It’s been a long time coming, but Marvel has finally made the superhero movie I’ve been longing for – a film driven far more by characters, ideas, and philosophies than by indistinguishable villains and CGI destruction. “Civil War” is everything “Batman v Superman” wanted to be, but wasn’t: an intense, emotionally satisfying clash of principles that lays the groundwork for subsequent movies to come. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo have created something much stronger than their kludgy “Winter Soldier,” making it clear that Marvel’s franchise is in good hands indeed.
The central conflict of “Civil War” hinges on the obvious point that superhero shenanigans tend to result in significant collateral damage. After an Avengers-led excursion to Lagos results in heavy civilian casualties, the UN formulates the “Sokovia Accords” – a protocol requiring that the deployment of superheroes only occur with prior committee approval. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), still tormented by the fact that his development of the Ultron AI resulted in catastrophic devastation, is a major advocate of the Accords; Captain America (Chris Evans) isn’t on board. And thus the battle lines are drawn.
To the film’s great credit, neither Iron Man nor Captain America is portrayed as clearly and unequivocally “in the right.” Their conflict is, in many ways, a study of divergent philosophies regarding America’s role in the world. Should a nation act when doing so is morally justifiable, without “playing by the rules”? To what extent should a powerful nation – a nation that could in theory ignore all others and do as it wishes – subordinate itself to the wishes of those likely to be impacted by its actions? (There’s also another plot thread involving Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), the brainwashed Winter Soldier with an affinity for breaking bones, which triggers a whole host of additional interesting questions: at what point does a “brainwashed” individual become independently culpable for their bad acts? What should pragmatically be done with an individual who may harm others without an accompanying “guilty mind”?).
In short, “Civil War” has a lot going on, in all the best of ways. I’m sure I won’t be the first or last to make this observation, but “Captain America: Civil War” is a much better Avengers film than the last one. While our hero Steve Rogers still gets plenty of the spotlight, bringing in a whole repertoire of superheroes allows for big showdowns, big plot shifts, and big concepts. Just when the film appears set to head down the “BvS” path – introducing a supervillain late in the game to force the heroes to put aside their differences – “Civil War” veers away and refocuses on the personal tensions at its core, resulting in a climax far more thrilling than any apocalyptic war scene.
For all its strengths (and they are legion), “Civil War” does have a couple of head-scratching moments. In an odd narrative choice, the film hops around manically from city to city and location to location (one or two cities would have been plenty; this isn’t “Mission: Impossible”). There are also a few moments, most notably one particular flashback sequence late in the third act, that are a bit too grim to mesh smoothly with the film’s previously established tone (we’re talking a level of darkness never before seen in a major Marvel blockbuster). The thematic shift isn’t wholly unearned – a lot of emotional resonance has been built up after more than a dozen movies – but it’s jarring nevertheless.
When all’s said and done, DC Comics and Warner Bros. should be very concerned in the wake of “Civil War.” Marvel has successfully demonstrated its willingness to take storytelling risks, disrupt its status quo, and tentatively venture into the realm of lasting tragedy (plus, it’s pretty great to see Iron Man, Captain America, Black Widow, Ant-Man, Hawkeye, and Spider-Man all in the same fight scene). Zack Snyder, eat your heart out.
Far-and-away one of the strongest chapters in Marvel’s universe thus far. Highly recommended.
Normalized Score: 7.9