Captain America: Civil War is the thirteenth movie in the MCU, but it’s the very first that requires having seen at least some previous MCU movies in order to get it. If you don’t already have an understanding of the relationship between Cap, Bucky, and Stark, large portions of this movie will be lost on you. This is also the first time I will actively warn about plot **SPOILERS**. If you haven’t yet seen this movie and want to, stop reading this. After twelve previous movies, this seems to be the first that wants to grab maturity with both hands. The conceit of these movies from the beginning has always been “what if these heroes really existed in our world?” Now the Russo brothers are bringing that idea around to show the real world consequences of their superheroics.
As explained by Secretary Ross (formally General Ross from The Incredible Hulk), the governments of the world are no longer willing to tolerate the freewheelin’ antics of the Avengers and want to put them under the authority of the U.N. Up till now, the sobering idea of civilian casualties and property damage has either been completely ignored or treated as an afterthought, but the filmmakers very brilliantly take what has basically been an inert byproduct of these movies and turn it into rocket fuel, an idea so volatile it could only end in catastrophe. Because of the damage they cause every time they fight, the Avengers must place themselves under government control or be criminals. To enhance the energy of this movie, most of the action is grounded in physical fights between people, allowing a large portion of the action to be captured in camera and imparting a realism that is just far more engaging. This also allows the action to do a little character work as most of the fighters have a distinct style that showcases their personality, but none so much as Cap and Bucky. These two fight so well together that it is like watching a ballet on fast forward, which just highlights how they are basically two sides of the same character. Given that there is a full egg carton of heroes in this story, it is remarkable that every single one of them was characterized justly. Ant-Man was utilized to deliver some great laughs and huge moments, but the gold star of this movie belongs to Spider-man. His inclusion was as close to a miracle you can get while making a superhero movie, and the character brings the baggage of two previous on screen versions spanning five films. Against all odds, they managed to get this character so completely right, every previous attempt feels like fan fiction. Spider-man and Ant-man are two examples of the way this movie packs in these explosive story elements that all detonate in the big brawl at the airport. This is the biggest, best realization of the meeting of superpowered individuals that fulfills wishes we didn’t know we had. It is expertly crafted to get hearts pounding and minds engaged through a steady escalation of story within the action itself. It’s just….. everything….. so hard……..
The airport scene is this movie’s zenith of entertainment. The fight ends with an escalation that has lasting consequences and guides the story down a darker and more serious path. The looming threat has been the promise of 5 other winter soldiers being unleashed on the world, each of them more deranged and powerful than Bucky. Flashbacks to a mission Bucky completed in 1991 have laid the groundwork for this, showing him stealing the five IV packs used to make those winter soldiers. So we are primed to be fooled when we see that the villain, Zemo, has killed the other winter soldiers in their cryogenic chambers and reveals his true purpose: to tear The Avengers apart by showing Tony that the mission from 1991 ended with Bucky killing both of Tony’s parents, forcing Cap to defend Bucky from Tony. From here, there truly is no going back.
This movie features 10 existing superheroes and introduces 2 new ones. That’s 3 more than were in Age of Ultron, but this movie feels focused and personal while Age of Ultron felt overstuffed and adrift. The Russo brothers managed this by paring down the focus of this movie to Captain America first, and Tony Stark second, allowing all the other heroes to fall back into supporting roles. It’s like they know exactly where our minds are, what we expect, and what we want. This movie goes further than I thought it would, starting with the toughest issue any superhero movie could face, and then keeps pushing. It’s more serious than the last few recent MCU movies, but given the stakes here, any more levity would have damaged the dramatic tension. The humor that is here seems to come from the combination of fantastic elements with mundane ones, like seeing Vision looking like a pig wearing lipstick in his J. Crew outfit, or the rivalry between Bucky and Falcon for Cap’s friendship. The movie remains charming without jokes, while displaying the other side of the Marvel Identity: an ironclad integrity in the story and shared universe.
It’s pretty incredible that the MCU has slowly evolved Captain America and Iron Man to the point where they now take viewpoints opposite of those they started with and it feels so natural we don’t question it at all. We care so much about them because they feel like real people we know as we have been watching them evolve from movie to movie. The conflict between these two guys boils down to Socialism vs. Libertarianism; Cap has been betrayed too many times for him to submit to anyone else’s authority, while Tony’s repeated failures of judgement combined with his anxiety of the unknown make it a natural step for him to want someone else to ultimately be responsible for their actions. Tony is dressing up his selfishness as altruism, saying that the Avengers need a check to their power when he is really trying to fight his own guilt, while Cap is being specifically selfish in his desire to be free from external control in a way that is altruistic. The filmmakers managed to get me, a liberal with socialist leanings, to identify with the libertarian. That’s how you know, despite including so many other heroes, this really is a Captain America movie.
I don’t want to see any more truly solo MCU movies. The universe is now so big and crowded, it doesn’t make sense for any of them to operate alone. This movie should set the standard for every sequel from here on out: they should be big, they should have multiple heroes involved, and they should make important and lasting changes to the shared universe. Superhero movies have been toying with maturity ever since The Dark Knight in 2008, but up till this point the MCU has been focused on delivering child-like wonder to adults. While that does work, I would love to see more of this kind of maturity and evolution from the MCU. I want these movies to be smart, well written, and well executed. I want the MCU to twist and turn into places I didn’t think they would go. I want to silence my criticism, deny my pessimism, and be taken on a journey. I want what this movie delivered, again and again. 5/5
Coming up next: Doctor Strange (2016)