Over the course of 8 years and 12 movies, Marvel Studios has redefined the superhero genre of cinema and created an interconnected universe of movies that is oft-imitated and never duplicated, though every studio in Hollywood seems desperate to try. The success of Marvel has come in the form of turning their second-tier heroes into top-tier heroes by crafting funny, entertaining forms of pop art on the silver screen. Entering Phase 3 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe finds the brain trust of the studio pitting its heroes against one another in Captain America: Civil War, which is essentially Avengers 2.5. While there’s little in Civil War to dissuade detractors to the Marvel form of filmmaking, the latest Captain America movie features plenty of what draws crowds to these spectacles of spandex, as it’s action-packed, often amusing, and always thinking about future installments with both new and familiar faces (or should I say costumes?).
Of course, comparing Civil War to the debacle that is Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice may raise the ire of a certain subsection fans, but the comparisons are more than apt. After all, both are films that feature iconic superheroes duking it out on screen, but their similarities don’t end there. Each operate as a platform for future films, though Civil War has a decided edge on BvS there, and each seem to be interested in the collateral damage caused by the CG-soaked spectacle that concludes previous movies. Whereas BvS seemed to be concerned with collateral damage as a way to retroactively react to criticism of Man of Steel’s finale, Civil War’s concern of the aftermath is dealt with as a means to drive the MCU forward into daring new realms. Following Civil War, I was pondering just what was in store for the future of the MCU for the first time in ages, but with a sense of optimism and excitement that wasn’t there following the credits of BvS.
Following the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron, when the fictitious nation of Sokovia was elevated into the sky and obliterated, the U.N. is intent on passing the Sokovia Accords, which will set a number of regulations and oversight upon the Avengers and the robust of roster of superheroes. An emotionally fragile Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) is welcoming to the oversight proposed by Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt). Conversely, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), the eponymous Captain America, is hesitant, fearing the politics of potential decision makers might dictate unnecessary restraint. On the day of the signing of the accords, a bomb rocks through the U.N. building, killing the King T’Chaka of Wakanda in front of his son T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman). When news reports indicate that Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), the Winter Solider, was behind the bombing, Captain America along with Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), the Falcon, searching for Cap’s former best friend while the Iron Man and other aspects of law enforcement are seeking his apprehension. Earth’s Mightiest Heroes are divided despite the fact that the mysterious Zemo (Daniel Brühl) seems to be behind all the chaos sweeping around our heroes. This, mind you, is a brief rundown of events, indicating just how astoundingly overstuffed Captain America: Civil War is, and yet it still works as a wondrous piece of pop entertainment.
The first half of Joe and Anthony Russo’s film is much more somber and serious than is typically expected from a Marvel movie. In the opening half, the script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely is greatly concerned with getting its pieces in place and providing ample motivation for each character to take their sides. Early action scenes that feature hand-to-hand combat are presented in the chaotic fashion of the shaky cam, with frantic editing and camera movement taking preference over fight choreography and visual coherence. Frankly, this first half gave me a bit of trepidation as the choppy visuals and lack of humor seemed antithetical to what has drawn me to the Marvel movies.
However, that sizable moment of concern quickly gave way upon the appearance of a young Peter Parker (Tom Holland), and suddenly the movie becomes as lively and fun as anything in the Marvel canon. The web-slinger is given no origin story, we don’t have to sit through the death of Uncle Ben again, as Tony Stark knows about this teenage hero through his own forms of research. Even in these introductory scenes, the film injects jokes that finds Tony Stark commenting the reverse aging that Aunt May (Marissa Tomei) has gone through. It can’t be stated enough, once Tony Stark finds himself recruiting Peter Parker, Civil War finds its footing and sprints majestically to the finish line with eye-popping action and sharp levity.
Between Spider-Man and Black Panther, the new characters introduced in Civil War aren’t mere cameos constrained to QuickTime videos that character watches mid-movie, these are fleshed out characters that steal the show. They capture your attention, operate within the confines of the story, and get you excited for their upcoming standalone movies. It’s really an impressive feat. When I say Spider-Man swoops in and steals the movie, I’m not lying. The costume, the quips, the action of this new web-slinger is as close to perfection as to have ever appear on the screen, and I say this as someone with great affection for Sam Raimi’s films. Following the dreadful Amazing Spider-Man 2, any apprehension about the future of ol’ Spidey at Sony evaporates and the anticipation for Spider-Man: Homecoming has just been cranked up to 11. Yeah, he’s really that good.
All those previously stated issues with the chaotic shaky cam are also set aside in the film’s big action scene between the expansive set of heroes in what is some of the most viscerally exciting superhero action to ever appear on the screen. Every hero involved gets their moment to shine, including exceptional moments from Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), who even gets his one big moment. There’s a sense of scale and wonder to this climactic battle, one that blends the spectacle and humor in a manner so effortless that it should seem as no surprise that every studio thinks they can replicate it. But nobody can just replicate a sequence of this magnitude with the same entertainment factor, as every Marvel film with the exception of Guardians of the Galaxy comes into play as part of the setup – you haven’t had to have seen every Marvel film to make sense of the action, but familiarity with the previous Captain America and Avengers movies are practically necessary. That all being said, what would typically be a negative for other franchises Marvel turns into an asset with its charming cast and devotion to this revolutionary form of serialized storytelling.
Knowing that this is another entry in this expansive form of serialized storytelling is what gives Civil War its strength, as it plays upon years of character interactions in the context of its story. Captain America’s bond with Bucky was established in the previous two Captain America films, and the same is true of the ideological differences between Cap and Iron Man from the previous Avengers movies. Conversely, Tony Stark is wounded over the battles of the past, some of which were directly his fault, and his relationship with his girlfriend Pepper Potts (previously played by Gwyneth Paltrow who doesn’t appear in this movie) is on the skids. At the same time, we understand why James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), War Machine, would side with Stark when the heroes are divided due to their friendship over previous films. Though on opposite sides, the previously established friendship of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) becomes a factor in the final fight in an amusing manner. Most surprisingly, the bond built between the Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) is the only new relationship forged here and it’s understandable even as they’re driven apart by the larger conflict at play. What’s impressive here is that none of it feels forced. Each friendship that is fractured is all part of the story at play before our very eyes. Yes, the past and future films play a part as to the why, but is never the sole reason why. It may seem like faint praise except that it’s an all too common problem for films trying to replicate the Marvel model.
If the Marvel slate of movies leaves you cold and uninterested, Captain America: Civil War will do nothing to warm you up to this ever-expanding world of interconnected movies. But if you’ve enjoyed the Marvel films, Civil War gives you what you’re looking for in great abundance. This is certainly not a standalone film, and it does show that as the Marvel Cinematic Universe grows its capacity for greatness may be confined by the past and future entries – a problem that these movies have run into before. As far as the superhero genre goes, Marvel has reinvented what’s possible in bringing the serialized stories of splash pages to the screen and Captain America: Civil War shows why they’re often imitated and never duplicated. This is a big, sprawling piece of superhero fare that can wrap you up in what’s happening before you and make you excited about what’s to come. Civil War may run a bit too long at two and a half hours, but, as with most Marvel movies, the good outweighs the bad. And nobody’s mother is named Martha.