Taking a cursory glance at today’s cinematic landscape it would appear that Marvel, or more accurately Disney, rule the world. Since 2008’s Iron Man the Marvel Cinematic Universe has built itself up into a box-office behemoth with huge cultural influence. I have never quite got the superhero hype, however. A long-time lover of ‘proper’ cinema and arthouse flicks, in recent years I have fought against this tendency to be a ‘film snob’. My Marvel Diary is a challenge to myself to watch all 23 MCU films, perhaps proving my prejudices correct, or perhaps turning me into a lifelong fan of all things superhero.
Release Date: 29th April 2016
MCU Phase: Three
Director: Joe & Anthony Russo
Writers: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Starring: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Daniel Bruhl, Elisabeth Olsen, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Tom Holland, Paul Rudd, Jeremy Renner
May contain spoilers.
My expectations going into Captain America: Civil War, the opening film in Phase Three of the MCU, could scarcely have been higher. Its poster alone promises a face-off within the Avengers, and the inclusion of a whole host of superhero characters. Depth and nuance in the heroes’ morally ambiguous stances would satisfy me intellectually, whilst team-up action would provide the giddy sense of fun. It is, on paper, my favourite MCU film. It is, in reality, my favourite MCU film.
Perhaps what I admire most about the approach writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, and directors Joe and Anthony Russo (the same team behind the wonderful Winter Soldier), take with Civil War is their decision to address recurring problems within the MCU. Just as Shane Black asked ‘how come superheroes almost dying never affects them?’ with Iron Man 3, here we dissect the large-scale destruction and collateral damage that always comes with a big blockbuster, but is rarely addressed. Civil War both challenges and attempts to rectify a recurring superhero cliché in the MCU.
In the central debate that sparks the film’s great divide – Iron Man and friends on one side, Captain America and different friends on the other – the film raises the topic of restricting the Avengers. Can they just go around saving people but wreaking havoc? Is it their right to make the call on when and how to intervene? Tony Stark wants to work with the U.N. on an accord, Steve Rogers wants to maintain his freedom. That by the end of the film I’m still not sure who’s right speaks to the thought-provoking nature of the plot.
This is something new for the MCU: a real debate and political edge, not just good versus bad. Pleasingly, the filmmakers are bold enough to go through with their premise. In previous MCU entries the debate would have been dropped in early on ‘for extra depth’ but then largely hijacked or replaced by a big super-villain who wants to destroy the whole world. Here the battle remains local and personal all the way through.
There is a ‘villain’, of course, but in this too Civil War recognises the MCU’s recurring problems and rectifies them. Daniel Bruhl’s character in this differs from every other Marvel bad guy so far in three ways: he has a proper motive that is concealed and intriguing, and one which displays the same morally dubious reasoning and emotional thrust as that of the heroes; he is not a typical villain in how he affects the plot, being a catalyst for the conflict rather than the direct cause of it; he essentially wins, leading Cap and Tony to tear lumps out of each other as he always wanted. I think this film’s climax is what cemented the quality of its approach for me. I genuinely believed the finale would be Iron Man arriving to rescue Captain America and the pair reconciling. Instead the film subverts expectations and doubles down on the central battle, having the pair manipulated into fighting.
Markus and McFeely choosing to tell a bold and new story cannot alone put Civil War at the top of the Marvel tree. For that, they and the Russos needed to tell it well. Here, again, the film delivers. Tonally, this was probably the hardest MCU film to get right. There are seriously dark moments in this, with the directors choosing to show violence that is no more graphic, but starker and more shocking in its depiction of suffering. The depth of the film combined with this violent edge make this in some ways the most serious MCU movie, but it somehow proves to be the most fun too.
Bringing in Spider-Man (Tom Holland) and Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) for the first time, along with Ant-Man’s first introduction to the gang, was a hard task. They are all slotted in without it feeling jarring, and this is largely because they all serve a genuine purpose. Black Panther gives us a fresh, non-American perspective that feels entirely appropriate for a film that deals with the Avengers’ right to go meddling in other countries. Peter Parker and Scott Lang, meanwhile, are brought in for necessary levity. The old characters are still smart and drily funny, but they are worn-down and preoccupied, exemplified by a jaded Tony Stark. The new blood, on the other hand, are a riot. They come into this film for a specific purpose and allow Civil War to be as joyous as it is, without undermining the serious tone.
The film going all in on its central conceit is equally admirable. As I said, they do not abandon it halfway through. In fact, the writers continually evolve and develop the argument. Mixing an initial political disagreement with the manhunt for Bucky is an excellent idea. It complicates the debate and adds a crucial emotional angle. Tony and Steve don’t start fighting because of the accord; that is just the seed. Instead, personal loyalties (Cap’s to Bucky) and motivations (Tony’s guilt over Sokovia) explode a civil disagreement into a civil war. It underlines the inextricable link between politics and personal grievance.
Admittedly, the bar for subtlety and complexity in the MCU is set pretty low, and I can hardly claim this film to be an original, dense treatise on the ethics of intervention – after all, didn’t The Incredibles make the same point 12 years earlier? Yet Civil War has a reach far beyond what one would expect of its genre. That this does not result in the film being worse ‘as a blockbuster’, but better in fact, is probably its greatest achievement.
Civil War is not just the MCU’s ‘best film’ in a snobbish way, it is its most entertaining too, and has the best action of all. Like the rest of the film, the action is a well-blended mixture of the MCU’s different styles. There are two key battle scenes in the film, the first being the actual ‘civil war’ itself with all the characters outside the airport. It’s the moment that sold the film to everyone in the trailer, and it really delivers. It’s outrageously entertaining, utilising a variety of heroes for a variety of thrills. Ant-Man and Spider-Man bring the mid-battle humour without being irritating and the former gives us the most fun, visually playful scenes of the film. It is a blast.
That the film’s final fight, essentially a one-on-one Cap-Iron Man showdown, is not also its biggest epitomises Civil War’s best qualities. What this lacks in scale it makes up for in meaning. MCU films often feel like they lack real stakes in the action, but this remedies that by making the stakes entirely emotional. It’s not about them living or dying, but about how far Steve and Tony will go to hurt each other. The actual fighting is tremendous, too, taking the hand-to-hand style of The Winter Soldier and upping it to exhilarating effect.
That Tony Stark and Steve Rogers hammering it out is the film’s climax feels appropriate. You could reasonably complain that this is not really a Captain America film. It’s not an Avengers film either, though. It is Captain America vs. Iron Man. I love what they do with Tony and Steve here, growing the characters from Iron Man 3 and The Winter Soldier in the way Age of Ultron neglected to do. Tony is ‘on a break’ with Pepper, finding renouncing Iron Man harder than he thought, and is now racked with guilt. He is a man who is constantly trying to atone for his sins but isn’t sure the best way to do it, and resents Steve Rogers’ simple view of the world. Steve, meanwhile, is still the film’s core character in having the most dramatic arc. That this film ends with Captain bloody America executing a prison break is a big move. He is a man who believes ardently in his own goodness, but is sidetracked by sentiment and even some recklessness. The role of him as fugitive in the modern day is a great angle to take.
Despite not being an Avengers film, Civil War does squeeze in some other nice character beats. Wanda and Vision both get a bit to do, as does Natasha. I really like the hint of a rivalry between Cap’s two best friends Bucky and Falcon, too. Although I am still a bit frustrated at how little we know Falcon. Anthony Mackie is very likeable in the role, but his character is pretty flimsy. Hawkeye, too, forever these films’ spare part, appears to be the only one involved without a proper reason to pick the side he does. At least Scott Lang and Peter Parker are just excited puppy dogs happy to do what they’re told.
A quick shoutout now for all the cast. They are uniformly great and carry off the film’s big moments well. So much hinges on the Cap-Bucky friendship, for example, but we see relatively little of them together as friends. It is a testament to Chris Evans and Sebastian Stan that we buy into it so easily. That kind of good work is being done all over the place.
Captain America: Civil War recognises, as Ant-Man did too, that bigger is not always better, and that infinity stones and galaxy-level carnage are not all we want to see. Ironically, this is now the most excited I have yet been to see Avengers: Infinity War. That’s not because I want to see Thanos and the universe being threatened and all that, but because Civil War has left these characters in new and disparate places, and I cannot wait to see where they go next.
Following the ‘one serious, one light’ approach the MCU have often taken, we get two stings this time. The first is a bittersweet one with Bucky, still mentally unstable, deciding its best for everyone if he is frozen again. The reveal that he is being kept in Wakanda, a favour from T’Challa to Cap sets us up nicely to explore the kingdom more in Black Panther. Another set-up then comes as Peter Parker amusingly tries to explain all his battle wounds to Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), and we are promised that ‘Spider-Man will return’. Can’t bloody wait.
Where it Ranks
My sky-high expectations were perhaps impossible to exceed, so I did question this one. Yet, as when I wrote about Age of Ultron I disliked it more as I went on, here the more that I broke down the strengths of Civil War the more I realised there was no place for it but number one. It aims higher than ever before, combining the best elements of Iron Man 3, The Winter Soldier and The Avengers. It has properly revitalised the MCU after Age of Ultron and set the bar very high for the future, refusing to take the easy route.
- Captain America: Civil War
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier
- The Avengers
- Iron Man 3
- Guardians of the Galaxy
- Iron Man
- Captain America: The First Avenger
- Avengers: Age of Ultron
- Iron Man 2
- Thor: The Dark World
- The Incredible Hulk