Captain America: Civil War Review
The world has become an infinitely more dangerous place since the introduction of the Avengers into our midst. While they’ve undoubtedly saved the world several times over they’ve left a trail of devastation in their wake, not least after the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron where genius billionaire Tony Stark (Iron Man) created the very thing which almost destroyed the planet. As it is, the country of Sokovia was wiped off the map and after Steve ‘Captain America’ Rogers leads his new Avengers (Falcon, Black Widow, Scarlet Witch) into another disastrous foray onto foreign soil the world decides it’s had enough.
The UN calls for a resolution – the ‘Sokovia Accords’ – which would regulate the deployment of these so-called “enhanced” beings, with the loudest voice coming from the King of the secretive African nation of Wakanda. While Stark, ridden with guilt over his part in the Ultron affair, is willing to submit to this new authority Cap finds himself retreating from the company line, disillusioned with the world’s power brokers after having the rug pulled out from under him regarding SHIELD's unseen metamorphosis into Hydra. But this philosophical conflict escalates into something much more dangerous after the UN conference is bombed and the finger of blame is pointed at a figure from Cap’s past: James ‘Bucky’ Barnes a.k.a. the Winter Soldier, Hydra’s legendarily ruthless assassin. With the Wakandan ruler dead and Bucky seemingly on the run, Cap shuns the Accords to find his old friend before Stark’s faction (and anyone else) does; thus begins Marvel’s Civil War.
After the Russo brothers (Anthony & Joe) did such a fantastic job on directing Captain America: The Winter Soldier they were invited back to the ranch to helm the third Cap film, and once again they’ve delivered an excellent piece of superhero action. I dare say they had an even more difficult job keeping all the Marvel Cinematic Universe plates spinning than Joss Whedon did on the infamously interfered-with Age of Ultron, but somehow they and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely manage to not only tell a coherent story in its own right, but one that also advances the overarching MCU plot and provides closure for Cap’s own trilogy of films without ever feeling like it’s neglecting any one aspect. It’s easy enough to label it as Avengers 3 but it’s more Captain America 3 crossbred with Iron Man 4, seeing as Stark is as big a player in the film as Cap and that their personal conflict is at the heart of the piece.
Various ideas from the comic book mythos were floated for this third Cap film, including Jack Kirby's classic Madbomb, before they alighted upon Civil War, the lengthy ‘event’ which pitted Marvel’s most iconic heroes against each other thanks to the Superhuman Registration Act, which had former anti-establishment maverick Tony Stark siding with the Government. But Cap, the dyed-in-the-wool soldier, could not reconcile the control demanded by the Act with the values of freedom that he holds so dear (the comics naturally extended to the characters not currently owned by the cinematic version of Marvel, e.g. Reed Richards sided with Stark and used his own technology to help imprison those on the other side, while the X-Men naturally gravitated towards Team Cap). But while the movie shares the same name and the same basic agendas for Cap and Stark, the Sokovia Accords are more of a framing device for the interpersonal drama than it is about this epic battle of wills that the comics depicted. Indeed, an entire Phase of the MCU could’ve been devoted to adapting this one event, but the Marvel overlords have other fish to fry.
If Age of Ultron’s overriding theme was about legacy, about what you leave behind, then Civil War’s central hook is that of those who are left behind. Loss is a key factor in the DNA of this film, and it’s impressive that this thematic consistency is seen through to the bitter end. Cap has to bury one old friend and is desperate not to lose another, with Bucky representing the last remaining link to the man that he once was, before he was laden with the agendas of others. Stark is still struggling with what happened in Sokovia as well as his relationship problems with Pepper Potts, and we get a glimpse at the last words young Tony ever spoke to his doomed mother & father thanks to an extraordinary piece of de-ageing computer trickery. Wakandan prince T’Challa suddenly finds himself as ruler of his people, taking on the mantle of the Black Panther as he seeks to avenge his father’s death. The story is incited by the mysterious Zemo, a Sokovian native who seeks to dismantle the Avengers from within after suffering through the obliteration of his country at the hands of Ultron, and the entire piece is tied together by a dark revelation concerning the death of Stark’s parents.
Robert Downey Jr. once again reprises the role of Tony Stark but this is not the same relentlessly irreverent quip-machine of the previous films. Stark has been changed by his stint as ol’ Shellhead, suffering from PTSD in the wake of his nuclear goal-keeping in The Avengers and now he's plagued by the faces of those whom he could not protect. Stark more than anyone recognises the need for a form of regulation, so his transition from being a thorn in the US Government’s side to a staunch supporter of the Accords isn’t as surprising as one may think. Conversely, Cap’s journey has been from a hero who bleeds red white ‘n’ blue to a dissenting voice who’s willing to defy his government over his principles and Chris Evans has captured that arc perfectly, the erstwhile poster-boy becoming a world-weary fighter who’s had his entire perspective shattered by the events of Winter Soldier. Up is down, left is right, and in this situation Cap can only rely on one person’s moral compass: his own. And when the X factor of Bucky Barnes is thrown into the mix Cap would only ever want to do right by the friend who stuck by him when he had no-one else, no matter that he has to defy the collective voice of the world. Sebastian Stan returns as Bucky and it’s nice to see some traces of the man from Captain America: The First Avenger emerge once again, interspersed with the deadly amnesiac assassin that he became.
The rest of the cast do what they can with their more limited amounts of screen time, with regulars such as Scarlett Johansson (Widow), Anthony Mackie (Falcon), Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye) and Don Cheadle (War Machine) slipping into their roles as easily as a pair of old slippers. Relative newcomers like Paul Rudd (Ant-Man), Elizabeth Olsen (Scarlet Witch) and Paul Bettany (Vision - well, he’s a newcomer apart from his voice) also do their respective things but the stand-out for me is Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther. Not only is his acting performance excellent, imbuing T’Challa with a rueful sense of the burden that’s been placed upon him after his father’s murder, but his physicality makes him a stand-out presence during the fight scenes too (after this I'm very much looking forward to his standalone film). Another new face is Tom Holland as Spider-Man, who gets recruited by Stark as a ringer for the battle that’s about to commence. The young Englishman plays this latest incarnation of Peter Parker with a gawky, hesitating manner that’s a perfect fit for this extremely youthful version of one of Marvel’s most beloved characters. Villain duties are handled by Daniel Brühl as Zemo, who's not some OTT moustache-twirling menace out to destroy the world but more of a cold, calculating everyman, for which Brühl's slightly mousey visage was an excellent choice.
The Russos clearly had to stick to the larger Marvel game plan but they’ve still managed to inject some of their own flavour into the film, like with the retro-looking title cards that take up most of the screen or their bone-jarring action style (which combines furious editing with a slightly reduced frame rate and a narrower shutter angle to speed up the action shots). Neither will be to everyone’s taste and it’s fair to say that the combat is staged with a little less coherence than in Winter Soldier, but the editing maintains some sense of geography and rhythm that can still be followed if you’re fast enough! They do however deserve all the credit in the world for being able to juggle the demands of so many characters and giving each of them a turn in the spotlight (I particularly liked the hints towards a possible relationship between Vision and Wanda, as per the funny books) whilst keeping sight of the main thread of the story.
Winter Soldier remains the better film if only because of its increased clarity of vision, but it’s still damned near a miracle then that Civil War doesn’t feel overly stuffed, yet nor does it regularly grind to a halt to clunkily expound the motivations of this myriad roster of heroes. That charge could perhaps be levelled at the scene when Stark recruits Peter Parker as it feels like something parachuted in from a different film (probably the most obvious concession to the overriding MCU masterplan) but the 148-minute running time is still leaner than it might seem and it allows itself far fewer comedic indulgences than Whedon's Avengers film, though there are still a few moments of comic relief from the likes of Ant-Man and Falcon, who strikes up a surprisingly humourous rapport with Bucky. The pacing is excellent otherwise, allowing the right scenes and the right characters just enough room to breathe at the right times without it ending up as a convoluted mess.
Admittedly it’s easier to throw all these characters into the mix and just delve right in when there’s been twelve prior movies because you don’t need to spend an hour introducing everybody, you can trust that the emotional history of these characters is being carried along for you. Some might call this lazy but even so, you can’t just point the camera at the actors and have everything fall into place. So much groundwork has been laid already but it still needs a firm hand on the tiller to guide all the pieces of the puzzle into their respective slots, and it’s pleasing to see things like Bucky’s thread actually being maintained and paid off over the five year production span of the Captain America movies. And it’s only because we’ve had so much interaction with Stark already that he can be dropped into this story without it derailing Cap’s own objectives, and it’s wonderful how the script is able to organically dovetail the arcs of both men into the intensely emotional climax of the film, whilst also allowing for the more unpredictable third element of Black Panther to be woven in too. (The low-key finale itself is a concerted effort from the filmmakers to avoid the gigantic CG-laden third acts typical of this series of films, as just when you think we’re headed for some big showdown with Zemo it pulls a switcheroo.)
This long-form method of storytelling also leads to inevitable complaints of the Marvel movies just being inconsequential stepping stones for the final piece of the puzzle – Avengers: Infinity War and the big battle with Thanos – but there really are huge consequences for several of the characters here and the film basically ends with a certain someone going on the run and setting up his own team of Secret Avengers. The Avengers are officially split down the middle (with no sign of Banner or Thor who departed to pursue their own agendas after Age of Ultron) and they’ll need to come together again if they’re to defeat the looming intergalactic threat which awaits them. These films are what they are but crucially they’re still keeping some vestige of personality from their respective filmmakers, we're not simply getting a generic new episode every six months. People can either give up now or stick it out, and having gotten this far I’m gonna be with it ‘til the end of the line. In a bustling blockbuster season of superhero team-ups Marvel proved once again that they hold all the aces with the strong critical and commercial reception of Captain America: Civil War, and the way that the Russos deftly handled such a crowded roster bodes extremely well for their stewardship of the Infinity War films.
For this Blu-ray review I'll be concentrating on the UK 2D version, which auto-plays with a trailer for Doctor Strange and an Audi promotional spot. The movie was shot in anamorphic on the ARRI Alexa with the airport battle lensed on the large format Alexa 65, and this Blu-ray is a super example of what the HD 1080p format is still capable of in this UHD era. Framed at 2.39 widescreen throughout (FYI the 3D Blu-ray switches to 1.85 for the airport IMAX fight) the image is packed with detail, looking crisp but also glossy in the wonderful way that only anamorphic seems to manage, though it helps that the DP Trent Opaloch predominantly used modern Panavision G-Series glass rather than the older, smudgier anamorphics preferred by other filmmakers.
Edges are finely delineated without a trace of any unnecessary sharpening, though I spotted a trace of shimmering on canted surfaces here and there, probably a leftover from the 2K to 1080p downscale. Blacks run deep, apart from scenes like the ‘1991’ flashback which have more of a stylistic use of light and colour, but the bulk of the movie is more even-handed. Colour is very consistent, maintaining the skin tones of the respective characters throughout and (as before with Winter Soldier on Blu-ray) the saturation isn’t pushed to extremes, eschewing the current ‘teal and orange’ trend for a more natural looking colour balance. There’s a pleasing lack of artefacts like banding and blocking, and as Age of Ultron's Blu-ray had some noticeable banding I was a little concerned as to how Civil War would turn out. But my fears were unfounded as this is an extremely good Blu-ray video presentation from start to finish.
For the audio we’re given the regulation DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 lossless mix, and thankfully it’s a livelier affair than the somewhat neutered effort that was put out for Age of Ultron. It’s got a good balance of clean dialogue, decent bass, prominent music and percussive effects, and while the sound field isn’t as consistently immersive as some movies I’ve listened to, this was also true of Winter Soldier so I’m guessing it’s a Russo thing. Good but not great, yet still a definite improvement on before.
After the absolutely pathetic array of extras that were doled out on Winter Soldier I’m pleased to report that the offerings here are a little more substantial. The centrepiece is a two-part documentary titled United We Stand, Divided We Fall: The Making of Captain America: Civil War which runs for about 45 minutes in total. It’s quite fluffy but provides a basic overview of the film’s production with interviews from the main participants, though it's a shame there's nothing on that remarkable de-aged RDJ scene. There are two Road to Civil War featurettes, one for Cap and one for Stark which run for 4 minutes each, they quickly chart how each character has changed over the course of the MCU.
The Deleted & Extended Scenes are comprised of four scenes running for roughly 8 minutes, the longest being an extended version of Peggy’s funeral (sadly there’s no commentary on these). The Gag Reel does what it says on the tin, being 3 minutes of the usual flubbed lines and goofy faces, and there’s a 4-minute Sneak Peek at the upcoming Doctor Strange film. Last, but by no means least, is an audio commentary for the film featuring the directors and screenwriters, and like the yak track for Winter Soldier this is another very informative effort, detailing the intent of the story, their key cinematic influences (the Alfre Woodard scene is essentially their version of Mrs Kinter confronting Chief Brody in Jaws), earlier concepts for the film, scenes that were reshot and so on.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe hits another home run with Captain America: Civil War. While the film isn’t quite as effective as a standalone thriller as its predecessor this is largely unavoidable at this late stage in the MCU’s interlinked lifecycle, and the pay offs come via different routes thanks to the build-up of emotional weight that these movies are now infused with. The UK 2D Blu-ray is a well-rounded effort with excellent video, competent audio and reasonable extras.