Captain American Civil War
Much of Captain America: Civil War breaks down into two storytelling modes. In one, the heroes have quiet, honest conversations about their personal beliefs and intentions. They figure out the principles they work on, and try to honestly communicate them to one another. In the second mode, they become annoyed because communication has broken down, and they find creative, involved, and very immediate ways to defeat the crap that lasts forever from each other.
It’s no surprise that one of these modes is a lot more fun than the other. And it’s no surprise that both the modes inform each other. The internal politics of the Civil War, and its symbolism, are very complex. (We’ll look at all of this in a later part, once more people have seen the film.) And its story is equally complex, and doesn’t always succeed. In terms of narrative ambition, and in terms of delivering meaningful screen time to an ever-increasing stable of characters onscreen, Civil War rivals Joss Whedon’s MCU standout The Avengers. And in terms of sheer thrill, it goes way beyond The Avengers—at least for fans who already come stocked with the emotional investment in these characters.
Captain America: Civil War is openly, unapologetic for fans. More than any Marvel Cinematic Universe film before it, it draws on the history built into previous films, the protagonists’ relationships with each other, and the goodwill (or lack thereof) they evoke in audiences. Viewers who don’t care about him personally — about his agenda, his emotional well-being, or at the very least, who will win in a fight — can find the film endlessly depressing. Screenwriters Christopher Marcus and Stephen McFeely spend a lot of time on scene-setting and ambiguity, and callbacks and echoes. Like any ongoing comic title, it’s an ongoing story, and it’s aimed at people who are already fully on board.
Civil War has more stuff to unpack than the Avengers, and less room for the MCU franchise’s trademark humor. Still, in comparison to the heavy hero-on-hero face-off in Batman v Superman, Civil War keeps a gruff, light voice. Marcus and McFly also wrote the MCU’s last two Captain America movies. He also wrote the screenplay for Thor: The Dark World and co-produced the spinoff TV series Agent Carter. And they’re writing a two-part Avengers: Infinity War saga to cap phase three of the MCU movie saga. At this point, they are well acquainted with MCU banter, and the changes from sober to sarcastic that keep the tone manageable. They are also well acquainted with Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), and they believe the audience is too. But that doesn’t mean they charge directly into action.
“After seven movies, the personalities of Iron Man and Captain America are well known”
The Civil War hinges on conflict stemming from ideological differences between Steve (aka Captain America) and Tony (aka Iron Man), two generals in the titular Civil War between the Avengers super-group. When the Avengers’ intervention results in civilian casualties, and the United Nations attempts to put the heroes under bureaucratic oversight, Tony is on the side, and Cap is not. The involvement of Cap’s former partner, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), both past and present, complicates the situation. So do the other behind-the-scenes factors. After three Iron Man films, two Captain America films, and two Avengers films, where they fight side-by-side, the personalities of Steve and Tony are well established, and their roles in this particular drama are predetermined: Captain America in a compulsive act. Is- good who can’t imagine asking permission to save life. Tony sees his reckless ego causing havoc, and he recognizes the need for responsible oversight. Both men have good reasons for their attitudes.
It can be seen as a flaw in the Civil War that none of them make a particularly good argument for those points of view. His ideological argument rapidly becomes a physical argument, and it almost immediately turns from a frustrated showjumping match to an ugly, fury-inspired grudge match. But everything about it feels in line with the past of the MCU. Steve and Tony could spend an hour of the movie giving their arguments, but that would be out of character for both of them. They are used to solving their problems with brute force, clever strategy and steely determination, not rhetoric. And the questions they are facing are large, abstract and morally complex, because they reflect real current events.
Like previous Captain America films, Civil War looks to America’s current foreign affairs policies for inspiration. Questions such as “Do the citizens of a nation or a country have the right to unilaterally solve the problems of the world?” or “Who takes responsibility for civil collateral damage in an effort to save more lives?” The core issues are rooted in international debates and are not being resolved immediately by people dressed in modern swanky colorful costumes. For bald and grumpy heroes, punching everyone who disagrees with them at least seems like an immediate answer.
“These are real-world questions, and they won’t be solved overnight by costumed superheroes”
The questions the Avengers face in Civil War are even more familiar than those from other superhero movies. Man of Steel begins a long, tired cultural conversation about what makes a hero, and whether the excitement of massive onscreen demolition leaves the heroes little interest in protecting individual people. MCU films have continued that conversation, especially in Avengers: Age of Ultron, where saving people in the midst of global devastation became a part of the story. Still, civilians died in that film, and the Avengers are paying a price in both international disapproval and personal guilt.
Marcus and McFly make sure that the guilt is felt time and again, and not just by the chiefs. Part of the focus-shift on the less central characters is a pragmatic attempt to make them real enough for the audience that it matters who ends up on which side and why. The approach isn’t entirely at hand: Sidekicks Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and War Machine (Don Cheadle) both get plenty of time to prove themselves in battle. But even though they have the most authority and most responsibility to summon Cap and Iron Man for their actions, they are both distressedly prepared to do whatever they are told.
The approach can also feel narratively lumpy—the film makes significant detours to Vision’s experiments with cooking and the inadequacies of Spider-Man’s at-home crime-fighting costume. When screenwriters focus on common sense, inertia sets in fast. Still, the dull downtime moments also make the characters a little more human, and a little less like rubber CGI figures. Once they start banging each other with walls, any element that separates them from each other is of little help.
Still, the civil war lives on in those moments when the retort begins. The central battle between the two halves of the Avengers group is a poignant sequence, filled with imaginative teamwork and impressive effects. (Though the film often feels the loss of the franchise’s two champion smashers, Thor and Hulk, who are both AWOL for this installment.) This is the sequence fans will be talking about for a long time when they see the ins and outs. would have lost interest in Film politics.
But even non-fans can appreciate the rigor invested in making sure everyone on the battlefield has a different reason to show up. Like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Civil War lets some of its more recent characters act as franchise fanboys: Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) both stand next to their heroes. Drip saliva on the spot. Fight, and don’t question what those heroes tell them. Other characters have ugly personal agendas. In particular, Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), introduced here for the MCU films ahead of his 2018 solo film, proves capable and compelling, but he is absolutely border-ignoring, completely uncontrollable international vigilante. The United Nations is afraid. Off the battlefield, his personal vengeance does not stand up to the slightest sign of moral scrutiny. In a fight, when he is making his way through all the other opponents to reach his chosen goal, it is important to him, and irrelevant to almost everyone else.
And the complex interplay between individual and group objectives becomes important because, for all the larger, symbolic issues of responsibility, transparency and oversight, this is simply a story about personality conflict and individual loyalty. Civil War is thrilling as a spectacle, but it will only find it satisfying to viewers who already care about these characters and their choices, and feel the weight of their mild-mannered moral conflicts. For fans of the MCU, it matters that these heroes disagree. What matters more is that they have no idea how to resolve those disagreements without trying to level each other up.
But merely raising questions and pouring a plethora of emotions and violence on the problem doesn’t get the writer any closer to the answer. Captain America: The Civil War ends with nothing resolved – not a rift in the Avengers, not a question of whether UN supervision is a workable solution, not a question of responsibility for the consequences of violence. It’s meant to set up more movies to come, and it lets all characters compromise equally, with no one fully admitting to fault. It also draws the story closer to the real world. There is no easy answer to any of these questions. Sometimes watching them argue endlessly and pointlessly makes us all feel like punching someone in the face. On that front, at least, the Civil War saves a whole lot.