‘Captain America: Civil War’ Review: A Superhero Movie That Lives Up to the Hype
When Marvel Studios began ambitiously building towards the first Avengers movie, many openly wondered: how can they do this? Many times over the years, notably in Sam Raimi’s bloated Spider-Man 3, too many characters had clogged up the screen, diluting those films of any real focus. This was a legitimate concern for Marvel and for The Avengers, a movie that was going to star not one, but seven superheroes. Flash forward to 2016 and seven superheroes suddenly seems like an intimate gathering. Now Marvel has arrived with Captain America: Civil War, the latest in their progressively expanding franchise, with a lineup that includes 12 superheroes and three villains. Have we reached peak superhero? Is this finally, once and for all, just too much?
If Captain America: Civil War is peak superhero, I want to climb to the top like Sylvester Stallone in Rocky IV and pump my fists in exultation.
Loosely based on a 2006-2007 Marvel comics storyline, the film serves as a sequel to both Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Avengers: Age of Ultron. The film opens with Captain America and a small group of Avengers — Falcon, Black Widow and Scarlet Witch — teaming to stop Crossbones (Winter Soldier’s Frank Grillo, who survived the ending of that film, only now with a severely scarred face and jackhammer fists) from stealing a biological weapon. Despite stopping Crossbones, the operation ends poorly, resulting in a number of civilian casualties.
Cap and friends are called into the office of the Secretary of State, Gen. Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt, reprising his role from The Incredible Hulk). Following the events of Age of Ultron, the United Nations drew up the Sokovia Accords, a treaty that would essentially put the governing nations in charge of The Avengers. Tony, still feeling the guilty sting of a mother (Alfre Woodard) who blamed him for the death of her son in Sokovia, sides with Ross. The Avengers need to be put into check.
Not everyone agrees. There are some polite arguments and disagreements until a terrorist attack at a United Nations conference (hosted by T’Chaka and T’Challa of Wakanda) is blamed on Winter Soldier who is taken in custody. Enter Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl) who activates Bucky with his Russian assassin keywords, allowing him to escape. Polite arguments quickly turn contested as Cap defends his BFF and is determined to prove his innocence. Ross wants Captain America and his team arrested. Tony Stark asks for 36 hours to bring them in without incident. Let the Civil War begin.
In a movie that has an almost literal army of superheroes — Captain America, Iron Man, Winter Soldier, Falcon, Hawkeye, Black Widow, Scarlet Witch, Vision, Black Panther, Spider-Man, War Machine — and multiple villains — Crossbones, Helmut Zemo, Gen. Ross — it’s almost remarkable that a movie this big can still feel intimate. At its core, Civil War remains a movie about Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes, two friends from Brooklyn and their enduring relationship over 60-something years. There have been a lot of jokes about the homoerotic undertones to Cap and Bucky’s friendship (and if you want to read into that, by all means), but Civil War is still very much a platonic love story between two super-bros.
Lest you think this movie is all “Your Bucky” slashfic, Captain America: Civil War includes some of the finest action in a Marvel movie, including a glorious showstopper extended battle sequence between Team Cap and Team Iron Man at a Berlin airport. It’s a magnificent and exhilarating scene that never once feels overstuffed or confused, despite the sheer enormity of the action. (It should come as no surprise that John Wick directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski served as Second Unit Directors on this film.)
What could serve as the detriment to some hero-stuffed movies, actually works to the advantage of Civil War. Part of what is so delightful is how easily the characters, the majority of which we’ve come to know over the course of 13 Marvel Studios movies, interact and play off each other. Scarlet Witch using her powers to allow Captain America to super jump into a high-rise building. Hawkeye firing a miniaturized Ant-Man on an arrow inside Iron Man’s armor. Spider-Man using his webbing to wrap up…OK that one is too good to spoil here.
After this sequence, which would be an extremely hard act to follow, directors Joe and Anthony Russo wisely dial back the scope of the film. Instead of trying to go even bigger and bringing every single one of our heroes back for a fight against a giant, spiny, CGI glob, the focus shifts to our three main protagonists: Tony, Steve and Bucky. While more than one character manipulates the events of this film for their own nefarious purposes, it all comes down to these characters, ultimately Captain America vs. Iron Man, and their own beliefs, personalities, neuroses and paranoias coming out to play. Tony expresses resentment over how his father, Howard Stark, liked Steve Rogers more than he liked his own son. Steve repeats a line a pre-Super Serum Steve told a group of bullies who were beating him up in an alley (“I could do this all day”).
This is not some hastily assembled superhero brawl to sell more movie tickets; These two have been bickering and brawling over the course of two Avengers movies — one of their very first conversations includes Cap telling Stark, “Put on the suit, let’s go a few rounds.” — and that all comes to a head over the course of the film, whose finale feels earned rather than a corporate mandate.
If the idea of watching even more superheroes punch each other after Batman vs. Superman feels like a chore, let me assure you this film could not be more dissimilar. While slightly overlong, this movie is bright, creative, insightful, affecting and, above all else, fun.
Here’s how enjoyable Captain America: Civil War is: Much has been made about Spider-Man returning to the Marvel Cinematic Universe after a few disastrous movies over at Sony Pictures. Hell, I have written a lot of those articles over the years. I was acutely aware that Spider-Man would be making his debut in this movie alongside Captain America, Iron Man and the rest of the Avengers. Yet midway through the movie, I was so invested in the film, when Spider-Man shows, it was a legitimate surprise. Civil War is so entertaining that I actually forgot Spider-Man was coming. It’s like enjoying a delicious meal and then the chef reminds you that was just the first course.
By the time Part 1 of Avengers: Infinity War charges into theaters, who knows how massive the film’s roster of superheroes and supervillains will have expanded to, and whether that will be too much. For now, though, it turns out that “too much” may be just enough.