'Captain America: Civil War' Review: Brother’s War
Do you remember the times when superhero movies weren’t being cranked out at half a dozen a year? When the very idea of putting a guy who smugly calls himself “Iron Man” and runs around in a firetruck red tin can would’ve been box office poison? When a “failed” attempt to bring a comic book to life was the norm, and movies like Superman and Spider-Man were just freak-of-nature outliers?
What a world we live in, huh?
Now that we don’t have to ask the question of “can you translate these ‘niche’ characters to the screen?” every time a super hero is brought to cinemas, we’ve been given the opportunity to stop making spectacles and start pushing the “genre” in different directions. And that’s perhaps the greatest strength of the Marvel movie machine. You get high fantasy with Thor, a nearly Kurosawa-esque team movie in The Avengers, a jokey pop-sci-fi in Guardians of the Galaxy, and even a Bourne-rival political thriller in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It’s this right pedigree and confidence in one’s audience which lets these comic book titans keep the reigns of the biggest box office seasons by sprinkling some punching and lasers into their drawn-out character drama. Because, ultimately, that’s what Captain America: Civil War is.
Following the world-changing events of Avengers: Age of Ultron, Civil War picks up with the latest incarnation of the super team hunting down terrorists in Africa. Cap (Chris Evans) leads the crew to try and bring him in quietly, but Crossbones (Frank Grillo) manages to burst his way into stealing an unnamed biological weapon, resulting in an all-out brawl in a crowded marketplace. Black Widow and Falcon (Scarlett Johansson and Anthony Mackie, respectively) get the vial away from the lackeys, but in his confrontation with the terrorist lead, Cap lets his guard down when presented with new information about his old friend turned HYDRA lackey, Bucky (Sebastian Stan), aka The Winter Soldier. As Crossbones tries to take them both out with a suicidal explosion, Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) uses her magic to contain the blast but ends up tossing him too close to a nearby office, costing further innocent lives.
At the same time, Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) is giving a presentation at MIT and ends up funding every project in the room. After the talk, he’s confronted by a woman backstage who reveals that she lost her son in the collateral damage from the Avenger’s fight against Ultron. With all of these tragedies circling them, the United Nations drafts the Sokovia Accords to make superheroes register as agents of the state, for protection and direction. There’s no clear-cut answer, and each member of the team has to figure out for themselves if they will sign and give up some of their autonomy or go rogue and be hunted as criminals.
The very nature of this setup requires that we understand who these characters are as people and that we give them time to weigh the consequences of each decision. Where a weaker film might only present a moral quandary and fall back to dubstep-laden punch fests, the majority of Civil War’s 146-minute runtime is just talking. Cap has to search for the truth behind the attacks blamed on Bucky, he speaks about politics and morality with Iron Man and Black Widow, Stark tries to deal with the loss of his parents, and, heck, even Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlet Witch get plenty of time to not only discuss their place in the argument, but even hint at their budding romance (to quote Movie Bob: "COMICS. ARE. WEIRD!"). I’m not kidding when I say that this movie comes close to more of a character drama than an action flick. Even newcomers like T’challa, aka Black Panther (played impeccably by Chadwick Boseman, I might add) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland, who isn’t too bad, himself) get time to flesh out their stances and backgrounds in ways that most standalone movies couldn’t even muster.
It’s equally impressive, then, that the film manages to hold up these stakes and pacing throughout the entire runtime while correctly layering in some of the most enlightened fight scenes in the Marvel Universe. In the climactic standoff between the factions, every character gets to show off their skills in showy and bright ways that could only happen in a big mix-up like this. Vision phasing through Hawkeye’s (Jeremy Renner) shots only to have the trick shots come back at him; Spider-Man using War Machine’s (Don Cheadle) thrusters for swing leverage or chastising Cap’s shield for “not obeying the laws of physics AT ALL!”; Ant-Man shrinking to slide in between the plates of Iron Man’s armor to depower the suit, then having to flee the internal fire-suppression system. And that’s even glossing over the opening fight, and an earlier chase through the highways of Berlin between Bucky, Cap, and Black Panther that gives the car fight in Matrix: Reloaded a serious run for its money.
Without diving too deep into spoiler territory (which is notably difficult in this movie, much like The Winter Soldier before it), I want to address the “main villain” of the film, Helmut Zemo. The casting of Daniel Brühl was a truly inspired one, though perhaps a bit lost on the average American audience, as most moviegoers may only know him as the famed Nazi sniper in Inglourious Basterds. To tell the truth, Brühl is a titan of acting, since his early days in German classics like the dark comedy, Good Bye Lenin!, and, I have to admit, he was perhaps the single feature of this movie I was most excited for – and he certainly doesn’t disappoint. He’s confident and likable, but mysterious and twisted, just like a well-rounded antagonist should be. But don’t walk in expecting the Zemo from the comics or an overbearing baddie – the real conflict here is between the heroes and their ideologies, and Brühl is just the catalyst.
My issues with Civil War are mostly nitpicks at best, though some of the larger ones are difficult to discuss without giving away massive pieces of the ending, so we’ll stray away from those. Elizabeth Olsen didn’t get much time to shine in Ultron, but as the final straw in forcing the heroes to register or go rogue, she’s given much more time in the foreground which is both good and bad. It’s really sweet that she and Widow get to have such a crucial cut of the plot and dialogue, but where Johansson owns her role and every bit of it, Olsen stumbles somewhat. She does the regretful and vengeful parts well, but the transition between them can be strange, and boy oh boy does she flit in and out of that Russian accent.
I remember being a bit sad when Johansson’s Romanov sounded completely Midwestern, but I see now that it’s better than forcing a character to an ultimately garnishing shtick that the actor portraying them can’t handle. Which is only more odd, as I don’t recall Olsen having an issue with her accents in I Saw the Light, but there it is. Civil War also falters a bit in the way that it lays out its revelations and tries to wrap itself up. Suffice it to say that Zemo must either be fantastically brilliant or just be the most plot-beloved character in the film, and if Winter Soldier felt like it left the door open a crack, Civil War is heating the hallway it’s so ajar.
None of these issues undermine the film, though – it’s hard to say which of the Captain America sequels is better, and both are quickly vying for the best movie in the series. While it is admittedly a bit of an Avengers 2.5: The Redux, Civil War is nothing if not a confident film. It gets its casting right; it knows when to let things be said and when to show them directly, it balances its time between reflection and action, and it even brings in a whole host of new characters without fumbling a single one. Hell, even Iron Man gets just the proper screen time to set him up as Cap’s opposition without vilifying him or making it feel at all like a Downey cash-grab.
There’s still plenty more I’d love to say – to talk about the jokes at “Where’s Thor?”, the brilliantly built and fractured bromances, the beautiful vibrancy of the characters, the choreography of every fight – but I’ve already droned on long enough. Captain America: Civil War shows off why Marvel is the king of the superhero film and perhaps Hollywood, as a whole. It’s a movie that knows that every superhero film featuring guys and gals in spandex doesn’t have to be pure punchy action shlock, and works to transcend and subvert its “genre.” And it’s damn fun while it does it.