“No. You move.”
Captain America: Civil War needed to be a lot of things. As the introduction of both Black Panther and a new Spider-Man to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the sequel to Avengers: Age of Ultron, the final instalment in the Captain America trilogy, and the sequel to both First Avenger and Winter Soldier, this movie is also the culmination of a journey that Marvel has been headed towards since Robert Downey Jr. first appeared on screen in Iron Man.
It feels very much like we were always heading for this.
Amazingly, it works. Civil War works as an Avengers movie (with, oddly enough, more Avengers than either of the movies to actually use the title), but more importantly, it works as a Captain America movie. The grander scope and moral debate at the heart of Civil War is all filtered through Cap. Even if you disagree with him, the morality makes this not only a thrillingly engaging action movie, but also one of the most emotionally investing that Marvel has ever produced.
Let’s set the scene: the characters in the Marvel U have finally noticed what we the audience have been pointing out for years. When the Avengers save the day, there is always a ton of destruction and collateral damage. Avengers fought a war in New York, (the ramifications of which are still felt on the Marvel Netflix series, Daredevil and Jessica Jones), The Winter Soldier destroyed Washington, DC, and then Age of Ultron lifted the city state of Sokovia thousands of feet into the air then vaporized it.
The Avengers come to fight and people die. Finally, the world has noticed. When an Avengers mission chasing the mercenary Crossbones through Lagos in Nigeria ends with the accidental destruction of a building, and the death of several diplomats from the nation of Wakanda, it seems to be just one step too far.
The Avengers are issued an ultimatum in the form of “The Sokovia Accords”.
Once signed, the Avengers will no longer act autonomously, but be sanctioned and controlled by a United Nations panel. This mirrors the “registration act” of the Civil War comic which ordered heroes to register with the government; however, since practically nobody in the MCU has a secret identity, this element has been stripped away.
What is brilliant about the motivations of the characters in this movie is that they all make sense. You understand why some characters sign the accords and others don’t. When the lines are drawn, you understand why each Avenger has chosen the side they do.
Tony Stark (Iron Man) began as the ultimate capitalist. In his second movie, he famously stated that he’d “privatized world peace”. But over the years, from the first Avengers movie and Iron Man 3 to Age of Ultron, we have seen Tony becoming increasingly paranoid and obsessed with security. He is shown time and time again that he and others are not responsible enough keep the world safe on their own. So this is the Tony Stark entering Captain America: Civil War. He signs the Accords because he believes the Avengers operating above the law is no longer the right thing to do.
Then we have Captain America. Steve Rogers, who, in his first movie, had such a powerful faith in the systems of government, has been repeatedly shown that these systems fail. The Army tried to stop him when he could save the lives of Bucky and his friends, so Steve disobeyed orders and saved the day. In The Avengers, Steve finds a government that lies to him, and a Shield that pilfers Hydra technology and is willing to launch a nuclear bomb at the island of Manhattan. Then, in Captain America: Winter Soldier, Steve finds his trust in systems totally shattered as Shield is revealed to be mostly controlled by the Nazi death cult of Hydra. As Steve says in the movie: “The safest hands are still our own.”
Tony can only trust systems, and Steve can only trust individuals. So with a small push from Sharon Carter, who gives Steve a speech that Cap famously gives to Spider-Man in the Civil War comic, Cap refuses to sign the accords and the Avengers are split. It’s a testament to the even footing that both points of view are given that even after having seen the movie twice, I still can’t completely commit to one side or the other.
That could have been the whole crux of the story, but of course it isn’t. This is a Captain America movie, and the sequel to Winter Soldier. And that means Bucky, and not just as an afterthought. The movie starts with a flashback to the 1990s of the Winter Soldier making an assassination on an old lonely road. When the signing of the Accords are sabotaged, the Winter Soldier takes the blame.
This is where the mysterious villain Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) enters the picture, having uncovered an old Hydra book containing the code words that can hypnotize poor Bucky, bringing out his murderous Winter Soldier side.
Zemo’s backstory is simple. He was Sokovian military, he feels that the Avengers killed his family in Age of Ultron, and wants revenge. He is a surprisingly effective villain, and (though still a little lackluster, as almost all Marvel villains tend to be), I actually really enjoyed his simple, subtle, and ultimately tragic character. I was also pleased to find a villain who understood he couldn’t just kill the Avengers. Finally, we have a bad guy who doesn’t think himself stronger than Earth’s mightiest.
It is the hunt for the Winter Soldier that truly drives the movie: Cap’s insistence on saving his old friend and everyone else’s insistence on his guilt puts Cap up against UN orders. When Zemo sneaks into the UN under the guise of a therapist, he activates Bucky to escape (who then basically walks through all the Avengers because Bucky is Marvel’s equivalent of The Terminator). But it is Cap grabbing hold of Buck’s helicopter and crashing it down into the river below that brands Cap, Bucky, and Sam Wilson (Falcon) as fugitives from justice.
Falcon, by the way, seems to be almost solely motivated by the desire to make Steve Rogers smile, regardless of his own personal investment in whatever is happening. And it is amazing.
On this note, Falcon and Bucky share relatively little screen time together, but when they do it’s also incredible. If this were a romantic comedy, Sam and Bucky would essentially be Steve’s two boyfriends jostling for his attention while glaring at each other and thinking “Steve likes me best.”
At this point, it is also important to talk about Chadwick Boswin’s “King T’challa” (Black Panther). The actor invented his own accent for the role, since Black Panther is the king of a fictional African country. Black Panther isn’t on one side, so much as he just really wants to kill Bucky, for reasons that make perfect sense. The character is regal, lethal, and fights like an actual cat. Even his costume is amazing, and I’m incredibly excited for his solo movie. In the end, between the voices of Cap and Iron Man, Black Panther works as the third perspective. He is essential to the plot, and at no point does his inclusion feel forced.
The Avengers eventually meet at the Berlin airport, Cap and his team racing to capture Zemo, and Iron Man and his side determined to bring Cap to justice. Everyone gets their moment in this fight. Scarlet Witch gets a whole bunch. And Ant Man, a character who I was ambivalent about in his own movie, gets a moment here which might go down as one of my favourite in movie history.
Tom Holland’s motivations and reality as “Spider-Man” and “Peter Parker” are set-up beautifully in just one scene. Through his conversations with Tony, we see Peter as the shy awkward kid who just wants to make a difference and protect the “little guy”. Which, by the way, perfectly mirrors the moment Steve had in the first Captain America movie, when Dr. Erskine asks why he wants to join the war effort.
Then we get Spider-Man for the long and glorious airport Avengers brawl.
He’s perfect. Spidey holds his own against even the Winter Soldier (where all the other Avengers have failed), fighting against Cap and his team. He’s strong and fast, flipping through the air with webs flying around him, and he won’t stop talking.
This is the Spider-Man we’ve always wanted to see. In the twenty-five minutes he appears in this movie, Spider-Man acts more like the famous chatty, annoying kid who’s swung through comic pages for fifty years than any of the five whole Spiderman movies. As a criticism, there is no real reason for Spider-Man to be in the movie at all from a narrative point of view, but he makes up for it by being incredibly fun.
But this is all leading towards a confrontation between Cap, Bucky, and Iron Man. Without spoiling anything, the climax of Civil War has surprisingly low stakes. There’s no classic world-ending scheme or invading army. All of that is traded for emotional stakes.
Civil War is in many ways a tragedy, as the heroes don’t make amends in the end, but instead fall into a greater split that goes beyond politics. Come the end of the movie, Iron Man is fighting for vengeance and Cap is fighting for friendship, in a harrowing, violent confrontation where just for a moment, you might really believe that one of these heroes is going to kill the other.
What’s really well done is at no point does this conflict feel forced. You understand, as everything is slowly stripped away from him, why Cap will fight for Bucky at all costs. But similarly you understand why, by the end of the movie, Iron Man feels he needs to kill the Winter Soldier.
Usually motives in a superhero movie are pretty simple. The good guy wants to be good, and the bad guy doesn’t, and then they fight. That isn’t Civil War. We understand and accept the motivations driving each opposing side, and that is why this movie works so well. It’s also why at the end, as Captain America and Iron Man fight so brutally, it really is tragic.
In all this, Steve Rogers seems to have completed the arc he began all the way back in his first movie, to transform from a man into a legend.
“You’re trying to do what you think is right,” are nearly Cap’s last words of the film. “That’s all any of us can do.”
Because this is who Cap is: he’s going to do what he thinks is right.
I’m sure everyone will be back together again by the end of the next Avengers movie, but that doesn’t change how powerful this movie was.
Captain America: Civil War, is arguably both the best solo and team movie Marvel has produced. For the first time, we are wrapping up a superhero trilogy without a weak link.
Civil War raises the bar for everything that must follow, and incidentally, this is the first I can remember where I walked out of the theater considering the movie to be better than its source material.