Boasting the same creative team as its outstanding predecessor, Captain America: Civil War (2016) once again centers on a perfectly realized hero, but this time surrounds him with an army of major characters from every corner of the MCU, pitching them into memorable conflict. Even with sky-high expectations, this movie totally delivers, a wildly entertaining romp further strengthening Cap’s legacy as Marvel’s most accomplished and consistent franchise.
In the wake of the roster shakeup at the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America (Chris Evans) now leads a new team. Civil War opens with them on assignment, tracking the nefarious Rumlow (Frank Grillo) in Lagos, Nigeria. Alas, the operation results in another highly public case of tragic, collateral damage—and for the United Nations, it’s a tragedy too far. Thus, the Sokovia Accords, an international agreement to bring the Avengers under stricter government control, since their track record of costly catastrophes has called their efficacy into question. Cap strongly disagrees with the Accords, but they’re just as strenuously supported by Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), whose fraught superhero career as Iron Man has led him to see the Avengers’ exploits in a negative light. With Cap and Tony rallying the factions, a polarizing rift forms in the Avengers, which grows more serious when Cap gets wind of a criminal conspiracy the Accords may prevent him from pursuing. He forms a team of like-minded Avengers to secretly pursue the case—only to come up against Tony’s opposing team, who are just as determined to sideline Cap and his rogue allies.
With an absurdly large cast to cram into the proceedings and so many moving parts to the plot, Captain America: Civil War could have been a flailing kludge. Instead, it’s an impressive Rube Goldberg contraption, layering coherent plot and interesting themes atop its kinetic, eye-popping spectacle. When it comes to vision, theme, and execution, I still believe Winter Soldier is the superior film, but Civil War is a worthy extension of those ideas, and also finally examines a heretofore unspoken elephant in the MCU’s room: collateral damage. It’s a gripping question the audience should be (and has been) asking, not to mention a timely reflection of the state of the union, and the script handles it intelligently. Mercifully, the opposing sides don’t square off arbitrarily; thoughtful arguments and character motives inform the touchy debate, and the film remains true to the characters’ histories and personalities. It makes for legitimate, organic conflict, and the fact that we’re invested in characters on both sides lends emotional weight to the resulting clash. Which isn’t to say this isn’t a fun film; it’s chock full of humor, both verbal and visual. But, again like Winter Soldier, serious themes bubble along under the wisecracks and flying fists.
Of course, for me the true joy of the MCU has always been the characters. These icons are lodged in my brain from many, many years of comic fandom, and it’s been terrific to see them brought to live-action life, at times more effectively than the source material. Civil War is particularly satisfying on this score. Chris Evans, of course, is key, and I’m still impressed with how he’s perfected what could easily have been a two-dimensional patriot, turning him into arguably the MCU’s most important presence. Downey Jr.’s snarky, silver-tongued Tony Stark is as effective as ever, and while sometimes the story seems overly heavy with his tedious manpain, his inner conflict—guilty conscience warring with massive ego—makes him the perfect and necessary foil to Cap’s earnest selflessness. Black Widow’s role in the proceedings feels somewhat reduced this time, but Scarlett Johansson once again proves herself the ensemble’s unsung hero, serving here as a middle-ground voice between two stubborn positions. Her superstar presence seems effortless, and Black Widow’s shifty perspective and wicked-cool fighting style has never been rendered so effectively. (Where the hell is her solo movie?)
There are further waves of terrific support, familiar from earlier movies. Falcon (Anthony Mackie) was one of the best things about Winter Soldier, and Civil War continues to deploy him winningly, as well as adding some neat bells and whistles to his armory. His humorous rivalry with Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan)—pitting Cap’s oldest best friend against his newest one—is a riot. I’ve never been much of a Bucky Barnes fan, but Winter Soldier serves an important story function and Stan more or less hits the right notes, considering his character is written as a haunted cipher. The film also imports War Machine (Don Cheadle), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), and the Vision (Paul Bettany), to varying effect. Best are perhaps Scarlet Witch and the Vision, fleshed out nicely by Olsen and Bettany after their rushed Age of Ultron intros; here, they begin to develop a quirky, awkward rapport, as befits their unlikely history in the books. Alas, Cheadle is woefully underutilized, while Renner merely makes for a passable Hawkeye, whose presence felt forced. I’m still disappointed that Joss Whedon imported the Ultimates version of Hawkeye instead of the more fun original Hawkeye; it will always feel like we have a slightly broken version of my favorite character. That said, I’d rather have this Hawkeye than no Hawkeye at all, and there’s at least a nice, spirited argument between Hawkeye and Stark that made me nostalgic for the old hothead archer in the goofy purple suit. Finally, there’s motherfucking Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), fresh from his breezy solo film. Rudd is again hilarious, easily the funniest presence in a film full of tough competition. Ant-Man is turning out to be a wonderfully cinematic hero, his outlandish powers and chaotic fighting style bringing consistent laughs and brilliant action setpieces to the table. I wasn’t expecting to like him so much in this context, but he turned out to be a major highlight.
Two new characters, however, truly transform the landscape of the film, and look to do the same for the MCU moving forward. One of them is brilliantly introduced and integrated: Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), who looks to be a breakout star. His emergence is true to the classic character while also organically growing out of the plot. Boseman has gravitas to spare, and the film’s depiction of his fierce fighting style and thoughtful heart is perfect. I’m less enamored of the second new face: Spider-Man (Tom Holland), or his latest incarnation anyway. Civil War’s Spider-Man is…well, he’s like a gourmet cupcake on a pizza. Don’t get me wrong, Holland is wicked fun as a geeky teenager fumbling his way into the superhero world, but his presence here makes zero sense. Not only is he untraditional Avengers material, but (spoiler alert) the fact that he’s recruited by Stark seems utterly at odds with Stark’s tortured conscience. Inviting a teenager into a war zone, in the context of this story? I’ve heard Spider-Man is important to the source material, but he seems incidental here, his drive-by participation leaving an aftertaste of product placement.
With so many big personality heroes on screen, it’s easy to overlook the understated villain of the piece: Baron Zemo (Daniel Brühl). But I think he deserves special mention as a uniquely nuanced antagonist, and a different kind of villain—quietly motived, deadly focused, with an agenda that’s far from earth-shaking but ties cleverly into all the broader goings-on. It’s a smartly conceived and executed character, and Brühl brings him expertly to life.
All in all, it’s another rousing success of a Marvel movie, a thoroughly satisfying assemblage of eyeballs kicks and snappy dialogue and colorful action. Yes, Spider-Man is incongruous, and for crying out loud, surely Marvel can stir up a few more female superheroes to make this less of a dudefest? But aside from those caveats, this one’s a Marvel geek’s delight, slotting in nicely behind Winter Soldier as the MCU’s second-best movie.