It’s weird how fortunes can change over the course of a single year. Take Marvel Studios for example. These guys were absolutely on top of the world in 2014 after putting out their weightiest movie to date in Captain America: Winter Soldier and their most successfully lighthearted one in Guardians of the Galaxy. They seemed to be operating at the height of their power… and then 2015 happened. The year started off with The Avengers: Age of Ultron, which certainly had spirit but was unquestionably an overstuffed mess of a movie that caved in under its own weight. It has its defenders but it was a bad sign as it suggested that things were going to get really convoluted in this series. Then there was Ant-Man which was… just kind of forgettable. It was alright I guess but in a world where they’re making half a dozen comic book movies a year it didn’t stand out and felt more like the kind of super hero movie that would have been made circa 2003 than one from the biggest name in the business. I would be discouraged by all of that, but crazy as it sounds given how many of these things we already have, the one year delay really just kind of made me hungry for a Marvel film that actually delivered and given that the Russo Brothers more than delivered with Winter Soldier all signs pointed to Captain America: Civil War being the movie that would do that.
Our story this time is set off when the newly formed Avengers headed by Captain America (Chis Evans) and featuring some second tier heroes like Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), and Black Widow (Scarlet Johansen) on a mission in Lagos where Crossbones (Frank Grillo) is attempting to steal biological weapons. This mission goes badly however when Crossbones attempts to set off a suicide vest and Scarlet Witch is forced to use her powers to levitate him away from the crowd but misses her target and sends the explosion into a populated building. The fallout of this leads world leaders to call for an accord which will regulate the Avengers and place them directly under UN control, a move which Captain America believes will put the world in danger. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), however, believes that this is a necessary check on the team’s activities and this causes a fracture among the heroes that is accelerated when Bucky “The Winter Soldier” Barnes (Sebastian Stan) reemerges and seemingly kills the king of Wakanda. When Captain America tries to save Barnes from police sent to shoot on sight he’s declared a fugitive and soon every hero is forced to choose sides.
Captain America: Civil War is in kind of an unusual place in the Marvel Cannon in that it is ostensibly a follow-up to what is clearly their best movie, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but the sheer number of superheroes in it makes it feel a whole lot like it’s also a third Avengers movie. Pretty much every Marvel hero is here except for Thor, The Incredible Hulk, and The Guardians of the Galaxy and Iron Man has a huge role in it to the point where he could be considered the protagonist just as much as Captain America. There are no fewer than twelve costumed heroes involved in this plot including two (Black Panther and Spider-Man) who haven’t been introduced to the Marvel Cinematic Universe before and in light of how much of a mess Age of Ultron and a certain other superhero team-up movie from earlier this year, that was a pretty bad sign. If anything Captain America: Civil War deserves a lot of credit for being as coherent and well-paced as it is given the immense amount of content it needs to pack into its 147 minute runtime. The movie certainly moves along at a brisk pace and it wisely opts not to overuse certain characters and to mostly focus on the conflict between Iron Man and Captain America.
The basis for this whole conflict seems a bit odd to me. The incident in Lagos would seem to be the main catalyst for all this division but more often characters cite the Sokovia incident from Avengers: Age of Ultron and the casualties there as a major influencer for people’s anxieties over superpowered people having free reign. This is curious, in part because Joss Whedon kind of went out of his way to make sure that there were as few casualties as possible in that final scene out of a seeming desire to give the middle finger to the movie Man of Steel, a fact that was not lost in the cultural reception of that movie. But even if that scene did result in a huge number of civilians killed in the crossfire it would still seem like an odd thing for the world to complain about. All through Captain America: Civil War I kept waiting for Captain America to make the most obvious argument against these accusations: “Yes some innocent people died during that battle, but if we hadn’t been there Ultron would have sent his vibraniam machine plummeting to Earth killing every man, woman, and child on the face of the earth (including all the Sokovian civilians).”
What’s more it isn’t exactly clear what the checks and balances of the accords would do to save civilians from superhero activity. If the UN was controlling The Avengers would they really have disallowed them from going to Sokovia to prevent Ultron from causing apocalyptic extinction? Would that have also disallowed them from going to Sokovia to prevent Crossbones from stealing biological weapons… that could be used to kill every man woman and child on the plant (including the Lagosians in that office building that got blown up). Seeing a pattern here. Even if you view the movie strictly as an allegory for more earthly checks on power this global outrage still doesn’t exactly make sense. We currently live in a world where the U.S. military routinely kills bystanders in drone strikes and even the most peace-loving among us can only barely muster any outrage over it. Hell, the army once accidently blew up a Chinese embassy and everyone just shrugged and kept the military industrial complex going and quickly forgot the whole thing. People are generally fairly willing to accept civilian casualties as long as they think they know who the “good guy” is.
But maybe cogent political allegory is a little too much to expect from a movie that most people are going to based on the promise of seeing a bunch of superheroes battle one another for a couple of hours. On that level the movie certainly delivers, especially in a scene around two thirds of the way through the film where the two opposing teams of heroes have a battle royale which incorporates all the heroes’ various powers in some relatively inspired ways. The scene’s impact is slightly diminished by the fact that all of the heroes involved have no intention of killing any of their opponents which kind of sucks the suspense out of the whole thing, but it’s pretty fun nonetheless. There are of course some concessions to corporate nonsense. While the Spider-Man that’s introduced here is strong it’s undeniable that he doesn’t really fit very easy into the plot and was almost certainly added as a cross-marketing move, but they somehow mostly get away with it. It would be impossible not to watch this movie and compare it to this year’s other movie which pitted iconic superheroes against each other, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and marvel at how much better this one is. That other movie’s complete and utter failure perhaps gave me a renewed respect for just how easy Marvel Studios makes the whole superhero team up thing look because this pretty much succeeds everywhere that that movie failed. It’s not as good as Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which remains Marvel Studio’s best accomplishment but it probably is somewhere in the studio’s top five.