At face value, Captain America: Civil War shouldn’t work as a movie. Other superhero franchises have stumbled badly when including far too many characters, resulting in an overstuffed story that has to cater to each important figure in the storyline and eventually buckles under its own weight. Additionally, superhero movies poised as middle chapters intended to set up future stories don’t often stand well on their own.
Yet Civil War works wonderfully, serving as the culmination of Marvel’s ambitious plan to establish a cinematic universe akin to what fans have enjoyed for decades in the comic books. How far this entire venture has come since 2008’s Iron Man, when Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) appeared to Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) after the credits to inform him and viewers that he was part of a much larger world. There are bigger stories to come — notably the two Avengers: Infinity War movies — but has it ever been more apparent how full Marvel’s cinematic playground is than a film in which 12 superheroes are locked in a moral and ideological conflict that eventually leads to confrontation?
This movie doesn’t even include the Marvel heroes that are sitting out this fight. The absence of Thor and the Hulk is noted early on, and nobody on this planet even knows about the Guardians of the Galaxy. (Star-Lord still gets no respect.) That speaks to why Civil War is such a success. Despite the overflowing cast of characters, along with locations that include Nigeria, Vienna and Siberia, the story stays small. It’s about a fundamental difference in how two sides — more particularly, two heroes in Captain America and Iron Man — view the world, their place in it, and what sorts of freedom they’re willing to fight for.
This central conflict also demonstrates just how far the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s pioneering character has come. We were introduced to Tony Stark as an arrogant weapons manufacturer once faced with his mortality, compelling him to realize what his inventions were doing to the rest of the world. He decided to use his genius, fortune and technology as a force for good. In Iron Man 2, we saw Stark balk at the U.S. government try to put restrictions on him and take the Iron Man armor (and arc reactor technology) to weaponize for military use.
Seven or eight movies later, Stark has gone to extreme means in his efforts to protect the world — creating a killer artificial intelligence in Avengers: Age of Ultron, when we last saw these heroes — and now sees that maybe he needs to be reigned in. That puts him at odds with his teammate Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), who’s spent his life fighting against oppressive regimes and trusts himself and his friends far more than military leaders and politicians who serve their own agendas. In Captain America’s view, if Stark hadn’t been so arrogant as to think he could assert power over the people for their own good, perhaps they wouldn’t be mistrusted by the governments of the world at this point.
What makes this story and character conflict resonate is that it wasn’t just created for this film. If you’ve seen the two Avengers films, along with the three Iron Man films and two previous Captain America films, these threads have weaved throughout those plotlines to help create this larger overall narrative. Stark and Rogers have butted heads since the first time they met, disliking each other’s worldview and approach to policing the planet. One is viewed as an arrogant prick who can fix, talk or buy his way out of any conflict. The other is a tightass who takes himself far too seriously and doesn’t realize how much the world has changed in 70 years. Ultimately, of course, they have the same goals, which is how they co-exist peacefully. At least until this movie.
The point is that the tension between the two, as well as among the other 10 heroes on opposing sides of this ideological conflict, has weight because these characters (and the writers and directors who have created their stories) have earned that credibility. I hate to compare Captain America: Civil War to Batman v Superman because it’s such an easy punch to throw. But Marvel’s masterstroke is everything that DC and Warner Brothers were hoping to achieve with their superheroic showcase.
The crucial difference is that Marvel took the time to make us care about their characters, giving them storylines and individual traits that made them relatable on some level. They weren’t presented as icons. (To be fair, no Marvel character reaches the iconic cultural status of Superman or Batman. Except for maybe Spider-Man. And we’ll get to him.) One of the best scenes in Civil War isn’t a fight sequence or action set-piece. It’s a knowing look among Rogers and his friends Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan). It’s maybe four seconds long, it’s hilarious, and it adds something to all three characters.
What Marvel has become so good at with these movies is making sure each of its characters has a place in the overall ensemble. Everyone has an organic, story-driven contribution to the narrative. Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) gets her important scenes, Vision (Paul Bettany) has his moment, Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) gets his chance to shine, Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) has more depth added to her character, etc. Sometimes, all it takes is one line, maybe one scene. And the movie doesn’t just stop so Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) can have the spotlight. The story keeps rolling.
Even a scene between Stark and a friendly neighborhood wall crawler, who’s younger than we’ve ever seen him on screen, is one that arguably shouldn’t work and is perhaps longer than it really should be. But the sequence works because it serves the overall theme of the movie. What does it mean to be a hero? Why would anyone choose to do this when those talents could be used for self-gain? Yes, it’s all obviously meant to establish a character who will soon get his own film upon his happy return to Marvel’s creative team. But directors Anthony and Joe Russo, along with screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, make the scene fit into their story. (You’re going to want to see Tom Holland as Spider-Man in his own movie, like, tomorrow.)
Another key reason that the clash between Captain America and Iron Man is so compelling is that neither of them is completely right or wrong. That’s why the #TeamCap vs. #TeamIronMan campaign on social media has been so brilliantly effective. Choosing a side isn’t so clear. Obviously, that’s the case for the other Avengers as well. Some agree with Rogers, others see it Stark’s way. Again, compare that to Batman v Superman, in which the Dark Knight was clearly wrong and only saw the error of his ways when the story needed the two heroes to finally team up against a greater menace. One story feels authentic, the other comes off as contrived.
So is Captain America: Civil War just one big character study? Well, no — it’s a damn good action movie, too. Would you have ever guessed that the Russo brothers — previously known for working on Arrested Development and Community — would turn out to be some of the best action filmmakers today? The fight scenes and chase sequences in this movie are visceral and thrilling. Best of all, they’re coherent. You can tell what the hell is going on, and where everything is in relation to the scene at hand. (Some of the credit for that surely goes to second-unit directors David Leitch and Chad Stehelski, who helmed John Wick, and have done second-unit and stunt work on a whole bunch of action movies.) This really is comic-book action brought to life.
But there’s also so much cool shit and stirring spectacle to see. Spider-Man is certainly a part of that. But another big thrill is Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), who comes across as the soft-spoken, yet anti-authority, African prince T’Challa, who puts on his nation’s warrior garb and just kicks ass. He’s black Batman. He’s black Iron Man (no offense to Don Cheadle’s War Machine). He’s a wealthy genius at the peak of physical condition with cutting-edge technology at his disposal. Hell, he’s what happened if you combined Captain America and Iron Man. Black Panther is like the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of the Avengers. You’ll want to see T’Challa in his own movie immediately too.
Sure, this movie works because you care about the people in it. And there truly is a story; the movie doesn’t just take the characters from one global location and big set-piece to the next. Daniel Bruhl plays the villain of the piece in Zemo, though for the purposes of this movie, he’s not exactly the villain. But his motivations and what he uses to fuel the conflict between the governments of the world and the Avengers, the tensions among the heroes themselves, have roots in every Marvel movie. Zemo may have popped up out of nowhere by showing up in Civil War, but he’s armed with the mythology of many of the films that came before this one. And again, that adds a layer of depth and resonance to his character that’s missing from many big-screen supervillains.
Despite all the moving parts and assorted characters that should make Captain America: Civil War a mess, the whole thing succeeds because of the work that was put into it. Marvel cares about its characters and the fans that grew up loving them. You don’t have to know that Vision and Scarlet Witch had a relationship in the comic books. The scenes between them work because they’re well-written and well-acted. But if you did read those comics, those scenes feel even more rewarding. Marvel has figured how that you need to serve both audiences. You can be respectful, but don’t have to be reverential. (That’s another sin Batman v Superman committed, as Zack Snyder couldn’t get over paying tribute to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns.) Civil War doesn’t adapt a storyline, so much as takes inspiration from it, tailoring the material to what’s already been established.
All of that effort helps to make these characters and stories continue to feel fresh. How can there possibly be superhero fatigue when Marvel keeps doing these movies so well? Keep giving it to us and we’ll keep going to see it — again and again and again.