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 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.
 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.