About half-way through Captain America: Civil War, Bucky, the brainwashed, tortured, Captain America partner turned programmable assassin (Sebastian Stan) questions whether or not he’s worth saving. After all, he’s taken lives and committed crimes. Captain America responds that events were outside of Bucky’s control, that he wasn’t responsible for his actions. “I know,” Bucky responds, “but I still did it.”
That exchange cuts to the center of Civil War’s ethical dilemma. When there have been losses, does intent or background information really matter? Lives have been lost, families destroyed, and there are individuals left behind that can only grieve or rage. Emotionally, attention must be paid. Despite being titled Civil War in a time of political divide and name-checking The Manchurian Candidate, directors Anthony and Joe Russo and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely haven’t made a film about politics but a film about consequences. Powers have gone unchecked and whether or not that is the proper course is a murky proposition.
Civil War has more than a passing resemblance to DC’s earlier release, Batman v Superman. Both films feature heroes battling against each other, manipulated by an individual (Daniel Brühl, rising above the standard, unambiguous villains that traditionally make up Marvel’s cinematic universe) who would prefer they simply tear themselves to shreds.
They’re both about the cost that accompanies sharing a world with super-humans. However, Batman v Superman was almost a “don’t let this happen to you” manual whereas Civil War serves as proof that such a film can be told in a way that pays tribute to its characters and deals with the issue in a way that acknowledges the grimness of the situation but doesn’t allow the humor to fall by the wayside. It stays fun without forgetting the emotional cost of the film’s narrative.
The incendiary event occurs in Nigeria, when an Avengers mission goes horribly wrong and casualties result. The United Nations, personified by Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt, last seen in the MCU not catching The Hulk), demands our heroes place themselves under a governing body’s control. After all, their battles have left hundreds of innocents dead.
Captain America/ Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, in his best portrayal of the character) is resistant to the idea, as past events have left him wary of government corruption and interference. He feels The Avengers should operate autonomously, because there may come a point in which they should fight when the U.N. says otherwise. In contrast, Iron Man/ Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr., also doing MCU-best work) agrees to government sanctioned missions. Haunted by his past and weary of all the carnage around him, he enters the film emotionally damaged. That damage intensifies when a woman (Alfre Woodard) confronts him and puts an individual face to all the faceless casualties the Avengers have amassed.
James Rhodes/ War Machine (Don Cheadle), Vision (Paul Bettany, looking like an escapee from the Bodies exhibit), Natasha Romanoff/ Black Widow (Scarlet Johannson, finally given something to do) side with him, as do T’Challa/ Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), and Peter Parker/ Spiderman (Tom Holland). Steve retains Sam Wilson/ Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Wanda Maximoff/ Scarlet Witch (Elisabeth Olsen), Clint Barton/ Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and eventually Scott Lang/ Ant-Man (Paul Rudd). Once Bucky reenters the narrative, with Black Panther on his trail, the battle lines become clearly drawn and the two sides set out to bring each other down.
Stark and Rogers have always clashed. Stark’s egocentricity and Rogers’ uncompromising integrity place them in a perpetual state of tense alliance. Ultimately, their conflict comes down to idealism vs. practicality. Rogers remains an individual guided by a clear, morality-based principal. He’ll choose the noble path every time. It’s admirable, but there are consequences that can sometimes make such a stance seem hopelessly misguided. Once Bucky’s life is threatened, Rogers is willing to break every law, shatter every other relationship, in order to save an individual who may be beyond saving. He leads with his emotions, and he makes some poor decisions.
Stark functions as a cynical pragmatist. He’ll take the path of least resistance, willing to give up some liberties now than risk losing everything later. Even as he rages and fights against Captain America’s team, we understand his mindset and we sympathize with his decisions and anger. He tries to lead with his head, even if his emotions sometimes interfere.
What’s critical to the film’s success is what turned Batman v Superman into a travesty. We’ve spent eight years and multiple films getting to know and like most of these characters. Civil War makes certain its audience can understand each opposing viewpoint, seeing both the virtues and drawbacks for each position. Throughout the film, we like Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, because we’ve spent eight years liking them. We’re sorry to see them plot against each other, and each blow hurts because of the emotional toll rather than the physical. All of the principles work to ensure their characters remain sympathetic, no matter which side on which they fight.
Even at the end of the film, I’m not certain as to which side I ultimately fall. I swapped back and forth throughout the near 2-1/2 hour running time. Batman v Superman seemed determined to turn its audience against both Superman and Batman, meaning it was difficult to care who really won their skirmish. This is a film that rewards viewers that have stuck with the Marvel film world throughout 12 movies. I think you could see Civil War without having seen the others, but it may be harder to actually enjoy. There’s a lot of backstory the film assumes you know.
As far as the newcomers, Chadwick Boseman portrays T’Challa as an amiable young man slowly corrupted by vengeance. Tom Holland’s Peter Parker almost does for Iron Man’s team what Ant-Man does for Captain America: a kinetic, hyper-enthusiastic participant just happy to be included on the team. Holland’s unbridled enthusiasm makes him instantly likable, and it contrasts nicely with the doom-laden main characters on display. I liked Andrew Garfield’s portrayal (I look forward to your letters), but it’s nice to have Peter Parker presented as a gawky, nerdy teenager again.
The film’s actions sequences, especially a brilliantly realized airport sequence, are well staged and flawlessly executed. There are many plates the Russo Brothers have to keep spinning, and I’m pleased to say I never saw one hit the ground. However, what really matters are the characters, and Captain America: Civil War gets each one exactly right. I don’t know if it’s a perfect film, but it met and exceeded all of my expectations.I left the screening with a relieved smile on my face, that it hadn’t let me down. Team Captain America, Team Iron Man, I don’t know if it really matters. I think I’m just Team Marvel.