It’s amazing how two superhero movies can share nearly identical themes, and yet be so different in what they achieve. It was just six short weeks prior that Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was released. Although the movie was a success at the box office, it received a critical drubbing from many viewers (this critic included). Now we have the release of Marvel’s latest opus, a movie built around the ultimate showdown between two warring factions of the Avengers. The motivation of revenge for the central antagonist is the same. Even the way in which to exact revenge is the same. Despite the similarities, the satisfaction derived from each film is a study in contrasts. Captain America: Civil War is the far superior picture. No surprise. By now, everyone knows Marvel has perfected the ongoing storyline across sequels down to a science.
If you’re not up on your Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, this is presented in name as a sequel to the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. In that adventure, we learned that Captain America’s friend, Bucky Barnes was captured and experimented upon during WWII. He was brainwashed into a trained assassin using mind control. Although Civil War also concerns the much larger picture as to what happed more recently in Avengers: Age of Ultron. The number of civilian deaths as a result of the war in Sokovia has become a global concern. Can the Avengers be partially held accountable? The United Nations is preparing to pass the Sokovia Accords, an international agreement designed to limit and control the Avengers.
The Avengers are torn apart into two factions: one led by Captain America (Chris Evans) and the other by Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.). Captain America’s anti-registration squad is composed of Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). Iron Man’s pro accord team is comprised of Vision (Paul Bettany), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and War Machine (Don Cheadle). New VIPs Spider-Man (Tom Holland) and Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) also join up on this side as well. Side note: Thor and the Hulk are conspicuously absent for reasons that seemed a little murky, but honestly this movie already has plenty of speaking parts. While their absence is noticeable, it’s not crucial.
If all this exposition and characters sounds complicated, it is. This is a superhero film that subscribes to the idea that bigger is better. More cast members, more battles, more run time. At almost 2 1/2 hours, this does seem long and a bit overblown. Yet the strengths far exceed the weaknesses. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely deserve a lot of credit for making sense of all these events and distilling it into a narrative we can still follow and enjoy. The big fight featuring the whole gang is fashioned as a centerpiece of the drama. The choreography is appropriately spectacular. Surprises await and the showdown is a delight. Although shaky camera work and rapid cuts do detract a little from the mostly rousing action sequences.
With all the personalities, Civil War, truly plays out like a third Avengers movie, besting Age of Ultron (2015) for emotional depth, but lacking the breezy joy of The Avengers (2012). The story is at its best in quieter moments when it focuses on the personality of the individual. The narrative gives clear, understandable reasons as to why each superhero aligns with the side that they do. Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr deserve major kudos for anchoring the production with sincere performances that captivate our attention. That’s not easy to do with a cast of this magnitude. In a film full of many highs, I did not expect Ant-Man & Spider-Man to be at the very top. Both have amusing vignettes that make the promise of 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming and 2018’s Ant-Man and the Wasp something I am now willing to embrace rather than dread. Additionally the heavy emotional burden that Bucky Barnes carries as the Winter Soldier is emphasized. His relationship with Steve Rogers, his buddy since childhood, is affirmed as well. These cast members stand out in a roster that is uniformly excellent. I could cite more characters and the traits that make them interesting but that would spoil the fun of discovery. It’s their complex backstories that help secure our interest in the personal dynamics of these people. They give the heroes depth. That is what makes Captain America: Civil War so gosh darn entertaining.