Once upon a time, I was worried that the first Avengers movie would be a complete flop. It was bringing together too many superheroes who were too different from each other, and there was no way they could all fit into one coherent plot without turning it into a traffic jam. Then Joss Whedon worked his magic and made all my fears look ridiculous. Now, four years later, consider the Russos’ task in directing Civil War. There are twelve heroes in this movie, two of whom are making their MCU debut, plus a couple new villains and side characters. Civil War has to set up the next four or five Marvel movies, wrap up loose ends from Age of Ultron and The Winter Soldier, and somehow still be focused on Captain America enough to justify marketing itself as a solo outing for him. And it manages to do all that, and still be the most entertaining movie of the year so far. I think I love the Russo brothers.
As has become the norm with Avengers movies, this one starts with a big action scene. An Avengers team led by Captain America is in Lagos, trying to stop a very angry former HYDRA agent from releasing a biological weapon. They succeed, but newcomer Scarlet Witch makes a mistake that results in lots of civilian casualties. The world’s governments have noticed that this sort of thing happens rather often, and next thing you know, the US Secretary of State is showing up at the Avengers compound, asking the heroes to sign an agreement that would put all their operations under the supervision of the UN. Tony Stark, wracked with guilt over the mayhem his mistakes caused in Age of Ultron, is all for the new rules; Cap, still fresh from dealing with a corrupt government institution in Winter Soldier, is against them. The rest of the Avengers start to take sides, but things really get personal when Bucky Barnes is blamed for a bombing at the UN headquarters. Cap is sure he’s innocent and wants to protect his friend, but the Avengers who signed the agreement are obliged to hunt Bucky down. Also on the former assassin’s trail is the king of Wakanda, who is out for revenge after losing someone in the bombing and has many more skills than his title would imply.
As superhero movies go, this one is pretty much a masterpiece. Then again, so was the also-Russo-directed Winter Soldier, so what did you expect? The action scenes are beautiful. Captain America pulls a helicopter out of the sky with his HANDS. Bucky’s method of stealing a motorcycle must be seen to be believed. And of course there’s the epic six-on-six fight between both halves of the Avengers at an empty airport. Everybody gets to show off their skills, and it’s fun to watch because none of them are actually trying to kill each other (not at that point in the movie, anyway).
The good thing about the huge, sprawling nature of the MCU is that it gives filmmakers time to develop their characters and give them believable motives and relationships. What makes this movie work is the fact that we’ve spent several years getting to know the main characters, so none of their actions seem forced or unbelievable. The central conflict is basically the culmination of years of tension between Steve and Tony, starting when they first met each other in The Avengers. And I appreciate that the movie doesn’t really take sides. Both leaders are presented as flawed men just trying to do what they believe is right. Which makes the ever-escalating conflict between them all the more tragic.
Of course, if I were to take a side, I’d be Team Cap all the way. For one thing, he’s just generally a nicer person than Iron Man, and for another, I always tend to sympathise with people who don’t trust the government. Like Steve says at one point, “My faith’s in people, I guess. Individuals.” The importance of individual choices is highlighted throughout the film; each member of the Avengers has to choose a side, after all, and each of their decisions has major consequences. This movie shows the damage that can be done by an individual who makes a wrong or ill-informed choice; but, through Bucky’s backstory in particular, it also shows the consequences of taking away a person’s ability to make the right choice. And it ain’t pretty.
I think Civil War also does an excellent–and heartbreaking–job of portraying the way a strong relationship can crumble. The Power of Friendship has been a major theme in all the Avengers movies, but this one shows that power isn’t invincible. Steve’s teamwork and friendship with Tony and the other Avengers has been able to overcome their personality differences, age gaps, murky pasts, etc.–but there are some things that can’t be forgiven with a pat on the back and a friendly monster slaying. Whether it’s a difference in beliefs or a personal injury, some rifts between friends are too wide to mend, at least for a long time. It’s, sadly, the most realistic thing about this movie. Bring some tissues. I’m serious.
On a lighter note, the new Spider-Man is great. Funny, powerful, and surprisingly angst-free (we meet him after he’s had a while to get over Uncle Ben’s death, so that helps). And T’Challa, aka Black Panther, shows up all the other heroes with his sheer majesticness and, by the end, considerable moral high ground. I can’t wait to see these guys in their own movies.
I have a few minor quibbles: couldn’t help but find the idea of Steve hooking up with his old girlfriend’s niece a bit icky, especially since her parentage is practically the only thing we know about her; and there was really no need for the location titles to cover the entire screen whenever they showed up. But those minor details weren’t enough to keep me from grinning like an idiot through the whole thing. This is a lovely film.