Review – Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Starring: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Chadwick Boseman, Daniel Bruhl, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Don Cheadle, Tom Holland, Jeremy Renner, Paul Rudd
Eight years and thirteen films into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Captain America: Civil War suggests that rather than growing stale, the MCU is maturing and starting to really explore the possibilities afforded to it by this interwoven, serialised form of cinematic storytelling.
When a mission in Wakanda goes awry and innocent lives are lost, questions are again asked of the culpability of the Avengers. Coming after even grander scale destruction in New York, Washington DC and Sokovia, this is final straw. “Victory at the expense of innocents is no victory at all,” declares the Wakandan King. Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt, reprising his role from the forgotten MCU film, The Incredible Hulk) presents the Avengers with the Sokovian Accord, signed by 117 nations, which seeks to place them under the jurisdiction of the United Nations. By his side is Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr), who is both the bank roller and elder statesman of the Avengers. Having been personally confronted by the collateral effects of the Avengers’ actions, Stark believes some oversight might not be such a bad thing. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), the heart and soul of the Avengers, has grown untrusting of new world authority and is firmly of the belief that when it comes to who should be calling the shots “the safest hands are still our own.” When his childhood friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) is then implicated in an attack on the UN, Rogers finds himself even more at odds with the institution. So lines are drawn and sides taken. The Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Lieutenant James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), and the Vision (Paul Bettany) side with Iron Man. The Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Bucky side with Captain America. And while these great heroes are distracted fighting amongst themselves, someone else is poking around in Bucky’s past.
The debate at the heart of Civil War is an ethical and ideological one about autonomy and responsibility, heroism and vigilantism, and the fact that Captain America has his name in the title does not necessarily mean that we are on his side. While the lead up marketing for Civil War was all about taking sides and declaring allegiances, the film itself presents a more nuanced conflict with no clear hero or villain, and with deep conviction on both sides. The positions of Rogers and Stark are both equally reasonable and questionable. Both have understandable motivations but also clear blind spots. We swing back and forth between the two, undecided as to who is in the right. And just when you think you know where it is heading, with everyone surely going to shake hands and make friends in order to unite against a greater evil, it throws you a curveball which results in the MCU’s most effective and satisfying third act (consistently the point of weakness in these films).
Thematically, Civil War touches on a lot of the same ideas that Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, examined just a couple of months ago, but does so with more sophistication, finesse and effectiveness than DC’s superhero battle movie managed to. The ongoing, integrated MCU setup is central to the effectiveness of the story Civil War is trying to tell. The investment that the audience has in these characters after many years and multiple films gives weight to those relationships and makes you feel the tensions and conflicts more strongly.
As is to be expected, Civil War brings big spectacle. The battle royale in which the rival factions collide perfectly encapsulates Marvel’s approach to these films: brilliantly choreographed and realised action, informed by relationships, and punctuated with splashes of humour. As impressive as the spectacle is on its own, the Russo brothers are aware that this far into a franchise it is our attachment to the characters which gives the scene emotional resonance. So every character gets their moment, with Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s screenplay adding emotional layers to the conflict by ensuring that we know that even in the midst of this conflict these characters still care for each other.
The sheer number of characters would suggest that the film might more appropriately be titled ‘Avengers: Civil War,’ and it does continue narrative threads from the previous Avengers films, but this is first and foremost a Captain America film. Steve Rogers is undoubtedly the main character and gets the lion’s share of the screen time, and that focus seems to help the film manage its sea of characters where Avengers: Age of Ultron at times struggled under their weight.
For some of these stars Civil War represents their fifth, sixth or even seventh time playing these roles. Yet far from coasting through the film, they are still finding new sides to their characters. Civil War plays down the comedy from the two leads, with neither Stark’s snarky one liners nor Rogers’ fish-out-of-water anachronism are played us as much as they have previously been, and frees them up to play more dramatic roles. Downey turns in what is probably his best performance as Tony Stark, Evans strips away some of Captain America’s more boy-scoutish qualities to have leave us genuinely conflicted by his decisions.
In addition to continuing the evolution of these existing characters, Civil War‘s other responsibility is the introduction of two new figures for MCU’s Phase 3, the Black Panther and Spider-Man. While he is clearly the lesser known of the two, the Black Panther arrives fully formed. Chadwick Boseman gives the Wakandan prince-warrior instant gravitas and is immediately able to hold his own in scenes with Evans and Downey. Tom Holland’s teenage web-slinger, on the other hand, is only at the beginning of his journey. From his very first scene, a simple dialogue exchange with Tony Stark, Marvel Studios demonstrate that they get this character better than any previous incarnation. It is a scene stealing performance which leaves us excitedly awaiting 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming.
The nature of the Marvel Cinematic Universe makes it tricky to consider the individual merits of these films, particularly one as integrated as this, when they function more as parts of a greater whole. That said, Captain America: Civil War represents the crowning achievement thus far of the MCU concept. It balances its spectacle with smarts, offering a sophisticated thematic exploration while retaining its fun, light touch.
Review by Duncan McLean
Have you seen Captain America: Civil War? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.