While trying to stop a biochemical terrorist threat in Lagos, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a.k.a. Captain America, and his team of Avengers inadvertently cause a lot of collateral damage and civilian casualties. The incident was arguably avoidable, and one that new team member Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) wishes she could take back. The international incident leads to hundreds of countries begging for oversight when it comes to the crew of “enhanced humans,” a notion that Avengers founder Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) agrees with. The ideological argument between Steve and Tony divides many within the organization. Things get complicated and explosive when Steve’s former best friend turned enemy Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) is implicated in a bombing at the U.N. Steve knows that Bucky has information on a shadowy figure (Daniel Brühl) intent on unleashing an unknown global threat, and wants to protect him for reasons beyond friendship. Tony, on the other hand, sees Steve’s actions as reckless and short-sighted and would prefer to see Steve and his supporters arrested before any more harm is done.
On narrative and emotional levels, Captain America: Civil War (which is more of an Avengers entry than a Cap-centred one) might be the deepest and most thoughtful superhero film since Sam Raimi’s Spider-man 2. Finally broaching the idea that superheroes need to be held to some degree of accountability for their actions and how their very presence encourages villains to try harder, this film from returning Captain America: The Winter Soldier directors Joe and Anthony Russo does more for advancing the characters of the Marvel universe than any previous crossover effort. When placed side-by-side with Joss Whedon’s fun, flawed, and less than excellent pair of Avengers films, this is unquestionably a superior form of blockbuster product. It fixes any problems that were overwhelmingly prevalent in Avengers: Age of Ultron by giving everyone something to do, making sure all character arcs are in place, and that newer characters like Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther, Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man, and Tom Holland’s delightful take on Spider-Man are integral to what’s going on rather than sideline players. It’s a breath of fresh air, but one can’t help but wonder how long that can be sustained.
As opposed to Zach Snyder’s botched and over-stylized, incredibly douchy take on the D.C. Comics universe, the Russo brothers understand that darkness and silliness have to be earned incrementally, and neither setting should be wallowed in for too long. Regardless if a sequence involves action or characters bantering back and forth, the Russos have mastered properly transitioning between tones. And while Civil War might be the darkest incarnation of the Marvel franchise (and certainly the most resolutely adult), they still understand the need for levity, especially in a story about dudes in tights with superpowers getting chastised for accidentally killing lots of people across several films while being certified bad-asses.
Evans, Boseman, and Downey get a chance to play around with the film’s themes of guilt and remorse, handling the dramatic heavy lifting of the film. Meanwhile, Stan and Brühl steal the show on a dramatic level by breathing life into two characters perpetually caught in the crossfire of The Avengers, with both actors displaying a weariness that offsets the usually sunny disposition of the Marvel universe.
The action sequences will undoubtedly go down as some of the year’s best including a jaw dropping stairwell fight that leads into a high speed chase and a showdown between the two rival squads at a Leipzig airport. But that action can also become the film’s biggest detriment. As exciting as it is to watch, it’s still less compelling and more overwhelming than the film’s emotional core. It’s arguably more interesting to watch Tony and Steve grapple with the morality of their chosen profession than watching them clobber each other. Watching heroes beat each other up isn’t anything new. Watching them beat themselves up is something we don’t often get to see.
As Civil War wears on, the Russos push the drama into the background (save for some great individual moments and painfully obvious, but effective reveals), opting instead for a string of high spots to get the audience’s blood pumping. That’s fine, but it’s also patently exhausting. In the final third, Civil War courts being too much of a good thing and less of the interesting, highly entertaining thing it originally set out to be. Still, it’s a great time.