Captain America: Civil War

Civil War is Marvel’s best cinematic offering to date: a hugely entertaining epic with a smart political edge.

Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Starring: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Don Cheadle, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Chadwick Boseman, Tom Holland, Paul Rudd, Emily VanCamp, Daniel Brühl

The best blockbuster films marry action-filled entertainment with the narrative heft of a prestige drama. For years now, The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has been using the tenets of genre filmmaking to lace their output with explorations of contemporary issues, political and social.

Iron Man 3 took on American jingoism and military glamourisation by painting the flag on War Machine’s (Don Cheadle) suit and pitting Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr.) robot army against a caricature of Eastern culture created by a white villain. Captain America: The Winter Soldier used Steve Rogers’ (Chris Evans) ongoing introduction into 21st century society to explore the ethics of government surveillance over the population.

Captain America: Civil War is not only the most overtly political film in the MCU canon, it’s also the most psychological, based on character arcs that are years in the making.

When the defence of the Nigerian city of Lagos adds more deaths to the pile of collateral damage they have already caused, the Avengers are scrutinised on an international stage. The United Nations have drafted a bill, the Sokovia Accords, that would see them surrendering their autonomy to a governing body. The team are strongly encouraged to agree to its terms or face a forced retirement.

Stark is all for it; wracked with guilt from creating Ultron, he believes that the Avengers aren’t capable of being accountable for their actions, so someone else should be. Rogers, wary of government interference since The Winter Soldier, understands that the Avengers aren’t perfect, but they should be free to choose how and when they act. The disagreement divides the team, and words soon turn to violence.

Meanwhile, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), former Winter Soldier and Rogers’ best friend, resurfaces at the least opportune time. Rogers’ fight to protect him from Stark, the world’s authorities, and a man with a mysterious agenda results in a conflict that will shape the MCU for the foreseeable future.

This schism comes from seeds of discontent sown through the MCU’s preceding films. In Avengers: Age of Ultron, Stark and Rogers argued over the former’s over-reliance on technology. When added to their negative experiences in their separate adventures, there is already a level of tension at play at the beginning of Civil War.

Serialising these arcs over many years and many films may make it difficult for viewers to fully embrace the conceit of this film. This long-form, almost televisual method of storytelling shouldn’t work when there are extended periods of time between each episode. But thanks to the superb craftsmanship of directors Anthony and Joe Russo, and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, Civil War presents a cohesive narrative that should still be meaningful to those unfamiliar with the MCU, and is littered with rewards for dedicated viewers.

Rogers’ principles haven’t changed since his introduction in Captain America: The First Avenger, yet they have evolved to meet the conflicts of the 21st century. Prior to defrosting, he was the typical boy scout, diving on grenades and giving Hitler what-for in the name of God and country. Those foundations still exist, but they naturally contrast with the self-interested values of our modern-day authority figures.

What keeps his character interesting throughout Civil War is how this disparity is explored as he grows more and more isolated from Stark and his former allies. Rogers firmly believes that to kowtow to the Accords would remove the Avengers’ agency when they need it the most. And on a more personal level, as the Winter Soldier, Bucky never had any agency over his actions. Signing would not only compromise Rogers’ beliefs but further alienate his best friend from society.

Stark’s motivations, however, are heavily linked to trauma. Saving the world in Avengers Assemble took an immense toll on him that has only exacerbated since. Feeling responsible for the collateral damage in New York, his response was to drink heavily, build dozens of remote-controlled Iron Man suits and create the destructive AI Ultron.

All of these actions and reactions are desperate, very literal attempts to stave off facing responsibility; both a cause and a symptom of the trauma he has ignored since his near-death experience in Avengers Assemble. Agreeing to the Accords removes the responsibility from his hands entirely, but does nothing to alleviate the trauma.

These extremely layered characters are matched by two of the MCU’s best performances to date. Downey Jr. has been a dynamic screen presence for over thirty years and has yet to disappoint as Marvel’s leading man. But after some years of struggling to find a foothold in Hollywood, Evans has netted the role of a lifetime in Captain America.

In Civil War, he turns Rogers’ man-out-of-time shtick into an unflappable voice for libertarianism; a strong leader and a vulnerable hero capable of immense sacrifice. It may feel like “Avengers 3” at times, but this is ultimately his film. Evans is the face of the Avengers now.

As serious as this all sounds, the film does have a healthy injection of humour. There are a wealth of jokes spread throughout the script that feel organic to the characters audiences have come to know over the last eight years. Paul Rudd returns as Ant-Man, firing off pitch-perfect lines in quick succession and never once feeling out of place.

But the new Spider-Man (Tom Holland) is perhaps the comedy highlight. After 14 years of poor characterisation, he is finally portrayed as Spider-Man should be: a goofy teenager in awe of the superhero adults around him, cracking wise at every opportunity. Yet with each quip comes a sting of self-doubt. It should hearten fans to know that Marvel’s most beloved character is back in safe hands.

Likewise, the action is more spectacular than ever before. The lithe, feral choreography of Black Panther’s fight scenes demonstrates the Russos’ desire to insert character into every aspect of Civil War and balance the weight of the drama with appropriate bombast. The much-hyped showdown between both sides should be overblown, almost ridiculous in scale. And it is, but thankfully the film demonstrates a crucial self-awareness and the characters mock the fight accordingly.

Even when the set pieces are at their most frantic, the direction remains subtle. In the thick of battle, the Russos take time to add intimate close-ups and stylistic flourishes, such as a split second shot through the eyes of War Machine’s helmet showing his point-of-view. It’s moments like this that distinguish their work from Joss Whedon’s preceding films, whose predilection for long takes had become stale by Age of Ultron.

What’s most refreshing is the effort Marvel is making to increase the diversity in their films. The introduction of Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther and his fictional African country of Wakanda brings language, culture and history never before seen in the MCU, and a subplot as personal as the central conflict. His solo film, to be directed by Creed’s Ryan Coogler, is the most exciting part of their upcoming slate.

Scarlett Johansson’s role as Black Widow has gradually increased throughout these films — particularly in The Winter Soldier — and while it’s great to see her character have even more independence in Civil War, it’s not enough. It’s merely a constant reminder of how she deserves a standalone film.

As MCU villains go, Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) is more rounded than most, though his screentime is rationed to focus more on the breakdown between Stark and Rogers. His motivations are kept deliberately vague. Instead he is depicted as an instigator of events that lead to a shocking conclusion.

It’s easy to see why the Russos have highlighted epic, psychological dramas like Se7en and The Godfather Part II as touchstones for Civil War. While The Winter Soldier was inspired by 70s espionage thrillers, this sequel is more about causing deep fissures in relationships and rending them apart, with collateral damage everywhere.

In order to achieve this, a great deal of time has to be spent with these heroes out of their costumes. Thankfully, these moments are when the film is at its best; championing dialogue and characterisation that lend weight to the action scenes. And while it balances its lightheartedness well, the greater focus is on the emotional toll of the events, both on the characters and the audience. Just as the Accords make the Avengers shift loyalties and bend relationships initially thought unbreakable, the audience is encouraged to change with them.

There has been a tendency lately to compare Civil War to other new comic book adaptations. It’s “the film Batman V Superman should have been”. But to say this would be disingenuous to each of these wildly different films. While ultimately very flawed, BvS relies more on visual storytelling to explore the problematic nature of hero worship and accountability. Civil War uses dialogue and years’ worth of character development to explore a political allegory.

It’s also the best film Marvel have released to date, and will be hard to beat when the real Avengers sequel rolls around in 2018. Civil War is a cohesive piece of machinery in which every cog fits perfectly, deftly balancing its multitude of characters and themes without ever neglecting its sense of fun.

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Images from Marvel

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