The first two Marvel films from the Russo Brothers have been movies that electrify out the gate only to fade a bit on repeat viewings. The diminishing returns are particularly apparent in Captain America: Civil War, a movie that tries to do a lot, but its ambitions are always questionable, aiming for a bigger stage but not necessarily a better one. It takes two marquee heroes, swaps their viewpoints, puts them both in the wrong, and yet it still carries the emotional impact necessary because we’ve spent so much time with them. If Civil War was our first introduction to Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Captain America (b), it would fall completely flat, but because we care about both Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, their conflict has weight. Unfortunately, Civil War is a film that also has to carry a lot of Marvel burden in setting up future movies while still telling its own story.
And that story is one that isn’t completely free from problems. The idea to adapt the Civil War comics isn’t necessarily a bad one, but it has to give into impulses that don’t necessarily make a lot of sense. Perhaps with one more movie to see Tony and Steve moving to opposite viewpoints, Civil War would be a bit more coherent, but really we just have their conflict scene on the farm in Avengers: Age of Ultron. From there, Tony continues to act like Tony—overreacting and going about things in the completely wrong way with his ever-present desire for control.
It’s remarkable that Marvel has never lost the thread of Tony Stark, and has continued to build on it to show him as both desperate for control and yet hopelessly irresponsible. Tony’s response to an American teenager dying in Sokovia is to unilaterally force his will upon his friends rather than negotiate and find common ground, and then, when things become more complicated, recruits another random teenager out of Queens to come fight a bunch of superheroes.
You could argue that Spider-Man (Tom Holland) represents the middle ground between Steve and Tony, someone who wants to do the right thing but also understand the need for responsibility, but a far better player in this conflict is Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and his relationship to a need for vengeance. Both characters are present because they have solo movies coming out in the future, but T’Challah is better placed while Spider-Man was always kind of on the edge. He couldn’t be too crucial to the plot in the even that Marvel and Sony couldn’t work out a deal, so it’s more like a really fun, extended cameo. And while Holland is outstanding in the role, his relationship with Tony Stark works far better in Spider-Man: Homecoming.
But the character Captain America: Civil War really struggles with is Cap. For starters, you have to reposition Steve from a soldier to a libertarian idealist. The script tries to thread the needle by having Steve argue that his desire to do good can’t be obstructed by any regulations whatsoever. But this kind of unilateral thinking is at odds with Cap’s collaborative spirit in the previous movies. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, he didn’t go it alone in his fight against Hydra. He rallied people to his cause at the climax of the movie. Steve goes it alone when he has to, not because he wants to, and his rejection of the Sokovia Accords feels not like an organic viewpoint of the character but where he needs to be in relation to Tony. Tony’s view makes total sense for him (“suit of armor around the world” and all that), but it’s a lot fuzzier for Steve.