*Review contains spoilers for Captain America: Civil War*
There’s a lot to be said about a movie studio willing to put so much time, energy, capital, and manpower into a film series with no guarantee it will pay off in the end. That decision seems like a stroke of genius now, but it was a huge risk for Marvel to attempt such a thing, especially when you consider they didn’t, and still don’t, have the movie rights to all of their characters, such as Spider-Man who made his debut in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) in Civil War after a groundbreaking deal with Sony. However, as the franchise continues, as we get more invested in the characters, the more intricate and rich the storylines become and the more pleasing it is to the fans. That is one of the primary reasons for why Captain America: Civil War will be remembered as one of the greatest comic book films ever made. It has all that backstory to rely upon. Hell, I’d consider it one of the best movies ever made, but I’m sure most won’t share that opinion. That’s fine. The last eight years of Marvel films have paid off That deep cinematic history is Civil War’s greatest asset, but it, at times, could be its greatest liability.
Let me be perfectly clear, you don’t have to see any of the other Marvel films to enjoy Civil War. Its plot is fairly straightforward enough, and the Russo Brothers did a fantastic job laying out the landscape and the motives for each character in this clash of ideologies and loyalties. That being said, in order to get the full experience of Civil War, you need to watch most, if not all, of the previous twelve MCU films to fully appreciate all the sub-plots, character dynamics, and inside jokes. There are times where I can imagine someone being easily lost and confused. If you haven’t seen the MCU films or need a quick refresher, I’d recommend going back to watch the latter two Iron Man’s, both Captain America’s, both Avengers, and Ant-Man before you head into theaters. You can’t fully appreciate Tony Stark’s evolution from hot-headed playboy that tells the government to go fly a kite in Iron Man 2 to someone willing to accept government oversight of the Avengers’ activities because of all the death and destruction he indirectly caused in Avengers: Age of Ultron. You won’t fully grasp why Captain America, the loyal soldier in Captain America: The First Avenger, is willing to spurn government authority and battle his allies in order to rescue and absolve his best friend Bucky Barnes aka the Winter Soldier, a brainwashed former Soviet assassin.
It’s a lot to remember, but the MCU is built more in the style of a television show than a film series. Each “phase” is akin to a season. I’d describe Civil War as its mid-season finale. There is a ton of action, thrilling and intense moments, and a major status quo change. The cinematography was by-in-large fantastic with one glaring exception. The opening action sequence involves a lot of camera shaking. I saw this movie with a couple friends, and one of them got a major headache from that action set piece. It’s an odd choice when you consider the camera shaking technique is usually invoked to make it seem like there is more action than there really is. That simply wasn’t the case with in this scene, but that’s the only negative about the cinematography I have. Everything else is beautiful and flows easily on the senses, especially that awesome airport battle teased in the trailer. The story is driven heavily by character dynamic and conflict. As such I’m going to continue with a character by character breakdown.
Civil War plays out in many ways like a third Avengers movie, but there is a reason Captain America is in the title. This film is fundamentally a continuation of his story from Winter Soldier. Cap takes center stage as the moral center of the MCU. He’s just as uncompromising in his beliefs as he was in World War II. His experiences in WWII come to bear on his own decision making process. Cap’s former love interest, Peggy Carter, dies in her sleep right after the Avengers are informed of the terms of the Sokovia Accords. The Accords are the world’s response to the Avengers activities, which have resulted in many civilian casualties, causing the world’s governments to demand bureaucratic oversight of the Avengers.
This double blow to Cap hits him hard. He feels like his whole world is falling apart and that a man like him really has no place in this era. At the right moment, Cap hears a speech pulled straight from the Civil War comic by Sharon Carter, Peggy’s niece and former SHIELD agent in charge of watching over Cap in Winter Soldier. Sharon reminds Cap of something Peggy says to her. The crux of it is if you firmly believe you are right in your convictions, you don’t budge even if the whole world is telling you that you’re wrong. In the comic, Captain America gives this speech to Spider-Man, but I think this was a perfect substitute. This was the moment I was sold on this film, and it sets up the mentality Cap takes throughout the course of the movie.
Cap continues to do what he feels is right for himself, the Avengers and the world-at-large, all the while maintaining a fierce loyalty to his friends. Those loyalties are tested when Bucky Barnes aka the Winter Soldier resurfaces and is believed to be the culprit of a bombing.The bombing targeted the signing of the Sokovia Accords and claimed the king of Wakanda’s life. Without any evidence to suggest otherwise, Cap believes Bucky to be innocent, or at the very least he wants to bring Bucky in alive for questioning. Cap is a simple soldier living in a world where nothing is simple anymore. He views the Sokovia Accords as UN bureaucrats with agendas getting in the way of him being a hero. He sees a problem, he runs in, and he fixes it. It’s what leads him to rescue Bucky the first time around in Captain America: The First Avenger. It’s easy to see why Cap goes to great lengths to rescue and protect his friend. Remember, Peggy just died and his whole commando unit died years ago. There is almost nothing left for Cap to remember his life back in the 1940s, except Bucky. Bucky’s his last living connection to his past and is ultimately a victim in all of this.
Cap and Falcon rescue a brainwashed Winter Soldier and gather the Avengers that believe in him, Hawkeye, Scarlett Witch, and even Ant-Man to get to the real enemy, Zemo, who I’ll get to in a bit. What ensues is an epic 17 to 18-minute battle scene at the airport that includes stunning visuals, great choreography, unexpected twists, bits of Avengers trademarked humor, and a somewhat grim conclusion. No one dies, mostly because Marvel doesn’t have the balls to risk the financial ramifications of killing off even a minor character that’s been on screen. Yes, I remember Quicksilver and Agent Coulson, but Coulson is later resurrected and is currently alive on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Quicksilver was barely on screen long enough to have any lasting impact. For those that were hoping for the original ending of the Civil War comic, you’re going to be sorely disappointed in that regard.
Marvel is going to have a problem if they aren’t willing to shed blood when Infinity Wars rolls around. It’s the opposite problem comics have, where death means nothing, because so many characters come back to life. If no one ever dies, besides the villains and tertiary characters, then there is no sense of danger. My sister-in-law texted me after she saw the movie to tell me the thought of Captain America dying had her feeling a sense of dread the whole time. My troublemaking nephew told her beforehand that Cap dies in the Civil War comic, so she was on edge the whole time. I bring that up because the realistic prospect of a main character dying can cause real dramatic tension. If Marvel goes out of their way to make it so that no one ever dies, a lot of the tension for any future films is lessened.
Cap and Bucky escape the fight and fly to Siberia in order to intercept Zemo before he releases the other Winter Soldiers that are in cryogenic sleep. They’re surprised by the arrival of Tony (more on that in the Iron Man section). Initially, there is a reconciliation between Cap and Tony with Tony even going so far as to crack a joke at Bucky about his mental conditioning. However, in what is really a convoluted plan of staged coincidences and a bit of luck, Zemo reveals he has one last bit of information to show the trio. It’s a video that is teased throughout the film that leads to an incredible reveal for Tony Stark. I won’t say what it is, but, if you’ve seen Winter Soldier, you can probably guess. The fact that Cap knew and didn’t tell him enrages Tony to the point where he puts all of his effort into trying to kill Bucky. It’s hard to blame Cap for keeping the information a secret, mostly because there wasn’t really an opportune time to broach the subject, but, to Tony, it’s a betrayal of trust on Cap’s part. It also leads to a brutal back and forth and ends when Cap leaves his shield behind, a shield made for him by Tony’s father. It’s a symbolic shattering of the Avengers. Cap makes an attempt at reconciliation with Tony in a letter. It’s hard to say whether Cap is able to reach Tony in that moment because Tony’s psyche is worn by this point.
Talk about a character that has seen a transformation over the course of twelve films. Tony Stark is not the same man he was in the first Iron Man. In many ways, he’s done a complete 180-degree turn around and it makes sense. Tony feels extreme remorse for the destruction he caused in Age of Ultron, and his guilt takes physical form in the mother of a dead boy killed in Sokovia. That confrontation, in which the mother blames Tony for her son’s death, shakes Tony to his core. When Secretary Ross presents the Sokovia Accords, Tony sees it as the first step to put things right. He signs onto them immediately. Robert Downey Jr. does an Oscar-worthy job in portraying this torn superhero as he explains to Cap his reasons for agreeing to the conditions of the Accords, using the photo of the dead boy as a symbol of the pain he’s feeling. Tony’s partner Colonel Rhodes aka War Machine or Rhody agrees with him, Vision expresses tentative support, and, in a surprise to everyone especially Tony, Black Widow also agrees with him. Tony spends the rest of the movie trying to get Cap to agree to the Accords and almost succeeds at one point before the events with the Winter Soldier turn things south. You can tell he still cares about Cap and constantly volunteers to bring Cap in when the other Avengers go rogue. He knows that if it isn’t him, Cap and the others might not make it back alive since Secretary Ross makes it implicitly clear the world would be better off without the Avengers.
Going into the film, I was Team Cap, and I was still Team Cap when I left the theater. Captain America’s ideology, in the comics and in the MCU, very much mirrors my own, so I will always sympathize with Cap’s position. Despite Salon articles trying to insist otherwise, Steve Rogers’ Captain America has always been a civil libertarian. That being said, the Russo brothers do a great job trying to convince me that Cap is being a stubborn dumbass and even a reckless liability. They present Tony’s side of the argument with such poise that I found myself agreeing with him more often than I thought I would. In this day and age, with the real world consequences of drone strikes, collateral damage, and blowback, it’s hard not to argue Tony’s position is an indictment of US foreign policy. It would be similar to seeing a Syrian or Afghani woman thrusting a picture of her dead child into President Obama’s face. I kind of wish that would happen, but I digress. At the end of the day, Tony’s disagreement with Cap is part ideological but it’s mostly personal.
That personal battle is brought to the forefront at the end of the airport scene. Rhodes is partially paralyzed when Vision’s blast intended to stop Falcon accidentally hits Rhodes causing him to plummet to the ground. Tony’s face as he leans over the unconscious body of his friend is sheer rage. Although it was Vision, distracted by his affection for Wanda, who hit Rhodes, Tony clearly blames Cap for his friend’s condition as he stares off in the direction of Cap’s Quinjet with a look of anger. What happens next has Tony second guessing himself. He’s sent evidence, staged by Zemo, proving the Winter Soldier was innocent. Tony follows Cap and Bucky to Siberia. As I mentioned before, Zemo reveals information to Tony that sends him into a rage. Logically, Tony knows it wasn’t Bucky’s fault, but he’s swept up in a tide of anger, betrayal, and regret. I say regret because Tony’s opening hi-tech flashback sequence shows he still has residual pain over a tragedy earlier in his life. Bucky is the reason for that pain, and he lashes out at Bucky and Cap for defending him. Despite his best efforts, and comics inspired assistance from his suit’s A.I. to try to analyze Cap’s fighting technique, Tony is defeated by Cap. Afterwards, Tony creates tech to try to help Rhody walk again. It’s a small scale thing, but Tony is mentally broken by the end of the film. It’s going to take a lot to pull him back together.
Bucky Barnes is the catalyst for the conflict. After the events of Winter Soldier, it’s clear Bucky is starting to remember who he was and his relationship with Captain America. After Bucky is blamed for a bombing, Cap and Falcon, with Sharon Carter’s help, track Bucky to his hideout. Bucky, still without his full memories, initially resists Cap’s offers to help. The two fight their way out of a SWAT-style operation designed to kill Bucky. This eventually leads to a great chase scene between Cap, Bucky, and newly arrived and vengeful T’Challa, aka Black Panther, who blames the Winter Soldier for the death of his father, King T’Chaka of Wakanda. It’s a treat to watch the three superpowered soldiers try to run each other down in that tunnel. T’Challa eventually catches Bucky but they are all captured by government forces. In the holding cell, Zemo, disguised as a psychiatrist, puts the next phase of his plan into motion by reactivating Bucky’s Soviet brainwashing using specific code words in a specific order. Bucky fights like hell to try to stop his reconditioning, but is ultimately brought under Zemo’s sway, who uses Bucky to reveal critical information about an operation that’s then later the trigger for the reveal at the end. Zemo sends Bucky rampaging throughout the facility. Cap eventually captures Bucky and holds him until his programming wears off. Bucky reveals to Cap the existence of more Winter Soldiers in Siberia, and his belief that Zemo could release them on the world.
It’s at this point the real Bucky Barnes comes through as all of his real memories have come through. Bucky remembers all the people he’s killed even while he was brainwashed and it visibly haunts him. He gives Cap and Tony a run for their money in the “who can feel the guiltiest,” competition. He does start to reform his emotional connection to Cap and even starts to develop a somewhat tense but otherwise good-natured relationship with Falcon, Cap’s other best friend. At the end of the film, he agrees to go into cryogenic sleep until a cure for his conditioning can be found. He realizes he’s just too dangerous as long as his programming exists. It’s a tough decision for both him and Cap as they are really united for the first time in 70 years, but they both agree it’s the right decision. Cap and the rest of his Avengers hide Bucky in Wakanda with T’Challa’s help. It’s a nice evolution for the Black Panther since at the start of the film he wanted nothing more than to avenge his father by killing the Winter Soldier.
I generally don’t like using the phrase, “stealing the show,” because it’s used far too liberally. Instead, I will say that Black Panther is more the hidden protagonist. He has what’s very much a “hero’s journey.” T’Challa, the Prince of Wakanda, goes through all the classical stages of a Joseph Campbell hero’s journey: he initially resists a calling, a great tragedy befalls him with the murder of his father, he receives an item or weapon to aid him on his journey with his father’s ring and the Black Panther suit and mantle, he goes on a quest of revenge against his father’s supposed killer, he faces many trials and tribulations, learns a great truth, and by the end finds a peace in putting away his anger and thirst for revenge. Black Panther is the Luke Skywalker of this story.
Chadwick Boseman captures the spirit of the Black Panther perfectly. He even nails the accent. He’s the third force in this film, pursuing his own agenda. He calls it vengeance, but I’d almost call it justice. If you believed a superpowered assassin killed your father, no one’s been able to stop him, and you had the power to take him out, it’s hard not to argue with T’Challa’s decision to try to kill him. At the end, T’Challa realizes it was a foolish quest for vengeance when he follows Cap, Bucky, and Tony to Siberia and learns that the Winter Soldier was innocent. T’Challa’s evolution comes full circle when he prevents his father’s real killer, Zemo, from killing himself to face justice. As the new King of Wakanda, he grants Cap and his Avengers asylum in Wakanda and agrees to protect and find a cure for Bucky, as part of a path of redemption. As I said though, Black Panther isn’t the only “show stealer” in this film. Enter Spider-Man.
Let me just say that Spider-Man’s inclusion in Civil War was completely unnecessary from a narrative standpoint. He’s essential in the comics, but, until the recent Sony-Marvel deal, he’s been unable to make an appearance in the MCU. He has no real connection to any of the Avengers until Tony Stark shows up at the apartment of his ridiculously hot Aunt May. Oh thank you, Russo’s, for finally giving us a hot Aunt May in Marisa Tomei. An aunt for a high school teenager shouldn’t be an old grandma, but I digress again.
It’s revealed Peter Parker obtained his powers about six months before the events of the film. He’s started trying to stop crime in his Queens, NY neighborhood. Tony has been following his exploits and decides to help Peter by providing him with an upgraded Spider-Man suit if he agrees to help bring in Captain America. Tom Holland and Robert Downey Jr. are a natural pairing in a mentor/mentee relationship. Holland’s Peter Parker, sarcastic, witty, tech-genius, and wise-cracking while fighting, is the most accurate comics Spider-Man to date.
Spider-Man has exactly two scenes in Civil War, not including his own post-credit scene, and he makes them count. The first is, as I mentioned, at his Aunt May’s apartment, and the second is the airport battle scene. He embodies the wish fulfillment of all Marvel fans that want to fight alongside the Avengers. From stealing Captain America’s shield to taking down
Ant-Man Giant-Man by invoking Empire Strikes Back, yes that actually happens, Spider-Man demonstrates he can fight with the big boys (and girls). He even has a nice back and forth with Captain America over their shared hometown, New York City. I was a little disappointed they didn’t utilize him more since he’s abruptly told by Tony he’s done and to go home after the airport battle. I understand the script for the film was written before the Marvel-Sony deal was inked, so they couldn’t have him be a central character. However, I would’ve liked to have seen Peter Parker struggle with the ramifications of choosing Team Stark and try to understand why Cap was doing what he was doing. Cap and Spider-Man almost go there with their mid-battle conversation, but it never quite reaches the point where Spider-Man doubts why he’s fighting one of his childhood heroes. It’s a minor quibble in an otherwise excellent introduction of the MCU’s Spider-Man.
Let me quickly get through both teams since there are a lot of characters to cover. In addition to Falcon and Winter Soldier, probably the character with the most story arc on Team Cap is Wanda aka Scarlet Witch. At the beginning of the film, she’s still learning to control her powers fully. During the opening sequence, she saves Cap’s life but in doing so she inadvertently kills a dozen innocent civilians. She’s understandably horrified by what she did, and, despite Vision and Cap’s attempts to cheer her up, she remains quite upset, even though it wasn’t really her fault. Still, because of the events of Age of Ultron, she’s wary of Tony Stark and any attempts to control her, so she naturally falls on Team Cap. She’s held captive by Vision at Avengers HQ “for her protection” until she’s rescued by a recently retired now unretired Hawkeye. She has a heart-felt confrontation with Vision, but by the end of the film she starts demonstrating she has greater control of her power.
As I stated, Hawkeye joins Team Cap and helps rescue Wanda from Avengers HQ. Well, he really just inspires Wanda to rescue herself since there’s not much an archer can do against an Infinity-gem powered vibranium half-human cyborg. Hawkeye’s other role is to bring in Scott Lang aka Ant-Man onto Team Cap. (If you haven’t seen Ant-Man, stop what you’re doing and watch it. It’s great fun, and you won’t be completely lost as to who the hell this guy is since he doesn’t appear in any other MCU films.) Paul Rudd’s Lang is the comic relief of the team, but he still brings a lot of action to the table. He’s the real show stealer (dammit now I’m saying it too much) in the airport scene. By reversing the shrinking tech on his suit, he grows several stories tall into his comic counterpart, Giant-Man, to distract Team Stark so Cap and Bucky can escape. I chuckled at that sequence because DC’s Legends of Tomorrow had The Atom do the exact same thing the week before. Despite the only hero to truly fall in the airport scene being on Team Stark, Team Cap’s crew is captured and imprisoned. Fortunately, they are freed by Cap at the end, where, presumably, they are all in Wakanda with Cap since they’re wanted escapees.
Unfortunately, in a movie with so many characters, some of them get left in the dust. I felt that was the way with Vision. He has a kinship with Wanda, they both got their powers from the Mind Stone on Vision’s forehead, and he does his best to, in his mind, protect Wanda. However, for most of the movie and airport battle, he’s sidelined. The Russo’s didn’t include Thor and Hulk in Civil War because they are a bit overpowered, and I wonder if that’s the reason Vision is so often pushed to the side in this film. There were many times I wondered throughout why couldn’t Vision just swoop in and put a stop to things. His main contribution was getting distracted by a hurt Wanda and unintentionally crippling Rhody. As one of the big guns and keeper of an Infinity Stone, he was definitely underused.
Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow represented those that couldn’t really pick a side because both sides have strong arguments and motivations for why they are doing what they are doing. She starts off on Team Stark, but she helps Cap and Bucky escape a charging Black Panther. She too is sidelined in a lot of ways, but she gets in some great shots and character moments, especially with Tony and T’Challa.
Poor War Machine though. Like Falcon with Cap, Rhody sticks by his friend Tony, which makes sense given he’s more prone to following orders from his superiors and it’s in line with his character’s established arc from Iron Man 2. He gets a few good punches in, even capturing Cap, Winter Soldier, and Black Panther all at once with the help of the police. I kind of wish Marvel hadn’t teased what happens to him in the trailers. It would’ve made for a good shock since it’s one of the few times Marvel is willing to take a character off the board, but I’ve already harped on that point earlier. At the end, he tries to reassure Tony that he doesn’t regret his decision to join him, even though it cost him the use of his legs. Their friendship has more history than Cap and Falcon, and it shows through in that moment as Tony tries to help Rhody walk again.
Zemo and Marvel’s “Villain Problem”
Unlike many reviewers, I actually liked Daniel Brühl’s Helmut Zemo even though he’s almost nothing like his Baron comic counterpart. His motivation is simple and straightforward. He wanted to destroy the Avengers, blaming them for the death of his family in Sokovia, but he can’t as one, non-superpowered man. He tries to do the next best thing. He manipulates and succeeds in tearing the Avengers apart. The same couldn’t be said for his plan, which, in hindsight, did involve a great deal of chance and came down to showing Tony Stark a video. He did also want to eliminate the other Winter Soldiers, so I guess that’s why he needed to get to Siberia. However, even that part was unnecessary. The other Winter Soldiers were safely sealed inside a thick-walled vault and were in cryo-stasis. It’s highly unlikely anyone would’ve stumbled across them, especially since only one person had the codebook to get into the base and Zemo killed him early in the film. Otherwise, his plan was almost pure luck that Tony would even follow Cap and Bucky to Siberia. He could’ve emailed the video to Tony after getting the information out of Bucky. It’s unclear if the security footage was only available at the base or if it was part of the information dump Black Widow made at the end of Winter Soldier, which Zemo mentioned during one of his villain monologues.
Daniel Brühl chews every scene he’s in as Zemo, and I found him quite mesmerizing. In fact, now that I think about it, he’s the only Marvel villain whose plan, as fortuitous as it was, actually works, and he isn’t killed off to boot! Mostly, Zemo is merely a plot device, and that’s perfectly OK. This movie didn’t really need a villain. The groundwork for a civil war was already firmly established. You didn’t need a highly elaborate plan that would make Lex Luthor blush in order to get the Avengers to fight each other. A simple nudge would’ve done the trick.
All that being said, when you combine Zemo with the early disposal of Crossbones, Marvel still doesn’t seem to know what to do with their villains. In the comics, Crossbones kills Captain America with a sniper rifle. Obviously, that didn’t happen here. I wasn’t expecting Captain America to die, for a variety of reasons not the least being Chris Evans is still contracted for two more movies, but they had several opportunities to kill off a minor character like Rhodes or Winter Soldier. Marvel has taken the time to invest in only two villains: Loki and Thanos, the latter only teased here and there. While Marvel doesn’t have as many mainstream rogues as DC, it’s a shame they don’t spend much time developing their villains into anything meaningful or memorable.
Phew! That was a lot to get through, but there’s so much story crammed into those 147 minutes. There’s still much more I didn’t cover. After some time to digest the film, Civil War is now my favorite Marvel film. The addition of Black Panther and Spider-Man along with an epic act two fight sequence puts Civil War over the top. The movie covers many issues with esteem that have a reflection in the real-world. It’s the culmination of eight years of a great film series that constantly builds on itself to newer and better heights. You can’t appreciate how good this film is without knowing all the cinematic and comic history behind it. It’s a solid movie in its own right, but Civil War is all the better in the context of a larger cinematic universe.
- Enriches the MCU backstories with a solid plot and real world parallels
- Great character dynamics and relationships you care about
- The Airport Battle
- Middling villain with lucky often unnecessary plan
- Too much camera shaking in first action sequence
- Can confuse casual fans