Captain America: Civil War has to serve several masters, and it serves all of them remarkably well. First and foremost, it is a sequel to Captain America: The Winter Soldier—one of the best superhero movies ever made, in my opinion—and it continues that film’s storyline in a manner that feels completely organic, logical, and dramatically satisfying.
It also functions as the third Avengers movie, and is notably superior to Joss Whedon’s Age of Ultron.
In addition, the movie is a launching pad for two new major players in the growing Marvel Cinematic Universe: the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and the new, fully rebooted Spider-Man (Tom Holland). Both characters are integrated seamlessly into the tapestry, and show an abundance of promise for their upcoming solo films (Spider-Man: Homecoming hits theaters next year, and Black Panther arrives in 2018.)
As played by Boseman, the Black Panther is fascinating—a noble and regal man with a code of honor that he wears proudly, and who can stand toe-to-toe with the most powerful of super-beings. He is T’Challa, the young prince of the technologically advanced African country of Wakanda, and the latest to take on the mantle of the feline crusader. Boseman was born to play the part, and delivers such a thoroughly convincing accent that I was surprised to find out he’s American.
As for Holland’s Peter Parker/Spider-Man—nailed it. He’s a delight, and pretty much steals the film. Without a doubt, this is the best version of the web-slinger that we’ve ever seen in live action. Not to take anything away from Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield, both of whom had their virtues, but Holland owns the role from the moment he first appears. And the costume—despite a few deviations here and there from the classic suit, it is literally a John Romita Sr. illustration come to life. And for those of you who don’t know what that means, take my word for it—it’s a very good thing. (If they paired the bodysuit from The Amazing Spider-Man 2 with the mask from Civil War, it would be absolute perfection.)
Admittedly, Aunt May is way off-model here. As many of you undoubtedly know, May Parker has traditionally been portrayed as an elderly, often frail, and occasionally exceedingly ill woman. Well, not in this film. Here, she’s played by Marisa Tomei. Yeah, it’s a bit of a head-scratcher. But on the bright side, it’s a chance to see Marisa Tomei, who manages to exude effervescence and boundless charm in her relatively brief screen time.
Civil War shares some plot similarities with the crossover storyline of the same name that ran through numerous Marvel comics in 2006-2007. In a nutshell: The Avengers are on a mission to stop a major threat in Lagos, but something goes terribly wrong and innocent lives are lost. The major governments of the world want to rein in the superhero team, and to put the group under the control of the United Nations. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is in favor of this kind of oversight, believing that it is inevitable. But Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) refuses to sign on. A schism forms within the Avengers, with some members siding with Stark and others with Rogers.
To make matters worse, the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan)—formerly Cap’s best friend Bucky Barnes, who was captured by the Russians decades ago and turned into a brainwashed assassin—has resurfaced, and has apparently committed a brutal act of terrorism. Iron Man wants to take Bucky down, but Cap wants to protect him, convinced that his old friend is either innocent or being mind-controlled by evil forces. The conflict between Stark and Rogers only escalates, until the entire Avengers team erupts into an all-out battle between heroes who had once been trusted friends and partners.
The film tackles some of the same themes as another superhero film that came out recently. You may have heard of it. But there’s a big difference between Captain America: Civil War and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (which, you may have noticed, I could not even bring myself to review). While both films take on some serious and thought-provoking subject matter, Civil War is not afraid to lighten up and go for moments that make the audience smile. There is a perfect balance between drama and humor, between action and characterization. It is thoroughly enjoyable and fun from start to finish, and never presents the heroes as anything other than likable, admirable, witty, and wonderfully human—or close to human, in the case of the android Avenger known as the Vision (Paul Bettany).
Civil War is the perfect antidote to the dark, grim, humorless, and depressing Batman v. Superman. Civil War is the film that Batman v. Superman director Zack Snyder THINKS he made.
All of the heroes on display in Civil War—and there are many—get their moments to shine. (Wait till you see what they do with Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man.) Of the main Avengers, the only no-shows are Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). But they aren’t forgotten. They are mentioned, and there’s even a callback to some major continuity from Ol’ Greenskin’s 2008 solo film (the one that starred Edward Norton), embodied by William Hurt, who returns as former General (now U.S. Secretary of State) Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross.
There are no obligatory cameos or momentary walk-ons. That alone is an incredible feat on the part of screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and co-directors Anthony and Joseph Russo. There is also significant character development among the various players, particularly the Vision, the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), James “Rhodey” Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle), Agent 13 (Emily VanCamp, introduced in The Winter Soldier), and of course, Captain America and Iron Man.
The acting is great across the board. Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow provides one of my very favorite moments in the film, and functions pretty much as the soul and the conscience of the Avengers throughout. Anthony Mackie continues to delight as the Falcon. And Sebastian Stan masterfully reveals new layers of depth and complexity to Bucky Barnes and the Winter Soldier.
As the two anchors of the film, Evans and Downey Jr. are a joy to watch, radiating strength, heroism, compassion, and firm commitment to their respective points of view. At no time do you root against either of them—you just feel sorry for them, as you watch events unfold in such a way that they can’t help but end up on opposite sides. And that’s yet another way in which this film differs from that earlier superhero movie from the other guys.
© All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2016.