The worldwide phenomenon about two unique individuals from very different worlds — one with his armor and his billions, the other with his enviable muscles and his onetime fervor for The American Way — will rank high among other films in the $300-million U.S. box office club at year’s end. Once again the major studios prove they’re still capable of putting out product that can contemplate serious topics even while reveling in visual dynamics and not shying away from moments of emotional intensity.
No, not the one with the Marthas’ boys in it.
Short version for the unfamiliar: Directors Joe and Anthony Russo (The Winter Soldier, TV’s Community) return to wrap up the Steve Rogers Trilogy with Captain America: Civil War. When one hero’s well-intentioned rookie mistake ends a superhuman showdown with inadvertent civilian casualties, Big Government decides all those vigilantes from the last several Marvel Cinematic Universe films either need to submit to law enforcement oversight, accountability, and obedience, or else be thrown in the clink for excessive vigilantism. Tony Stark, the once-self-assured Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr., angrier than usual for reasons), has seen too many disasters and thinks it’s time for everyone to join Team Bureaucracy. Steve Rogers, the soldier’s soldier Captain America (Chris Evans, still everyone’s stoic best friend), has been tricked by too many false leaders and leads the movement for Team Doowutchyalike.
A second disaster bollixes the negotiations, ends with more innocent casualties, and spurs an international manhunt for the prime suspect: Cap’s ex-sidekick “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan as one big ball of frustration), still succumbing occasionally to his Winter Soldier reprogramming so even he doesn’t know if he’s the perpetrator or just a scapegoat. Iron Man believes the thin evidence against Bucky without any need for probing investigation. Cap believes his old best friend with zero tolerance for doubt.
The mule-headed debate between the Star-Spangled Avenger and the Armored Avenger tears a schism across the MCU that forces the rest of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes to choose a side — well, those who were asked to show up, plus a few new faces who’ll someday hopefully headline their own super awesome solo movies. Fingers crossed.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: With an all-star cast that’s like the second coming of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, our twelve main players are divided into two teams of six:
Team Cap: Bucky, the Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen, still working on that accent), and Ant-Man (Paul Rudd channeling a lot more Bobby Newport this time).
Team Iron Man: Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), War Machine (Don Cheadle), the Vision (Paul Bettany), and two world premiere MVPs: li’l Tom Holland as the first time a Marvel movie has ever cast an actual teenager as a teenage Spider-Man — no more 90210 thirtysomethings taking a millennial’s job; and Chadwick Boseman as the regal Black Panther, young royalty from the nation of Wakanda bringing his own stately manner, augmented reflexes, and vibranium weaponry to the party.
Team Villains: Frank Grillo, the Winter Soldier henchman who had the most lines, returns scarred and costumed as Cap’s nemesis Crossbones in the thrilling opening chase/fight sequences in Nigeria. Setting aside Iron Man as the lead antagonist, the real Big Bad is Daniel Brühl (the charming Nazi actor from Inglorious Basterds) as master schemer Helmut Zemo, whose resemblance to the comics’ neo-Nazi version is virtually nil, instead taking his origin cues from previous MCU stories.
Team New Players: Hope Davis as the late Maria Stark, Iron Man’s mom, frequently mentioned but never before played in person till now; Academy Award Winner Marisa Tomei as Aunt May, accompanied by ham-handed lines slapping viewers repeatedly until everyone agrees there’s no reason a teenager has to have an doting eightysomething crone for an aunt; and geek icon Martin Freeman as American attaché Everett K. Ross, who in late-’90s comics was an ally at, and a thorn in, the Panther’s side.
Team Returning Guests: William Hurt from The Incredible Hulk as grumpy Thunderbolt Ross (no relation to Everett); Revenge‘s Emily VanCamp as Cap’s neighbor Sharon Carter, a.k.a. Agent 13; Mad Men‘s John Slattery as old Howard Stark; and Better Call Saul‘s Kerry Condon as F.R.I.D.A.Y, the replacement A.I. uploaded to Iron Man’s helmet after J.A.R.V.I.S. was upgraded into the Vision in Age of Ultron.
Team Cameo: Community‘s Jim Rash as a happy dean who loves a good fundraiser (two more minutes of him and we’d be right back at Greendale); Alfre Woodard as a grieving mom who teaches Tony an important lesson about how all lives matter; and, of course, Stan “The Man” Lee as a product-placement prop delivering an important package.
Team Not Appearing in This Picture: the Hulk, Thor, Thor’s wacky friends and stodgy relatives, especially not Loki, any and all agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, Pepper Potts, Ant-Man’s daughter, Hawkeye’s family, the late Garry Shandling, and Marvel’s Agent Carter. (Not even in flashback, just one nice vintage photo.)
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Civil War is entirely about collateral damage. Given the desensitizing trend in big-budget blockbuster films (not just comic book movies) to waste entire blocks and cities full of millions of imaginary living beings, this time the focus is squarely on the damage done in the wake of so many cataclysmic fight scenes. Heroes routinely save the world, but rarely stop to count the bodies in the wreckage. The assumption is millions of very nice funeral services were held and the richest heroes funneled some of their petty cash toward widespread infrastructure repair. Or the assumption is the little people don’t matter. It’s because the humans of Civil War disagree and take a stand against their disposable nature that the movie finds its unique dilemma: how much trust should we really be placing in the judgment of unsupervised, untrained superhumans? Should we really be letting them play honorary world police without any real governance or any consequences for their harmful failures?
On the other hand, how much good does it do to make ordinary humans the bosses of those gifted or cursed with such extraordinary abilities? How well can the muggles truly train the trainees? How many super-strong bank robbers and otherdimensional conquerors can we afford to let get away while Our Heroes are going through the proper channels, filling out the requisite forms, obtaining their warrants, requesting mission approval from human military officials who can’t possibly know what it’s like to be in their shoes?
Fans who just want dudes in tights punching each other a lot may come away disappointed to have what was once an all-ages genre taken to its logical, disturbing, eminently political conclusions. Strip away the masks and it’s a fascinating debate over what’s better: more government or less government. And everyone’s positions vary depending on what’s driving their emotional state at any given moment.
For our two main players, Civil War is the culmination of the character arcs that began in their first films but have been evolving throughout the series. In The First Avenger, Captain America obeyed commands and served his country’s leaders during the world’s time of tremendous need. In The Winter Soldier, Hydra’s infiltration of all supervisory levels soured Cap’s unconditional trust in authority figures. He’s a warrior disillusioned, trusting his own gut instincts and moral code above all others, even if it makes him a renegade until he finds the truth.
We first got to know Iron Man as the cocky weaponsmith with an ego larger than any warhead he ever designed. The first film grew him a conscience and turned him away from some of his baser instincts. The second one was lousy, but we saw his rebellion continue against the authority figures who would use him. With the introduction of aliens in The Avengers, Tony’s mind was blown both by the confirmation of life on other planets and by his off-Earth near-death experience. Shane Black’s Iron Man Christmas Special gave us a Tony hobbled by panic attacks and struggling to accept his new reality. But Age of Ultron was his worst nightmare in the metallic flesh: innumerable fatalities from the greatest weapon of mass destruction ever shaped by his own hands. By the time Civil War‘s opening Pyrrhic victory adds to the body count, Tony’s lost all faith in his own judgment and virtually, subconsciously wishing anyone else would take charge and tell him what to do. On some level, Tony now craves the authority and oversight that he once fervently fought to disregard.
Cap’s and Tony’s respective arcs are like ships passing in the night, each becoming more like how the other used to be. As friends they began as opposites, met in the middle, then diverged once more. Whether or not they’ll ever see eye-to-eye again, and which of them is more right than the other, are questions left hanging at Civil War‘s bleak ending, presumably To Be Continued in future films, A-list paychecks pending.
Late in the film, all other themes make way for a special secret bonus theme that lurked in the background all along: revenge. At least three characters find reasons for wanting other characters dead, all involving past wrongs not yet righted. The character who finds paths to both forgiveness and justice wins the film.
Nitpicking? Most of the film is cross-country pursuit in the scenic James Bond tradition, but at times it seems the police forces of various nations are showing up inside each other’s borders like swapping jurisdictions is just that easy in the European Union. If it really is like that, cool, but my wife wondered why German police were showing up at a doorstep in Bucharest.
And don’t even get her started on the Peggy Carter/Sharon Carter timeline. The aunt/niece relationship between a young 21st-century lady and a WWII hero who only had one sibling, a brother who died during the war…suffice it to say some pieces are missing.
Also bordering on nonsense: Zemo’s evil plan hinges on him knowing that something horrible happened on a specific day in history, but knowing nothing about the Something Horrible itself, only that Something Horrible happened and it would be really useful intel to him for purposes that require a ridiculous number of ducks lined up in a row. This important mystery event is only the beginning of a mad scheme that’s befuddling for most of the film, and yet by the end somehow it ends up too simplistic. Brühl’s layered performance, seemingly one-note until more of his story comes to light, carries him a good, long way.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in Captain America: Civil War, there’s Captain America trying really hard not to be overshadowed by the three hundred other speaking characters vying to share screen time with him. So many people are given so many cool moments that it’s tough for Cap’s own to stand out. Thankfully the cast is pared down for the endgame, leaving Cap to stand tall among a smaller, strong group of finalists.
So what’s to like? So much complication and sifting through shifting philosophies. So many winning performances that there aren’t too many actors I’d give a thumbs-down here. There’s that great opening battle with Crossbones and his henchmen. And there’re the dueling feels of Evans vs. Downey, driven not by dumb miscommunications but by the heat of the moments, both the most furious we’ve ever seen them by the time they stagger through each other’s final blows. The film’s extended centerpiece, the twelve-hero demolition derby at a German airport (curiously deserted in broad daylight), is an exhilarating montage of one-on-one martial-arts showdowns, flying-guy dogfights, over-the-top visual-effects surprises, and the welcome reintroduction of our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, who brings a number of key components to the table: youthful exuberance, wit under fire, advanced science know-how, simple joy in superhuman feats, and — as a sort of wake-up call for Tony — innocent naiveté about how he’s doing the right thing even while guys twice his age are bruising him up something fierce.
At nearly 2½ hours, Civil War is longer, more complex, and more ambitious than the average crowd-pleaser, though crowds will keep finding plenty pleasing about it as they continue flooding into theaters over the next several weeks. A few flaws in its convoluted execution are too nagging for me to anoint this the Greatest Marvel Film of All Time, but taken together with Cap’s first two films, it’s a masterful climax to the greatest super-hero film trilogy of all time.
(To learn more about Chadwick Boseman, if you loved his Black Panther one-tenth as much as I did, be sure to visit your local streaming store and check out his star turn in the Jackie Robinson biopic 42, or add Christopher McQuarrie’s spooky one-season wonder Persons Unknown to your Netflix queue and watch him as a military man trapped in a mysterious small town with Alan Ruck and a bunch of annoying strangers. My son and I were among the show’s six fans, so hardcore that we watched the series in its initial run, including the final episodes that NBC never aired on TV and showed online only. We both still feel we’re owed five more seasons and a movie.)
How about those end credits? Yes, there is indeed a scene after the Captain America: Civil War end credits, not to mention an important epilogue early into the end credits. For those who fled the theater prematurely and really want to know without seeing it a second time…
[insert space for courtesy spoiler alert in case anyone needs to abandon ship]
…during the credits is the film’s actual ending: Bucky’s final fate — shipped off to Wakanda and voluntarily placed back in suspended animation until T’Challa’s top scientists can figure out how to disable or delete his Winter Soldier brainwashing permanently. Cap worries the Avengers will invade Wakanda to get him back. T’Challa welcomes the challenge. Outside the mists swirl and surround the nearby buildings and giant panther statues, all standing by and waiting for future Black Panther director Ryan Coogler to make them even cooler someday.
And then there’s after the end credits, which explains a question that occurred to me earlier: considering how much Spidey gets knocked around in the airport battle, how will he explain his injuries to Aunt May? Easy answer: he’s honest with her — he confesses he was in a fight with a guy from Brooklyn named Steve, who had this huge friend with him, but Peter promises he gave as good as he got.
Aunt May, proud of her plucky nephew for standing up for himself, gives him an ice pack and leaves his bedroom. He goes back to playing with one of the new toys Tony gave him — a gadget from the comics that we old Spider-fans know as the Spider-Signal.
And Civil War fades to black with one final message:
“SPIDER-MAN WILL RETURN”