Captain America: Civil War Review
Perhaps catching onto audiences’ rapid wearying of the interchangeable city-crusher finales slotted into avenging adventures past, the makers of Captain America: Civil War warp this ire into the central plot motivation for the opening salvo to phase three of the Marvel cinematic universe.
After an intervention by the Avengers in Lagos goes destructively awry, accords designed to bring them under government control are introduced by the United Nations. A schism forms with Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) on the side of superhero autonomy and Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) on the side of restrictions, having recently come face-to-face with a victim of his ‘heroics’.
With a fuse lit by the introductory African brawl, sibling directors Anthony and Joe Russo quickly tone down action showboating in favour of a slow burn character drama/political thriller combo that makes the secretive unrest of Captain America: The Winter Soldier seem superficial. As anyone with the barest glimpse of the previous Avengers films will attest, infighting between Cap and Tony is nothing new, but here the stakes are raised by the reintroduction of Bucky/The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) and the conniving doctor (Daniel Brühl) intent on manipulating him. A series of revelations are soon brought to light that force Steve to choose not only between his will and that of the world, but between his oldest friend and his greatest ally.
A great pleasure of this cinematic universe has always been consistency of character: Tony Stark acts, looks and sounds like Tony Stark whether he’s being brought to life by Jon Favreau, Shane Black, Joss Whedon or the Russo Brothers. Contrast this with (and, due to similar themes and month-shy release dates, we must) the way that Man of Steel’s unsettled God of a Superman becomes a scowling meanie in Batman V Superman with no explanation. Tony is still a twitching, playful narcissist, but his decision to suddenly resign power to a higher authority is an inexorable response when confronted with the fallout of his self-serving nature. This is nothing complex, but simple A-to-B character development that may seem incidental is crucial when setting the stage for a film billed largely on whizz-bang special effects.
Speaking of which, I’m betting you didn’t pay to see a film titled Civil War for the political name-calling? No, you came to see a bunch of weirdos in silly costumes attempt to knock the stuffing out of each other. Captured in 65mm IMAX, the mid-film face-off is a thunderous adrenaline rush of an exhibition, effectively serving as a decades-old “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?” discussion between eager comic fans brought sensationally to life. Comradely banter is not snuffed, but exponentially multiplied as the personalities of heroes old and new collide in a display that is at once joyous and distressing, with each serving simultaneously as protagonist and antagonist. Top prizes are awarded to Paul Rudd’s returning Ant-Man and wonderful newcomers Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and the revitalised Spider-Man (Tom Holland), who are introduced almost in the blink of an eye but feel instantly at home.
In a film that relies so heavily on the ensemble nature of casting, commenting on the contribution of individual performers feels misguided: sure, it’s a wonder that Paul Bettany’s Vision (a character with great potential to grow dull very quickly) has a measurable arc and provides a number of chuckles, and it’s certainly a very easy claim to call out Sebastian Stan’s mithering as the least interesting element, but the interplay of them all serves the film best, in lieu of a lead. Evan’s character may have his name plastered across the poster, but it’s as much (if not more) Downey Jr.’s show.
Past attempts at emotional weight in this series have landed askew (it’s hard to worry about who might snuff it when you’ve seen their contract for the following three movies), but what makes the climactic one-on-one grudge match between Cap and Iron Man pack a solid emotional punch is the time (years, whole trilogies, even) spent anticipating the day when the respective representatives for the style and the substance of the Avengers team seriously start butting heads. And there is, of course, the sheer clout of the choreography: for the first time in far too long, you believe Hollywood’s finest are in danger of something more than their hair falling out of place.
Just as the final movement bucks the trend of big-bad, destroyer of worlds dawdling, the epilogue is an equally uncertain departure: we’ve always had some clue as to how the cogs of the narrative machine will continue to grind together, but Civil War’s somewhat ambiguous final coda leaves “What next?” as a genuine question, not a Marvel Wikipedia search entry.