Captain America: Civil War is a sequel to Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Iron Man 3. It is a prequel to Black Panther, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Avengers: Infinity War (or whatever Marvel now intends to title it). It is the 13th movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise. It is the seventh time Robert Downey Jr. has starred as Iron Man and the fifth outing for Chris Evans and Scarlet Johansson as Captain America and Black Widow, respectively.
Are you overwhelmed? Don’t be. Civil War is another fantastic Marvel outing, another precedent-breaking film from the studio that sets the precedent on a yearly basis. Deftly told, pulse-pounding, heartbreaking, it pushes shared-universe storytelling into an entirely new dimension. It is a triumph of action-movie filmmaking and another testament to the power of the Marvel machine.
Multiple high-casualty conflicts have rocked the Marvel Universe (see: all the previous films), despite the Avengers’ best efforts to prevent them. The United Nations, in response, issues the Sokovia Accords, which require the Avengers to register as U.N.-sanctioned peacekeepers or else retire from vigilante heroics. Iron Man agrees and is accompanied by Black Widow, Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), the Vision (Paul Bettany) and War Machine (Don Cheadle). Captain America disagrees and accepts an early retirement, only to burst back onto the scene when Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), his amnesiac brainwashed assassin best friend from 70 years ago, resurfaces and is accused of a heinous crime. Cap is forced to save Bucky and determine who is behind the crime, all while evading his other friends.
That’s the basic plot. But Captain America: Civil War is difficult to describe in a spoiler-light review. There is a lot going on. All of it good.
The linchpin of Civil War is how it treats its characters; each is given a story of consequence. Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) is, for instance, a minor character who has an emotional journey to complement her role as a mover of the plot. She ends the movie a different character than who she was when it starts. Somehow she has less screen time than she did in her previous appearance in Age of Ultron, but the writers and Olsen manage to do much more with it.
Of course, this is a Captain America movie, and it is first and foremost about Steve Rogers. It resolves the story told across The First Avenger and The Winter Soldier, all while creating new possibilities for the character. Rogers has always been about being at odds with his surroundings, striving for a kind of perfect morality in the face of conflict, whether it be in World War II or fighting a corrupted S.H.I.E.L.D. In those cases, he bucked the system and was proven to be a hero for it; Civil War presents a scenario where his individualism is not inherently the right approach, and may even be the wrong thing to do. The result is a test unlike Rogers has ever had to face. With Civil War providing a strong capper, the Captain America trilogy has proven to be a very unique superhero trilogy, unlike any other.
In order to create a two-sided story without taking a side, the filmmakers brought in the big gun. Tony Stark returns as Rogers’ chief antagonist. Antagonist, not villain. Stark is given an equally compelling arc, so much so that this movie might as well be subtitled Iron Man 4. Unlike Captain America, Stark sees himself as someone who, eventually, wants to end the fight permanently. He sees the world in a broader and more multifaceted way than Rogers. In fact, the Sokovia Accords are named for a massive mistake he himself made while trying to save the world and solve everything. There is a reason why these two characters have long been in conflict, and Civil War finally releases that tension. The fact that they are equally right (and equally wrong) underscores the tragedy. It also allows them to grow from this conflict.
I didn’t before, but now I want to see an Iron Man 4. I have never been more interested in either of these two characters. Boy, is that saying something.
It’s impossible to discuss the characters of Civil War without including Black Panther. Boseman debuts as Marvel’s premier black superhero, and, wow. T’Challa is the prince of a reclusive, highly advanced African nation that comes out of seclusion to sign the Accords. He soon finds himself burdened with the mantle of King, as well as his previous role as the symbolic warrior of Wakandan culture: the Black Panther. This film uses Panther as an outsider thrust into the Captain America v. Iron Man conflict, helping to contextualize their conflict within the broader Marvel Universe.
Oh, hey. Spider-Man is there. And he’s the best Spider-Man to ever grace the silver screen. Drop everything. It’s Spider-Man.
Cap’s opposition to the Accords and Tony’s support of them are given a lot of room to breathe in the movie. They hash it out with both verbal and physical spars. Writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely make sure new viewers can walk in and understand their dueling perspectives, but this is essentially chapter 13 in an ongoing story, and it benefits from knowing what came before. The consistency with which these two characters have been rendered across the franchise makes Civil War even more of a gut-punch, unique in its significance. It manages the task of shifting the direction of an entire franchise with ease.
Producer Kevin Feige, mastermind of all things Marvel, discovered directorial duo Anthony and Joe Russo from their famous paintball episodes of Community. What a find. The Russo brothers are action-film virtuosi, using different styles of action to tell different kinds of stories throughout the film. The initial battles are close-shot, quick-cut, reminiscent of the Bourne films. But by the major action scene during the second act they cut back, providing the characters more space. This major action sequence manages to include every important superhero in the Marvel pantheon (besides Hulk and Thor) without ever feeling confusing, disorienting or impersonal. It has an impeccable flow and is a landmark in in cinematic comic-book storytelling. Do not allow the many surprises to be spoiled for you.
My only single complaint about Civil War is one that applies to almost all of the previous Marvel movies: There are no iconic musical themes for these characters, who so greatly deserve them. It’s a particular shame in Civil War, where a clash of sounds could have augmented the intensity of the Stark-Rogers conflict an extra degree.
Captain America: Civil War is long, but it never feels like it. Every minute contributes to the story. Not a frame is wasted; more importantly, there is never the feeling that anyone involved is wasting your time. This is action filmmaking at its finest, filled to the brim with genuine characters with conflicts that are emotionally and viscerally exciting.
Let’s be real: This is the premiere episode to the new season of a show you’ve watched for 10 years; you’ve made up your mind about seeing it. But rest easy on reservations about its quality: It is great from start to finish.