REVIEW – CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR is a Marvel Masterpiece
In 2008, Marvel Studios – birthed out of Marvel’s desire to adapt their own characters from the comic book page to the big screen – emerged as a genuine Hollywood player, forging their own path through an industry that served up one-too-many botched, big screen cash-ins that neither understood nor appreciated the beloved source material. Enter Iron Man, a film every bit as revolutionary and as big a game changer as 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and 1977’s Star Wars. These films were never poised to be surefire hits – director Jon Favreau said Iron Man was “seen as a second-rate superhero film“ – with studio heads, industry insiders, producers, and commentators alike having little to no faith in productions that would go on to forever change movies. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs went from “Disney’s Folly” to an animated masterpiece and the grandmother of animated films. Star Wars went from “B track” to revolutionary blockbuster. Iron Man went from second-rate superhero to A-list global superstar, kicking off an interconnected, shared universe that results in Marvel Studios’ latest – Captain America: Civil War – standing as an immensely satisfying, crowd-pleasing superhero epic for fans both old and new.
When the actions of the Avengers results in collateral damage in Lagos, Nigeria, the resulting mounting political pressure leads to the installation of a system of accountability – the Sokovia Accords, a set of internationally ratified legal documents providing regulation and frame-working for the military and law enforcement deployment of the world’s superhumans. This new status quo causes a major schism in Earth’s mightiest heroes, with Captain America (Chris Evans) holding the firm and unwavering belief that the heroes should remain free to defend humanity without government interference. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) – less cocky than we’re used to seeing him – supports oversight, with the formerly anti-establishment and now guilt-ridden Stark driven partially by the words of a grieving mother whose son perished in the catastrophic events that leveled Sokovia in last year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron.
“Who’s going to avenge my son?” she asks of Stark, whose creation, Ultron – an intended global peacekeeping program – went rogue, nearly bringing about mass extinction when the murderous ‘bot weaponized Sokovia, aiming to use the Eastern European country as a massive, devastating meteor. Though Ultron’s machinations were halted by the heroic actions of the Avengers, the United Nations and more than a hundred countries back the Accords, turning Steve Rogers into a fugitive as he evades the law in pursuit of lifelong best friend Bucky (Sebastian Stan) – still recovering after being transformed into a brainwashed killer and assassin who served the insidious HYDRA organization for decades as the Winter Soldier. Sides are chosen as friends, allies, and teammates are forced into a civil war that threatens to rip the Avengers apart.
Joe and Anthony Russo – who made their Marvel Cinematic Universe debut with 2014’s excellent Captain America: The Winter Soldier – return for the Captain America threequel which, despite the presence of nearly all of the Avengers (save for Chris Hemsworth’s Thor and Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk), stands very clearly as a Captain America movie. “Even though there are a lot characters, the focus is on Steve and his struggle,” star Chris Evans previously told Disney’s D23 magazine. “Especially his struggle with Tony Stark… It’s exciting to see a guy who’s as optimistic and as selfless as Steve be met with letdown, betrayal, frustration, and selfishness. There are events and people in his life that test him — that challenge him and force him to reevaluate who he is and what he wants out of life.” This isn’t Avengers 3, instead described by co-director Joe Russo as a Captain America centered-film that gives ample time to its ancillary characters, developing them and having them earn their place in this story that has a major effect on all involved.
“We love ensembles, but I think we’re kind of in tune to the idea of telling the story that has more than a single protagonist. We like that kind of story,” co-director Anthony Russo previously said of Cap’s large supporting cast. “We like depth storytelling. We like layered storytelling. Joe and I, as we were developing the script with the writers, we like to pick a path and look at the script from every different character’s point of view. Even though it’s Cap’s movie, and the ultimate way we decide where to go with the film is filtered through Cap’s perspective, we do take time and walk ourselves through the story from every single character’s point of view as if its their movie.”
“We know how important these characters are. We love these characters ourselves. We know that there’s somebody sitting out there in the audience whose favorite character is that one, even if that character has only a few scenes in the movie,” he elaborated. “We want to make sure everyone’s coming to the movie and it’s going to get a lot of satisfaction and have a lot of fun with what’s being done with their favorite character in the movie, regardless of who it is. We work really hard to do a lot and do something special with characters who may only have limited screen time in the film.”
The Russos and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have formed a well-balanced film that utilizes its cast of characters efficiently and without indulging in the kind of haphazard clutter that bogged down the narratives of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Every character gets a standout moment, whether it be old war horse Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), new Avengers Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), and Vision (Paul Bettany), fan-favorites Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) or newcomers Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland), who make their Marvel Cinematic Universe debuts. Holland is a perfectly realized Peter Parker and Spider-Man, the “John Hughes-inspired,” fifteen year old from Queens. “We wanted an energy and charisma from the character, an energy, but also an insecurity that would make him fun to watch in contrast to the confident superheroes,” Joe Russo said of Civil War‘s take on Spidey, which is the best iteration of the character ever put to film. This is Spider-Man absolutely nailed, and Marvel Studios – who will remain as “creative producers” on the character moving forward – continues to prove why they, and no one else, should get to bring their Marvel Comics characters to life on the big screen, in a way only they know how.
No character feels shoehorned into Civil War, and no one feels out of place – or out of character. Motivations are clear, precise, and make sense, and everyone who is there has a reason to be there. Captain America: Civil War is both a character-driven and an emotionally-driven blockbuster, serving as a major payoff for fans who have invested themselves in these characters over Marvel Studios’ past films. Even if you don’t go into Civil War already emotionally invested, the film trusts its audience enough to become emotionally engaged, particularly in the central relationship between brothers-in-arms Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes. Civil War also expects that you’ve seen the past films, as the conflict between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark – friends and teammates – provides a lot of the film’s dramatic heft, rewarding fans who have seen the pair squabble and maintain a friendship despite their immense disparities since the heroes first met in 2012’s The Avengers. Series newcomers may not feel as much of a gut-punch as Captain America and Iron Man find themselves with near irreconcilable differences, ultimately coming to surprisingly brutal blows as they work through their emotional turmoils and ideological beliefs, but the film carries the kind of emotional resonance and gut-wrenching power Batman v Superman sorely lacked.
We know these characters, we know who and how they are – one of the benefits that comes with pitting these characters against one another after they’ve had several movies to team up and years to get to know one another. While the film’s climax arrives in a 17 minute, beautifully breathless and captivating airport “splash page fight,” the emotional climax comes in the personal, more intimate showdown between Steve and Tony. As the former allies engage in a heated confrontation, the stakes are more emotional than outright physical. This is gripping, edge-of-your-seat entertainment, the kind of heart-tugging aspect that usually goes overlooked in lesser summer popcorn-munching fare. Many have criticized Marvel Studios for playing it safe, or committing the sin of having repetitive, too similar third act climaxes that usually involve a big ship in the air, but Civil War subverts all expectations and daringly offers something fresh and new not only for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but for the comic book film genre as a whole.
This is Marvel Studios at their smartest and their most serious – the film is more similar in tone to The Winter Soldier than The Avengers – while also managing to pull off the near-impossible feat of maintaining the healthy dose of fun and playful sense of humor Marvel Studios is known for. Civil War is the most adult Marvel movie, grounded and taken seriously – the political and emotional aspects are all too real and human – but it never forgets to have fun, and it never forgets (either willingly or accidentally) that it’s inspired by a comic book. The airport battle – in which Team Cap and Team Iron Man come to blows – is the best sequence in any comic book movie, and is a thrilling, must-see experience on both the big screen and in 3D. As breathtaking and rousing as the action is, this major action beat is especially riveting because we care. We care about the characters, their reasoning, their feelings, their point of views. The film sets it all up and never slogs through it – it doesn’t treat things as important as character motivations and ideologies as a necessary chore – instead doling out the required characterization so that these astonishing action scenes engage you, avoiding the all-too-familiar problem of forcing the audience to sit through big, dumb, loud action scenes that get tedious and boring in their gross excess of CGI.
The fight scenes are every bit as visceral and pulse-pounding as those in The Winter Soldier, upping the ante and bringing in characters who fight in their own, unique styles. Spider-Man fights like only Spider-Man can, while Scarlet Witch, Vision, Ant-Man, and Black Panther presented as new toys for the Russos to play with and show off. Every punch carries weight, every blow is felt; whether it’s Black Widow’s kinetic, hand-to-hand combat or Falcon’s dizzying acrobatics mid-flight, there’s an abundance of variety and clever moves, styles, and fights in Civil War, making for an action film that rivals The Raid. Civil War is a comic book brought to life, managing to impress in ways thought impossible since The Avengers. That feeling of awe and wonder seemed impossible to duplicate – we’ve since seen the characters interact and fight together a few times now – but Civil War is jaw-dropping, stunning, and wholly unbelievable in the best way. The big showdown – set in a German airport – is the most impressive action sequence in any movie, surpassing even the iconic truck chase in Raiders of the Lost Ark or any of the big-scale action of Terminator 2: Judgement Day. The action is clear, concise, and – emulating John Wick – captured in a way that doesn’t conceal or outright obscure the moves and the fights that entice us to venture to the theater. It’s on full display in all its glory, easy to follow and impossible to look away from.
The Russos are the most talented filmmakers in Marvel Studios’ stable of talented filmmakers, making the duo the perfect selection to helm the upcoming two-part Avengers: Infinity War. “The consequences of Civil War will have an even more significant impact [than The Winter Soldier],” Russo noted earlier this year. “In Civil War, we’re going to change the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s psychology, and it’s an extreme shift. Winter Soldier was a political thriller; this is a psychological thriller.” It’s that kind of chameleon genre adaptation that helps keep the Marvel Cinematic Universe fresh, even thirteen movies in, and exciting additions like Holland’s Spider-Man and Boseman’s Black Panther – with movies of their own on the way in 2017 and 2018, respectively – will continue to keep audiences on their toes and eagerly looking forward to more even well beyond phase three, which has Doctor Strange in store this November. Seamlessly blending together all the best parts of The Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War is the best Marvel Studios movie in a sea of tough competition, exceeding even the most tamest of tempered expectations and cementing itself as a comic book movie masterpiece.
Captain America: Civil War
★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo, scripted by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, and produced by Kevin Feige, Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Sebastian Stan, Scarlett Johansson, Chadwick Boseman, Anthony Mackie, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Rudd, Jeremy Renner, Emily VanCamp, Paul Bettany, Don Cheadle, Frank Grillo, Daniel Bruhl, William Hurt, Martin Freeman, Marisa Tomei, and Tom Holland star. Captain America: Civil War opens May 6th.