Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo.
2016. Rated PG-13, 147 minutes.
Robert Downey Jr.
Even if you haven't been following Marvel's Cinematic Universe (henceforth, MCU) you know that there's been a ton of superhero movies over the last eight years and probably have a decent idea that the comic book giant, Marvel is responsible for a huge chunk of them. If you have been following, you know that this is the thirteenth film in a series of films that all take place in the same universe at the same time and the start of what they're calling Phase 3. In other words, it's all been leading to this.
This is essentially the third Avengers flick, though it's officially the third Captain America film. The catalyst this time around is that the climactic battle of Avengers: Age of Ultron left a lot of innocent people dead while the opening battle of this film does the same. Among those killed in this time are a number of humanitarians from the peaceful African nation of Wakanda. The UN sets out to take control of the Avengers, creating a document to do so. A guilt-ridden Iron Man (Downey Jr.) agrees along with a number of his teammates. Another faction, led by Captain America (Evans) refuses to play ball and are made fugitives. While Black Widow is at the UN representing Iron Man's side, the building is blown up by none other than The Winter Soldier (Stan), killing the Wakandan king. Captain America and his side pursue The Winter Soldier, whom you may recall is Cap's childhood friend Bucky. The king's son T'Challa (Boseman) has vowed revenge and is also after Bucky. Meanwhile, Iron Man and his crew try to bring in Cap and his team for disobeying what is now international law.
One of the things that strikes us right away is the more serious tone of this film as compared to most other Marvel movies. The MCU is known for joke-heavy dialogue that lightens things up considerably while they're trying to save the world. There are jokes, but most of them come during the time Ant-Man (Rudd) and Spider-Man are involved. This works because those two are just joining the fray and only do so at the request of others. They aren't really concerned with the implications of their actions. The rest of the people involved truly are. We sense a heaviness to their interactions that wasn't there before. Even when The Avengers weren't getting along in previous films there was lots of sarcasm and a snarkiness to it all that allowed us some laughs. That's almost completely missing. However, this is a welcome change. It lends more weight to the idea that the fate of the team is truly in jeopardy. We know that they can save the world when united, but what will happen if they are operating on opposing sides? This is fitting since it does fall under the Captain America banner. The previous two films based on his character have been played more straight than the rest of the films in the canon. Civil War follows suit and is better for it.
As expected, the action is another strong suit for the movie. Mostly. We get tons of it and it's all fast-paced and bit more brutal than most other MCU films. The blows are softened when we know that these are almost all super-powered beings whom will take an awful lot to be killed. Still blows land with sufficient force to occasionally make us cringe. Same goes for characters falling from great heights and slamming into things on the way down. However, this isn't a flawlessly executed. There are a number of shots where the action is clearly cgi as characters move in that unnatural, animated way. It's an improvement over the ping-pong like appearance of some of the action scenes from Age of Ultron, but still noticeable. When we notice, we're at least temporarily taken out of the film. Of course, there are some cgi shots that work really well. Just about everything revolving around Ant-Man looks great. The same goes for Captain America's shield and the cars Scarlet Witch makes fly about.
The film also benefits from the fact most of the performers are supremely comfortable in their roles. They should be since most of them have played these characters in multiple movies. When Iron Man is in a dour mood, as he is, here, it's not a jarring occurrence. Robert Downey Jr. knows the character so intimately that he makes his every action feel natural. Chris Evans has been the perfect Captain America since the moment Steve Rogers was injected with the "super soldier" serum so many moons ago and continues to be just that. Anthony Mackie and Don Cheadle are equally adept as sidekicks Falcon and War Machine, respectively. This is only Paul Bettany's second official outing as Vision, but the character is merely a personification of Jarvis, a role he's been playing as long as Downey Jr. has been Iron Man. Paul Rudd is similar to Evans in that his role suits him to a tee.
Series newcomers are also served well. Chadwick Boseman gets the most attention as it is his character, T'Challa AKA the Black Panther, that has an intrinsic motivation to be involved. He desperately wants to find and kill The Winter Soldier. Getting in his way is a problem for whoever does. Boseman is excellent in the role. He brings a grim determination that epitomizes the movie as a whole. Tom Holland's Spider-Man resides on the opposite end of that spectrum. As I hinted earlier, he and Ant-Man are shoe-horned in and really have no dog in the fight aside from their newfound allegiance to an existing Avenger. However, in Spidey's case his screen time may be brief, but this is not some one minute look at him just for future reference. We actually get a nice amount of development to his character. Holland takes full advantage of this and gives us what may be the best Peter Parker to make it to the big screen. In true MCU fashion, both he and T'Challa are being set up for their own solo films. However, these might be the two greatest setups in the history of comic book flicks. Not only do we feel like we know these characters by the end of the film, we want to see more from them.
Unfortunately, another common Marvel problem rears its ugly head once again. Despite the fact that both are returning characters, many times returning in the case of one, the film has no idea what to do with its female characters. Elizabeth Olsen's Wanda/Scarlet Witch is focused on early, but it serves more to develop Vision as a character than herself, and to reintroduce Hawkeye (Renner). She is merely escorted into battle and then forgotten about. Scarlett Johansson has now played Black Widow five times and it's become evident the writers are not really trying to develop her character. She is much more a prop than an actual person. We know that she is a highly skilled something or other (assassin, originally) which makes her valuable, but not valuable enough for us to truly know her as a person. Instead, she's a plug-and-play device adapted for any situation the Avengers may encounter. To Johansson's credit, she continues to be great in the role, but she hasn't been rewarded with a legitimate storyline, yet. The possible exception being her attempt at a relationship with Bruce Banner in Age of Ultron, but that's debatable as even there it was the obligatory love story and more of a tool to get the Hulk calm. Without him here, that aspect of her character is stripped away leaving her back in 'whatever the plot needs' mode.
All is not lost as Civil War excels in a way that most MCU films have not. It works on multiple levels. On the surface, it's a pretty easily to follow, but solidly told superhero story with lots of superhero action. With only minimal amount of effort, we can see that it's a metaphor for the role of the United States in world affairs. We Americans have long since given ourselves the role of being the planet's police force. We have also taken on the responsibility of being the world's conscience pushing the virtues of democracy on any country we deem fit whether they want it or not. Should we be allowed to operate with impunity? It seems we have the UN in our pocket have been doing just that. The merits of this are clearly being debated with the Avengers taking on the role of the US, here. With that in mind, it only makes sense that the characters desperately clinging to their autonomy are led by Captain America. In that light, it also makes sense that a couple of characters are noticeably absent, Thor and Hulk. I suppose you can call that a teeny tiny spoiler, but I wouldn't. The point is that Thor is not of this world and need not be concerned with our trifles. Hulk could be that "savage" third world nation who's opinions are of no consequence to the powers that be. Of course, I fully expect both will show up in future MCU movies so this is a one-shot deal, but it works for this film.
Viewing Civil War as an Avengers flick marks a significant step up from Avengers: Age of Ultron. In some regards, it's also a more accessible film than most of its Marvel counterparts, too. The others have much larger helpings of comedy while this leans more towards drama. That doesn't necessarily make it better, but drama is not nearly as subjective as comedy. That, combined with more mature themes than those other films make it more fascinating. In almost all of the previous MCU pictures, our heroes are tasked with keeping some all-powerful whatchamacallit out of the hands of the bad guys who only want to rule everything and destroy everything they cannot rule. It's pretty standard popcorn fare that's served Marvel well. This time around we're asked to choose a side between two factions with compelling arguments for why they are right and it's their way that will help them do what we thought we came to see them do: save the world. Eventually, the film comes down on one side of things over the other. However, the journey to get to that point is far more important than the destination in this case. On that journey, Civil War gives us plenty of candy for our eyes and ears. It also gives the occasional food for what's behind and between them.