Eight years ago Marvel Studios unveiled their first effort, Iron Man. Since then Marvel has produced 11 more films and four television series while amassing a staggering amount of box office revenue. That is a huge accomplishment which either makes Iron Man seem like just the other day, or a long time ago, depending on your perspective. Regardless, it is hard to argue that Marvel has found a filmmaking approach which works for both them and their audience. Multiple factors are at play here, though, one of the key ones has been taking their time to let their Cinematic Universe expand organically. At first glance this statement might seem paradoxical when applied to an enterprise which since Day One has been geared towards setting up the next chapter. Hence all those mid/post credit scenes which remain one of the trademarks of the franchise. Yet, if nothing else, this emphasis on serial storytelling points towards a shared link between the movies and their source material. More importantly it gives characters room to breathe, allowing the actors opportunity to build on beats from previous appearances. This attention to nearly a decade of world and character building pays off this week with the arrival of Marvel Studio’s latest entry: Captain America: Civil War. It is an exciting, fast paced film which never loses sight of the flawed individuals at the center of its narrative.
The story opens with a flashback to 1991 as the Winter Soldier is woken from hibernation for his latest mission. This assignment of retrieval and elimination is dispatched rapidly, though, its consequences will echo loudly twenty-five years later. From here the story picks up in the present as Captain America leads his current squad of Avengers on mission in Logos. Crossbones is back and after both a deadly pathogen along with a large dose of revenge. The team takes him down and recovers the virus. In the process, however, Scarlet Witch miscalculates the use of her powers causing bystander fatalities. For a moment, the action stops as Steve and Wanda pause to take in what has happened, the regret on their faces clearly visible. Meanwhile, back in the States, Tony Stark has a run in with a woman named Miriam who blames him for the death of her son, who died during the Sokovia confrontation with Ultron.
These scenes setup the central conflict of the movie involving the unintentional effects of violence and personal responsibly (or accountability as some might prefer to call it). The United Nations have voted to adopt the Sokovia Accords which would place the Avengers under direct jurisdiction of a U.N. council. This council would decide when the heroes would act, as well as when they would not. The details might be different than the registration controversy in Mark Millar’s Civil War comic series, but the core concerns are the same. Should heroes be free agents to act without supervision or should they be answerable to some higher authority? Where is the tradeoff between oversight and independence? Who do you trust to determine who is or is not a villain?
To the credit of screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, they do not provide any easy answers to these dilemmas. Each side is allowed a turn to speak. They might tilt the discussion a bit towards Steve’s favor (it is his movie after all), yet they never demonize Tony for his beliefs. Like Steve, Tony is acting from what he holds to be an altruistic perspective. All either of them wants is to save lives, if only they could agree on the methods.
This complements the other motif of the film which explores the consequences of violence. As with Captain America: Winter Soldier, this is a movie full of intense action sequences (more on those below). However, they are not without repercussions. People bleed, bodies break and sometimes death is unavoidable. The idea of revenge is a dominating force in the narrative. All of the main players are screaming for justice of some sort, sometimes with such force that they lose sight of other ideals. A thirst for vengeance warps perspective. In the end, it only leads to more violence, which naturally only leaves more death in its wake. Yet, when one character comes to this realization late in the film, it may be too late for the Avengers.
Markus and McFeely are smart enough to know that moral issues are not settled by who punches harder. They make the bold choice of scripting a superhero film where nothing is settled by fighting; indeed it only leaves everyone worse. Asking who, if anyone won, is a quite reasonable question. This is the fifth script Markus and McFeely have produced for Marvel and demonstrates that they are one of the studio’s most valuable creative resources.
Guiding their writing to life, as they did in Winter Soldier, are directors Anthony and Joe Russo. The screenplay covers a lot of territory both figuratively and literally (one moment the viewer is in Bucharest, the next they are in Queens). The Russo Brothers keep the movie flowing smoothly without getting bogged down in the exposition. As stated above, they carry over from Winter Soldier a sure hand for action sequences. The highlights this time around are a closed stairwell fight and a huge airport standoff between the two sides of heroes. Each of these sequences have a different scope but share the same adrenaline rushing thrill. They are also clean visually, never over-relying on CGI in the way that marred the action sequences of Avengers: Age of Ultron and Batman Vs Superman.
Naturally CGI is necessary for a movie involving men in flying armor and a “bird costume” but it is kept in check. The viewer never loses sense that these are people (and a synthozoid) operating in a natural environment. As a result, the excitement is much more palpable. Finally, regarding the big airport set piece, the Russos easily mix the various heroes together, letting them each shine in ways that are not always predictable. Even within a melee character remains important.
Well-written personalities, of course, require talented actors to express them. Marvel Studios has gained a reputation for smart casting choices and that continues to pay off in Civil War. At this point, Chris Evans and Robert Downey, Jr. as Steve Rogers and Tony Stark respectively are veterans of the studio with multiple films under their belts. They continue to easily embody their roles, channeling the essence of their characters. This is the third film for Sebastian Stan’s Bucky Barnes and his meatiest appearance to date. Stan does a good job of conveying the dark torment of Bucky as he struggles to overcome his past as the brainwashed Winter Soldier. He and Evans have a good dynamic together, which is essential to the narrative. Scarlet Johansson’s Black Widow and Anthony Mackie’s Falcon continue to provide strong support. After her brief introduction is Winter Soldier, Emily VanCamp’s Sharon Carter is given significantly more to do this time. Unfortunately, she is one of the weaker links in the chain, lacking the gravitas that should go with her position. Hopefully she can grow into the role with further appearance.
Within Civil War’s sprawling cast, two of the standouts are the most recent additions. Chadwick Boseman is excellent as T’Challa. From his first appearance he possesses a royal dignity underlain with the restlessness of youth. Circumstances quickly conspire for him to abandon the halls of diplomacy and fight on the rooftops as the Black Panther. As hinted in the previews, the design for the Panther is first-rate and he moves with a natural, cat-like finesse. Behind this dexterity, however, is a noble heart which, like Steve Rogers’, is dedicated to the cause of his countrymen. Boseman is a fantastic addition, and leaves the viewer wishing that his solo film was arriving much sooner. Meanwhile, in his debut as Panther supporting player Everett K. Ross, Martin Freeman does a good job, even if he plays it straight. Maybe the solo movie will provide him ample opportunity to lose his pants?
And then there is Spider-Man. This was one of the aspects of the film I came to with doubts. Did viewers really need another Spider-Man reboot? Did they need him shoehorned into an already full narrative? Well, it works one hundred percent. Tom Holland is a complete natural. He conveys better than anyone else has the nervous energy of Peter Parker, his anxiety both in and out of the costume. For the first time in a film, the viewer senses the constant fight commentary as connected to Peter’s deep well of insecurity. And boy, does he gab; in true Spidey fashion he just will not shut up. Also, Holland passes easily for a high school student. (Or as one audience member put it, “he’s so cute, what is he, 12?”) Now the idea of a new Spider-Man film is actually appealing. Bonus points for not trying to turn Marisa Tomei into an old lady Aunt May.
Space does not allow for a full accounting of all the players, but one more does merit attention. Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch made a good impression in her previous Age of Ultron outing, yet left a bit to be desired. She has a larger presence this time around both in action sequences, where her powers are more clearly manifested, and in the quieter moments. Despite’s Steve’s reassurances, Wanda blames herself for what happened in Logos and agrees to remain behind in at the Avengers facility. She shares an exchange with The Vision which is a great piece of character work. Paul Bettany’s Vision was the highlight of Age of Ultron and he continues to do fabulous work in Civil War. Together he and Olsen hint at a shared connection without rushing its development. (The same cannot be said for Steve and Sharon sadly). At the same time, Bettany is able to play different layers, simultaneously suggesting his sincere concern for Wanda coupled with his determination to follow Tony’s orders.
Then Clint shows up and things get more awkward. Clint’s pep talk to Wanda was one of the strongest character beats in Ultron and Jeremy Renner and Olsen build on that comradery here. In the process, Renner continues to refine his performance as Hawkeye. In this movie, he comes closer to the mainline Clint Barton that fans have known and loved for over fifty years. He might not be ready for Matt Fraction’s Hawkguy anytime in the near future, but he is definitely leaving behind more of the cold, unengaging Ultimate version from Avengers.
This type of character work is one of the strengths of a shared universe. Writers can build character arcs over multiple installments, while actors can refine their performances with each new outing. Civil War is arguably the most ambitious Marvel movie to date. It could have been an overstuffed mess of too many personalities and plot points. Instead it is strong success partially because it builds on what came before it. And the fact that the Russos, Markus and McFeely have been given responsibility for the even more daunting Avengers: Infinity War, suggests that Marvel continues to know what they are doing.
PS: The film has a mid-credits scene and post one. They are both worth staying for, especially the first which will make the viewer wish once again that Black Panther film was coming sooner.