Movie Review: Captain America: Civil War (2016)
In building the all-encompassing Marvel Cinematic Universe (or the MCU for short), Disney/Marvel, a.k.a. our New Cinematic Entertainment Overlords, have sometimes taken shortcuts in fashioning their individual standalone character films. Though the quality in some of their chapters has improved as of late—most notably with the likes of Peyton Reed’s surprisingly amusing Ant-Man (2015) and James Gunn’s sensationally effective Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)—a majority of their Phase One and Two work has either fell drastically flat (Iron Man 2, Thor 2: The Dark World), became completely unnecessary (The Incredible Hulk), or only remained valuable for their role in securing the foundation of the MCU (every single one of their obligatory introductory chapters). An elaboration on character ethos and pathos has usually fallen to the wayside, mostly because each of these character specific adventures were simply designed as tertiary building blocks for the sole purpose of constructing another grandiose spectacle of combined heroism that has defined each Avengers escapade. And after the disappointment that was Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) the continuation of that pattern seems a depressing prospect indeed.
However, that repeated equation of simplistic adventure combined with snarky humor and enough action to satisfy the basic yearnings of the general populace and the masses of fandom didn’t seem to apply to the storyline of Captain America, at least after Captain America: Winter Soldier (2014) came along. Propelling itself forward from the first installment’s minimal establishment of character (messily directed by the interminable Joe Johnston), the second Captain America actually deepened the political resolve and personal integrity that has famously defined the Captain in his comic book folklore, pitting him in an easily digestible, but still thought-provoking, philosophical fight between freedom and security. Screenwriters Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely ventured deeper into defining Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) as a principled, loyal, and resilient hero guided by a healthy skepticism of power and a sacrificial dedication to loved ones, and with the help of directors Joe & Anthony Russo’s adept focus on tactical stunt oriented action created, arguably, the best Marvel film in the cinematic canon.
The same exact team has returned to create the third chapter in the Captain America trilogy, and for the most part they have effectively continued the Winter Soldier storyline with a confident “don’t fix it if it isn’t broken” resolve. This time they’ve made their narrative target a loose spiritual and philosophical adaptation of Mark Millar’s infamous graphic novel Civil War. Simplifying the novel’s scope of numerous characters, thematic complexities, and twisty dramatic turns and then accurately applying it to the MCU as it has been defined up to now wouldn’t be an easy task, but it seems the digestible narrative here still maintains a relative complexity and some social relevance for our modern political age and discourse. Essentially the political question is one of oversight, and whether the potentially hazardous collateral damage from the Avengers’ heroic exploits warrants checked regulation from an international bureaucracy. With a proposal agreed upon by Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) and a majority of foreign leaders at the United Nations entitled the Sokovia Accords, the members of the Avengers are given two choices: agree to be delimited in power by the will of international appeasement or retire.
It’s an accustomed idea within comics that’s usually ventured with thoughtful clarity (unless you’re the incoherent narrative ramblings and dearth of character study in Zack Snyder’s joyless Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)), and it contemplates the very state of heroism and whether exceptional abilities are something to be unregulated or if their potential for dangerous misuse justifies onerous legal barriers. As the title Captain America: Civil War overtly informs, the accords split the loyalties of the Avengers team into two distinct factions: righteous dissent versus pragmatic compliance, with Steve Rogers/Captain America and Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) representing each camp respectively. Captain America fears that answering to a separate organization—a human institution with ever changing political alliances, incentives, and agendas—that the Avengers will be hindered in doing their job effectively, while Tony’s growing guilt over Ultron and a seed of doubt in his heroic consequences forces him to take the path of least resistance for the indefinite future. Though the main storyline is sympathetic to Captain America’s unwavering veracity, the film presents both opposing views with reasonable and sympathetic justification, which is a delicate quality that enhances Civil War beyond most of the formulaic Avengers stepping stones that comprise a majority of the MCU. Their philosophical differences come to an antagonistic crossroads when it seems Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), a.k.a. The Winter Soldier, resurfaces as a dire terrorist threat and becomes the center of each faction’s immediate capture objective with a character focus on Rogers’ belief that the brainwashed Barns can be cured and brought to redemption.
There’s mild repetition of themes and situations we’ve seen before throughout Captain America: Civil War, mostly in how the plot mimics Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) in making Captain America an enemy vigilante of the state (this time he’s the target of the international community and his fellow Avengers). But that repetition has always been about reestablishing Captain America’s instinctual stubbornness to his principled beliefs, which is either the most admirable or frustrating quality about the character depending on your own personal convictions. What greatly services the film is that the team behind its creation clearly has a heartfelt appreciation for the character, which has always been consistently amplified by Chris Evans’ consistent and confidently earnest portrayal. Directors Joe & Anthony Russo (The Russo Brothers) in particular consistently showcase their understanding by crafting and maneuvering through dialogue heavy scenes that are confidently written with differing character perspectives in mind. Unlike most of the MCU canon, the Captain America films thrive in the calmer moments because that’s where true ideologies can be ventured.
But that’s not everything in the Russo Brothers’ arsenal of talent. They’re also able to make immensely riveting action sequences that are exceptionally detailed in their mano-a-mano precision, and aren’t dependent on the exhaustive destruction that has come to define the modern blockbuster. One sequence in particular that boasts exciting ingenuity is a chase sequence involving The Winter Soldier, Captain America, and a newly introduced T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) where each of their individual strengths of speed, agility, and power are all utilized in a stunning display of tension building action. It should be noted that the introduction and addition of Black Panther is done with seamless integration into the MCU, making him an emotional, vindictive force that’s directly involved with the Civil War storyline (the same cannot be said with the arguably fun, yet gimmicky addition of Tom Holland’s Spider-Man). Boseman in particular crafts an exceptionally accurate portrayal of the lesser known Avenger, and his virtuosic action sequences alone should excite many to his own standalone film that promises to be as surprisingly entertaining as Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man (2015), if not more in the confident hands of Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed).
Of course the central antagonistic encounter between the two opposing Avengers forces is the expected fan highlight of the film, and technically it doesn’t disappoint. Even though it lacks the rather important qualities of potential threat and dire consequence—mostly because it’s a rare battle of hero versus hero—it takes full advantage of being an uninhibited display of each of the Avengers’ talents, powers, and potential collaborations so we know what they’re fully capable of in relation to future MCU franchises. A sense of consequence or not, it’s difficult not to admire and give in to pure amusement as you watch Spider-Man web grab Captain America’s shield, Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) inversing his power to become Giant Man for a memorable introduction, or just relish in the continuous changing of advantage within the same battle as the opposing teams of various Avengers work with and against each other for the pure sake of no-holds-barred cinematic fun.
And thus lies the occasional weakness within Captain America: Civil War. Certainly the film ends with a substantial alteration for each characters’ potential fate, but the mass assembly of known characters, the middle’s lacking tension, and an ineffectual villain by the name of Zemo (Daniel Brühl)—a rather benign interpretation of infamous Captain America villain Baron Zemo hampered by a dull victimized drive for vengeance—occasionally weighs down the consistency of the Russo Brothers’ continuation of the First Avengers’ storyline. It’s a relatively complicated story of political tenacity, belief in redemption, and the blindness of vengeance and in tackling a narrative of excess the Russo Brothers accidentally divided their attention enough where the film’s full-scale ambitious virtues are clouded by some slightly underwritten attributes. But even though Civil War doesn’t necessarily reach the same level of quality that was established by the same filmmakers with Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), it’s undeniable that the Captain America storyline has proven itself to be the true character focal point of the entire MCU, replacing the assumed Avengers films as the chapters designed for integral anticipation. With two quality films greatly enhancing Captain America’s decent first introduction it’s safe to say that the best and most consistent storyline belongs to the First Avenger.