Summer 2016 will forever be known as the year when DC and Marvel went for the jugular, their intercompany rivalry heralded by an intracompany one, as their biggest heroes slugged it out amongst themselves to bring in the dough. While the Distinguished Competition’s flagbearer, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, can be described as a polarising movie at best, the Marvel Cinematic Universe juggernaut has put out Civil War – a film that is not just a Captain America threequel, but also a sequel to Avengers: Age of Ultron, and a quasi-origin story for some of the newer players in the MCU.
And boy does it deliver, and in buckets.
Captain America: Civil War is Marvel’s best ensemble piece since the first Avengers, its most serious entry, and serves as a better sequel to the Avengers than last year’s Age of Ultron in terms of shaking up the status-quo, and altering the character dynamics among the principal players. It has the best elements of the Avengers, the best elements of the Winter Soldier, a mellowed yet conflicted Tony Stark, a flawed Steve Rogers, and above all, the best version of Spider-Man since Sam Raimi’s superlative films.
Civil War picks off from the events of Age of Ultron as Steve Rogers leads a Tony Starkless Avengers in trying to maintain global peace on his own terms.
His team is however put under duress when they are once again responsible for collateral damage, and ordered by the United Nations to be subject to a system of checks and balances. The accords, as it is called, is led by Hulk-nemesis Thaddeus Ross, and surprisingly Iron Man himself, who is confronting his own inner demons, precipitated largely by his actions in Ultron. As the Avengers divide themselves into pro and anti-registration camps, Steve is also forced to confront the actions of his childhood friend Bucky Barnes, aka Winter Soldier, who’s HYDRA past comes back to haunt him and Steve. Thrown into the mix is prince T’Challa, ruler of the technologically advanced nation of Wakanda, with his own axe to grind with the Winter Soldier, and the mysterious Helmut Zemo, whose actions and intentions are slowly revealed as the movie progresses towards an emotionally charged battle between the brothers-in-arms.
Civil War derives its inspiration from the Mark Millar comic run of the same name from circa 2007, but is largely a beast that is a creation of the MCU. The civil war of the comics is an epic battle featuring literally every single earth-based character in the Marvel comics, numbering in the hundreds, while the movie is a more intimate and personal affair. The film’s title might bear Captain America’s stamp, the marketing campaign might be all about hash-tagging yourself to either side, but the core conflict is much more nuanced and has a lot more grey to it than evident on the surface. Throughout the film, every side gets to put forward its opinion and as an audience member you can’t help but flip-flop on your allegiance towards Cap and Iron Man as the film reaches its climatic showdown. Indeed, the debate on who was truly on the right at the end of the day is unlikely to ever be resolved, and this is possibly the biggest success of Civil War. Every character, including the so-called antagonist, truly believe that they are doing the right thing, and you as a viewer understand their point of view, even if you don’t necessarily agree with it. In that sense, the movie version of Civil War is a far superior work to its comic counterpart, which had unambiguously placed Cap as the good guy and Stark as the bad guy. In trying to address the age-old question posed by the great comic writer Alan Moore, ‘Who watches the watchmen’, it comes up with a prickly answer, ‘Is that even the right question to ask?’
In terms of characterisations, the film is at heart a Captain America film, and Steve’s equation with Bucky and Tony drives the film’s narrative. However, in terms of scene-stealers, the film belongs to new entrants Black Panther and Spider-Man. T’Challa gets a character arc that is normally seen in a solo orign movie and by the end of the film is the character that sees the biggest growth from whence he started out. Tom Holland’s Spider-Man bears all the hallmarks that one expects of the web slinger and is as good as Tobey Maguire’s take on the character, with the potential to even surpass him, depending on the material that he’s given to work with in his forthcoming solo outing. Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man probably gets the movie’s biggest WTF moment, and one hopes to see a bigger (pun intended) presence for him when Infinity War rolls out in 2018. It was inevitable that within the crowd of characters, some of them would end up getting the short end of the stick. In Civil War, that would be Vision, whose arc seems somewhat incomplete, and as a character seems to never be in focus in any of the major action set pieces and has a tendency to linger around in the background until required by the screenwriters to make his presence felt. Hawkeye sticks out again as an unwanted visitor, and he adds neither value to the plot nor the action. Joss Whedon managed to craft a niche for Clint Barton and ended his arc on a satisfactory note in Ultron, and back-pedaling on that in Civil War is a tad unwarranted.
Like Winter Soldier, the action set pieces in Civil War are once again top-notch. The Jason Bournesque hand-to-hand combat makes a return, but it is augmented by more operatic showdowns, particularly an all-out hero on hero royal rumble in the middle act of the film which has got to be one of the greatest action sequences ever done in this genre. The action carries the characteristic Marvel banter, which however without Joss Whedon, does seem a bit flat at times. If there is one major negative in the film, it has to be Henry Jackman’s score. Marvel movies never had a great track record with their OSTs, but Civil War seems to hit an all-time low for a project of this scale.
Finally, that inevitable question that is plaguing everyone’s minds: Is it better than Batman v Superman? According to this author at least, there is no real contest to speak of. BvS had great ideas, but none of it really translated well on screen due to its garbled screenplay, and obsessive need for tonal compliance than a required focus on character dynamics. There was also no real weight to the central conflict between a Superman who had just been introduced a movie before, and a Batman who was borderline pyschotic in his actions. Civil War on the other hand plays to its strength, deconstruction of human relationships, and it does it in a bull pen that is neither tonally flat, nor completely facetious. Above all, the conflict between Steve and Tony feels earnt, and as the credits roll, you realise that these heroes might live in a fantastical world, but they are probably as flawed and as human as anyone of us.
Captain America: Civil War takes its proud place in the pantheon of great comic book movies, and the Russo brothers deserve a well-deserved vacation before they begin the ambitious Infinity War that’ll bring forth Thanos and the infinity gauntlet. If Civil War is any indication, boy are we in for one hell of a ride.