Captain America: Civil War (2016) Review

Review Contains Minimal Spoilers

I don’t know if I can properly review this movie…I might like it too much. But I’ll try.

In 2012, Marvel’s The Avengers changed the cinematic landscape. It was the culmination of four years of world-building and character work that brought four leading heroes together into one landmark film that crossed stories and connected universes. It was Marvel Studios proving to the world that they couldn’t just make comic book characters work in movies, they could make entire comic book universes work in a completely new medium. And in the next four years, all of Marvel’s films have continued to expand the universe, develop existing characters, and introduce new ones to populate a fictional world that began to feel more alive and real with every installment. And now, eight years from its starting point, and four from its first landmark achievement, Marvel Studios has shown the world that they cannot be stopped, that the cement has finally dried, with Captain America: Civil War.

It isn’t just that Civil War is one of the best action movies in decades with an end of Act 2 fight scene for the history books. It isn’t just that this movie has the absolute best live-action Spider-Man that completely nails bringing one of my all-time favorite characters to life. It isn’t even just that Black Panther is the BAMFest new film character since Furiosa and maybe Han Solo before that. What makes Captain America: Civil War the absolute peak of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe so far is that underneath everything else this is a story driven by characters that we’ve gotten to know and love over the past eight years; that this is as much story of personal conflicts as ideological ones. Civil War is a success not only on its own, but as a turning point of eight years of continuous storytelling and world-building that made it so everything in this movie feels like an organic situation caused by these characters living and growing as part of an increasingly realer world.

The plot of Captain America: Civil War follows Steve Rogers and the Avengers acting as an independent peace-keeping operation following the events of the previous films. After an incident in Nigeria resulting in the deaths of innocent people, which builds upon the casualties suffered by the battles in the previous Marvel films, the UN decides that the Avengers need international government oversight. This causes a divide within the Avengers where Captain America feels this oversight would limit their ability to do good; while Tony Stark, who is still coming to terms with his responsibility for the events of some of the previous films, feels like oversight is necessary to prevent further casualties. The divide becomes an outright fissure when the signing of this UN deal is apparently bombed by The Winter Soldier, Steve’s old buddy Bucky, which results in even more death including the king of the isolated and technologically advanced nation of Wakanda. Steve thinks Bucky was framed and goes rogue trying to prove his innocence, which forces Tony and his contingent of the Avengers to try and reign him in before the world’s governments get involved. This struggle eventually involves almost every hero introduced to the MCU, including the brilliant newcomers of Tom Holland’s Spider-Man, and Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther.

While the film ends up vindicating Captain America in his suspicions, the real genius of it is that it doesn’t do so by throwing Tony under the bus. The film presents both sides of the conflict as equally valid, and even though there turns out to be a villain manipulating events behind the scenes, just solving the mystery doesn’t miraculously fix things. The plot of Civil War is the conflict between Captain America and Iron Man from beginning to end, and because Marvel has built both these characters up over the years, and this movie treats both of them sympathetically, every punch thrown in this movie carries an emotional as well as a physical weight. And the final fight between allies and friends in this film isn’t just one of the best choreographed fights in the franchise, it’s one with extreme pathos and depth. A film with a lesser understanding of Superheroes, and these characters in particular would have the audience anticipating the title fight by the end of the film, or at the very least rooting for one side over the other. What puts Civil War over the top is that through the final fight, you’re hoping more than anything for these characters to stop fighting each-other because they’re supposed to be friends.

All that, plus Civil War has all those other heroes running around, all of whom feel fully realized, effectively used, and get meaningful arcs. We get essentially backdoor origins for Spider-Man and Black Panther, the latter of which has an arc whose thematic relevance runs parallel to the main plot of the movie and opens up an entirely new wing of the universe to explore. Spider-Man feels believable both as a teenager, and as the web-slinger fully exploring his new and amazing suite of powers and trying to learn to be a responsible hero…plus he endearingly never shuts up. Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch’s arc has her also facing the responsibilities of using her powers and dealing with the fact that some people see her as a threat. Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man meets his heroes and makes the upgrade from nobody to Avenger, and might have the single biggest action moment in the film. Every character in this film is involved for a solid and meaningful reason and contributes not just a power-set, but a character. It all helps the Civil War feel like more than just a cross-over, it feels like a believable event in this world populated by actual people.

And the fight scenes, oh goodness the fight scenes. Every single one epitomizes that every single hero in this film is unique and has a purpose. The big fight scene that comes at the end of the second act where every hero is on screen fighting might be the best single action sequence this side of Mad Max: Fury Road. Every character in that fight has a unique style and contributes a new phrase to Civil War’s cinematic lexicon. Whether it’s Iron Man’s whizzing about with lasers, War Machine’s endless ammo, Cap’s shield throwing and acrobatics, the way Winter Soldier leads with his cybernetic arm, Ant-Man’s size changing, Spider-Man’s swinging and surprising strength and versatility, Black Panther’s next level Bruce Lee plus Power Ranger’s flipping and kicking…everybody brings something to the table. And besides pure action bliss, Civil War knows exactly when and how to break up the fighting with comedic beats that further endear all of these characters to the audience. There’s humor, stakes, spectacle; everything anyone can ask for out of a Superhero fight.

If The Avengers was Marvel showing the world that their ambitious plan for a series of interconnected movies was achievable; than Captain America: Civil War proves that it’s more than a gimmick. Civil War is the perfect culmination of almost a decade of world-building and character development, and a reward for everybody who’s grown to love these characters. It’s a film that celebrates Superheroes as a genre; fully exploring their ideology, pathos, what it really means to exist in a shared universe, and the splash-page action aesthetic that crossing over results in. It’s not a stretch to say that Marvel will keep making these movies in perpetuity, and Civil War not only shows the world that they basically can’t be stopped at this point, but sets a very high bar for any other Super movie to try and reach.