Let’s bat this one straight to the fence: Captain America: Civil War is one of the greatest superhero movies in history, let alone in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The MCU films leading up to it differed in what was great and what was faulty, but all those vital blocks click right into place in Cap’s third outing.
The story is one of the strongest in the series, and although it contains more heroes than the first Avengers film, this is still Captain America’s tale. With collective anger reaching a tipping point over the collateral damage caused in New York, Sokovia and Africa, the world’s leaders seek to do what the human race always do with something new and unknown: they want to control it.
After receiving one hell of a guilt trip from Viola Davis’ doppelgänger, Tony Stark freaks out over the possibility that his great power carries too much responsibility. It’s a flip on the Stark we knew back in Iron Man 2, the cocky playboy who turned a court hearing into a Netflix Stand-Up Special when questioned about accountability over his iron suit. This scene also shows Stark speaking to a room full of inspired MIT students, a much more mature point of growth from his days speaking in front of can-can girls (re: Iron Man 2 again).
On the other side of the coin, Steve Rogers isn’t too keen on giving up his – or their – agency to some unknown authority. If it means going against what he believes is the right thing to do, Rogers won’t fall in line. This was true of the US military in The First Avenger and of the compromised SHIELD in The Winter Soldier. And now it’s true of the Avengers, his friends and allies, which adds an extra layer of complexity and tragedy.
Being able to have these characters team up and interact with each other has been one of the MCU’s most joyous achievements. So to see them tear each other apart through well-reasoned arguments creates some of the most effective drama in the series. The most painful part of it all is that Stark and Rogers come within words towards an agreement before that all goes hand-first in the insinkerator.
It’s conflict with real weight to it, but that doesn’t stop the film from having a dumptruck-load of fun with this clash of heroes.
In an act of stunning efficiency, Civil War manages to kick off two origin stories without cutting to a flashback or killing off an uncle. Ignoring the fact that he’s recruiting a teenager to enlist in his army, Stark’s first interaction with Peter Parker is a confident cut-to-the-chase re-introduction of Spider-Man into this particular Marvel universe. These few minutes proved Tom Holland as THE Parker who could balance gawkish humour with naïve enthusiasm – a feat capitalised on by Homecoming.
Played to regal perfection by Chadwick Boseman, T’Challa’s introduction proved far more interesting on re-watch. He’s driven – blinded, even – by the desire to avenge his murdered father by hunting key suspect Bucky. However, what he witnesses over the course of the film makes him realise the poisoning effect of vengeance, transcending him to a place of wisdom and compassion towards his father’s killer. It’s a superb lead-in to Black Panther, justifying why his personal arc isn’t as involving as those around him.
The Russos introduce Black Panther supremely well, not just as a character but also as a force of nature. The practical action finesse the directors demonstrated in The Winter Soldier is just as prominent in here with a car chase scene that (I’m sorry to say) easily tops Ryan Coogler’s CG-heavy one.
Preceding that was a stairwell smash-up so beautifully choreographed the Bolshoi Ballet could readapt it. Additionally, anyone and everyone got an instant bicep crush seeing Rogers play tug-of-war with a helicopter.
And then there’s the airport fight, a moment so glorious it’s worth building a shrine for out of human hair. There’s a lot of fists and shields and arrows flying about in this sequence, so it’s a huge testament to the Russos’ tight-knit direction that you never feel lost in the chaos.
It’s the ultimate “who would win out of X and Y” scenario where numerous interactions occur. Some moments give off a kind-of sportsmanship vibe, like Captain America’s wink-n-nod to Spider-Man as he desperately holds up an airplane walkway. Other moments are as ruthlessly simple as:
Hawkeye: “I’m Clint.”
Black Panther: “I don’t care.”
It’s the ultimate showdown that turns heroes against heroes, essentially making them their own villains. For a universe that hasn’t had a good reputation for antagonists, this would have been good enough. However, this film DOES have a great villain in Zemo. I wrote a whole separate thing to explain why I love him so much.
If Civil War has one notable letdown, it’s Bucky. He’s at the centre of the conflict and his childhood friendship with Rogers drives Captain America’s ethical principles. Unfortunately, whether it’s how Sebastian Stan portrays the character or it’s how he’s written, their relationship doesn’t really come through and his sense of panic towards being mentally overridden is somewhat lacking.
However, despite that wasted nugget of potential, Bucky still serves as the extreme example of what could become of someone who loses their freedom to be used as a weapon. It exposes Stark’s faults, not just on the moral matter at hand but also his inability to separate his personal guilt from his decision-making.
Cap isn’t perfect either, but he was able to admit his mistake: not telling Stark the truth about his parents’ death. Nevertheless, Stark loses it, and thus begins Iron Man V Captain America. It’s an emotionally tense bout, one that has a nice call-back to The First Avenger (“I could do this all day”) and an awesome one-shot of Bucky and Cap gracefully pummelling the shit out of Iron Man.
Like Ant-Man, the finale goes against the MCU grain by keeping the conflict contained. The galaxy isn’t in jeopardy. The world isn’t minutes from destruction. All the focus is on their crumbling friendship, a bond built over many years and numerous films. That means the world to MCU fans.