A film review by Craig J. Koban May 13, 2016


2016, PG-13, 147 mins.

Chris Evans as Steve Rogers / Captain America  /  Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark / Iron Man  /  Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow  /  Sebastian Stan as James Buchanan 'Bucky' Barnes / The Winter Soldier  /  Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson / Falcon  /  Jeremy Renner as Clint Barton / Hawkeye  /  Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff / Scarlet Witch  /  Paul Bettany as The Vision  /  Don Cheadle as Lieutenant James "Rhodey" Rhodes / War Machine  /  Paul Rudd as Scott Lang / Ant-Man  /  Chadwick Boseman as T'Challa / Black Panther  /  Tom Holland as Peter Parker / Spider-Man  /  Daniel Brühl as Zemo  /  Frank Grillo as Brock Rumlow / Crossbones  /  William Hurt as Secretary of State Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross  /  Emily VanCamp as Sharon Carter / Agent 13  /  Martin Freeman as Everett K. Ross  /  Marisa Tomei as May Parker  /  John Kani as King T'Chaka  /  John Slattery as Howard Stark  /  Alfre Woodard as Miriam  /  Hope Davis as Maria Stark

Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo  /  Written by Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus


At the risk of offending Marvel and DC fundamentalists alike, there are a striking – dare I say almost distracting – number of similarities between the thirteenth Marvel Cinematic Universe entry CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR and the recently released DC effort BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE.  

Both films are, obviously enough, sequels.  Both films take their inspiration – in various forms, some faithfully, some not so much – from critically acclaimed graphic novels.  Both films involve super heroes waging both cerebral and physical wars against each other.  Both films feature costumed guardians debating the relative value of their conflicting ideologies on vigilante justice and how to battle wrongdoing.  Both films deal with the calamitous effects of the massive collateral damage that heroes unintentionally cause while saving the lives of countless civilians.  Lastly, both films have dastardly villains whose motives, execution of their schemes, and final end results eerily echo each other. 

Where CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR emerges as the clearly superior film to Zack Snyder’s extravaganza, though, is in its tonal differences, its exemplary handling of multiple characters and story threads, and in its overall execution of the aforementioned themes.  We’ve reached a point with the super hero genre where it runs the risk of imploding on itself by losing interest in its core and widespread fan base.  A genre bubble will inevitably burst when it develops telltale signs of creative fatigue.  That much is certain.   Thankfully, there’s no apparent hint at the genre becoming stale, irrelevant, and disinteresting with CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR, seeing as it wholeheartedly delivers on multiple tiers: It’s a bordering on perfect summer popcorn blockbuster with all of the eye popping action and spectacle we’ve come to expect from the MCU; it’s a wonderfully paced and extremely thoughtful and intelligent meditation on the relative worth of super heroes in a society that sometimes fears them; and it’s a surprisingly introspective examination of the wounded and guilt-riddled super hero psyche that raises solemn questions about their accountability and how they should conduct themselves as omnipotent protectors.   



CAPTAIN AMERICA; CIVIL WAR, to be fair and honest, is not really a Captain America sequel, per se, as it is the finest crafted AVENGERS film that has graced the silver screen.  The last Cap outing, 2014’s brilliantly conceived and engineered CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, was arguably the best MCU film in how maturely and adeptly it delivered a super hero yarn that placed Steve Rogers – forever displaced in time and spirit – in a post-9/11 world of deeply rooted suspicion and anxiety.  The greatness of that film was in showing the all-American “Star Spangled Man With A Plan” as one that went from unwaveringly fighting for a just cause for his country in WWII to a modern-day disillusioned soul that began to question the very governmental bodies and institutions that he swore to protect in decades past.  The ethical conundrums that Rogers faced in that film weigh even more heavily in CIVIL WAR, especially when he sees them challenged by some members of his own Avengers squad.   

The Avengers have, of course, saved the world on a number of occasions in the previous two AVENGERS films…but at what overall cost?  CIVIL WAR deals with that tricky question head-on in its sensationally realized opening scene, during which time the Captain (Chris Evans) and his squad – Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), War Machine (Don Cheadle) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olson) – manage to take out an old, presumed dead foe from THE WINTER SOLDIER in Nigeria…only to accidentally destroy part of building and inadvertently kill many of the citizens inside.  This disaster – coming after the devastation of New York and the fictional Sokovia in the climax of AVENGERS 1 and AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTON respectively –  has led to the UN mandating some sort of governmental control of these super powered beings.  The “Sokovia Accords” would put all of the Avengers under the oversight of the UN.  Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is steadfastly with the UN, seeing as he’s ravaged with remorse and guilt over a particular death he caused during the battle of Sokovia.  Rogers, on the other hand, is cautiously dismissive of it, especially considering his whole past debacle with S.H.I.E.L.D..  In his mind, governments and politicians have agendas...and they always can change.

Predictably, this causes great tension within the Avengers.  Many side with Stark’s insistence on keeping their actions in check, including the Vision (Paul Bettany), War Machine, and Black Widow (granted, she’s more torn between the two camps than most).  On the flip side, Scarlet Witch, Falcon, Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) support Rogers’ stance on complete autonomy.  Matters get very complicated with the re-appearance of the Bucky “The Winter Soldier” Barnes (Sebastian Stan), who’s emotionally attached to Captain America despite having been brainwashed by Hydra and used as their twisted and corrupted puppet for decades.  When evidence (although not 100 per cent concrete) appears that Barnes ruthlessly assassinated the Wakanda King, Rogers swoops in to his old WWII BFF’s side, much to the chagrin of Stark.  The king’s son T’Calla (Chadwick Bosman) swears vengeance on his father, adopts the guise of The Black Panther, and sets his eyes and very sharp vibraniun-enhanced claws on Barnes.  The Panther also pledges his allegiance to Team Stark, which recently acquired the services of a very familiar Queens' residing teenager with arachnid-like abilities (Tom Hollander), and eventually everything culminates in a vast hero-versus-hero donnybrook, which has been further orchestrated by a new shadowy and villainous presence none are immediately aware of. 

CIVIL WAR is an extremely dense film.  That’s putting it mildly.  Its story is jam packed with so much exposition, so much revisiting of past Marvel films, so many characters, so many conflicts, and so many disparaging motivations that the film frankly risks getting buried by the sheer weight of it all.  Astoundingly, directors Joe and Anthony Russo (returning behind the director’s chairs) and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFreely manage to have everything coalesce so smoothly together that one often forgets how much actual story they all have to sift through.  Very little of anything in CIVIL WAR feels strained or superfluous, seeing as the Russos and company expeditiously keep the film’s juggernaut momentum moving while not forgetting to hone in on all of the finely attuned character dynamics and the evolution of these mighty beings as flawed and self-critical figureheads.  It could have been easy for the Russos (and viewers) to get lost in juggling together and making sense of over a dozen comic book characters, how they relate to one another, and how they ultimately grow to oppose each other, but the filmmakers keep the proceedings afloat with exceptional fluidity.  

The central moral quandary that the heroes endlessly battle and debate in CIVIL WAR is its most compelling ingredient.  Most intriguingly, the film never paints a blunt black and white view of its underlining issue of super hero registration and sanctioning.  Rogers certainly has a legitimate beef with signing the Sokovia Accords (“We may not be perfect, but the safest hands are still our own”).  Signing them would mean that they couldn’t act when they want to…or need to.  That, and it’s been established in previous films that not everyone in government is to be overtly trusted.  On the other hand, Stark’s insistence that he and his brethren need to be held responsible for their past indiscretions bares relatable and logical weight as well.  In his mind, freedom comes with a cost, but to Rogers freedom should be absolute.  Much has been made of fans “picking a side” in this philosophical battle, but the film, rather thankfully, never reduces it to such a woefully simplistic discourse.   

Evans’ Captain America never gets as much credit as, say, Downey’s Iron Man for being a fascinatingly colorful character, which is unfair.  Watching the underrated actor fully grow and immerse himself in the role as a symbol of law and order has been a real highlight of the entire MCU.  His straightforwardly old fashioned gumption and unwavering moral code as a hero comes in directly opposition with the paranoid and duplicitous world he finds himself residing in, and films like WINTER SOLDIER and CIVIL WAR feed off of that.  If the film does pick a side then it most obviously places Rogers in the chief protagonist role (this is his film, after all), and delegates Stark as his antagonist (but not to go as far as declaring him an outright villain).  Stark has definitive reasons for being a fairly aggressive bully to the Captain, especially when it comes to the frustration he experiences with Rogers’ refusal to sign the Accords.  Dealing with subverted and unresolved torment over his parent’s mysterious deaths (a newly introduced element to the MCU here) alongside concerns that the Avengers are out of control fuels his dogged resoluteness to the Accords.  Then there’s the Winter Soldier himself, who has segued from a vile terrorist in the last CAPTAIN AMERICA film and now into a rather pathetic and tragic figure who went from war hero to Manchurian Candidate-like drone who struggles to become a hero again because of his tortuous history.  He's the biggest victim in all of this..   

CIVIL WAR is so resoundingly assured relaying its characters with authentic and relatable psychological weight that it’s somewhat disappointing when others lack embellishment…or are just haphazardly thrown into the mix.  Tom Holland, of course, plays the new Spider-Man in the film (Marvel rather publicly and recently retained the film rights for the character), making yet another movie introduction to the character in the MCU a foregone conclusion.  There’s absolute joy to be had in witnessing Holland’s work here as Peter Parker and Spider-Man; not only is he the perfect embodiment of the youthful exuberance of the character (we finally have a teenage actor playing a teenage hero that comes off like a genuine teenager), but it’s the first time that a movie version of the wall crawler has just felt right.  Yet, it’s all paradoxically for naught considering that Spider-Man serves no tangible story function in CIVIL WAR (other than being just a last minute addition to Stark’s already crowded roster of pro-Accord heroes).  The film would simply be no worse off without the character’s inclusion here.  As indisputably entertaining as it is to witness this Spider-Man on screen here, his appearance in CIVIL WAR is nevertheless and altogether redundant.  

Another area of concern is in the film's chief villain.  CIVIL WAR has a very competent actor in Daniel Bruhl (INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, RUSH) playing Zemo, a fairly enigmatic baddie that, like the heroes he plans to decimate, has his own uniquely justifiable reasons for his motives.  As mentioned, his convoluted, Machiavellian scheme resembles that of Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luther in many concrete ways, but Bruhl is given such limited screen time in CIVIL WAR that he never fully emerges as a villain of long-standing stature and prominence.  When everything brings itself to a head in the story, which features a rather intense and deeply personal standoff between Zemo, Captain America, Iron Man, and the Winter Soldier, it achieves its intended emotional gut punch for viewers, but seeing as Bruhl isn’t given a lot to actually do in CIVIL WAR it somewhat stymies the overall stakes. 

Granted, that’s perhaps nitpicking.  This film is more about showcasing the epochal battle that pits Marvel hero against Marvel hero with highly contested lines drawn between them, and CIVIL WAR certainly doesn’t disappoint in any regard.  The Russos, just a few years ago, were helming small screen comedic fare on television, but after THE WINTER SOLDIER and now CIVIL WAR no one will ever question the calm authority and consummate skill they bring to the table in orchestrating the type of behemoth super hero battles we once only dreamt up playing with action figures as children.  The long awaited battle royale between Team Iron Man and Team Captain America – shown late in the film in an abandoned airport (like the conveniently abandoned section of Metropolis during a comparable sequence in BATMAN V SUPERMAN) is an unqualified stunner and might be one of the finest action sequences – comic book genre or not – ever conceived.  Unlike so many other modern action directors, the Russos paint the screen with clarity during these moments of mayhem.  That, and it’s cool as hell to see all of the super heroes make creative usage of all of their abilities to gain final comeuppance.  Ant-Man in particular has one trick up his sleeve that none of the heroes – or perhaps viewers – saw coming. 

This has been a long review…longer than most, so I’ll try to wrap it up quickly.  CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR doesn’t match the gripping personal stakes and sense of freshness achieved in THE WINTER SOLDIER, but as a grand and awe-inspiring comic book epic featuring nearly every hero in the MCU (sans Thor and Hulk), it might be the most wondrously conceived film in their already extensive catalogue.  It categorically delivers on sensational action set pieces and as a bravura display of cutting edge visual effects, but CIVIL WAR is more interested in ideas and themes than it is about mindless mayhem.  A lot of other super hero films could learn from it.   

And when it comes to watching every new super hero film from the MCU…”I could do this all day.”  


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