After Avengers: Age of Ultron, many fans (me included) had their doubts about whether the Marvel Cinematic Universe had grown too sprawling for its own good. While I loved all of the characters individually, that film felt bogged down under the weight of too many characters, too many separate franchises, too many subplots. Not to say that Age of Ultron was bad – I still found many moments to enjoy, and it made a significant contribution to the MCU with the addition of Vision, Scarlet Witch, and Quicksilver – but put alongside the rest of the movies in the Marvel canon, Ultron felt bloated, disjointed, and cumbersome.
It was easy to wonder if this gradual snowballing of Marvel’s ever-expanding universe into a muddled jumble was inevitable; after all, the MCU is a bold new experiment in entertainment. There’s no precedent for braiding together individual film franchises, ensemble films, and television shows into a single universe. Maybe it is, actually, impossible to pull off a coherent ensemble piece once the world reaches a certain scope.
So naturally, I had mixed feelings about the announcement that the Captain America trilogy would conclude with the Civil War storyline, based on one of Marvel’s most iconic, gut-wrenching series of comics. As any fan of the comics knows, the ambitious Civil War plot centers around most of Marvel’s superheroes splitting down the middle into two teams (one led by Iron Man, the other by Captain America). While the comic-fan side of me was excited about the prospect of seeing this amazing story come to life, the film fan was nervous, as Civil War would require a huge cast and a lot of character development, a task which proved itself nearly impossible in Ultron.
In many ways, the odds stacked against Civil War working were even heavier than those of Ultron. Civil War would have to set up a convincing conflict between two characters who had previously been on the same team, and make us believe that all the other members of that team would choose sides rather than remain neutral. It had to introduce two brand-new characters to the MCU in Spider-Man and Black Panther. It had to follow the continuity of the Iron Man, Thor, and Ant-Man films without necessarily requiring viewers to have actually watched those movies. It had to balance a dauntingly large cast of characters, developing them all individually and making sure each added something to both the plot and the ensemble dynamic. It had to pick up the rather messy loose threads left in the wake of Age of Ultron, tie them together with the game-changing twists of Winter Soldier, and weave something coherent out of it all. And it had to accomplish all of this while still being, first and foremost, a Captain America vehicle.
However, after seeing Civil War this weekend (twice), I’m pleased to report that if this is the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’m no longer worried.
The premise of Civil War is, at its core, simple. Following the events of Avengers, Winter Soldier, and Age of Ultron, there are those who believe the Avengers need some form of government oversight, and those who believe they don’t. After experiencing first-hand the rise of Hydra during World War II, and then returning 70 years later only to see it topple SHIELD from the inside, Steve Rogers has an inherent distrust of handing over control to the government. Meanwhile, feeling personally responsible for the devastation wreaked by Ultron, Tony Stark firmly believes that the Avengers are far too powerful to be allowed to run free. And at the center of this discussion is Bucky Barnes, Steve’s childhood best friend who was presumed dead, experimented on and conditioned by the evil organization Hydra, and let loose on the world as a weapon.
Without venturing into spoiler territory, I’ll just say that one of Civil War’s great strengths is in how thoughtfully it presents each side. Though Steve Rogers is, inarguably, the star of the movie, the film itself never feels like it takes a side. Tony’s arguments and reasons for his actions are just as sympathetic as any of Steve’s, and depending on what personal baggage and preconceptions audiences bring to the movie, their loyalty could go either way. And the same is true for the rest of Civil War’s impressive cast list – every single character has a solid argument for why they pick the side they do. It’s been no secret going into Civil War who’s on what side – the promo materials and trailers have been hitting us over the head with #TeamCap and #TeamIronMan for months – but why they do what they do is far more layered and interesting than simply choosing the person they like more.
Speaking of the characters, I was blown away by how thoughtfully and intelligently Civil War used its cast. There was not one character in the film whose motivation felt shaky, whose storyline felt forced, or who seemed to be acting out of character. Something I feel Marvel has done exceedingly well is casting actors who understand their characters inside and out, and Civil War made full use of that, conveying volumes through facial expressions, exchanged looks, and reactions. Though there’s around a dozen superheroes sharing screentime in the movie – two of whom were brand new to the MCU – they somehow managed to each have their own conflict, stakes, and development. It was like watching a master class on economy in storytelling – while juggling.
A few highlights include Natasha, who is allowed to be her best self in the Captain America films in a way she never was in the Avengers; T’Challa, who brings so much passion and sincerity to his role that I suddenly can’t wait for Black Panther; Vision and Scarlet Witch, who are both, in their own ways, feeling their way through their own humanity after the events of Ultron; and Peter Parker, whose youthful exuberance and humor reminded me why I loved the character of Spider-Man in the first place. Rhodey and Sam continue to be the true-hearted companions to their respective BFFs, and Scott Lang and Clint Barton both infuse their scenes with clever, much-needed levity.
It can almost go without saying that Steve and Tony are in top form, but I’ll say it anyway. Both Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr.’s acting chops are on full display throughout Civil War, each doing some of their best work within the MCU to date. In the hands of a lesser actor or writing team, Steve Rogers could have been a bland character, all bravery and loyalty and good old-fashioned American values, but Civil War manages to turn those very traits against him, using his loyalty to pit him against his friends, his bravery to make him act rashly, and his values to make him question the thing so many others readily accept. Meanwhile, Tony Stark has come a long way from the brash narcissist of the first Iron Man. Now, he’s a man shouldering crushing guilt and a nearly paralyzing sense of responsibility, who is trying hard to do the right thing while working through some deeply scarring personal issues.
And then there’s poor Bucky Barnes, who… well, let’s just put it this way. If I ever happen to run into Sebastian Stan in real life, he’s getting a hug.
The humor was the best version of what we’ve learned to expect from the Captain America and Avengers movies: smart, often surprising, and infused throughout while never becoming overpowering. It’s not uproariously funny like Guardians of the Galaxy, or silly like Ant-Man or even Thor: The Dark World, but there were many moments where my theater was laughing out loud, and even more in between that brought a smile to my face. I felt like the balance Civil War struck between darkness and humor was perfect, and helped keep the tone of the movie from ever buckling under the weight of its subject matter.
And make no mistake: though the character work is excellent and there is a lot of humor, Civil War is a heavy movie. I won’t lie, it’s going to be hard for some fans to watch these superheroes we’ve grown to love over the years turn on each other. There isn’t a unifying Big Bad to bring them all together in the end; every climactic confrontation in Civil War is between good guys and good guys. Neither side “turns bad” – these are all the same characters we’ve seen work together and save each other over and over in the past. Their relationships are still there (some have even grown stronger since the last time we saw them), but this conflict draws a line in the sand between them, and their differences seem irreconcilable.
In many ways, watching Civil War feels like sitting in on a fight between family members, and in that sense, it can be unsettling. These are all people that love each other, who ultimately don’t want any harm to come to the opposing side, but who also can’t let them win. They know exactly where to hit so it hurts – both metaphorically and physically. It’s different than watching the team battle a bad guy, for as the movie goes on, it’s evident that the fighting isn’t only wearing down the characters physically, but emotionally as well. Sometimes, when my kids come to me crying, I have to ask them, “Is it your body that was hurt, or was it your feelings?” And the answer, for most of Civil War, is both. With every triumphant punch landed, there’s an element of loss, of cracks spiderwebbing across these relationships which were once so strong, and wondering how much more they can take before they shatter.
Whether or not they’ve shattered by the end of the movie is open to the interpretation of the viewer. In my opinion, they haven’t – they’ve taken some serious hits, but I feel like they still weathered the storm – but I’ve spoken to others who disagree. There’s a compelling argument to be made for either side, and I’m not going to tell you which way to feel, only that I think the movie wants you to leave the theater hopeful. Whether it succeeds is up to you.
No, Civil War isn’t a perfect movie. There was way too much shaky-cam for my liking, making some of the brilliantly choreographed action sequences difficult to follow. There’s a (minor) romantic subplot that feels a little forced and very poorly timed. The viewer has to make a few leaps of logic in order to understand why a couple characters are there, and a few more to make the timeline of the movie make sense (I know they have access to some fast jets, but man). And, while this isn’t a fault of the movie itself, the film’s marketing campaign gave away way too many of the movie’s key moments ahead of release. But these are small gripes, barely enough to ding even half a star off the overall rating.
And none of those tiny complaints feel important when you consider that Civil War accomplished something I thought might be impossible after Age of Ultron: It gave me a thrilling, action-packed, thoroughly compelling ensemble film that fit seamlessly into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, introduced new characters, furthered the plot of old characters, addressed the continuity of nearly all the preceding movies, and permanently changed the terrain of where Marvel can go from here. For me, that is enough to not only establish Civil War as one of my very favorite Marvel offerings to date, but to raise the bar for what I expect from Marvel Studios for the foreseeable future.