“They don’t give green cards to weapons of mass destruction.”
We’re thrown right into a mission. Captain America leads his team into Lagos, a city in Africa, where the criminal Crossbones is threatening to steal a bioweapon. Cap calls out signals and sends his fellow Avengers (Scarlett Witch, Falcon, Black Widow) to carry out a multitude of tasks that tailor to their skill set. They have all upgraded their tech, or honed their powers; their teamwork is evident, and they dispatch the cronies with ease. Cap takes it upon himself to battle Crossbones. After a brief but impressive duel, Cap gets the upper hand, but not before a bomb detonates, killing over a dozen bystanders. The bioweapon is apprehended, but at what cost? Do the lives of many outweigh the lives of a few? This is not the first time the Avengers have held this moral compass. Where it points for different members guides the direction of CIVIL WAR.
The Avengers return home and are met by Secretary of State Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt, returning from THE INCREDIBLE HULK). He shows them video of past operations: the New York City alien invasion; the downing of the helicarriers in Washington; the Ultron disaster in Sokovia. Ross generalizes when placing the blame solely on Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, but the damage is devastating, no doubt. Over a hundred countries have convened, and a solution devised. The Sokovia Accords: a large, long-winded document that boils down to a group of mandated officials who will oversee the actions of the Avengers, deciding when or when not to dispatch them to rid the world of perceived evils.
The group is split almost evenly on what side to take. The Vision* talks sensibly about causality, how the Avengers’ actions affect others; War Machine (Don Cheadle) sides with Ross, his military and chain of command background assures him of this; Falcon (Anthony Mackie) is a Cap loyalist to the end; surprisingly, Black Widow also agrees to the Accords. Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) has been Steve Rogers’s most staunch ally and closest friend since he thawed out from his 70 year deep freeze. Their relationship has been wonderful to see unfold over his personal trilogy; she is his lynchpin throughout his present day journey. It was a valuable decision to keep their relationship plutonic, and in a lot of ways, Natasha fills the void left over from Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) from FIRST AVENGER. When she relents, allowing others to dictate the team’s actions, Steve takes it personally. You can see it in his eyes.
*Paul Bettany’s Vision may be the most entertaining character of the bunch (at least on the surface), which is saying a lot. This is his second appearance after THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON, and him still getting comfortable in his new synthetic skin is amusing to see. He wears regular human clothes, and dabbles in cooking to fit in. There’s a rapport evident between he and Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlett Witch. Fans of the comic books know that the two eventually have a child (somehow), and seeing their connection on screen works. His android consciousness is ever evolving, perhaps even becoming more human. Vision makes a critical error revolving around Scarlett Witch that will perhaps have long-lasting consequences in the films to come.
Tony Stark is not in a good place. His introduction in CIVIL WAR is during a presentation to a group of students at M.I.T. through Stark Technologies. He doles out hundreds of grants to see that each student can realize their dreams and “change the world.” As part of his speech, he digitally recreates the last time he saw his parents, an awkward and sad moment that doesn’t totally mesh with the setting. As he’s leaving, a woman (Alfre Woodard, in an odd cameo) stops him and shoves a photo of her dead son in his face. He was one of the casualties in Sokovia during the cataclysm. Despite the tragic loss, Tony’s motivation is shaky at best. Perhaps he’s a man at the end of his rope, but his belief in the Accords seems to be a way to get his girlfriend back.
CIVIL WAR is equally Tony’s film. The long talked about death of his parents is an integral thread in the tapestry. The narrative applies a certain “whodunnit?” to the workings, but if you’ve paid attention at all to the previous entry (WINTER SOLDIER), the answer to Tony’s grief won’t be a surprising one. That’s not to say the weight of the situation isn’t felt. Quite the opposite actually. It’s arguable that Robert Downey Jr. hasn’t been better than what he shows here. After playing the billionaire philanthropist seven times (including cameos), a tendency to rest on one’s laurels could be evident, but Downey Jr., if anything, turns it up a notch, a personal lifelong mystery finally solved, one that ultimately gets (pardon me) avenged.
The Sokovia Accords boil the tension, but it’s Cap’s unbreakable bond towards Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) that stirs the pot irrevocably. An explosion at the United Nations kills many and the Winter Soldier is placed at the scene of the crime. Cap defends the actions of his friend, while Iron Man and his followers demand his incarceration, setting up the titular battle. No less than twelve superheroes duke it out at an abandoned airfield, and boy, is it spectacular. The Russo brothers direct CIVIL WAR (they helmed WINTER SOLDIER as well), and they have a keen eye for this genre. It’s no less of a feat to take charge of so many characters in one film. Each gets their own arc, though some are longer than others. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) returns from a brief retirement; Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) shows up as well. He fills out a majority of the comedic elements of CIVIL WAR; his starstruck first meeting with Captain America is very funny. It’s safe to say that Ant-Man has the biggest WOW! moments of the film. He rides one of Hawkeye’s arrows mid-flight. Others you’ll have to see for yourself.
Tony recruits (one could argue cons) Queens teenager Peter Parker into joining the fray. Their vis-a-vis is fun and jokey; Tony hits on his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), and teases him on his rudimentary costume. Though it’s a pleasure to see Spider-Man join the Marvel Cinematic Universe, one wonders what purpose the web-slinger has joining this already hectic cast. Don’t get me wrong, when Spider-Man assists in the attempted capture of Cap and Bucky, it’s a thrilling endeavor. His actions are fluid and impressive. Spidey has at least a few moments with every character, showcasing his burgeoning skills (we’re told he’s been powered up and fighting crime for six-months), and famous mouth during the battle. At one point, Falcon remarks, “Have you been in a fight before? Usually there’s not this much talking.” Still, as much of a joy it is to see perhaps the most faithful adaptation of Spider-Man (of sight and speech) on screen, it’s not much of a stretch to associate his appearance as merely a reintroduction of sorts, an appetizer for his solo film in a year’s time.
Black Panther is the other new character introduced, and his appearance is much more earned. His father dies at the aforementioned U.N. bombing, turning a mild-mannered man onto the path of vengeance. Chadwick Boseman plays him well. T’Challa is both a costumed hero and a King to his native, Wakanda. His country houses the world’s abundance of vibranium: an unbreakable alloy that also famously makes up Captain America’s circular shield. And his uniform is terrific* to look at. Boseman will headline a BLACK PANTHER movie in 2018. His truncated presentation has done nothing but make me excited to see more of his world.
*In fact, all of the costumes are excellent. It’s a testament to Marvel and their team that they don’t shy away from the bright colors, and audacious designs that made them famous and recognizable in the comic book universe (save for Hawkeye, whose trademark purple is noticeably absent). Too often times studios balk at the original concepts (which made them popular in the first place), insisting instead for something more “realistic.”
I’ve gone this far and haven’t yet spoken about Chris Evans. It’s true that without Robert Downey Jr.’s success in 2008’s IRON MAN, the rest of the MCU may not have existed, but once the train got rolling, it’s Evans’s Steve Rogers that has been the highlight of the entire multi-character series. He certainly has the All-American looks that Cap requires, but he’s grown so much since his first appearance that when the lights go off and the cameras stops rolling, it’ll be this character that people remember forever. It’s not his best performance (that would be 2007’s SUNSHINE, or 2013’s SNOWPIERCER), but he’s turned a character with a giant “A” on his forehead that throws around a star-spangled frisbee into must-see cinema.
CIVIL WAR isn’t without its faults, however. The film takes some liberties on moving around the pieces to get to it’s designated endpoint. One of the antagonists is Helmet Zemo (Daniel Brühl), a former soldier with a grudge against various factions. Brühl is great as usual, and Zemo is even sympathetic, but there’s an improbable amount of things that have to happen for the climax to take shape. Not only that but Zemo’s tactics undermine his own personal beliefs about joining the fray. Regardless, the final twenty or so minutes sufficiently delivers its emotional blows.
Early on, Steve confronts Bucky and says they don’t have to fight, and Bucky replies, “It always ends in a fight.” CIVIL WAR concludes justly. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Cap and Iron Man eventually go mano-a-mano, and it is a brutal, knock-down affair. These two have always come from different viewpoints, and a showdown has been brewing for a few movies. What’s appreciable is that both Steve and Tony make valid points, so whichever camp you lean toward, there is justification either way. Days later, I’m still uncertain at how I truly feel about it. This is the first Marvel film where I actually feared for the fate of the characters, yet, CIVIL WAR could have been the tipping point, and as it stands, I think they ultimately missed an opportunity for something monumental.
CIVIL WAR solidifies the CAPTAIN AMERICA trilogy as the strongest in the MCU. All three films have such personal veins that course through it, and no matter what the cast of characters, Steve Rogers remains its consistent lifeblood. Remarkably, each has a distinct thematic experience. FIRST AVENGER is a period drama; WINTER SOLDIER is a spy thriller; CIVIL WAR is a pound it out action film. Well-defined experiences between the three, yet they still all connect beautifully. What remains steadfast is Cap’s loyalty. The ambition that drives him never wavers, not when he was a skinny kid getting bullied in Brooklyn, or when he became the pinnacle of human perfection.