Captain America: Civil War takes its title from the seven-issue run by Mark Millar in 2006-2007 where superheroes are forced to register with the government after a public disaster puts the superhero community in the spotlight. The film is an adaptation of elements of this storyline but was reorganized to fit within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Chris Evans returns as our titular hero Captain America, along with Robert Downey Jr. and pretty much every other Avenger that has come before.
The Russo Brothers (Anthony and Joe) return to direct after directing 2014’s The Winter Soldier, a film many consider to be the best of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. Thankfully, much of what they brought to that film which made it so great is on display in Civil War. Civil War feels grounded, gritty, raw, and has an emotional throughline that proves The Winter Soldier wasn’t a fluke. The Russos should also be applauded for directing a film that restores audience confidence after Avengers: Age of Ultron. Clearly the Russos are comfortable working in the studio system that chewed up and spat out Joss Whedon. That shouldn’t be read as a slam to Whedon. The Russos and Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn show that when the directors work well with the studio and don’t feel pressured the end results are great. Where Age of Ultron failed, Civil War succeeds.
Civil War takes place not long after the events of Age of Ultron. After their perceived failures on a mission in Wakanda, the international community come together to produce the Sokovia Accords: a legal document which would force the Avengers to work as international agents rather than as an unrestricted peacekeeping force. Captain America, seeing what happens when governments get too much power is resistant to signing. Opposing him is Iron Man, who is riddled with guilt and so frustrated at their failures that he is in favor of anything that will ease his conscience.
Meanwhile, deadly assassin the Winter Soldier returns and complicates the signing of the Sokovia Accords. Captain America, desperate to save his friend goes on the run while Iron Man and his team are in pursuit. But it is clear that there is something else going on, as seen by the mysterious Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) who pulls strings behind the scenes with an ambiguous agenda. To say much more on Zemo would spoil the story, but in time, I hope he’ll be regarded among Marvel’s best film villains. His plans are realistic, grounded, and his motivations don’t feel contrived. There is an exhausted hopelessness to him which Bruhl sells well, and it’s a relief to see a villain who yearns for something other than world domination – especially in a Marvel film.
Screenwriters Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus do a fantastic job of not only informing both our heroes’ motivations but also creating enough uncertainty that audiences will be hard-pressed not to appreciate the pros and cons of both sides. They also deserve credit for giving the film a sense of balance that most Marvel movies starring Robert Downey Jr. fail to have. With twelve Avengers in the cast, as well as several interconnected plots and returning characters, the film amazingly services every storyline appropriately. The two-and-a-half hour runtime may be daunting initially but Civil War never drags. Most importantly, Civil War feels complete. It sets up many future films, but still is its own complete story, which is something Marvel has been notoriously bad at recently.
When it comes to superhero action, Civil War does not come up short. Unfortunately, some of the fights suffer from the shakey-cam or are edited to oblivion. The opening sequence in Wakanda is the action at its worst, probably because most of the players are less mystical in their powers. Seeing Crossbones and Cap both duke it out in highly acrobatic fisticuffs is just too fast and too edited. Fortunately, as the film progresses, the fights become more coherent. The finale between Winter Soldier, Cap, and Iron Man, an incredibly important scene, is not hampered by this. The CGI overall is much improved from Age of Ultron‘s floaty (and terrible) opening battle as well. Most of the fights though are of a more realistic nature, so there isn’t too much dependence on effects to fill in the blanks. (Elizabeth Olsen is still master of bending her fingers in intriguing ways…)
All across the board, the actors deliver on their roles. Newcomers Chadwick Boseman and Tom Holland absolutely nail it as Black Panther and Spider-Man respectively. Tom Holland’s inclusion, in particular, was ultimately unnecessary to the plot as a whole, but in spite of that, he is Spider-Man. Boseman meanwhile turns a masterfully subtle and unique performance as Black Panther, and his future film will undoubtedly be a standout of Marvel’s Phase Three.
But the real performances are of Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr. Where Batman V. Superman disappoints, Civil War succeeds. BVS managed to hit the ground running successfully with some characters, but Civil War has the benefit of thirteen films of character and story development. Evans and Downey as well have grown with these roles and established their relationship over years. This clash of ideologies is a long time coming, and doesn’t feel forced. But this film is called Captain America: Civil War, and ultimately it belongs to Chris Evans. Captain America is torn between his friends with no easy answers.
Overall, Civil War delivers a great story. However, it fails to stick the landing. The finale delivers excellent superhero action and hits an emotional beat we’ve never seen these films come close to before. Unfortunately, the resolution to it all feels neat and audiences may be left thinking “That’s it?” You won’t feel completely unsatisfied, but Marvel took the easy way out, which is extremely disappointing because up until that moment, Civil War really came close to something bold. The lack of satisfaction does not come from who is right, Cap or Iron Man, but from the resolution. The filmmakers never wanted to answer who was right, so if you’re expecting an answer you’ll be disappointed.
But while the ending fails to satisfy, the movie as a whole should be applauded. We know where everything is headed and how Marvel Studios operates by now, so you should know what to expect by this point. It is very good, but this series still struggles with stakes and consequence. At this point, that’s probably just the nature of the beast. But I will say that the future does look bright. The setup for Black Panther could be the spiritual successor of the Captain America films with its focus on a stoic warrior who fights like a badass. And of course Spider-Man… (none of the praise around him is hyperbole, he really is that f***ing good)
The last thing I’ll mention is the title. In comics, Civil War is a loaded phrase, and the comic involved the Fantastic Four, Daredevil, the X-Men, and many more heroes, as well as the Negative Zone, come into play. Really, this movie could be called Internal Disagreement. The ‘War’ of the title doesn’t really materialize beyond the excellent fight at the airport. The only elements that come from the comic are the fight between Stark and Rogers, and the Sokovia Accords (the Superhero Registration Act). If you’re looking for a strict adaptation of the comics, you’ll have to look elsewhere.
Civil War is what you’d expect and would hope for. It has those moments of levity, great quips, awesome superhero action, and the story to back it all up. It may fail to completely resonate due to an easy ending, but in the end, Civil War is among Marvel’s best.
One of Marvel's Best8
Action score 7
Acting score 9
Story score 8