Russo have wisely moved the character forward with a more personal story that requires him to be on uneven ground for the first time. He can no longer be the rock of the Marvel universe, and this is a movie with no rock. Both Captain America and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) are in the wrong, and yet they’re both admirable nonetheless.
Following a mission in Lagos, an accidental explosion is the final straw that calls for the Sokovia Accords, a document that would make the Avengers subservient to a UN council. Some superheroes, led by Tony Stark, believe they need to be kept in check and that the cost of innocent lives has become too high. If they answer to somebody, and if there are regulations, then they can be kept in check and people will be safer. Other superheroes, led by Cap, believe that “the safest hands are still are own.” It’s the libertarian point of view, where it’s better to trust the individual than a government institution, or worse, a bureaucracy that would prevent them from going off to do good.
The conflict explodes when a terrorist act gets pinned on Cap’s pal Bucky (Sebastian Stan), and Cap makes things personal by going after his old friend to protect him, thus putting the Sokovia Accords to the test—do the Avengers get to run their own operation, one that has no time for government oversight, or do they turn themselves in and let the law run its course even if the law is misguided and there are nefarious actors, in this case the mysterious Helmut Zemo (Daniel Bruhl), at work?
When I was on the set last year, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely said that they wanted people to leave Civil War arguing about who was right, and in a way, they’ve achieved that. Both sides are presented equally, and while this is nominally a Captain America movie, there’s a strong case to be made that this is just as much an Iron Man movie with Downey giving a raw, personal performance that’s the best he’s given in a Marvel movie to date. But while you can leave the film arguing whether or not you’re “Team Cap” or “Team Iron Man”, you can also leave thinking both sides are right or both sides are wrong.
Civil War is a film that lives and breathes shades of grey, not as a way of saying that morality doesn’t exist or that there is no good or evil, but that not all conflicts are so simple. Everyone in Civil War has a reason for joining the fray, and while some reasons are stronger than others (I had a tough time believing that Hawkeye was so restless he would risk jail than be with his family), they all make sense and it all builds to a reasonable conflict. Nothing feels forced, and everything feels personal.
And it’s a personal film that’s 12 movies in the making. This couldn’t be the third film in the trilogy. It may be the third Captain America film, and it has some important things to say about his character and what he represents as an individual and as a symbol, but you can’t get to this movie without the Iron Man films and The Avengers and everything else from the MCU. Only Marvel could have made this movie, and the results are tremendous. In its own way, Captain America: Civil War is even more impressive than The Avengers.
It doesn’t hurt that the action is absolutely bonkers. The Russos already impressed with what they accomplished on The Winter Soldier, but that now looks like child’s play compared to what Civil War breaks out. Every single action scene is flawless. It hits hard, the action is easy to follow, the cinematography is dynamic, and everyone feels powerful whether they have superpowers or not. It’s like every character is the star of their own movie when they’re on screen even though this is Captain America. You see it when Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) is borderline-parkouring down the streets in Lagos, when Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) is showing off his unique martial arts, you see it in every shield toss from Cap, every size shift from Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), every web-sling from Spider-Man (Tom Holland)—
I have to pause a bit and single out Spider-Man for being so damn good. Yes, he’s a bit shoehorned into the movie for the sake of including Spider-Man. He doesn’t offer much in terms of the larger themes of the movie. But it doesn’t matter when the character is handled with this much joy and verve. Not to take away from what Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield have done with Spider-Man, but this is the take on the character we’ve always wanted. It doesn’t hold back with how young and inexperienced he is, and how much fun we can get out of that. And the moves they pull off with this Spidey are nothing short of spectacular.
But it’s hard to pick just one amazing element of the action when everything is so incredible. This is a movie that when it finally comes time for the big battle delivers on the “war” in Civil War. It’s everything you hope to get from a blockbuster movie and then some. I won’t spoil any of the action beats, but it feels like the Russos left nothing on the table when it came to turning the superheroes against each other.
And that’s where the heart of the movie is as well: heroes against each other. It’s not about taking down the villain, which is why Civil War has one of the most brilliantly played baddies to date. I wish other Marvel movies were as smart with their antagonists as Civil War, and what the movie does with Zemo and his plan (which, granted, does rely a little heavily on coincidence and luck) has a tremendous payoff, which I won’t spoil here. I’ll simply say that when his grand plan was finally revealed, multiple people in my audience audibly gasped.
Captain America: Civil War is a tremendous feat of filmmaking. It will leave you breathless. It will make you laugh constantly. It will make you cheer. It will make you think about the positions these characters take, and it may put you at odds with a hero you love. I love Captain America and I disagree with his choices in this film. And that only makes me admire Captain America: Civil War all the more.