Captain America, to the rescue!
Tony Stark wrestles with the Sokovia Accords.
As does Black Widow.
Welcome to the Marvel universe, Black Panther.
Not the side of a barrel that Tony Stark typically wants to stand on.
Will Black Widow live to see another day?
Stark battles the Winter Soldier.
Scarlet Witch shifts some shapes.
Two kicks at once? Easy for Raven.
Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man is not long for this cinematic world. That is not a spoiler for anybody who’s familiar with how Hollywood works—and comic book Hollywood in particular. Actors only get so many shots at a superstar superhero before a reboot or a contract dispute gets in the way, and according to modern precedent, Downey’s running on borrowed time. Up until this week, Marvel’s films have been careful not to even hint at that inevitability. That changes with Captain America: Civil War. Tony Stark’s character doesn’t necessarily die or have his superhero status suspended by film’s end, but it is the first film in the Marvel universe renaissance to admit that no, Virginia, there may not be a goatee-sporting, generator-enhanced Santa Claus for much longer.
The latest Captain America film succeeds for many reasons, including incredible action sequences, nimble juggling of a giant cast, and remarkable action-mystery pacing. But what makes this the Marvel Universe’s equivalent of The Empire Strikes Back is how its believable (and enjoyable) character development sells the film’s slow burn tale of in-fighting and existential anxiety. Downey Jr. isn’t alone in pulling it off, but watching the beginning of his end is why you’ll remember this film for a long time.
Political flip-flop, superhero-style
Collateral damage attached to the Avengers’ heroics has been piling up for the past few years, and Civil War opens with a superhero squad pulling a significant “my bad” while once more saving the world. Chris Evans’ Captain America (also known as Steve Rogers), with assists from Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), kicks the film off with an incredible martial-arts sequence, full of superhero leaps, drone-powered trickery, and all kinds of hero-specific badassery.
However, in saving Captain America’s life and preventing a biological weapon breakout, Scarlet inadvertently destroys a humanitarian project (and kills innocent people in the process). The world decides it has had enough of the Avengers breaking a few eggs while saving Earth’s omelet, which also happened in the comic-book version of the “Marvel civil war” plotline. That plot began with a “superhero registry” request, while in the film’s version, the world insists that superheroes sign a United Nations accord—named after Sokovia, the country leveled at the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron.
The Sokovia Accord’s popularity ramps up after Rogers’ 1940s ally, Bucky “Winter Soldier” Barnes, has been spotted perpetrating atrocities. He’s another unchecked superhero, as far as the world’s authorities are concerned, and the plot takes shape as superheroes take sides. Should they agree to the Sokovia Accord, which requires UN oversight and approval before heroes take any missions on? Or should they continue working unsupervised?
You might expect Rogers to do his duty and sign the accord—and Tony Stark to dismiss it since he’s a self-made libertarian—but the reverse happens, which is where things start to get interesting. Stark’s decision to side with the UN is a weird one on paper, given the cocksure personality Downey Jr. has fostered since 2008, but Civil War gives the character time and breathing room to reveal some convincingly changed priorities. On the other side, Rogers must settle an internal battle of conflicting duties, one to country and the other to a brother-in-arms, and Evans does a fine job showing confidence in his choice while still acting vulnerable about his decision’s fallout.
Web-slinger meets wit-slinger
Moviegoers were already “treated” to one major hero-versus-hero showdown in March, and it should shock no one that Civil War far outpaces the abomination that was Batman V Superman. That being said, DC’s failure at least frames what Marvel’s success gets so right. Most important is the “why.” By the time Stark and Rogers trade blows, the reasons that they would do so feel authentic, and the film makes sure that each hero still offers both criticism and respect for the other, whether while debating each other or while attempting to deal with the other’s scant vulnerabilities in a battle.
The supporting cast is crucial in this respect as well as stellar performances from every major actor pull out that all-important emotional dimension for each half’s feelings about the Sokovia Accord. It’s one thing to see Rogers affirm his beliefs during a funeral or Stark reflect on the passing of his parents. It’s quite another to watch Rogers and Romanoff chisel away at each other’s allegiances throughout the film or for Stark to try his hand at being a father figure in multiple instances, some more impactful than others.
Both films in question suffer from frantic location-hopping, but Civil War wins out in this regard as well by locking down at least one important conversation in each scene, usually to draw out both a plot movement and an emotional advancement. And while this film skews darker and more serious than either Whedon film, it still finds tons of room for levity and wisecracks—and it usually does so in organic ways, either by drawing out the organic humor of an awkward interaction or by mining the acting chops of this remarkable cast.
No scene delivers this satisfying feeling better than the introduction of the Marvel cinematic universe’s take on Spider-Man, which, I mean, come on. This scene alone is worth the price of admission, with new hero Tom Holland turning the Spider-Man archetype on its head as an enjoyably awkward teen. He shines in particular as Downey Jr.’s wise-ass, wit-slinging foil.
Stark V Rogers > Batman V Superman
The film’s biggest failing has to be the politically charged subtext left unmined. At one point, a government official complains about “American” super-soldiers who have done more damage than good by assuming a role as the world’s overseers, and the rest of the characters sit blankly, as if real-life Americans haven’t already been accused of such practices. It’s a weird moment that puts the rest of the film’s political silence into sharp relief.
Civil War’s superheroes may face tough questions in light of the Sokovia Accord, but they’re almost all personal, not geopolitical. It appears that plot-fueling sacrifice was made to focus the film’s relatively unwieldy scope, however, and that may very well have been the right call, as the film’s tight focus on Stark V Rogers pays off.
Additionally, instead of spreading a bunch of action scenes throughout the film, Civil War focuses its bombast on four major sequences, and two of these can assume their rightful place among Hollywood’s all-time best. The aforementioned opening sequence is a 3D-filmmaking masterwork, full of impressive positional framing that rivals the best of the film Hugo, while I’m still struggling to process the bonkers, six-on-six, hero-against-hero battle on a giant airfield. I’d hate to spoil an iota of how good this sequence is, other than the fact that each one-on-one face-off comes replete with incredible one-liners and that kaiju freaks should gear the heck up for this’un.
A relatively standard car-chase scene and a closing battle round out Civil War‘s visual fireworks. The former scene is mostly notable in that it introduces viewers to Black Panther—whose performance by Chad Boseman and whose ass-kicking brutality get us equally excited about his eventual solo film. Meanwhile, what the latter scene lacks in originality, it more than makes up for in finishing the film off with emotionally loaded punches, both literal and figurative.
You’ll feel the punches (both literal and figurative) from the film’s final battles reverberate across every character, and the closing sentiment is almost too predictable, in terms of a classic second-film-of-a-trilogy downturn. But that’s what the original Avengers needed in a satisfying follow-up (and sorely failed to get out of Age of Ultron), and that’s probably why Downey Jr., and his commanding performance, figured so largely in this Captain America film.
There’s no telling when Marvel will tie a bow on this particular plot arc in its cinematic universe, particularly while it keeps film goers entertained with specific series’ next films, but based on his performance in Civil War, it’s a lock that Downey Jr. will be around to put his signature knot on that bow.
Listing image by Marvel