Captain America: Civil War might just be Marvel’s best movie yet, and the greatest comic book film since The Dark Knight. The film succeeds on almost every conceivable level, from the intellectual to the emotional, setup to execution, character motivation to development, and wildly entertaining action.
One of the reasons Civil War works so well is because it is in many ways a product of what’s come before it. The Sokovia Accords, the plot device that drives the wedge between the Avengers, are a result of the events of previous movies like The Avengers and Age of Ultron. Which side of the schism each Avenger takes comes organically from years of character development that the audience has witnessed firsthand. For all of the criticisms that can be leveled against the concept of shared universes, Civil War is the definitive proof that this kind of long-term continuous storytelling truly works.
We’ve seen Steve Rogers progress from the government’s poster boy to a hero who values his own morals over blind loyalty to his superiors. We’ve also seen Tony Stark evolve from flippantly refusing to surrender his Iron Man suit to the government into becoming racked with guilt and willing to cede responsibility. Everything from character threads introduced all the way back in the first Iron Man film to plot points subtly planted in Winter Soldier pays off.
However, just because the payoff is greater doesn’t mean that Civil War is reliant on what came before it. It is entirely self-sufficient; even the Sokovia Accords are catalyzed by an inciting incident within the film. There are at least 12 participants in this conflict, and they’re all given their due. Cap and Tony are obviously fleshed out the most, but secondary characters like Black Widow, Vision, and Scarlet Witch are also given the time and attention needed for even unfamiliar viewers to know, like, and understand them. And some, like Ant-Man and Spider-Man, barely get one or two introductory scenes before the showdown, yet that minimal screen time is very efficiently used to sum up their characterizations and motivations. In fact, the way writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and directors Joe and Anthony Russo balance so many characters so effortlessly is extraordinary.
The cast is also fantastic, but that’s a given by this point. Robert Downey Jr. is easily the standout, giving his best performance as Tony Stark yet. But even some of the smaller roles are memorable, most notably Paul Rudd’s charming and hilarious Ant-Man. Newcomer Tom Holland makes an amazing first impression, instantly cementing himself as the definitive live-action Spider-Man. The same goes for Chadwick Boseman, whose Black Panther gets a subplot of his own that takes him through an entire legitimate and believable character arc.
The antagonist, Helmut Zemo, is unlike any villain in the Marvel universe, a fact that seems to be polarizing, yet it is one that I loved. He is just a regular man driven by a sympathetic backstory and armed with nothing but his intelligence, and that’s what makes him so unique. He’s not as flashy as someone like Loki or even Wilson Fisk, and likely won’t be viewed as a memorable part of the movie in the long run—which is exactly as it should be. To take the focus away from the titular conflict by having a distracting villain would have been a mistake. Instead, Zemo was a physical manifestation of the movie’s themes of vengeance, consequence, and responsibility. And the movie cleverly uses the audience’s expectations about this character to its advantage. To say more would lead to spoilers, but he is one of my favourite Marvel villains yet.
One minor complaint I have is Sharon Carter, a decent character whose romantic subplot with Steve is hurt by its brevity. Yet paradoxically it is that brevity that also makes it unimposing, so it’s ultimately not a major problem. I just would have liked to see it fleshed out a little more.
Civil War‘s predecessor, The Winter Soldier, used real-world topics and political commentary to inform its plot. Civil War‘s plot, on the other hand, is exclusive to a world of superheroes, but its central philosophical question of authority versus autonomy is one that the audience can still relate to. And which side of the debate the viewers take depends less on right or wrong or who their favourite characters are, and more on their own beliefs.
Do you believe heroes are inherently noble and trustworthy like Cap, and thus should behave autonomously? Or do you think the danger posed by the more reckless or uncontrollably powerful ones like Tony Stark or Scarlet Witch means that they should be put in check? Do you have enough trust in authority to responsibly oversee them without making similar lapses of judgment the or mucking it up with bureaucracy? That I could write a whole essay on the Sokovia Accords is a testament to how rich the moral quandary at the centre of this movie is. And that writing out this essay would bring me no closer to a clear-cut answer just shows that no side is right or wrong in this conflict.
That’s why it’s so discomforting to watch the conflict unfold, spiraling from disagreement to full-on fight and finally to an emotionally charged brawl. There’s nobody to outright admonish or unequivocally root for; all you want them to do is stop fighting, but the fight is inevitable. It’s not artificially shoehorned in by the writers, or bloodthirstily pursued by the protagonists. In fact, the heroes do their best to avoid having to fight, but because of both what the Accords entail and the heroes’ unyielding—even stubborn—ideologies, the clash is unavoidable.
And when the fight comes, it is spectacular. The airport scene, the one so heavily advertised, is a superhero extravaganza like nothing I’ve seen before. Not since The Avengers have I found myself in such awe of watching comic book imagery come to life—and Civil War makes the one in The Avengers pale in comparison. The Russos clearly know how to stage this kind of large-scale action with so many different players, each with their own unique superpower to show off. It is, quite simply, the best superhero action sequence of all time.
With the airport scene being such a high point in the middle of the movie, the climactic showdown at the end wisely avoids trying to top it in spectacle. Instead, the finale substitutes scope for intimacy, levity for gravity, and amusement for heart-rending emotion. I won’t go into any details, but suffice it to say, it is intense, and tragic, and absolutely earned.
There’s so much more I could say about Civil War. It’s a movie that’s packed with themes, characterization, and story. It’s a product of what came before that sets up what will come after all while standing on its own, which is a very tricky accomplishment. It works as a film, as a conclusion to the Captain America trilogy, and as the 13th installment of a continuous epic. It surpasses the hype and stands as Marvel’s finest accomplishment to date.
Rating: 5/5 (Perfect)
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