There was a brief period last year when Batman v. Superman was scheduled for release on the same day as the third Captain America movie. Of course, at that time Cap‘s subtitle hadn’t yet been revealed as Civil War but that didn’t stop the debates immediately flaring over which film would “win” in either money or quality. Warner Bros eventually, and one could say wisely, relinquished the date, but the two films remain destined for the sort of clash their narratives focus on.
The parallels are numerous as the two films offer differing ideologies on heroes battling other heroes over differing ideologies. While it would be a disservice to Civil War to merely compare it to its rival, it’s also nearly impossible not to see Captain America: Civil War as both compliment and contrast to BvS. It must also be wondered if some of the enjoyment found in Civil War actually comes from how refreshing it is after the relentless gloom of Dawn of Justice. Debates are sure to rage between fanboys, and BvS will always have its defenders, but for the vast majority of viewers, the victor of the meta-battle between franchises is clear. The debate now becomes whether or not Civil War is the best Marvel or perhaps even the best comic book film yet made.
In the same way that Avengers was the culmination of the groundwork Marvel built throughout their initial Phase One films, Civil War feels like the ultimate product of everything the studio has produced since the very first time we saw Robert Downey Jr. put on the Iron Man suit and received our first hint at the Avengers Initiative. It’s little wonder that many people look at Civil War as an “Avengers 2.5” rather than one of Marvel’s solo superhero films. However, that distinction between group and solo title is an important one. Placing Civil War under the Captain America banner gives the story a grounding it needs to keep from mimicking the over-stuffed near mess of Age of Ultron. As prominent as Falcon, Black Widow, and Scarlet Witch may be, directors Joe and Anthony Russo wisely center the action on Captain America and Iron Man, continuing a rivalry present since the two first appeared together in Avengers.
After a collective seven films we’ve become experts on Steve Rogers and Tony Stark. We’ve seen how they’ve worked together and how they’ve worked on their own. Through their previous teaming they’ve become close enough that their occasional flare ups look more like a pair of friends debating than enemies bent on the other’s destruction. We’ve seen Cap’s idealism and humanity at work. We’ve seen Iron Man’s guilt and redemption. And it’s this backdrop which gives the conflict central to Civil War any meaning. Without this shared history we’d be left with empty vessels espousing contrary opinions rather than fleshed out characters finally reaching their boiling point after years of simmering resentment. Their face-offs carry both inevitability and dread. There is enough emotion in their battles that when it all comes down to Steve and Tony (which is in the trailer so it’s not a spoiler) the strikes feels personal and that much more brutal. These aren’t action figures bashing against each other, these are brothers given no other recourse but to fight.
While the film clearly focuses on Cap and Iron Man, with Winter Soldier as a solid third, the other characters vary greatly. Most of the shine is given to Chadwick Boseman, who nails (so to speak) the role of Black Panther, complete with a motivation and arc that aligns with the films’ various themes. T’Challa leaps onto the screen as the equal of his more established rivals and Boseman proves he is ready to lead an overdue Panther film. Elizabeth Olsen continues to be strong as Scarlet Witch and has some excellent development alongside Paul Bettany’s Vision, hinting at heartbreaking possibilities. The film’s opening demonstrates the growth of Anthony Mackie as Falcon, making up for the character’s fun but possibly degrading appearance in last year’s Ant-Man. Slightly less present, especially in consideration to Winter Soldier, is Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow. She’s pivotal in a handful of scenes but continues her trend of being lost among the big hitters in the MCU. Similarly Don Cheadle remains a great actor buried among the many, many characters constantly added to the Marvel roster.
However, perhaps the biggest oversights are Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye and Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man. Both actors are given a chance to perform to their strengths, Renner with intensity and Rudd with wit, and both characters are given some shine yet they feel somewhat obligatory. They are great to see, particularly with Ant-Man, although it’s hard not to imagine that Rudd was only one set for a couple of days with the rest of his performance left to voiceover, but other than universe building and continuity, they aren’t essential. This varying focus isn’t necessarily bad, but it does give pause as we head into Avengers: Infinity War, an ensemble piece with a supposed 66 characters.
But, let’s admit it, everyone wants to know about Spider-Man.
Civil War‘s take on Peter Parker is wonderful. As much as Tobey Maguire embodied the role in the first two Spider-Man films (we won’t mention the third), and as much as people may have felt that Andrew Garfield was the best part of his last two forgettable adventures, Tom Holland is exactly the Peter Parker that the Marvel Cinematic Universe needs. He’s childish, overeager, impressionable, and a delight just when the film feels in danger of being too serious. If viewers aren’t excited for the next Spider-Man movie after his appearance in Civil War then they never will be. Yet as great as it is to see the Webslinger on screen alongside the rest of Marvel’s mightiest, he clearly stands out as a computer effect during the big hero showdown and his introduction is a rather large detour within the narrative. In fact, a comparison could be made between both Spider-Man and Ant-Man in Civil War and Wonder Woman in Batman v. Superman. The film is definitely made better by their inclusion, but it wouldn’t be at all difficult to leave them out, especially as they only seem to show up long enough to establish their presence in the universe and get in a few licks during the big fight. They’re all great but… detached.
Action sequences in Civil War are a bit of a mixed bag. Other than some less than stellar CGI the airport fight scene teased in the trailers is everything it’s cracked up to be, even down to ideal one-on-one pairings. The scene is as close to a series of splash pages as comic books have yet achieved and seeing the two sides lineup in opposition is a moment of sheer geeky joy. (My inner fanboy was giddy at watching comics come to life.) However the bland surroundings and the close to mid-range shots don’t quite capture the scope of the battle. It’s hard not to imagine how small they all look in comparison to the vastness of an international airport or wish that the Russo brothers had put a bit more attention into layering their action the way Whedon did in the original Avengers. It’s a great scene, but it could have been even greater. Similarly, as wonderful as it is to see the characters working together in the film’s opening sequence, the amount of shaky cam makes it difficult to actually focus on what’s happening. The effects are there, the choreography is solid, we know the performers can pull off the stunts, let us see the action. What is meant to add intensity distances viewer from scene. There are times when Civil War does feel like a Jason Bourne movie, but that doesn’t mean the camera has to shake as much as it does during one of Matt Damon’s fights. The film has several knits to pick, but the complete garment is strong enough that it doesn’t fall apart.
There is still so much to discuss in Captain America: Civil War (humor, non-superhero characters, treatment of villains, themes, how Marvel handles darkness, dialogue, style, etc) but the most debated question will likely be if Civil War is Marvel’s best movie. Honestly, I don’t know. It doesn’t have the out-of-nowhere brilliance of Iron Man. It doesn’t have the scope, joy, or banter of Avengers. It doesn’t have the game-changing intensity of Winter Soldier or the freshness and fun of Guardians of the Galaxy. It does however have many, many of its own qualities which easily place it among the best. Civil War pushes the quality of superhero movies up another notch. It sets a new standard and makes us re-evaluate everything which came before it (in other words, BvS‘s is even worse now). With Civil War as a beginning, and everything else as prelude, Marvel’s Phase Three had better be spectacular.