Since the creation of superheroes, the question has existed: What would happen if Hero A fought Hero B? It’s been a staple of Marvel Comics since the Golden Age when they were Timely Comics and their first big two superheroes, Sub-Mariner and The Human Torch, fought each other. It increased even more in the Silver Age when powerhouses like The Thing, The Hulk and Thor appeared. They were occasionally pitted against one another, usually in some kind of cosmic arena or one of them was brainwashed. At a certain point, it seemed like fans liked seeing the heroes fight each other because the outcome was in question. Defeating villains was cathartic, but that was also the norm. Heroes fighting heroes always had a big question mark. For the most part, though, these confrontations were consequence-free; heroes shook hands at the end. But in 2007, Marvel Comics had writer Mark Millar and artist Steve McNiven craft a tale that had the heroes fighting each other for something other than just fan service; they were fighting for ideological reasons with futurist Tony Stark leading one side and idealist Captain America leading the other. Now the gargantuan Marvel Studios decided to bring the idea of that same comic to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and under the keen pair of directorial eyes of Anthony and Joe Russo, the writing team of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, and led by stars Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr., they have gifted us with what may very well be the best superhero film yet in “Captain America: Civil War”.
Taking the core concept of the comic, a unit of our new Avengers consisting of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and led by Cap (Evans) are chasing down Hydra agent Brock Rumlow aka Crossbones (Frank Grillo) who is leading daring daylight raids all over the world. The team, not totally cohesive as a unit, confronts Crossbones in Lagos. This confrontation leads to a mistake where innocents are killed. Represented by US Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt), the world at large, no longer tolerant of the collateral damage The Avengers leave in their wake, have the United Nations ready to implement The Sokovia Accords (based on the fictional city that was destroyed in “Age of Ultron”), forcing all Avengers to surrender their autonomy to the will of this global body. Stark, already confronted by a grieving mother who lost her son in Sokovia sees this as a good thing. He feels that if The Avengers can’t be kept in check, they’re no different than the villains they fight. In agreement with him are fellow Avengers Vision (Paul Bettany), War Machine (Don Cheadle) and Black Widow. Cap sees this as a loss of the choice of how best to protect people and a possibility for world leaders with differing agendas to deny them access to places where innocents are in danger. For his end, he is backed initially only by Falcon. At the conference in Vienna where the Accords are to be signed into law, an explosion rocks the conference, killing many including the king of Wakanda. The attack is tied to Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), who has been MIA since the end of “The Winter Soldier”. With the help of Sharon Carter (Emily Van Camp), Cap and Falcon are able to find Bucky before the police do. Cap alone believes that if Bucky is still acting as the Winter Soldier, at least he can bring him in without bloodshed. What Cap doesn’t know is that someone is out for Bucky’s blood; T’Challa aka Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), whose father was the Wakandan king. In truth, Bucky has been framed by a mysterious man named Helmut Zemo (Daniel Bruhl), and Zemo is using Bucky’s conditioning as the Winter Soldier against not only him, but The Avengers. To save Bucky, Cap and Falcon go rogue. Iron Man enlists his fellow pro-Accords Avengers and Black Panther to bring in Cap, Falcon and Bucky. Iron Man also enlists another new hero; a young man out of Queens, New York by the name of Peter Parker. Cap knows they’re going to need backup as well, and with Thor and Hulk out of the picture (both figuratively and literally), he enlists Scarlet Witch, gets Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) out of retirement and also enlists Scott Lang aka Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) to his side as well. At Leipzig Airport in Germany, the two teams clash. Numbers are whittled down either due to injury, imprisonment or departure and it’s down to Cap, Bucky and Tony in a scaled-back but emotionally-charged finale.
If “The Winter Soldier” showed how the height of Marvel Studios doing a stand-alone character film could be achieved, “Civil War” shows how they can make a group film even better than “The Avengers”, which in my mind, and especially as a Whedon fanboy, was an impossibility. The Brothers Russo and writers Markus and McFeely worked so well when it came to telling a tight, intense, highly entertaining and engrossing superhero film with “The Winter Soldier”, so it only made sense to bring them back for the next Cap film, but I don’t think that anyone expected an even higher level quality product from what they could do with such a massive undertaking. With the emotional stakes and emotional impact never having reached the heights they do in this film, it’s a testament to their work how insanely entertaining and fun this film is as well by punching the “Wow” factor up to 11. Don’t get me wrong; “Civil War” isn’t a laugh-riot, but when the laughs do come, they are huge laughs. Though it’s not a surprise coming from the same people who cut their teeth on “Community” and “Arrested Development.” Also worthy of a special mention is the stunt and fight choreography, which was one of the things the Russos did so well in “The Winter Soldier,” but they’ve upped their quota here for jaw-droppingly good fight sequences and stunt work, some of which has to come from the fact that the Second Unit directors for this film are David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, the former stunt coordinators who became the co-directors of the amazing “John Wick”.
“Civil War” in many ways has been brewing since the first Avengers film; from the moments where Tony and Steve square off verbally in that film to the moments of verbal and physical conflict they have in “Age of Ultron.” They’ve always held a grudging respect for one another, and a friendship that was built on knowing they need each other. One of the many things the film gets right from where the comic went wrong is that the conflict escalates slowly, and begins with internal conversation, rather than the “Join or be arrested” option given to Cap in the comic. Another main thing that they do better here than the comic is to not make Tony Stark the out-and-out villain of the piece. In the comic, he even goes so far as to enlist government-controlled supervillains to take down Cap’s team. But here, in most of their confrontations, no one is out for blood. They’re just trying to make the world safer. Another vast improvement is that the stakes are personal. The critical character in this film is actually not Cap or Iron Man, it’s Bucky. In the climactic confrontation between Cap and Iron Man, when Cap says to Tony about Bucky, “He’s my friend,”, and Tony replies, “So was I,” that line HURTS. The only connection to who Steve was before he went into the ice is Bucky. Bucky is his family, and Cap will do whatever it takes to save him. Tony is his adoptive brother, and Tony has issues of his own he’s dealing with in this film, particularly when it comes to the climactic and devastating reveal that creates a rift between the two that may never be fully repairable.
The main thing that they fixed, though, when it comes to the comics, is that both sides of this conflict are right. The comic clearly gives us an Iron Man that wants to uphold the status quo at any cost. He’s an egomaniac who will go to any length he deems necessary to prove he’s right. Cap is the martyr, the one leader who will stand up to the jack-booted government thugs trying to stamp out personal liberty. In the film, they both make decisions that are meant to be for the good of all, and you can see the inherent good that both of them are trying to accomplish.
When it comes to the performances, we’ve come to expect the best from everyone involved in the Marvel films, and that remains unchanged. Evans does his best work yet in the MCU showing a Cap that is more complex and layered than we’ve seen in any of his previous films. RDJ is a gem here as well, tempering his impeccable comedic timing with strong dramatic beats. Stan has a lot more to do here as he’s similarly conflicted between the things he’s done and the wrongs he’s trying to make right and he does it extremely well. The focus of the film is on these characters, but the focus of the performances is going to the newcomers Boseman, Bruhl and Holland. Boseman is pitch-perfect as the regal and vengeful Black Panther, and walks off with most of the scenes he has. Bruhl may be frustrating to comic fans as a completely different Helmut Zemo than what was in the comics, and his big reveal may seem anti-climactic, but after seeing a slew of terrific performances from him already, he does great work with a smaller but pivotal role. But, the role that would inevitably be the most heavily scrutinized would be Tom Holland. Would he be another Tobey Maguire or Andrew Garfield, or now that Spider-Man is back in the hands of Marvel, would we get a Spider-Man who finally fit what fans have been waiting so long for? The simple answer to that complex question is an emphatic yes. Filled with youthful energy and enthusiasm, Holland doesn’t just succeed, he surpasses and gives us the best, most exciting on-screen Spider-Man yet in only about 20 minutes of screen time. The long and short of it is that the Russos have encapsulated everything great about the early careers of Spidey and Black Panther and makes you long for their upcoming solo film outings.
Since the films have come out in such close proximity, there have been a number of thinkpieces already dedicated to how similar and how different “Civil War” is to “Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice” since the central conflict is hero versus hero. The main difference between the two is that where “Dawn of Justice” is such a heavy-handed and joyless affair, “Civil War” tells the story it needs to but refuses to surrender to the potentially overwhelming darkness of having heroes face off against one another. It still sees that there is joy to be had with this concept. If the proof is in the pudding, look at the fight between Batman and Superman in their film and then look at the airport fight sequence in this film. The tumultuous and operatic battle between the Dark Knight and the Man of Steel should have some moments of fun with this idea. They went instead for sturm und drang rather than the splash-page centerpiece it could have been. That splash-page centerpiece in “Civil War” at the Leipzig Airport is quite literally the best superhero battle ever committed to film thus far and will set the standard for some time. Believe the hype. It gives every character at least four or five cool moments and is endlessly entertaining and miraculously well-constructed.
While this film may not have the status-quo-shattering impact the comic did, the repercussions of the events of this film will affect the Marvel Cinematic Universe for some time to come. And thanks to a few new characters assisted by a bunch of seasoned veterans, amazing effects, stunt work, editing, writing and direction, Marvel Studios has to find a new way to top itself because “Captain America: Civil War” is the king of the hill now.