“Sometimes I want to punch you in your perfect teeth,” says Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man to Chris Evans’ Captain America early in Civil War. At the risk to betraying my hashtag sympathies, I couldn’t agree more. Captain America is likely the least interesting of the main Avengers, a do-gooder beefcake with a kinda-dumb aesthetic. His fish-out-of-water tendencies are his redeeming feature, and he’s vastly outpaced in that department by Thor. He’s a bland hero, which makes him a fine center for the action of others but a difficult sell to carry his own movies. The First Avenger was fun enough thanks to its WWII period setting, and Winter Soldier similarly had fun with format while placing half of the star-power demands on the ever-capable shoulders of Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow. It’s no secret that Civil War is an ensemble piece, and much more of an Avengers movie than a Captain America one. What’s surprising is that, while Civil War still doesn’t quite sell Cap, it’s the best Iron Man movie since the first one came out eight years ago.
The central argument of Civil War, Iron Man defending regulation of the Avengers while Cap demands autonomy, is sold surprisingly convincingly and with as much gravitas as possible without being too ridiculous. The Avengers leave a wake a destruction with little culpability; Tony Stark recognizes this at long last, after creating the last Avengers supervillain in Ultron, while Captain America (ironically) is untrusting of government intervention. It’s a neat inversion of their character types, but one that makes sense in context. The decision of #TeamCap or #TeamIronMan really does come down to how tethered to reality the MCU is. If we can believe that the Avengers are some incorruptible moral force, then UN oversight is clearly a terrible plan, especially given that we know that William Hurt’s Thunderbolt Ross is a bit of a megalomaniac. However, the movie pays much more than lip service to reality, putting the Avengers to task for the collateral damage they are responsible for. For Cap’s side, extra motivation comes when Bucky Barnes re-appears as The Winter Soldier, possibly framed for an attack on the UN, while a mysterious operative played by Daniel Bruhl lurks on the sidelines. Barnes is probably my least favourite character in the MCU, a mopier Steve Rogers with a too-coincidental origin story, and his re-appearance is a bit too much after taking a major role in the last Cap outing. But he’s a cog in the big machine this time, and suffices as a plot device to divide the extended Avengers (sans Hulk and Thor, plus Spider-Man and Black Panther).
What is really remarkable about Civil War in the context of the MCU is how it keeps the stakes relatively small. Floating cities and alien invasions are nowhere to be seen, and while Bruhl is an effective and memorable villain in the underwhelming Marvel pantheon, the conflict is nearly entirely between heroes. While not nearly as many faceless lives are at risk, the battles seem to have real consequence and are miles more engaging than anything in Age of Ultron. The action scenes in the first half are a less involving, as they mostly involve the team fighting goons with guns, but when hero-on-hero action starts, Civil War finds its feet fast and produces the most flat-out enjoyable MCU scenes since the first Avengers.
It helps that Marvel has crafted its squad so carefully. While some of the motivations for the minor characters are fuzzy (notably Hawkeye and Ant-Man), these characters work best when together. Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man is more enjoyable in his five minutes in Civil War than the entirety of his own movie, and Anthony Mackie proves himself once again as the secret weapon the Cap movies. The two big new additions, Tom Holland’s Spider-Man and Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther, are both great, even given semi-awkward introductions. Spider-Man in particular is a joy, easily stealing the movie and injecting some much-needed new blood. The scene where all these personalities meet is worth the price of admission alone.
If the MCU films haven’t worked for you, Civil War isn’t likely to wave the problems away. They’re still dumb fun which uses physics any way it wants and takes itself maybe a smidge too seriously, but they nicely avoid the darkness that plagues their DC bretheren in favour of sheer joy. While Cap is as uninteresting as ever, the cast around him is exceptional and the interplay on display is fantastic fun. The movie doesn’t hit the reset button, and nicely sets up future MCU films by leaving some distrust sown among the heroes. I’m sure a big space alien will force everyone to make nice again soon, but mining trouble in paradise has led to one of the better Marvel films, even if pieces are getting tired.
Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Dir. Joe and Anthony Russo
Starring Chris Evans, Anthony Mackie, Chadwick Boseman, and Robert Downey Jr.
Rotten Tomatoes (90%)
- Heads up: two post-credits scenes, one halfway through and one at the bitter end.
- SPOILER THOUGHT: To nicely tie it all together, while Cap is right that Bucky’s situation is not what it seems, it once again is entirely a consequence of previous actions taken by the Avengers. If someone had held them accountable for anything at any point, perhaps Helmut would have gotten some satisfaction another way. As for the Avengers in prison, Tony isn’t wrong when he says they broke the law, and there didn’t even turn out to be a time-sensitive Helmut scheme for them to stop after all to justify the airport brawl. It obviously sucks to see these great characters behind bars, but they did earn it.