“Captain America: Civil War” (2016): With Great Power (Review)

Captain America: Civil War makes the battle of its heroes hard to watch.

For the most lucrative film franchise in history the Marvel Cinematic Universe, now officially in its third phase, still sprints as though it’s ten points behind. Civil War is an emotional theme park ride of goliath stature on its own, but I suspect that this alone simply would not suffice if that was all it had. The benefit of basic familiarity, franchise expansion, and inward character reshaping elevated this film to heights of hype we once thought few films capable of reaching. The Avengers braved a similar challenge by embracing it with a wink, but Civil War reigns both the franchise in its near-entirety and the full hype of its marketing (which has shown you no more than 1%) and yanks it all right up with it.

The result is triumphant. Captain America: Civil War is the best film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and a new genre classic. If The Avengers was proof of concept for the sprawling, cross-continuity shared cinematic comic-book universe, Civil War cements into history its uniquely glorious legacy.

This is not the exaggeration it sounds like, and nor is any of it random. Steady and deliberate care has gone into everything from the dialogue to the editing. Like its previous solo entry Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it is a deftly crafted thriller with a dozen different pieces moving all at once. It’s as lean and straight shot as one of Hawkeye’s arrows, yet brimming with flavored delights and torrents of genuine personal and political conflict.

That conflict present in Civil War is also one that can really only come now. Captain America begins the film in his element commanding a slick and shaped-up new Avengers team on a mission in Lagos, Nigeria. As you’d expect, something goes awry and so 117 countries get together to sign the Sokovia Accords – an initiative to make the Avengers public as agents of the U.N. Sides are taken as you by now know them, but a series of other disruptions implicating the Winter Soldier soon escalates that mere debate into a vigilante battle.

Civil War is and must be understood as a Captain America film first, and an Avengers film second. Gun to my head, I put myself on Team Iron Man, but the movie is not about which side is better or stronger. They’re both right. And that’s what makes their conflict heartbreaking. You want them to stop; you know they can’t.

I’d be remiss without noting that this film contains some of Robert Downey Jr.’s best acting in the franchise. For such an egotistical quip machine, Tony Stark has a sober sense of grief that he’s choosing to wear on his sleeve. It has never taken much for him to return to the action, but now he’s tired of it. Uncooperative pride now carries a cost and Stark is unwilling to pay it.

That puts Stark in the perfect position to push Steve Rogers to a place he cannot go, but Stark doesn’t want to fight him to do it. If The Winter Soldier had any serious flaws, it’s that Cap’s choice to say no to Nick Fury became rather obvious when S.H.I.E.L.D. turned out to have been compromised by HYDRA the whole time. This time it’s not that easy, and Cap faces the very real possibility that he is too attached to his friends to understand how he keeps making things worse. Of course, it’s not that simple either since Cap is still a hero and there is a real villain – Baron Zemo – who has a role to play in how the conflicts escalate. All I can say about him, for purposes of this review, is that he operates in misdirection – like he’s been watching all of the previous movies and studying our heroes the way Whiplash did in Iron Man 2 – and much of what he’s doing will seem wildly out of place until later on. Yet he too has something personal at stake, and Daniel Brühl brings some intriguing subtlety to his role.

In fact, the entire film shrouds much of its plotting and pacing in deception, which makes its emotional clarity stand out the way it does. The opening action sequence uses stunt pulleys and rapidly-edited close handheld shots amidst a chaotic on-location crowd, but each subsequent action scene gradually cuts loose the IMAX cameras until they’re swinging, soaring, and dive-bombing like Die Hard and Top Gun. The effects-driven theatricality is mesmerizing, but not wasted for action for its own sake. The big airport throw-down (of which you have seen nothing) is a series of increasingly climactic character choices, laden with blockbuster goods no superhero film has ever attempted. And that’s not even the final brawl.

There will be a tendency among critics and audiences to emphasize the conventional action-movie highlights, and if I wanted to I could spend the rest of the review talking about them. But that’s not what makes it endure. Beyond spectacular mayhem and Spider-Man’s adorkable word vomits[1] is a film where even Bucky Barnes and Black Panther get character arcs. They are the two most serious people in the film, and carry an essential piece of its soul with them. Chadwick Boseman is especially remarkable, bringing persistent ferocity to the majestic Panther, and whose words, body language, and fighting styles reveal a backstory that could be its own miniseries. It is telling that I cannot imagine what this film looks like without him even though we have never seen him until now. He rounds out and completes the greater themes of both Civil War itself and the entire continuity up to now, which manage to be complemented by good humor yet still as heavy and impactful in their emotional zenith.

That’s what makes Civil War so innately compelling as both a superhero tragedy and an action movie. First it’s fun. Then it’s insanely fun. Then it’s devastating. This is a thriller about the values, motives, and fears that govern how extraordinary people face the consequences of their heroics, which at some point stop being collateral and become all too real. It’s an action epic where valiant, righteous men – each still clinging in some way to regrets of their past – must grapple with the essential Marvel moral in a world that demands their adherence. Don’t miss it.

Overall: 9.5/10

[1] There will never be a better Peter Parker than Tobey Maguire (I will fight you on this) but Tom Holland is perfect; an instantly-loveable chatterbox, he is the best live-action Spider-Man ever.

Written By Vivek Subramanyam

Vivek is a handsome, talented, well-spoken political aficionado and part-time film critic who totally never ever writes mini-bios about himself.

Follow him on Twitter @VerverkS or check out his blog V for Verbatim.

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  • Rich

    “There will never be a better Peter Parker than Tobey Maguire … but Tom Holland … is the best live-action Spider-Man ever.” How is this not a contradiction?

  • Vivek

    The same way in which there is a difference in how some actors do Bruce Wayne better while other actors do Batman better.

  • Brittani

    I’m looking forward to this film so much. I’ve already spoiled myself on everything that happens, but it doesn’t lessen the hype at all. Great review!

  • Vivek

    Hey, thanks, Brittani! I hope that there will be at least a few hidden treats in the film that will come as a surprise to you – i.e. that there are things about the film you don’t know you don’t know. 😀

    But I’m glad you liked the review and I’ll be interested on your thoughts on it after you see it.

  • Are we doing spoilers in this comments section or not?

  • It’s a big call to suggest Civil War is “the best film in the MCU” canon. While undeniably awesome (and it is awesome) Civil War isn’t the razor-wire narrative The Winter Soldier is blessed with, although thanks to the Russo Brothers’ sterling work the film is infused with the same DNA as their previous film. Civil War’s use of Spider-Man is excellent, although you can really tell the character’s inclusion was retroactive rather than organic to the plot (in-MCU-continuity Parker’s lengthy “origin” scene effectively brings the film to a screeching halt, offering fan-service but little to the story), while the wobbly use of CG body-doubles in crucial moments made the audience I saw this with chuckle – not quite the response i imagine the filmmakers were aiming for.

    I loved this film, and I think it’s easily a Top 3 MCU film (TWS at #1, Guardians at #2) for sheer breadth of story, character and emotional resonance. But the best? I’m inclined to think not but I expect – as proven so often in the past – time will reveal all.

    Great review as always, my friend. interesting (but expected) that you’re Team Stark. Me? I’m Team Cap.

  • Vivek

    We’ll say that beneath THIS comment, spoilers are allowed. Readers may consider this the warning.

  • Vivek

    I stand by it as the best, but I admit that I need to see it again. By all accounts I should still love “The Avengers” more because of the sheer ecstasy it brought me in that theater and then beyond. And while I’ve been eager to pronounce a subsequent film better, I couldn’t do it until I was sure. This time, I am sure. (OTHER READERS: THERE ARE NO SPOILERS IN THIS COMMENT)

    I disagree that Peter Parker’s “origin” story here was nothing but fan service. Spider-Man isn’t in this movie just for the hell of it, and the Russo Brothers even said that there was no version of this in their minds that DIDN’T have Spider-Man as a centerpiece of the big action scene. But even if we don’t take their word for it, the film gives him a comfortable thematic home. The entire dilemma when it comes to the Sokovia Accords is – “what’s the responsible thing to do with our power as Avengers?” If Cap believes in any checks to the Avengers’ work, it’s those of his own moral conscience. That’s why he says (in the clip Marvel released) that all the Accords do is to “shift the blame.” He refuses to be someone else’s tool; he wants to own the responsibility of his decisions and bear the cost of being a hero (although if we’re being honest it’s more likely he wants Stark to bear the cost, but that’s besides the point). Stark, meanwhile, has come to trust in others – his teammates, the kids (Peter Parker being one of them), the government, the Vision, and in himself as an arbiter of global peace and security. In “Ultron” he first went too far, but then became vindicated when it led to the Vision. He believed that he had served his purposes as an Avenger (as both a means to an end AND an end in and of itself), and was comfortable “stepping away” leaving it in the hands of others. But of course, as we both know, it was never that simple. Stark has gone from carefree to incapable of carefree, and it was never going to take much to bring him back. Stark played the long game in “Ultron,” attempting a shortcut that nearly ruined everything. And while he’s now comfortable with the Avengers going on indefinitely, he becomes immediately cognizant of the new problem – the sheer scope of their power. Both characters have evolved, yet both have also stayed the same in at least one respect since their debut films – they both fear power. Stark feared the power of his weapons (or really any weapons) in the wrong hands; Cap feared the power of bullies. Both have now completely altered their respective conceptions of both where the power should be. To Cap, governments are nothing more than bullies that could get in his way of doing the world some good. To Stark, the Avengers are another weapon, the unfettered effects of which could prove disastrous for the world. The genius of “Civil War” is that Stark now stands in the shoes in which Cap stood in “The Avengers” and vice versa, with both of them haunted by past demons and trying to move their present selves toward an uncertain future. And that’s why they’re both right.

    This framework is, I think, impossible without Black Panther, and it’s *almost* impossible without the Spider. Peter Parker is an impressionable kid and you get the sense that he might’ve picked whatever side got to him first because of how much he admires both Stark and Cap (Stark probably more-so because of their shared passion for science), but remember what he specifically said in that “Great Power, Great Responsibility” variation. It’s extremely telling for where his story will begin, and why he’s there.

  • I think what makes both Cap and Stark interesting (and crystallises perfectly in this film) is the utter difference in their respective journeys. Rogers, from the very moment we meet him, is as proud and upstanding (read: unwavering) a patriot as America has ever produced; the reprise of the “I can do this all day” moment from the first CA film to this one, in which the bully of the original is now replaced with Stark and his one-note desire to rein in enhanced humans, is particularly pertinent in the fact that despite all that’s transpired with SHIELD and the Sokovia Accords et al, Cap is still basically the same character. He’ll fight to the death for the ideal he believes in, an ideal about some “perfect” vision of America (or the world, maybe) even if it means his friendships within the Avengers.

    While Cap remains an iceberg in a sea of idealogical detritus, Stark, on the other hand, has had a vastly different journey. Stark is a creature driven by guilt – the guilt of his weapons development led to him becoming Iron Man in the first place, his guilt at not keeping the world safe in The Avengers leads to a more confrontational, “Let’s strike first” mentality in Age Of Ultron, and now the guilt at his plans causing so much destruction and death drives his decisions in Civil War. In this aspect Stark is a vastly more interesting character (to me) because it’s an associable human failing for a lot of people. I also think it’s among Downey Jr’s most accessible performance in a Marvel film to-date, and his scene with Alfre Woodard is as mature and subtle an exploration in guilt, responsibility and blame as the franchise has yet delivered. Stark’s statement to Cap that he’d “like to punch him in his perfect teeth” is indicative of just how much Stark can’t stand (or is envious of) Steve’s single-focus belief in what he does, while he himself has so many contrasting ethical hurdles to overcome.

    I read the Civil War comics last year (after you suggested it) and as in our discussions to that you know my stance on Stark in that arc – he comes off as belligerent and arrogant in his thinking, unwilling to consider other options, to the point that I actually detested the character (a result of some brilliant writing). Although the film version of Civil War contains a different premise and arc for our characters, I once more found myself hating Stark’s hubris here too; do I agree with the idea that the Avengers need to be held accountable, or am I of Steve’s mindset that once they start answering to somebody, they become neutered and compromised in their ability to intervene where it’s most required? I am most definitely with #TeamCap in this argument, although I will say that Stark’s belief in accountability is one demanding investigation.

    If I had my Wayback Machine working I’d lazily suggest that Civil War needed to be a two-parter – a Captain America film telling the story from Rogers’ perspective, and an Iron Man film from Stark’s – in order to fully invest in the breadth of the schism between the heroes, but we’re too far down the rabbit hole now for that to happen. I think Civil War does a good job of balancing story, action and character development within the framework of the idealogical battle on offer here (it’s certainly going to reflame the age-old “is the world safer with superheroes in it” argument) and no doubt the themes here will continue to be unpacked as we edge closer to Infinity War.

  • Vivek

    Cap has changed more than you think.

    In the first film he’s the embodiment of upright morality, a powerless yet persistent figure of immobility. That’s where he begins in this long form arc. In “The Avengers” he’s a soldier, determined to follow orders and save the world. His distrust of Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. isn’t immediate, but encouraged by Stark and Banner. But once he has reason to doubt Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D., he’s more frustrated by Stark’s lack of cooperation than anything else. In spite of all that, he still wants to calm everything down because he can sense that Loki is deliberately trying to agitate the heroes. It’s fun watching that scene unfold because you can’t really tell where the characters are all headed or what’s going to come about it, and you get the impression that it’s a bit of wheel spinning for the time being… which of course it is. Still, some of that character banter was revealing. Cap is still the collectivist and he wants everyone on board to help do the right thing for that greater good of saving the world.

    In “The Winter Soldier,” he’s a combat vet trying to stay a soldier but the new world is too cynical to cooperate with him. Once we learn why (not just that HYDRA is rooted deep within S.H.I.E.L.D. but that Bucky has been the instrument of such world reshaping events that have made it impossible for Cap to really be the soldier he wants to be), Cap becomes much more independent. He stops the carriers and then dares to save Bucky. Widow reiterates the resolution – that the safest hands for world security is the Avengers themselves.

    In “Ultron,” Cap becomes reliant on his heroic purpose. His nightmare is that the war never left him, yet he also wouldn’t recognize his era of time if he went back, and yet he still feels out of place when the Avengers step away from civilization and go to Hawkeye’s ranch. That’s the American Dream in a nutshell, yet Cap feels nothing. When S.H.I.E.L.D. redeems itself in Cap’s own image at the Battle of Sokovia and the battle is won, Cap says to Stark, “I’m home.” Being an Avenger and a hero is his purpose, and he has to believe with every fiber of his mind that the safest hands really are still his own, and that his interests are everyone else’s. But by this point in the story, they are very much *his* interests. It’s his choice to refuse to sign the Accords, and then also to go rogue to save his friend. He’s a far cry from being the team player he was in “The Avengers.” That’s what happens when you’re cast into a strange new world and searching for a purpose. Once you find it, it becomes you.

  • That’s a great dissection of Film Cap. I sometimes think he’s still a 40’s guy trying to make sense of a post-Y2K world (although it’s less obvious now than at the start of Winter Soldier), which is tough considering all that’s occurred politically, socially and globally in the years since his ice-capade; is he having trouble reconciling the American Dream (such as it is) in a world filled with grey, shadows and innocence lost? In TWS I think Cap was definitely flailing with his belief in the rigidity of authority – the impenetrableness of SHIELD, which basically caved in his world once he discovered Hyrda had infiltrated it – and how he had to second-guess the motives of his orders. For a straight-up WWII soldier you know who your enemy is, because they wear a funny hat, speak a different language, and tend to shoot at you. Today’s wars, fought in the manner they are with technology and boundarylessness cavalier style, tend to become murky and I think Cap has had a hard time dealing with this. This grey has seeped into the Avengers by the time we tail-off in Ultron, so much so that Hawkeye “retires”, Banner goes off to get away from those he loves, and Cap has to try restructuring a team fractured by a sense of failure. You’d hardly call the ending of Age Of Ultron a “big, satisfying win”, it was more a lucky gamble and some last-gasp luck that saved the day (not to mention Vision), rather than an outright victory.

    I think in Ultron more than even TWS Cap had started to realise that his way wasn’t always the only way, no matter how earnestly he believed it – I tend to think this rigid stance and unwavering style of thinking leads to more issues than it solves, given Cap’s style of leadership is to make a decision and go with it, as opposed to discussing it at a committee. The dynamic between Cap and Stark in their differing leadership styles and is laid bare in Civil War, finally, and that quiet stump-tearing scene in Age Of Ultron is given weight in the events of *this* film’s personality clashes. I kinda disagree that Cap isn’t a team player in Civil War, I still think he’s probably the ultimate team player in the sense that he knows there’s strength in numbers, but I don’t think he’s adequately able to salvage a team falling apart from within, and that’s his biggest weakness. A good leader should be able to rally the troops when things are at a low ebb, and I think here it’s a failure on his part to really fight for what he believes in *before* it comes to blows with Stark and #TeamIronMan. It does, however, provide great storytelliing fodder and narrative gristle for both audiences and characters to deal with.

    Cap walks the walk, and Stark talks the talk. It’s a shame neither can do both.