Captain America: Civil War (2015): Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, directed by Anthony and Joe Russo. Starring: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Rudd, Emily VanCamp, Tom Holland, Frank Grillo, William Hurt, Daniel Bruehl. Running Time: 147 minutes.
Let me state this unequivocally, for the record- I find that Captain America is, for the moment at least, the best individual franchise within the larger umbrella of the current Avengers film universe. None of the others have been able to maintain the same level of steady excellence as the adventures of Steve Rogers, and for all the kitsch and over-the-topness that the very concept of Captain America would seemingly guarantee, his more quiet and underplayed portrayal by Chris Evans has made him into one of the most consistently endearing characters in the Marvel film canon.
One could, though, be excused for mistaking this as the next installment in the main Avengers series instead of a Captain America movie (Thor and The Hulk are the only ones to not make an appearance by the end), but that’s almost inevitable- since Rogers does nothing BUT hang out with Avengers personnel anyway, there aren’t many people to draw from for the supporting cast. In fact, we start the film off much like Age of Ultron- another day, another mission, and the Avengers are in the middle of Africa trying to stop a heist of a biological research facility. They ultimately succeed, but in the process inadvertently allow a bomb to kill and injure a large number of civilians, including members of a humanitarian delegation from the reclusive African nation of Wakanda (no, it doesn’t actually exist, although I may be the only person in the world too geographically obsessed to case).
This prompts a huge international outcry, and the Wakandan king appears before the United Nations to appeal for a set of accords meant to subject the Avengers to better international and public oversight (and named after the quasi-Russian town destroyed at the end of Age of Ultron). But evil is, alas, always afoot, and a bomb attack breaks up the meeting and kills the king, prompting his son to take up his mantle and push for greater control of the Avengers (you only get two guesses as to who the son is revealed to be). This already leads to edgy disagreements within the Avengers about whether or not accepting the Accords is a good idea, but the situation is further exacerbated when evidence surfaces that seemingly proves that Bucky was the culprit behind the bomb.
Obviously this movie assumes you have seen the previous Captain America films and know the tortured history of Steve Rogers and Bucky, the legendary “Winter Soldier,” and given the devoted following these movies have gotten, this is one of the few times a movie making this kind of leaping assumption is a safe bet. Captain America, already hesitant to put powers like his at the beck and call of fickle, and often short-sighted, politicians, now decides to go fully rogue and track down Bucky before the authorities get their hands on him. This splits the Avengers right down the middle, with some joining Captain America, and the rest following Ironman’s lead in trying to catch Rogers and Co. before things get even further out of hand.
In many ways, this film functions as almost a point-by-point counterweight to the much-marauded Batman v Superman, a movie that seeks to pull back and consider some of the broader social consequences (and harm) that the existence of superheroes and superpowers can mean for regular people. It doesn’t shy away from ideological conflict or from zooming in on the casualties of past films, but unlike the current DC canon, it never sinks into depressive gloom or loses its sense of humor about itself and its characters, and this ends up being the key difference between the two. It doesn’t address concerns like emotional turmoil, ideological divides, or civilian casualties with quite the level of emotional depth or intellectual complexity it might think it does, but the acting is solid enough across the board that its attempts at seriousness are genuine enough to click with its more humorous asides; a bit cameo by Alfre Woodard as a grieving mother of a young man inadvertently killed in Age of Ultron is a particularly powerful moment.
The fairly solid blending of usual Marvel colorful wackiness and a somber reflection on the more serious side of hero business is, on the whole, the best strength of the film. There are just as many characters and stray side stories jumping around as in Age of Ultron, but somehow this one feels more polished and unified, less creaky at the seams. Everyone who has been alive the past year has known that Spiderman shows up at some point, but the big question was whether or not they would go to detailed lengths to introduce this new version to us, or if it would be just a glorified cameo. Thankfully, like with the other bit parts floating around the edges, the first scene with this new Peter Parker feels like an organic part of the film. It’s not too exposition-heavy or overly dramatic, going on just long enough to tell us all we need to know about him before integrating him into the team, and it’s probably my favorite scene in the entire film.
And yet, as with so many of these films, some basic plot issues hold it back enough that I can’t quite praise this one as being on the same level as The Winter Soldier. As with so many of the ensemble films in the canon, so many of the issues that drive the plot could have been avoided entirely if these characters would simply talk with each other openly and not hide a major secret until the worst possible moment. It also doesn’t help that the major storyline is a disappointing retread of much of the first two Avengers films; once again, Tony Stark overreaches trying to solve minor or nonexistent problems, only to exacerbate the situation and make things worse.
Ironically, the recurring Marvel bug of the one-off villain being entirely forgettable is not as big a problem this time around. Yeah, it’s another boring non-entity with a plan that makes little sense, but it actually fits much more with this kind of story; the world isn’t ending this time around, and there is no impending governmental mass-genocide. He just wants to throw a small wrench in the works, and since this is more of a character-focused film rather than a plot-driven one, it works much better than it otherwise would.
Ultimately, there isn’t so much to differentiate this new one from the rest of the grander franchise it’s connected to. If you generally like the sort of aesthetic and sense of humor that most Marvel films embody, this is more of the same, and like me you’ll have a fun of time of it in theaters. If you are one of those suffering from Superhero Fatigue, this won’t change your mind. But so far, I’m still on board, and am now especially excited for the upcoming Black Panther film (stick around through the credits to find out why).