Back when the first Iron Man film was out, many took its ending as a hint that The Avengers was on the way (and, big shocker, they were right). I however was more intrigued that even from that early on, the ground was seemingly being set for Civil War, a Marvel comics major event in which the great threat to our heroes was…each other.
Now at last onscreen as the latest in the Captain America series, it represents a bold move forward for the label’s cinematic output. While not a proper Avengers movie (Thor and Hulk sit this one out), it’s an engaging crossover that manages to leaves its world in a much more interesting place going forward.
Things start right off with the team on a mission that they complete, but not without civilian casualties. This straw breaks the camel’s back and shortly thereafter General now Secretary of State Ross (William Hurt) presents the team with accords that will put them under supervision of the UN. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is fully on board, as are Rhodey (Don Cheadle) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). But on the opposing side are Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), and, of course, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans).
The way the Captain sees it, their new overseers may not always have the best of intentions and could refuse to assign them where they’d be needed most. But the accords move along for signing at a UN summit, which is attacked with grave damage inflicted. Surveillance later shows that wandering suspiciously around the vicinity was none other than Cap’s old friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan). Rogers senses that someone else was behind the hit and sets out to find Bucky and clear his name. The ones working for the UN however are going to shoot first and ask questions later.
As any action (superhero in particular) franchise progresses, the problem of spectacle creep starts to come into play. Civil War staves this off in the best possible manner, by centering on the personal struggles of the characters and the relationships between one another. From what’s been announced for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we the audience know full well that the world won’t end here and bigger threats will come. But in order to confront those threats, how will the team come back together after the events of this story splintered them? That’s far more compelling than the team just defeating the bad guy at the end of one movie and ready to go again at the beginning of the next.
But that is not to say that the action set pieces aren’t highly impressive, because they certainly are. Where the heroes battling scenes are concerned, it’s that fact that they are heroes that makes these parts resonate more. The people we see facing off are those that we have spent films and years having a vested interest in, who we’ve rooted and wanted to see survive. So while what’s onscreen may seem like a match of Marvel vs. Capcom 3 being played with only characters of the former chosen, it carries infinitely more emotional weight.
And the backdoor pilots to both Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) feel entirely natural. These more than easily could have gone very wrong, coming off more like half-baked trailers as is often the case, but neither did. They each serve a legitimate story purpose and go through growth and development. Of course they do also achieve the effect of getting the audience pumped for their own movies that are in the pipeline, but that’s really more of a bonus.
A few minor flaws permeate. Scarlet Witch still doesn’t work (or at least not to full potential) without her identities as a mutant and, perhaps more significantly, the daughter of Magneto. Alfre Woodard shows up briefly as a woman who confronts Stark about her son who was collateral damage in one of the past battles. But Woodard is also going to be in Luke Cage as Black Mariah, so unless these two are actually one in the same, her playing this part makes absolutely no sense and just adds needless confusion to the MCU. And then there’s Aunt May.
Marisa Tomei is a fine actress, but just bizarrely miscast. It seems the film itself even knows how terribly wrong for the part she is, given how often Stark comments on her looks. Of course it’s also quite indicative of industry sexism and ageism, and I don’t know which about that is more disheartening: that elderly actresses are being shut out of great and iconic roles, or that a woman in her early 50s is seen as appropriate for elderly characters.
Infinity War approaches, but where Cap goes from here as a solo series is anyone’s guess. My hope would be the John Walker/Super Patriot/U.S. Agent storyline, from which considerable thematic mileage could be gained. For now, this is the rare trilogy in which each film is landmark. Not bad for a character that was considered too anachronistic.