I’ve always enjoyed Captain America’s movies more than any other in the Marvel cinematic universe. While I also enjoy the other Marvel movies, aside from Thor which I’ve never been able to get into, the Captain America movies have been consistently top quality in my opinion. Of all the heroes, I find the Captain the most relatable and human member of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Yet in spite of all that, I was afraid Captain America: Civil War would be disappointing. Mainly because I was afraid of three things happening:
- The Civil War would be sparked by something horribly contrived and be neatly resolved by the end.
- None of the heroes would actually be harmed in the movie.
- That it was going to be an Avengers-lite movie and Captain America’s role would become secondary in his own movie.
Fortunately though I was wrong on all fronts. The Sokovia Accords, and the incident that sparks its inception, seemed like a realistic reaction to superheroes (though you can argue whether that’s a good or bad thing in a series dedicated to superheroes.) There are consequences to the fights, and they escalate in a way that builds the narrative. And despite the huge lineup of heroes, the movie remains centered around Captain America.
In short, Captain America: Civil War continues the proud tradition of being the best films in the series and has an excellent narrative that will have interesting effects on future Marvel films. It’s a fun movie that takes a look a look at the human side of Marvel’s biggest superheroes.
[For the sake of simplicity I’m referring to all the characters by their superhero name, except for Bucky because I like that name better than Winter Soldier.]
Captain America: Civil War
A Storytelling Review
The beginning of Captain America: Civil War was the worst part of the movie, mostly because I had no idea what was going on. Captain America, Black Widow, Scarlet Witch, and Falcon are tracking down a criminal attempting to steal a biological weapon. The problem being that I had no idea who this criminal was, though it was made obvious he had some history with the Captain. It’s the first noticeable sign of strain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it was only a matter of time before the weight of carrying so many stories eventually began to show. I only found out who this criminal was (Brock Rumlow, AKA Crossbones) after searching IMDB for the purposes of this article, so now I remember he was the goon who tried to capture the Captain in the elevator at SHIELD headquarters in Winter Soldier. If you’re familiar with the comic books you’ll probably have an easier time recognizing him thanks to the crossbones on his uniform, but for those like me that only know superheroes through the film franchises, you’ll likely feel a bit lost as well.
Yet the fact I didn’t know who it was at the time didn’t really affect my enjoyment of the story, as this villain’s only real job in the narrative is to provide the inciting incident that sets off the story. When Crossbones realizes he’s lost he distracts Captain America by telling him about Bucky, the Winter Soldier, which throws off Captain America long enough for Crossbones to detonate an explosive vest he’s wearing. Fortunately the Scarlet Witch manages to contain the explosion with her telekinetic powers, saving Captain America. Unfortunately, she can’t contain the explosion long enough and as she’s trying to levitate Crossbones into the air, the vest explodes and takes out an entire floor of one of the nearby office buildings. Worse yet, the explosion kills missionaries from a highly reclusive nation called Wakanda, sparking international outrage as people blame the Avengers for their deaths.
Alone this incident seems pretty minor, and it seems like a gross overreaction to what was clearly an accident. Then the Secretary of State, played by the ever persuasive William Hurt, presents a rather compelling argument: the Avengers have been indirectly responsible for several near world-ending catastrophes, violating the national sovereignty of several nations (including the United States) in the process. Now I’ve got to give Marvel props for pursuing this storyline, because it’s a risky move, and it’s already sparked a lot of debate among fans and critics.
Can Marvel superheroes exist in a world where they have to obey laws? A lot of the appeal of superheroes is their ability to act outside the law. I mean does anybody really want to see Iron Man don his superpowered tank/suit and then read criminals their Miranda rights and then wait six months for the trial to start so he can give testimony. No, we want to watch Iron Man carry a nuke through an inter-dimensional rift. So I can see why some people are concerned with this turn in the narrative, because it could easily backfire. However if Civil War is any indication, I think Marvel is in safe hands and I applaud the writers for confronting ideas that are usually taken for granted in superhero stories.
I love the story possibilities presented and Civil War took full advantage of them. Iron Man agrees with the Secretary of State and thinks the Avengers need to have some constraints and be held accountable to someone. Captain America believes that the Avengers need to remain independent or risk being used by the government for political purposes, or worse, being stopped from helping people because of politics. What I love about this conflict is that both sides have merit and both characters have their reasons for believing in their convictions. I was afraid Iron Man or Captain America would be shoehorned into being a bad guy, and that they’d be forced to act against their character in order for the narrative to work.
Fortunately the exact opposite is true, and both Iron Man and Captain America’s beliefs are all extensions of their characters and the events in previous Marvel movies.
Ever since the The Avengers, Iron Man has been suffering from PTSD and while it was kind of addressed in Iron Man 3, it’s not a condition that can be cured by blowing up a bunch of Iron Man suits. More to the point, Iron Man wants someone to be accountable to because he doesn’t want to be in charge anymore. He’s the de facto leader of the Avengers, and that responsibility has been wearing him down. To be honest I didn’t like Age of Ultron, but I did like that Iron Man was confronted with his greatest fear: the death of his friends. He created Ultron, in part, so that he wouldn’t have to be the leader anymore and some larger entity could care for the safety of Earth. And when Ultron went rogue, Iron Man felt responsible for that too, crushing him beneath the psychological burden of guilt and fear. For all the power his Iron Man suit provides, his mind is still human.
Civil War, not content to sit on this previous character building, adds even more backstory by introducing us to Iron Man’s father. It shows us that Iron Man’s sarcastic rebelliousness against authority figures started with his attitude towards his father. His father died with the last words from his son being those of sarcastic indifference, a regret Iron Man holds to this day. So while Iron Man finds himself resenting authority figures, he’s also terrified of being without them.
With all this in mind it makes perfect sense that Iron Man, who once gave an Ayn Rand inspired speech in Iron Man 2, has come to see government oversight as the only way forward.
Meanwhile Captain America has his own reasons for his conviction in maintaining the independence of the Avengers. He began his life as a soldier fighting in World War 2 against a nation that used its military to perform the most horrific atrocities mankind has ever seen. Then later in The Winter Soldier, he uncovered a secret Hydra conspiracy to take over SHIELD and that wasn’t even the worst part. The worst part was that the United States government signed off on using the Helicarriers to effectively implement martial law without anyone ever knowing it. So he’s seen bureaucracy corrupt and destroy nations, and doesn’t want to become the unwitting weapon of an evil conspiracy, or be prevented from helping people because of some deadlocked oversight committee.
Captain America has always been the epitome of the individualist spirit, the belief that even a single person can make a difference. A belief that’s further reinforced by the death of his old girlfriend, and her eulogy which reminds Captain America of why he fights.
Still, Civil War‘s pacing is dead on and the Avengers don’t simply dissolve into a brawl the moment the Sokovia accords are presented. Instead, Captain America agrees to back out gracefully and leave the others to sign the accords if they choose. At the signing of the accords though, a bomb is set off, killing the king of Wakanda and implicating Bucky in the ensuing investigation.
Obviously Bucky has been framed but that knowledge doesn’t detract from the story because Civil War is wise enough to not present it as a mystery. Instead the writers at Marvel used it to set the stage and stakes of the ensuing battle.
Captain America breaks ranks, and a multitude of laws, in order to save Bucky from the police. During the fight they encounter Black Panther, who turns out to be T’Challa, the son of the assassinated Wakanda king. He appears with a suit made of the same material as Captain America’s shield, and while there’s a brief mention of how he got the suit, I’m honestly okay with Black Panther just showing up. At this point not every superhero needs their own movie dedicated to their origin story, and Black Panther’s desire for revenge is the perfect starting point for him. He slides effortlessly into the Marvel canon without derailing the pacing of Civil War.
After the fight Captain America, Falcon, Bucky, and Black Panther are taken into police custody. Once again, Captain America is given the chance to sign the accords, but this time it’s presented as an ultimatum: sign or go to jail. Which is exactly the wrong way to approach Captain America, since he’s one of those people who would go to jail for their convictions before sacrificing them.
While the Avengers argue over the Sokovia Accords, a man posing as a psychologist is brought in to evaluate Bucky. Using the keywords implanted into Bucky’s brain, the imposter learns the location of the laboratory where Bucky was created and escapes. Leaving Captain America and Bucky on the run again.
With the Avengers split in two, both sides start to gather allies. Captain America and Falcon get their gear returned to them by Sharon Carter, the granddaughter of Captain America’s former girlfriend. I want to take a brief moment here and say that I found Captain America’s new romance with the granddaughter of his former girlfriend both awkwardly shoehorned in, and incredibly creepy in a Woody Allen kind of way. It felt completely unnecessary to the story since we never see the two together again, but it’s a minor bump and doesn’t take long to get back into the real story.
Hawkeye frees Scarlet Witch, who was being held in “protective” custody by Vision (you know, the worst unstoppable and overpowered hero to come out of Age of Ultron) while Iron Man recruits Spider-Man to the cause.
I’ve got to say I love this new Spider-Man, the actor absolutely nails the performance and best of all, Civil War doesn’t rehash the Spider-Man’s tragic backstory. I desperately hope the new Marvel-Sony Spider-Man (lots of hyphens) movie keeps this as his introduction, because do any of us really need to see Uncle Ben die again? We all know the story now.
Meanwhile Captain America recruits Ant-Man to his cause. I never saw the Ant-Man movie, because it sounded like an utterly ridiculous premise, but his performance in this movie alone makes me want to see that movie now.
With each side assembled, Captain America and Iron Man confront each other at an airport.
I love how this scene was setup, because it perfectly reflected the character’s personalities in the fight. Iron Man is, let’s face it, arrogant and brash. So when he disables the helicopter Captain America is running towards, he lands with War Machine and begins sarcastically quipping about the people you meet at the airport. Iron Man or War Machine alone could beat Captain America, and together he doesn’t stand a chance.
I want to give Robert Downey Jr. a special mention here because his performance while he’s talking to Captain America is what really sells the emotion of this upcoming fight. You can see the stress etched on Iron Man’s face, and the desperation to end this gnawing at him as his sarcasm quickly gives way to anger and resentment. He almost looks on the verge of tears, at least it did in my opinion. Anyway, back to the fight.
Iron Man is so confident in his victory that he unveils his new Spider-Man ally, using him to take Captain America’s shield. Iron Man lays all his cards on the table because he’s certain he’s got a winning hand. Captain America though, is a soldier and a veteran of countless battles, battles where he was often outmanned and outgunned. So instead of arraying his team in a big clump like Iron Man, he splits them up tactically to take advantage of Iron Man’s artless strategy of brute force. Ant-Man is hiding on Captain America’s shield, since he knows that would be the first thing Iron Man would try to take. Hawkeye is positioned to provide cover and free Captain America from any constraints. And Bucky and Falcon locate the jet the Avengers use so they can hijack it.
Iron Man takes the bait and his entire team disperses hunting down the members of Captain America’s team.
I know I don’t usually mention anything other than the writing, but I really want to give credit to the fight choreographer(s) who put this scene together. It would have been easy to pull a Snyder and just use a bunch of explosions and punches to keep our eyes happy before moving onto the next scene. Civil War doesn’t do that though. Instead the fight ebbs and flows naturally, and everyone’s characters fight like you’d expect them to.
It’s also made clear from the onset that everyone on both sides is actively holding back, aside from Black Panther who is consumed by rage at this point. Iron Man intentionally misses with his missiles, using them only to distract Hawkeye and Scarlet Witch. Meanwhile, Spider-Man, being a kid, has never been in a real fight. I think the best part of this fight is when Bucky tries to punch Spider-Man, who blocks it and says “Dude, you have a metal arm? That’s awesome!” because the look on Bucky’s face is priceless.
Theoretically the super strong and agile Spider-Man should be able to mop the floor with Falcon or Bucky or even Captain America. But he’s a kid, who has never fought a battle in his life, and so he finds himself outmaneuvered by the more experienced fighters. Which is what I mean when I say the characters fight in a way that you’d expect them to.
Another great thing about this fight is how well it flows not only narratively, but in terms of tone. One of my biggest gripes about the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe is that tonally it’s all over the map, going from a serious life or death struggle in one moment to hilarious hijinks the next.
The battle at the airport starts out with a light tone with plenty of humor provided by Spider-Man and Ant-Man. But as the battle progresses, the heroes get tired and injured, and tempers begin to flare. Slowly the action ramps up as they begin holding back less and less. The final act of the battle turns exceptionally dark. Tired and frustrated as Captain America and Bucky make their escape in the Avenger’s jet, War Machine asks Vision to shoot out the engines on Falcon’s wing suit. Vision misses and instead destroys the Arc Generator in War Machine’s suit, causing him to go into a free fall.
War Machine hits the ground hard and it’s pretty clear he’s not getting back up anytime soon.
Even though it was caused by friendly fire from Vision, Iron Man blames Captain America for War Machine’s injuries who has ended up paralyzed from the waist down. There’s no coming back from this moment, even when the Avengers get back together, this baggage is going to follow them. The tension is palpable, and when Black Widow confronts Iron Man about backing down, he looks just about ready to hit her. Iron Man goes to a very dark place, and I’m not sure how he’s going to get out of it.
For a few moments there, after Iron Man finds out that Bucky was framed, it seemed like he might admit he was wrong and let bygones be bygones. At least until the imposter doctor, a member of Sokovian Intelligence whose family was killed, shows Bucky killing his mom and dad.
The fight that follows is unlike any of the other fights I’ve seen in Marvel films. It’s brutal. Almost savage. All restraint that once held them back is gone, and Iron Man, Bucky and Captain America are now actively trying to kill one another. You can feel the raw emotions behind their blows, and it’s easily the most outstanding fight scene in Marvel films history.
Iron Man is eventually disabled, with Captain America holding himself back from taking a killing blow, and that’s how the movie ends. But the Civil War is far from resolved. That’s what excites me most about Captain America: Civil War, I have no idea how the Avengers come back from this. Bucky sends Iron Man a note at the end of the film promising to be there if needed, but Iron Man doesn’t seem entirely convinced. And I honestly hope it’s not that easy. To my eye the Avengers look irrevocably broken, and I’m excited to see how they resolve that.
The biggest mistake Marvel could make at this point is to resolve this in the first fifteen minutes of their next movie, as it would undermine all the terrific storytelling that was on display in this movie. I’m hoping, and judging by the Marvel’s release schedule I think I’m right, that healing the wounds the Avengers suffered in this movie will be slowly resolved over the course of several movies.
We’ll see what the future brings, but for now I’m incredibly hopeful going forward and I hope Marvel continues to produce quality movies like this. I recommend everyone see this movie if you’re a fan of any of the Marvel universe. It’s not going to make you cry, but it’s definitely an emotional rollercoaster that will make you feel the anger and frustration of both Iron Man and Captain America.
Because this is a Civil War.