The biggest criticism I can think to extend toward Captain America: Civil War is that it’s unlikely that anyone who hasn’t seen the previous twelve films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) canon would be able to make heads or tails of what’s going on. The inner monologue of an unfamiliar viewer would undoubtedly be along the lines of “Who’s that? What are her powers? Why are they wearing these ridiculous costumes? How do they know each other? This is stupid.” It’s a film made for those who are already converted and makes little attempt to fill in the uninitiated. As such, it absolutely does not work as a standalone movie.
This movie rocks.
The setup for the movie is exactly what it sounds like. The heroes introduced thus far in the MCU (as well as some very welcome new additions) square off against each other in teams led by Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.). To break it down a little bit, the movie opens with an incredible action sequence of Cap and his crew taking down some terrorists. However, things go south when an unforeseen catastrophe causes civilian casualties. This event, in conjunction with considerable past collateral damage, leads UN representatives to present the Avengers with a choice: agree to submit to an international governing board henceforth or be marked as outlaws.
Stark, suffering yet another crisis of conscience, is in support of submission, believing the group’s power needs to be in check. Rogers, recognizing that governing bodies always have their own agendas, believes the group would function better is they were to remain independent. Several events that are too complicated to explain here quickly escalate matters until we’re brought to an all out battle between two teams of superheroes showing off the best of what they’ve got.
On a technical level, this movie is incredible. The visual effects are consistently impressive and really pay off during the big battle scene that will make geeks in the audience who have always asked themselves what would happen if their favorite superheroes fought squeal with delight. Even more impressive are the largely in-camera action scenes, which make up most of the movie. Joe and Anthony Russo, who directed Captain America’s last cinematic outing, are at the absolute top of their game here and don’t mind showing off a bit. You won’t mind either.
A common complaint against the shared cinematic universe concept is that, as in television, it leaves little room for the directors to apply their own personal touch, which is a necessary component of the strategy to ensure consistency between films that need to feel like they all take place in the same reality. But, while we’ll never see the stylistic boldness of Tim Burton’s Batman in the MCU, we have seen quite a range of stories and tones presented in their movies thus far. The big fear everyone had with The Avengers was that audiences might not be able to accept such diverse characters and story arcs merging in one cohesive narrative. Luckily, we were proven wrong.
But while The Avengers was a huge success in that department, Civil War takes that challenge to new heights. The cast is stuffed with super people, but every character is utilized to their full potential and their collective stories told onscreen over the last eight years each in their own ways come to a head. They grow in ways that we haven’t previously seen, if you take the entirety of the MCU into account and it’s really very rewarding.
To address the elephant in the room, this is the biggest way in which Civil War surpasses the recently released Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Both films are over-the-top action movies that use their brand name recognition and built-in fan base to explore big ideas, such as how power (more specifically, physical violence in a world that often proves it necessary) is restricted and exploited, and if so for what reason and by whom.
I could go on for days about why I prefer CW, but the main reason is that I really care about these characters. We genuinely enjoy spending time with them and their motivations are both clearly presented and relatable. We see them at their best, so we know what they’re fighting for and as such want them to succeed. We see them at their worst and really hope they don’t stay there. We want them to work out their differences, but we’re dealing with complicated issues that may not have answers at all. While BVS deals with similar ideas, it presents its characters as so joyless and one note throughout its runtime that they’re rendered impossible to care about, which ultimately makes its content completely uninteresting. CW, on the other hand, has us emotionally invested in its characters from frame one, which makes the intellectual payoff much more subtle and satisfying.
Even when it’s revealed who’s really pulling the strings at the end of the movie, we completely understand the character’s motivations, and even sympathize. Despite this being a fun superhero adventure, there isn’t a big out and out “bad guy” presented in the story, which makes the ideas stand out with a level of sophistication and maturity that towers over BVS, despite that film’s self-seriousness and insistence that it’s saying something important.
So yes, if you’re familiar with the Marvel brand and are all caught up on the required viewings, see this movie. It’s a fun flick that deals with serious subject matter. It’s equally adept at jaw-dropping in-camera action sequences and visual effects-heavy scenes of sci-fi absurdity. It uses classic archetypes in completely unexpected ways. You know who to root for, but never against. It’s a mature movie about opposing philosophies that also happens to feature a giant Paul Rudd and a pink cyborg in a fancy sweater. There are so many reasons this shouldn’t work, but it does. Oh boy, does it.
Written by: Nathan Bayless