–The Incredible Hulk
–Iron Man 2
–Captain America: The First Avenger
–Iron Man 3
–Thor: The Dark World
–Captain America: The Winter Soldier
–Guardians of the Galaxy
–Avengers: Age of Ultron
It has been eight years worth of the MCU at this point. Amid the ups and downs, the good and the bad, what has stood out more than anything else are the characters, and chief among them Tony Stark and Steve Rogers; the two leaders of both the team and the franchise: Rogers the aspirational, noble hero who always tries to do the right thing, however difficult, and Stark the troubled, haunted hero trying to make up for past mistakes and balance his unstable character. There’s been friction between them from the start due to their opposing personalities and world-views, but also steadfast respect and friendship.
Meanwhile, it has been said of this franchise that nothing can ever seriously change, that the characters have to remain in status quo from film to film. This isn’t really true, for the most part, especially given the events of The Winter Soldier, but it could be argued.
But what happens if Steve Rogers is faced with a choice between doing what he sees as the right thing and remaining an Avenger? What happens if Tony’s always-tenuous self-control shatters? And, all the while, what if the consequences of their past adventures caught up to them?
Civil War opens with a prologue showing the Winter Soldier carrying out an assassination mission in the early nineties to recover several vials of blue liquid. From there we cut to the Avengers on a mission in Lagos, chasing down Rumlow AKA Crossbones: one of the Hydra agents in Winter Soldier who ended the film having a building dropped on him. They succeed in taking Rumlow down, but a final mistake on the part of Cap and Scarlet Witch leads to considerable collateral damage. This, along with the events in New York, Washington, and Sokovia prompts the UN to move for the Avengers to be put under their authority via the ‘Sokovia Accords.’
The team disputes the wisdom of this course, with Cap arguing that they shouldn’t put themselves under the command of people with agendas who might send them places they shouldn’t go or stop them doing what they should. Stark, fresh from a confrontation with a distraught mother who lost her son in Sokovia, argues that the Avengers need to accept responsibility for their actions, though Cap points out that accepting the Accords would absolve them of responsibility by passing the buck.
The issue of the Accords, however, turns out to be secondary when the UN conference to ratify them is bombed by what appears to be the Winter Soldier, killing the Wakandan king T’Chaka in the process. Steve takes it on himself to go after his old friend, but Bucky denies involvement. From there things escalate as Cap tries to find a way to clear Bucky’s name and stop what appears to be a plot to destroy the world, while Iron Man tries to bring him in in order to prevent anything worse happening to him, with the different Avengers each taking a side based on their own particular views and loyalties. All the while, a quiet, sinister figure named Zemo manipulates events for his own purposes.
A full description of the virtues of Civil War would easily outweigh the film’s original script. It’s simply a great film all around, and there is so much care put into the story, the characters, the dialogue (almost every word has meaning and purpose, often more than one. As a simple example, when taken into government custody, Cap quips “I’m going to want that shield back,” to which Sharon Carter says, “technically it’s not yours, it’s the government’s;” sentiments that are hauntingly echoed in the climax), the action, and everything else. We have the film smoothly picking up plot threads from both Winter Soldier and Age of Ultron, and even making something of the execrable Iron Man 3, while smoothly introducing two major new characters and, essentially, tearing apart everything we’ve seen being built up for the last eight years, not cynically, but tragically, based on personal flaws and perspectives well established in past films.
One of the most impressive aspects of this film is how well it juggles its massive cast. Joss Whedon managed something similar in the first Avengers, though was less successful with it in Age of Ultron (where he sometimes ended up shuffling characters off screen for flimsy reasons when he couldn’t use them), but the makers of Civil War carry it off even better with their even larger cast. Though Cap and Tony are the focus, the film makes time to develop, say, Wanda and Vision’s relationship with a few warm conversations discussing their respective oddities, to give another meaty role to Natasha as both the team’s ambassador to the UN and the one trying to keep the team together, and, again, to introduce both Black Panther and Spider-Man and have them each be vivid personalities (T’Challa in particular is actually far more vivid and well-developed here than he is in his own film…but we’ll get to that). It even gives time to tertiary characters like Sharon Carter and the long-absent General Ross (now somehow Secretary of State).
Most importantly, when the two teams square off, we know exactly why each one has chosen the side he has, and that it makes sense in light of their character. Vision wants to create peace both within and without the team; Wanda doesn’t want to be controlled by other people’s fear; Rhody has always been the law-and-order type; Falcon always sticks with his wingmen; Spider-Man and Ant-Man aren’t really invested in the issues, but want to help the people they admire.
Likewise, their reactions to the subsequent events are entirely in character; Tony losing his temper and blasting Falcon after Rhody is accidentally hit (foreshadowing a far greater loss of control later), then being shocked and ashamed to find out where they’ve been imprisoned; Natasha switching sides when it becomes clear Cap isn’t going to stop, hoping to keep all her friends as safe as possible; Tony discovering Cap was actually right and quickly moving to help him, because they are, in fact friends.
I also like how, after the fight on the tarmac, Bucky wonders whether he can be worth all this to Steve, who reminds him that what he’s done “wasn’t your fault.” “I know,” Bucky answers. “But I did it.” He also asks about what’s going to happen to their friends, and Steve says that whatever it is, “I’ll deal with it.” Steve’s focus is on doing the right thing, carrying out the immediate mission, and trusting that he can meet each challenge as it comes without compromising.
But the film shows that it is a struggle for him; Steve doesn’t just righteously refuse to compromise throughout. There are several scenes where he honestly considers going along with the accords, where he considers the possibility that Bucky might have to be taken in, and he faces them. Like when he wavers about signing the accords, suggesting that if there were safeguards…but then realizing that Wanda’s been locked up in Avengers HQ makes him recall what they would really mean.
The relationship between him and Tony is expertly shown; Tony’s simmering resentment of how much his father talked Cap up, blended with real respect and a sense of inferiority (“sometimes I’d like to punch you in your perfect teeth”), yet also genuine affection. I like how Steve is surprised and concerned to learn that Tony and Pepper have broken up (“we’re taking a break. It’s no one’s fault”), and how Tony is still going to bat for Steve after the chase through Bucharest.
Both Steve and Tony are shown to genuinely care for each other, and even though they’re fighting at the moment, they sincerely want what’s best for the other, so that when Tony is convinced that Cap was right (which, as Natasha points out, he really should have been earlier if his ego – and possibly his extreme stress over his guilt regarding Ultron and latent PTSD – hadn’t prevented it), he immediately throws in on his side and sets off to help him as much as he can. Which, of course, makes what ultimately happens that much more tragic.
Before we talk about that scene, let’s deal with a few other matters. First and foremost is the villain; Helmut Zemo, who is surely the most unexpected, insidious, and one of the most interesting bad guys in the MCU. He has no powers beyond special-forces training, no technology beyond an EMP bomb, and no army or henchmen, yet he inflicts deeper wounds and comes closer to destroying the Avengers altogether than any other bad guy before him (and topped by only one to come). Zemo is chillingly believable as a relatively ordinary many driven by obsession and grief into doing startlingly evil things to get his revenge; he doesn’t just want to kill his enemies, he wants to destroy them morally, to tear them down, turn the Avengers against each other and, in his mind, reveal them for what they truly are: not heroes, but murderers.
And the really scary thing is that he nearly succeeds.
But then when we finally learn just why he’s doing it, we completely understand. It’s still incredibly evil and misguided, but why he would go to such extremes makes a frightening amount of sense. Zemo is immensely pitiable in his grief, and all the more disturbing for it. We come to learn that, under his cold, heartless exterior is a man in the most extreme emotional agony.
What’s more, his plan, once we understand it, makes perfect sense. It’s intricate, but based on a clear understanding of the heroes and how they might be expected to react, and all his crimes are directly related to it, not just there to show how evil he is. He even expresses sincere regret for the death of T’Chaka, and tries to reason the Hydra officer out of senselessly sacrificing his life to keep his secrets (though he still kills him in cold blood).
In summary, Zemo is without a doubt one of the best villains of the franchise; a man who is almost hypnotically frightening precisely in how ordinary and even relatable he is.
Then there are the two newcomers. First is Peter Parker, a still young and green Spider-Man, who when invited to come to Berlin and fight alongside Iron Man protests that he has homework (“I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that,” Tony groans in answer). Having Spidey in the MCU was something fans never really expected to happen, given that the film rights were still owned by Sony, so having him present – one of the most important superheroes in all of fiction – is a big deal, and it helps that this is one of the best portrayals of him to date. He’s a smart, nerdy, friendly kid. He’s eager to help and generally just thrilled to be there among all these great heroes (and of all live action Spider-Mans, this one finally meets the expected level of quippage during the battle, hilariously prompting Falcon to tell him there’s usually not this much talking). But the film also sketches his motivation very well, with his disjointedly trying to explain to Stark that, “When you can do the things that I can, but you don’t, and then the bad things happen…they happened because of you.”
Which is just brilliant; it hints at the incident with Uncle Ben, while mirroring both Tony’s typical motives (to do all he possibly can to avoid disaster) and Captain America’s current motivations (that he can’t ignore a threat, whatever the cost). Spider-Man, thus, is hinted to be a potential successor to both Cap and Tony, though he obviously needs to get a bit of mileage under him first. But even as a greenhorn superhero, he shows himself a force to be reckoned with his extreme strength and agility allowing him to fairly dominate the battlefield (he even catches Winter Soldier’s metal arm…and then exclaims about how cool it is) and showcasing just what he could be when he comes into his own.
The other newcomer is even more impressive: T’Challa cuts an awesome figure, in and out of his Black Panther persona, as a sophisticated, intensely dignified young man with an underlying current of ferocity lurking below the surface. T’Challa has a calm, cool, hyper-focused and cultured personality that embodies the message, “I am a king. You will treat me as a king, or I will rip your throat out.”
He also is refreshingly convincing as a man with a distinctly non-western outlook, as seen in his affectionate, but deeply reverential interactions with his father (the film expertly invests their relationship with great emotional weight even though they have only one scene together before T’Chaka is killed), and his matter-of-fact promise to kill Bucky in vengeance. I also really like the scene where he describes his culture’s views on death to Black Widow, and when she says that it sounds lovely, he answers, “my father thought so.” Later, when he’s been arrested along with Steve, he calmly asks him, “as both warrior and king, how long do you think you can keep your friend safe from me?” He doesn’t make any effort to apologize, nor does he berate Cap for trying to protect Bucky; he simply informs him that he will never stop coming.
Yet, he’s not completely serious or stiff either; he has moments of levity, as when he quips that he really would like to see Black Widow and his female bodyguard take each other on, not to mention his practical assessments of bureaucracy (“Two people in a room can get more done than a hundred”). I also like his snarls of frustration when his quest for vengeance is foiled at the end of the airport battle, and how he is literally trying to grab on to the departing jet with his finger tips. He’s single-minded, stoic, and has a very different perspective on the world than the western characters, but he’s still entirely human.
Black Panther is one of the most striking and unique heroes to come out of the MCU thus far: regal, intelligent, and single-mindedly virtuous in his own idiom; sophistication blended with ferocity. He’s just bursting with awesome potential. We’ll…come back to that.
Of course, one of the chief appeals of the film is seeing the Avengers taking each other on, and the movie delivers with the spectacular airport battle which undoubtedly ranks as one of the best action sequences ever filmed, certainly for a superhero film. It builds and builds from the confrontation between Cap and Iron Man, through side-skirmishes involving Spider-Man against Bucky and Falcon, Ant-Man against Black Widow, Cap against Black Panther, and so on, until there’s the famous ‘face-off’ scene where the battle lines are drawn and they charge each other. The sequence is full of great moments, like Wanda throwing cars at Iron Man, or Cap complimenting Spider-Man on his heart and discovering that they’re fellow New Yorkers. Ant-Man in particular gets another chance to show just how dangerous he can be by, among other things, entering and partially disabling Tony’s suit (“Who’s speaking?” “This is your conscience. We don’t talk much these days.”) and, as a climactic move, revealing his new ability to become Giant-Man, temporarily taking on almost the whole opposing team single-handedly (prompting a frustrated Tony to ask, “Anyone on our side hiding any shocking and fantastic abilities they’d like to disclose, I’m open to suggestions”).
Best of all, on top of the glorious action, everyone remains in character throughout. Tony and his crew are there because they actually care about Cap and the others and don’t want to risk them being shot by trigger-happy special forces troops (Ross makes it clear he’s perfectly willing to use lethal force), while Cap and his crew are trying to prevent a potentially world-ending threat. Neither can back down because they both think they’re doing the right thing. Moreover, they make it clear that (with the exception of Black Panther trying to kill Bucky), none of them are really trying to hurt each other: they’re “pulling their punches,” as Wanda says. Natasha even pauses in her duel with Hawkeye to ask “we’re still friends, right?” to which he answers, grinning, “depends on how hard you hit me.”
Yet, equally realistically, with all this power and deadly skill flying around, they can’t keep everyone safe all the time. Spider-Man gets knocked out of the fight by an errant blow from Scott Lang, who earlier nearly incinerated three of the other side when he mistook a fuel truck for a water truck. Worst of all, an errant beam from Vision meant to ground Falcon ends up knocking Rhody out of the sky, breaking his back and leaving Tony even more emotionally charged than usual (as shown by his blasting an apologetic Sam in retaliation).
Then comes that scene; the final card, the real plan all along. Zemo expertly plays the Avengers off against each other over one issue or another, weakening their bonds of trust, and then, luring Cap, Winter Soldier, and Iron Man together, far from any help, he springs his trap; not seven super soldiers (“Did you really think I wanted more of you?” he sneers), but a video tape. A tape revealing that the people the Winter Soldier assassinated in the opening scene were Howard and Maria Stark.
It’s then that the gloves come off. Tony’s emotional instability, his complicated relationship with his parents (touched on in an early scene where he demonstrates a device meant to relive and work through painful memories, in his case the last time he saw his mother and father, and didn’t take the chance to reach out), his PTSD, his resentment against Cap for being the ideal he could never reach, all the issues that we’ve seen him struggling with and working against throughout the series come out on this revelation: that his best friend has been protecting the man who killed his parents, even though he knew what he had done (a mark of the film’s care is that this was actually revealed back in Winter Soldier, meaning that if we remembered a fleeting detail from that film, we could have guessed the ending of this one).
It’s the one thing that we’ve ever seen Cap compromise on; the one time he has ever been dishonest, trying to shield both his best friends from each other. And it is these flaws – Tony’s emotional baggage, Cap compromising to protect his friends – that give Zemo his opening (foreshadowed by his sarcastic comment, “How nice to find a flaw”).
The fight between Cap and Iron Man is truly heartbreaking; these two have been the core of the franchise since its beginning, and we’ve watched their friendship and their respect grow, despite their vastly different personalities, and now that’s being torn apart before our eyes. We’ve never seen Tony lose control like this, and it’s frightening, especially since it’s not clear what Cap is going to have to do to stop him.
That was Zemo’s plan: either Iron Man will murder Bucky and possibly Cap, or Cap will have to kill Tony. In either case, there would be no going back; such an act would destroy them. Once Tony came to his senses, he would realize that he was now a murderer, while Cap could never be the pillar of virtue that he is if he either had to kill one friend to save the other, or if he failed to stop the one from killing the other. Whatever happens, the Avengers and their two leaders would be utterly destroyed.
What this means is that, as Cap is fighting Iron Man, he’s actually fighting to save both his friends. He would not, I believe, ever actually kill Tony, so the question is whether he’ll be able to disable him long enough for him to come to his senses and stop him from murdering Bucky. Of course, even if he does that, their friendship is effectively over. This is a falling out that will take a long time to heal, if it heals at all.
The fight itself is excellent, paying full respect to the abilities of both combatants: Cap dominates hand-to-hand, but generally can’t deliver enough force to seriously injure the Iron Man suit, while Tony’s technology gives him a deadly advantage, enough to take both Cap and Bucky on at the same time. But of course, Cap’s main advantage is his strategic mind and his unbeatable determination (the line “I could do this all day” returns: Cap never abandons his friends), and his final gambit is brilliant in its simplicity.
(I can’t resist noting that, in all of this; storytelling logic, emotional impact, logical choreography, and respect to both characters, this fight is the polar opposite of the battle in the contemporary Batman v. Superman. The two films could easily form the subject of a ‘dos and don’ts’ demonstration of how to do a story like this).
Then, after all that, we get a glimmer of much-needed humor (courtesy of Stan Lee as a FedEx guy) and of hope, first through Rhody learning to use his new legs and accepting his condition, then from a letter of apology that Steve sends to Tony, along with a phone to call if he ever needs him. That is perfectly Cap: he bears no grudge, understands Tony’s pain, and lets him know that he is still his friend, but leaves it up to Tony to attempt the reconciliation when and if he is ready for it.
All this and there is so much else I could talk about: the subtle villainy of Ross. Black Panther’s own character arc of coming to understand the corrupting effects of vengeance. Steve finally making his move with Sharon Carter (prompting hilariously supportive nods from Sam and Bucky). Wanda’s arc of refusing to accept responsibility for what isn’t her fault, and on and on. We have great jokes, like Sam taking offense that his suit is itemized as “bird costume,” or Scott’s awestruck first encounter with Captain America, or Vision’s habit of entering rooms through the wall (“Yes, but the door was open, so I thought…”). And perceptive moments, like when Tony wishes they had the Hulk, Natasha rhetorically asks “You really think he’d be on our side?” or the honest debate they hold over the Accords, with everyone bringing up valid and character-appropriate points.
If I really wanted to pick out some flaws, I might say that, on subsequent viewings I noticed that a few of the combatants during the airport battle – notably Vision – seem to more or less disappear when they’re not needed, and that you could ask things like where Zemo got the EMP bomb (though there are many possibilities, given what we know of him, it just isn’t explained in the film).
Really though, that would be beside the point. I’m calling it: Civil War is the best film in the MCU, and one of the best superhero films of all time. The story, the characters, the dialogue, the action, everything works, and works spectacularly. You could spend weeks studying this plot and digging out just how well put-together it is and how much it manages to accomplish. This is more than a film to appreciate; this is a film to study, and it gets better every time I watch it.