Potential spoilers below (no specifics or character names)
Walking out of my showing for Captain America: Civil War, I had a hard time believing anyone could come out having not enjoyed themselves. Kevin Feige, and the other high-ups behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe have honed the series down to an efficient machine built for fan pleasure. They’re so good at what they do that it’s hard to view Civil War, an appropriate title for a film built around the universe’s two most popular heroes going head-to-head, as anything other than a crowd pleaser. This is what the MCU does – other elements, genres, and mechanics are mixed in to the formula but at the end of the day, the fans come first. And what a winning formula, with Joe and Anthony Russo back as directors after the universally acclaimed Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
It’s clear they’re largely attempting to recreate Winter Soldier’s thriller atmosphere and tone, albeit blown up to a larger, Avengers-sized scale (a testament to the sheer mass of these movies when a $170 million dollar film is relatively small in scope). That said, while there are certainly more characters involved, the screenplay, from Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, eschews the core issue from the source comic book (effectively a “Superhero Registration Act”) in favor of what the film calls “The Sokovia Accords” (effectively an Act that puts The Avengers entirely under the control of the United Nations).
This allows the filmmakers, at least in the first act of the film before the big set pieces kick in, to lightly explore ideas of American exceptionalism – Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr, in his best turn as Iron Man since his solo outings) claims that The Avengers (used freely here, thanks to a mission-gone-wrong in Lagos, as a stand-in for the collateral damage caused by American drone strikes and other attacks) need “to be put in check.” Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, once again pulling off Captain America’s staunch morality and inherent generosity and goodness without it ever crossing into cheese-land) stands against Stark’s Sokovia Accords and, ever the libertarian, defends The Avengers’ freedom to choose their missions: “What if we’re sent where we know we’re not needed? What if we know we’re needed and they don’t let us go?”It’s all interesting stuff, and serves as the kernel of the conflict between Rogers and Stark. And although its small geopolitical concerns are quickly brushed away once the plot becomes more intimate and character driven, it is still admirable to see a film of this size (and one that’s this fan pleasing) to offer up these questions at all.
I mentioned that the plot is ultimately character driven, and this is where the Russo’s prior Marvel film comes in – Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), otherwise known as the Winter Soldier, has resurfaced, and the confrontation becomes less fueled by Rogers and Stark’s broad ideological differences, and more by the ways these ideological differences (and personal investment, for Rogers) influence their actions in regards to Barnes. It is in this way that Civil War exceeds tremendously, by effectively building simultaneously massive ideological stakes alongside the deeply personal. Stan is great in the role, and the dark tragedy of the character is perhaps the true emotional core of the film.
In regards to its more traditional “superhero elements,” Civil War brings the MCU magic and then some, and newcomers Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) more than establish themselves as deserving a spot in this world. While the Russo brothers don’t quite recapture the white-knuckled, pure thriller tension of The Winter Soldier, and can’t quite compete with Joss Whedon’s uncanny ability to juggle a plethora of characters in various action beats, the stuntwork, ebb-and-flow, and sheer variety of action is pretty remarkable, with the airport set piece standing easily as one of the best sequences since the MCU’s inception in 2008. It comes as no surprise that the directors of John Wick were two of the stunt coordinators (although a few hand-to-hand sequences, namely a brief bit of Black Widow fisticuffs in the early goings, suffer from some disorienting camera work and unrhythmic editing). As incredible as the airport set piece is, it is emblematic of one of Civil War‘s small problems (and one that pervades the MCU in general) – one character on the tarmac is reprimanded by another for “pulling their punches” and occasionally I get the feeling that the MCU may be pulling their punches too. For a moment I think, “is it possible that I’m having too much fun?” as if the threat of anything truly bad will happen is almost nonexistent. It might be a silly question to ask, because the scene is an absolute blast, but it does feel as though it is lightening the stakes just a bit. Things feel a bit too safe.
And then they don’t. The emotional core is re-inserted, and the emotional gravitas returns. Characters quit pulling their punches and it is as difficult to watch as it is enthralling. By the end, I realized that while perhaps Civil War pulled its punches occasionally, I also had a total blast. This is the Marvel machine operating at maximum efficiency, with actors that care and a crew of expert filmmakers working at the top of their game. Unless you hate superheroes or you’re a cynical grump, Civil War comes recommended.