Captain America: Civil War is simultaneously the best Avengers movie and the worst Captain America movie. It seeks to reconcile the global, over-the-top scale of the former with the gritty, grounded nature of the latter – doing so with only marginal success. While the movie effectively continues the saga from The Winter Soldier, the inclusion of the broader Marvel Cinematic Universe strips it of nuance and moral complexity (perhaps more inevitably, also the quaint, assured, and self-contained feel of The First Avenger). My highest compliment is the movie juggles everything about as well as it possibly can. I just wish it didn’t have to.
As in Batman v. Superman, the dilemma of Civil War concerns the consequences of superhero action. Yet, the script does no better than its DC counterpart in tackling the issue, or in making the titular conflict any less contrived.* The audience is asked – quite tediously at times – to consider a clearly flawed solution: The Sokovia Accords, which would essentially render the Avengers a UN peacekeeping mission. Problem is, there is no alternative presented. This isn’t oversight but castration, removing all initiative and free will from the Avengers. Steve Rogers’ (Chris Evans) choice to reject the proposal seems obvious, because it is.
*For whatever reason, one side withholds key information from the other
Further stripping the debate of its power is that the lack of stakes has always been a shortcoming of the Whedonverse. Previous movies have been quippy, lighthearted, popcorn fare, with an endless supply of redshirt robot villains, minimal human deaths, and no lingering aftereffects. Thus, when Civil War asks its characters to reconsider the fallout, there really isn’t any to speak of. I almost laughed when it was revealed that there were only about 300 civilian casualties stemming from the events in Manhattan, Washington D.C, and Sokovia.* Are you kidding me? This is negligible given the global catastrophes averted.
*Created presumably because Marvel doesn’t have the balls to kill even fictional citizens from a real country
Even the movie seems to realize the argument from the other perspective is weak, as it overlays Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr.) calls for oversight with a personal motivation linked intimately to Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan). This aspect is nicely handled in spots, particularly in the way their conflict folds both into the larger story about Bucky’s past and that of the mysterious villain pulling the strings. Still, this is also a storyline telegraphed from the beginning. The revelation that leads into the final fight feels almost like a chore because of how obvious it has been made to the audience.
Ultimately, that’s the fault of too many things going on in the movie. Every character and plotpoint is intertwined to prevent wasted screen-time; Chekhov’s gun sped up to the nth degree. The introduction, motivation, and origin of the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) are combined into one overly convenient scene; it might be digestible but it’s still a rush job. Exacerbating the issue is that the Russo brothers seem to insist all the characters deserve individual moments. This works well with some – Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) becomes the heart of the movie, while Antman (Paul Rudd) steals his spare moments – but not so much others (sorry, Jeremy Renner and Paul Bethany).
The most egregious offender of this is the extended Spider-Man (Tom Holland) bit, truly the equivalent of Wonder Woman at a laptop. Admittedly, he’s great in action at the airport scene, but his presence fundamentally makes no sense. The movie doesn’t reveal how Stark learns his secret identity, doesn’t explain why he would seek out a 16 year-old for a war, doesn’t question the ethics of recruiting a child to likely death without informing his guardian. Peter Parker’s presence comes off as self-congratulatory for the MCU.* Honestly, how novel is it to see a character who has been in five standalone movies in the last 15 years?
*And enough with the unwatchable Stan Lee cameos. Jesus Christ.
Overall, Civil War is a bit all over the map. Everything featuring the Captain America characters – Rogers, Barnes, Wilson (Anthony Mackie), Carter (Emily vanCamp), Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) – work incredibly well: those plotlines feel real, affective, following directly from Winter Soldier. The introductory sequence is riveting, lending itself well to the Scarlet Witch-centered storyline. When the rest of the Avengers get brought into the picture however, the results are more mixed. Sure, the action sequences are high-flying. But everything is busier, messier, and painted in broader strokes. With that, the core of the movie becomes a little harder to hold onto.