You can bet the folks at Warner Brothers are watching this film very closely in terms both of its artistic content and its critical and commercial reception.
After the critical assassination of Zack Snyder’s Batman V Superman : Dawn of Justice (as unfounded as I believe a lot of it to be), one could be forgiven for thinking that Marvel’s own ideological superhero smack-down would be a risky venture.
Such a hypothesis, however, does not account for the sheer level of goodwill that Marvel Studios and Disney have earned from audiences since 2008’s Iron Man. Nor, for that matter, does it take into account the phenomenal talents of directors Joe and Anthony Russo, the stellar cast and the legions of crew that make Captain America : Civil War a truly special cinematic experience.
Civil War is a phenomenal film and the culmination of numerous character arcs spanning numerous films. While ostensibly an Avengers film, exploring the arcs and shifting motivations of Earth’s Mightiest heroes it remains at heart very much a Captain America film.
I’d like to begin my review with a brief retrospective of the Star Spangled Man.
Few could have imagined when former Human Torch Chris Evans was cast (to some controversy) as The First Avenger that the actor would have brought such nuance, charm and dimension to the role of Steve Rogers / Captain America. Outside of his own comic book fandom Cap has always had an uneasy relationship with pop culture prior to 2011, at best a fondly remembered anachronism and at worst a cruel joke (especially outside of the US). Despite intelligent and epochal runs from writers like Ed Brubaker and Mark Waid I think it’s fair to say that international audiences went into Joe Johnston’s Captain America : The First Avenger with at least a degree of wry detachment. For all the directorial panache that Johnston and later the Russo brothers brought to Captain America’s solo films and all the wit and sincerity of their respective scripts (not to mention the Joss Whedonness of Joss Whedon) Chris Evans’ performance has gone from strength to strength.
Captain America is usually considered a man out of time, but Evans goes one step further, showing us a man trying to engage with the world (and particularly the America) around him in meaningful ways even as the few remaining vestiges of the life he knew die around him. There’s an essential tragedy to the character but it informs rather than impairs his optimism. As the America that he inhabits and fights for changes around him beyond recognition Cap’s conviction to do the right thing never wavers. It’s both his defining strength and his defining weakness.
How does one continue to do the right thing when the parameters of right and wrong seem in such a constant state of flux? The only way Steve Rogers has been able to navigate the moral quagmire has been to go with his gut and its increasingly put him at odds with those around him who are also trying to do the right thing.
Tony Stark (after numerous false starts) begins the film having retired the Iron Man suit but is still trying to do the right thing, ploughing his fortune into supporting the research of brilliant young minds at MIT. As wonderful as Evans is as Captain America, it’s Robert Downey Junior who’s afforded the most fertile ground dramatically speaking. Civil War represents, in many ways, the culmination of Tony Stark’s character arc. We see the toll that eight years in the Iron Man suit have taken on him personally and professionally.
The wisecracking Billionaire Genius Playboy Philanthropist is still there but the mask of unwavering cool is starting to slip. Like all who retire from combat in service of a country he is looking back on his actions and having a good long think about the impact they’ve had.
While Batman V Superman (sorry but comparisons are inevitable and natural) made a clear decision to cast Batman as the film’s antagonist, neither Steve Rogers nor Tony Stark is wholly right or wrong in this film. Both have valid and considered motives and both do morally questionable things in the pursuit of the greater good.
Having retired, Stark feels himself better equipped to look at the Avengers’ global actions and their consequences. Influenced by Secretary of State (former General) Thaddeus Ross and a whole lot of guilt for the creation of Ultron, Stark concludes that The Avengers need to be made more accountable in light of the chaos in Sokovia (or as I like to call it Non-Specifika). Rogers, on the other hand, sees only the potential for life-saving action to be mired in red tape and bureaucracy.
Its a war of words and ideologies that soon becomes a clash of physical might when the Winter Soldier is implicated in a high profile political assassination and Captain America is forced into a situation where he must cross a line into criminality by aiding his potentially innocent friend Bucky (whom he sees as an entirely separate entity).
The supporting cast of heroes have equally valid reasons for siding with Team Cap or Team Iron Man and it’s remarkable how many plates the film manages to spin without any one character seeming undersold or their contribution forced.
Elizabeth Olsen is even more wonderful as Wanda Maximoff / Scarlet Witch than you remember, and the sheer devastating scope of her powers and her struggle to control them are a compelling focal point in the film. Paul Bettany’s Vision is a kindly yet Saturnine presence in the film, simultaneously involved and detached. I’m strongly reminded of Lance Henriksen’s superb performance as Bishop in Aliens (1986).
Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man and Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye may not have a whole lot of screen-time but their presence, relationships and actions feel organic and make a worthy contribution to the thrust of the film. Don Cheadle is affable as ever as James Rhodes / War Machine who brings the voice of a seasoned military man to the debate.
Many have voiced the opinion that Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow deserves a solo film and as much as I love both the actress and the character this film is a masterclass in why she works best as a supporting character. She has agency enough to drive the plot when she has to but she displays such incredible and multifaceted interpersonal skills that she brings out elements of the lead and supporting characters that helps the audience understand better understand their arcs and motivations. Nowhere is this more evident than in her interactions with newcomers King T’Chaka and his son T’Challa in which she is cast both as diplomat and manipulator.
Speaking of T’Challa, this film is about to make a whole lot of Black Panther fans very happy. The impossibly handsome and charming Chadwick Boseman brings a sense of regality, strength and compassion to the role. Within a minute he is completely convincing as a prince, warrior and diplomat.
There’s another character worth mentioning.
All I’ll say is that as much as I loved both Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield, Tom Holland is already the best Spider-Man ever!
Even the film’s primary antagonist, the ruthless Helmut Zemo is given a layered and nuanced performance despite his reprehensible deeds.
Comic book fans may not take to the deviations from the source material but I’d argue that in the wake of a Red Skull and a Baron Strucker on film, the direction the film has taken with the character makes more sense, and is a better showcase for the talents of the phenomenal Daniel Bruhl.
Captain America : Civil War is an important and defining moment in the MCU’s timeline and arguably Marvel Studios’ best film yet.
The film delivers on the trademark brand of staggering action and visuals, seamlessly woven with great heart, a profound understanding of the characters and vivified by astonishing performances.
Well done Marvel.