Captain America: Civil War
Directed by Anthony Russo & Joe Russo
"Victory at the expense of an innocent is no victory at all."
Captain America: Civil War is the rarest of superhero films, one with stakes that are very human. There is no world ending calamity that needs to be stopped, there is no alien invasion, no cities are being dropped from the sky, no-one is threatening to unleash chaos or hell or the dogs of war, no-one is threatening existence, no-one is threatening reality. The stakes are guilt and vengeance and pride. The central villain of the piece has a very real and very understandable and very sympathetic motivation. Heck, depending on how you watch the film, how you interpret the behaviour of the protagonists, depending on whose argument you find the most compelling, this is a film with multiple villains, multiple antagonists. I'm not giving anything away here, I mean, it's right there in the title. Unless you missed all the marketing and saw the title and thought it was a film about Captain America going back in time to fight in the American Civil War. In which case, sorry. My bad.
With Civil War, directors Anthony and Joe Russo have, somehow, against all odds, made a film with a dozen superheroes and at least as many plot threads and sub-plots and character notes and story beats and never once was I lost in the weeds. Of course, I'm saying that as someone who as seen every film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. If someone missed, say Ant-Man, they're probably wondering how exactly Paul Rudd ended up here and what the hell is he wearing and whoa, did he just shrink? What the hell? Nearly everything else gets a moment of exposition and it all feels very organic, very natural. Anyone walking into this movie cold, never having watched anything to do with the MCU shouldn't feel too lost. The important stuff, the threads that tie this film to the other stories, not only in this trilogy but to the larger over-arching universe are introduced in ways that never feel heavy handed. As an example, William Hurt is the Civil War analogue to Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation's Alec Baldwin, summing up the path of destruction our heroes have left in their wake in the story's previous instalments. His presentation of the evidence of their destructive nature, his argument that they may need some oversight is well played and thought out and though it is exposition, it never feels like it.
I'm not going to go deep into the plot of Civil War. There are too many twists and turns and it's a joy to just watch it spool out on the screen. At it's core, the movie is about friends and teammates falling on either side of an argument. Should they do this thing? What does it mean if they don't? What does it mean if they do? Both sides make legitimate arguments, both are right, both are wrong. In a culture that has become more and more binary, more right/wrong, more either/or, it's a pleasure to see a piece of popcorn entertainment make the case for a multi-layered discussion. The filmmakers have made a piece of art that can be appreciated for both its subtleties and its action set pieces. And on its many levels, Civil War is a winner.
The action in Civil War is, in a word, bonkers. Sorry, it's a technical term. Brain melting would also work. From the first set piece to the last, in crowds, in traffic, inside or outside, in small apartments or on airport tarmacs, the audience is never confused, never lost as to where the action is taking place, the geography is always laid out in a way that the viewer can understand it. Coming from television, from things like Arrested Development, Happy Endings and Community, the Russo Brothers' resume never really screams action directors. And especially that they would be directors of action pieces that are easily to follow and are rarely filmed the same way twice. The handheld cameras of the opening set piece, used to convey the sense of jostling and crowded spaces and staying just barley in control of a situation that could unravel at any moment give way to vehicle mounted cameras during chase scenes and the use of all three dimensions when action takes to the air. The action gets bigger and bigger and bigger but their confidence never wains, the sense of danger is always tangible, always palatable.
One of the bigger surprises has to the humour. When the darkness of the subject matter threatens to suffocate the fun, when the seriousness has the potential to break the audience, Spiderman and Ant-Man are brought into the mix, with their quips and anarchist styles. Tom Holland just might be the best Spiderman, yet. Brilliant piece of casting that - hiring an actual teenager to play a teenager, with his amped up energy and natural nervousness and cockiness. I'm aware that his introduction is a way to get us all excited for the next Spiderman movie, that his appearance is essentially a studio mandated trailer, but, man, Tom Holland is just about the best. He really does add to the movie. Same with Paul Rudd, who is an audience surrogate, just one who wears a goofy costume and can shrink and stuff. If Civil War is a stew, then they are some much appreciated ingredients tossed in, whether for crass commercial reasons or not. And if we can continue with this Civil War as supper dish metaphor, then let me just put this out there - the best spice added to the meal has to be Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther. He is both the garlic and the bacon in this dish.
Mr. Boseman brings a gravitas, a dignity to the role. The Black Panther contributes a different motivation to the story, he is an outsider being dragged into the story by the machinations of the forces around him. But his character isn't passive, letting the situation dictate where he should stand or where he should fight. This film gives him a full arch, his character develops in surprising ways. That such a strong and willful character can be introduced fully formed into the mythology that Marvel Studios has created is a testament to both the filmmakers and to the actor.
And I know I'm not the first to say this, and I won't be the last, but the Captain America trilogy is Marvel Studio's most mature franchise. It's been the one most aimed at folks of a certain age, those of us old enough to remember when Cap's disillusionment lead him to give up his American citizenship. Since The First Avenger, some of us with lines on our faces have reflected on when we were kids, when Cap wore a flag and had that name but became a symbol of freedom and how things should be. When Watergate happened, Cap reacted how we reacted as kids - with a mistrust of authority. Even though he had been a symbol of that very authority for decades, the gang at Marvel used him to express their anger and frustration at the corruption and cynicism that had infested their country, all the way to its highest office. With this trilogy of films, Marvel Studios has shown that they have never forgotten that either.