With superheroes galore, the continuing threads of nearly a decade’s worth of stories, and a central conflict that looks to shatter the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), Captain America: Civil War not only manages to satisfy in both its bombast and character moments; it is easily one of the greatest Marvel films made yet.
Directed by brothers Joe and Anthony Russo and written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (all of whom created 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier), Civil War is a loose adaptation of the 2006 comic book event miniseries and acts as both a Captain America sequel and an Avenger movie. In the wake of a tragedy involving Steve Rogers, aka Captain America (Chris Evans), and The Avengers, the United Nations seeks to have the superhero team register with international governmental control. But Captain America’s rejection of the politically questionable act sets him against fellow hero Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), who sides with registration in order to atone for and to prevent catastrophic events. In the midst of this battle comes Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan, playing all sides of this complicated character beautifully), an old friend of Rogers turned assassin whose dangerous nature turns the ideological conflict into a physical one, and the mysterious man known as Zemo (Daniel Bruhl), who quietly manipulates the conflict from behind the scenes.
Primarily, this is a two-hander between Evans and Downey, who are the focus of most of the film’s screentime and whose conflict drives the plot. However, there are more than a dozen supporting characters involved as well, each with a complex history and their own motivations. Mixing in plot threads concerning Captain America’s long-lost friend turned brainwashed assassin and commentary concerning the true cost of collateral damage, and Captain America: Civil War has a lot on its plate.
With so many moving parts comprising its central story, Civil War relies more heavily on foreknowledge and viewings of the previous entries into the MCU than most of its fellow films. But that isn’t necessarily a fault; it is simply the product of what Marvel has been doing through its world building for some time now. Whereas a film like the achingly weak Avengers: Age of Ultron used familiarity with its characters to excuse its poor storytelling, Civil War uses that familiarity to add emotional weight to its highly effective narrative. While there may be a few too many storylines within the film’s first half, leading to some minor slowdown, these plots collide spectacularly by the midway point. From there on out, it is one massive thrillride that never loses focus or energy, even as the events become akin to a car crash that you can’t stop watching.
As Captain America, Evans once again strikes a balance between morally-upright iconography and burdened reality. For a super-powered soldier frozen in ice for decades who has fought all manner of aliens, robots, and villains, Evans’ Steve Rogers is incredibly human and relatable as a character. Seeing someone tortured by their moral convictions yet able to perform massive feats of strength creates a complexity that inspires admiration and a deep investment from audiences. As Captain America wrestles with the moral issues at hand and doubles down on his commitment to saving his friend, we agonize along with him.
Thankfully, Downey’s Iron Man has just as much complexity, which makes the conflict far more balanced and understandable than its comic book inspiration. While still having the swagger and braggadocio that made him one of the biggest superheroes in modern movies, Downey’s Tony Stark deals with a heavier emotional weight on his shoulders here, driving many of his actions along the way. Unlike Evans’ Captain America, Stark is more greatly controlled by his emotions, leading to rasher decisions in the name of good that may unravel everything The Avengers have worked to create. While Downey has never phoned it in as Stark, this is his strongest turn as the character in years.
Together, Evans and Downey create a volatile and imminently watchable duo whose chemistry works as both partners and enemies. Civil War works so incredibly well because both sides can be understood, leading to a heartbreaking conflict in which there can be no true winners. As both deal differently with issues concerning compromise, death, and the past, we see their individual strengths and weaknesses.
As with every superhero film, Civil War has just as much action as it does character moments, and this is surely some of the greatest superhero action that has ever been put on film. Like Winter Soldier before it, the Russos craft intricate, intense, and hard-hitting action set pieces that are established on caring about the characters involved. Relying on a large amount of practical stuntwork, Civil War boasts mindblowing action beats within larger jaw-dropping fight scenes. Wisely, Civil War escalates from smaller scale brawls and chases during the first act of the film to the humongous superhero battle that pits friend against friend until it once again contracts its focus for the film’s final fight between Iron Man, Captain America, and Bucky. By doing so, the many action moments stay fresh and varied, taking on a variety of tones while contributing to the narrative at hand. Without delving into the reasons why, Civil War’s final battle is the most gut-wrenching, emotionally-propulsive fight scene in the history of superhero film. It’s brilliantly choreographed, beautifully shot, and worthy of the buildup crafted in both this film and the MCU as a whole.
With so many characters to balance in the span of this massive film, the Russo Brothers manage to provide nearly every character with either a satisfying mini character arc or a moment in the sun. While it may be Captain America and Iron Man’s movie, the strength of the supporting performances elevates Civil War as a whole by making it a grander film with a greater variety in its tone and ideas. However, having the film be Captain America’s story creates a narrative cohesion that can be lacking from the actual Avengers team-up movies.
When speaking of the broad spectrum of characters within Civil War, special mention must go to Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa, aka Black Panther, and Tom Holland’s Peter Parker, aka Spider-Man. Both are tasked with introducing well-loved characters into this cinematic universe for the first time, and both succeed with flying colors.
Boseman’s Black Panther is equally memorable in both massive fight scenes and quiet character moments, bringing complexity to the role as a man driven by vengeance yet burdened with kingly responsibility. While still a supporting character, T’Challa becomes a fleshed-out individual within his screentime and adds another layer to the story as a man whose moral stance and goals teeter between the two sides of the conflict. Delivering his character with quiet intensity and taking part in some of the film’s best fights, audiences will be hungry for more of Boseman as T’Challa by the end of Civil War.
In the lead-up to Civil War, much has been made of Spider-Man’s overdue inclusion into the MCU following a deal struck by Sony and Marvel. How would he fit into this universe? Would Holland work as a teenage Parker? Is he necessary to this story? The answers to all of these questions are answered mere minutes into Holland’s first appearance on the big screen. This is a rousing, cheer-inducing, joyous success on every level. Both in and out of costume, Holland is charming, witty, has wonderful chemistry with every character, and feels very real. Fans of the character, rejoice! This may be the most true-to-source Spider-Man ever put on screen, even though his screentime adds up to less than half an hour.
Outside of these new arrivals, many known faces return to play pivotal roles within the larger conflict. Save for a few exclusions, nearly the entire cast of heroes introduced so far in the MCU make an appearance. Rather than feeling arbitrary or even profit-driven, their inclusions feel natural given the highly interconnected nature of Marvel’s film world. Those closest to Captain America (Johannson’s Black Widow, Mackie’s Falcon, Olsen’s Scarlet Witch, Van Camp’s Sharon Carter) serve to deepen the moral complexities of the philosophical, and eventually physical, conflict at hand. Meanwhile, heroes like Cheadle’s War Machine, Bettany’s Vision, and Renner’s Hawkeye show the international and personal toll of the escalating conflict. While Bruhl’s Zemo may disappoint those looking for a villain more akin to the comic version or who presents a major physical challenge for the heroes, his key role in the film’s moral questions makes him naturally intriguing and challenging.
And then there’s Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man, who perfectly delivers hysterical line after line until he steals the show with a standout moment in the film’s team vs team airport brawl. Put him in everything.
While moral debates concerning collateral damage and civilian casualties pervade the storyline of Civil War, it doesn’t quite have the depth of previous entry The Winter Soldier, which used issues of government surveillance to great effect from start to finish. However, Civil War’s emotional resonance and personal conflict make up for the central issue’s eventual sidelining come the film’s climax. Although Civil War does not take as many risks as it could have (the hamstringing of being just one in a long line of interconnected films is only slightly felt), by its climax, the film has moved the Marvel Cinematic Universe into a new era, with the fallout sure to be felt in the films to come.
This is the Marvel Cinematic Universe firing on all cylinders, using the interconnectivity that may seem like a burden to some films as an advantage here. Civil War not only mines the history of the MCU for maximum impact, but makes the future of the Marvel film world more exciting than it has ever been.