By Travis Trombley
Civil War coherently and consistently nods at complexity, as did the best of its predecessors, but the cinematic incarnation of Watchmen or Dark Knight Returns, texts which critically examined the roles of superheroes in democratic societies, this is not. Nor, wisely, did it aim to be, a goal not shared by its recent DC counterpart, which tried to tackle religious and political themes through the superhero lens, failing at both by dehumanizing it’s characters and oversimplifying the issues. This is a Captain America movie through and through, and any political themes presented serve that end, and with great success.
It may not fundamentally alter the genre standards, but Captain America: Civil War, directed by Joe and Anthony Russo and written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFreely, maintains the MCU tone and sensibility while making strides in terms of spectacle, long-term character development, and more ambiguous superhero storytelling less restrained by the structuralist origin tale format.
The Avengers, now a globally established and weaponized entity, come under scrutiny of the United Nations after a mission goes awry, leading to the accidental deaths of some civilians, including an outreach team from the fictional African country Wakanda. “Thunderbolt” Ross returns to the MCU as the voice of the Sakovia Accords, a United Nations initiative presenting the Avengers with an ultimatum: give up their unsanctioned escapades and work for the government, or retire.
Speechifying ensues. Cap remains adamant that such institutions aren’t trustworthy (who can blame him after the events of Winter Soldier?), asserting the need for the Avengers to be able to go where they need to go, regardless of politics. Tony (I feel like I can call him Tony by now - I’ve known the man for five films now, after all) counters with the age old argument that working for the people means being accountable to the people. He cites Sakovian casualties as evidence, having recently been inspired by a mother’s condemnation reminiscent of Sheriff Brody’s slap scene from Jaws. The team polarizes: Rhodey, Vision and Natasha side with Tony’s pragmatism while Sam Wilson takes Cap’s side because, remember, he goes where Cap goes, “just slower.”
Enter the Winter Soldier, Cap’s long lost friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), who returns just in time to be framed for a second attack orchestrated by the low-key Helmut Zemo, played by the unassuming but cold Daniel Bruhl. Despite a team-up with Cap after a touching reunion, Bucky winds up in UN custody, setting in motion the film’s primary plot following Cap and company as they work around their UN compliant pals to stop Zemo and save the world. The Russos employ a dramatic irony to build tensions: one group doesn’t have access to all the information, and the protagonists have no easy way to communicate their findings given a series of unfortunate events which have skewed opinions and solidified prejudices. Despite their good intentions, half the cast (those led by Stark) become antagonists, something unseen in a superhero film thus far but common enough in other genres.
To the Russos’ credit, the film boasts an admirable efficiency of economy. Not much gets wasted in the narrative, a considerable feat considering the balance of action, plot development, franchise establishment and no fewer than eight different story arcs. No salient plot holes diminish the experience, and character decisions seem sensically grounded, whether said development be in this film alone or across the franchise.
As per the established pattern, Cap’s character arc is less concerned with change or growth and more about resilience. He takes a side on the accords out of ideology, yes, but even when his actions get a little more morally dubious, his staunch belief in the goodness of individuals is ultimately vindicated. Whereas Tony is all about adaptation, Cap - in the words of Peggy Carter - plants his feet and tells the world to move. This is by no means a fault of storytelling, just a continuation of the treatment of one particular character.
Tony, once again rooted in guilt and a sense of responsibility communicated by a broody and weary but typically narcissistic Robert Downy Jr., carries the torch of realpolitik, arresting his friends and illegally confining potential threats for the sake of a minimum causality compromise, again causing problems by trying to stave off problems. Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda fears the destructive potential of her powers and worries about how people perceive her. Paul Bettany’s Vision walks around the Avengers base in a sweater trying to navigate the subtleties of human behavior and his obvious infatuation with Wanda. Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa, both Wakandan king and warrior, struggles to find balance between the latter’s revenge and the former’s diplomacy. Sebastian Stan’s anti-smile Bucky deals with the guilt of his past as the Winter Soldier and the fear that he can be used for ill intent again.
Other characters like Sharon Carter, Black Widow, Hawkeye, and Ant-Man get their screen time, but there’s not much new here in terms of character development. Jeremy Renner’s Clint is headstrong and cocky, really coming into his own towards the film’s conclusion when he lays into Stark’s definition of criminal. Paul Rudd’s Scott Lang is as charmingly witty and humbly oafish as in his character-oriented standalone film. The headstrong Natasha Romanoff, an MCU veteran, isn’t afraid to take a stand, and Emily VanCamp’s Sharon Carter bolsters her role as companion and love interest, but undergoes no real change over the course of the film.
The third version of Peter Parker in a decade’s span, Tom Holland introduces Spider-Man to the MCU with comedic reverence, brashness, and heart-felt drive. While Peter’s in-fight sense of humor is similar to that established by Ant-Man, just dialed up to 11, his youthful and idealistic confidence really set him apart. The Russos didn’t burden themselves with the weight of giving Spidey his own arc in this film, deferring instead for an impressive character establishment through a short but touching heart-to-heart with Tony Stark and the quips between thwips. It was a wise choice that leaves audiences wanting more of the web-slinging fan favorite.
As with Winter Soldier, the action here, primarily scattered across five set pieces, is some of Marvel’s best thus far. Not since the first Avengers has combat been used so effectively to reflect character and serve the narrative. Aside from some shaky camera sequences early on, the choreography is fast and visually stunning, while lacking, with the exception of the final bout, the visceral brutality of Marvel’s more adult oriented Daredevil, which is unafraid to depict the physical and emotional consequences of violence.
The much advertised airport battle is a massive and immensely enjoyable spectacle, paced in such a way as to make believable this is a spat between friends who get more and more fed up with one another. Since the battle is between established characters with established styles and sensibilities, it’s a much more enjoyable, character-driven sequence than the videogame-esque experience of watching the Avengers take on armies of nameless robots or henchmen before getting to a boss battle. It’s also arguably the funniest scene in the film, largely thanks to Ant-Man and Spidey.
In the same vein, the final showdown is so emotionally charged and brutal, pitting revenge against survival against protection, it had me wondering if Marvel was setting up something truly dark for the forthcoming Infinity War climate.
As the best example of an ensemble superhero film, Civil War reveals the strengths and limitations of the genre. It proves that character investment can pay off over time, especially in the blockbuster spectacle. But it also shows that a PG-13 superhero blockbuster will be hard pressed to transcend that entertainment-based blockbuster spectacle. Superheroes make for great, simple metaphors by which we can approach and question the world’s dynamic and often ambivalent nature. But, as was seen in Winter Soldier, too, the questions and echoes are there and ripe for exploration, but for these films to work, they will by definition be distanced from reality by simpler, “super” answers. They must balance character with metaphor, and metaphor with spectacle, which Civil War succeeded where Dawn of Justice did not. This is by no means a condemnation of the superhero film genre, but a warning to those who expect too much from it.