The Captain America franchise has long been the strongest sub-franchise in the Marvel stable. THE FIRST AVENGER was easily the best solo film of Phase One, (yes, IRON MAN fans, Downey is great in that first film and it has a really strong first hour, but the second hour is rather weak and saddled with a pretty lame villain) and the second outing THE WINTER SOLDIER is one of the all-time best Marvel films ever (second only to the first AVENGERS, in my book.) In fact, when you look at it, none of the Marvel series have managed a strong second go-round. IRON MAN 2 and THOR: THE DARK WORLD seem destined to battle it out forever for the title of "Worst Marvel Movie," and even AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON was a pretty solid disappointment.
So to say my expectations were high for this third outing with Captain America, would be a massive understatement. The law of averages seemed to dictate that eventually they'd have to drop the ball. Thus far the only truly great superhero trilogy we've gotten is Nolan's Dark Knight series. Could Marvel pull it off with a film that wasn't just a Captain America story, but the culmination of themes and character arcs that have run through several of these films from the beginning?
Let's just say my expectations were not only met, but surpassed by CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR. This is likely helped in great measure by continuity behind the scenes. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo return after directing the previous sequel, and screenwriters Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely are credited on all three CAPTAIN AMERICA outings.
Despite the fact the movie is loaded to the gills with appearances by other members of the Avengers, this really belongs under the CAPTAIN AMERICA brand. It's not a Cap story in name only. Maybe the most logical alternate title would be CAPTAIN AMERICA VS. IRON MAN. This is where four or five films of prior set-up on each of their parts comes to a head. The movie - and the audience - understands these two so well that when they come to blows, it's agonizing because we can see and understand both sides of the conflict.
Let's get this out of the way - yes, this film has a LOT in common with BATMAN V. SUPERMAN, even more than you realize from the trailers. I don't want to waste an entire review comparing the parallels point-by-point, so let's just stipulate to the fact they're there and that CIVIL WAR handily wins every comparison.
Most of you know me to be a DC guy, at least in terms of the comics. The Marvel characters and storylines never held much appeal for me, though for over five years, I lived with a friend who was deep into Marvel. This coincided with storylines like HOUSE OF M and CIVIL WAR, which means it's a rare case of me being VERY familiar with the underlying material. I recall reading CIVIL WAR and being so far on Cap's side that it wasn't even funny. Tony Stark was written almost as a total fascist, a mustache-twirling villain who'd signed onto a sinister plot where every hero had to reveal their identities and register with the U.S. government or be declared outlaws. To side with this would be to side with Bush-Cheney-levels invasion of privacy. When you throw down that gauntlet, how can Iron Man and the government be anything BUT the bad guys?
When it comes to the movie, consider me Team Iron Man all the way. All the way. Things kick off when an Avengers mission results in collateral damage in a sovereign country and the world governments finally decide they've had enough of super-powered types operating unilaterally. The United Nations drafts accords that will force the Avengers to operate with oversight, and anyone who doesn't assign it is benched. Smartly, the entire "reveal your secret identity" issue is sidestepped, mostly because no one in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has much of a private life at all.
It also helps that Tony Stark's advocacy of these measures doesn't play like him losing his marbles, but feels like the earned outcome of him being confronted with the last several years of his choices. In IRON MAN, Tony thumbs his nose at authority and flippantly reveals his secret identity in a press conference. He doesn't have the luxury of such brashness anymore. This is the man who survived the Battle of New York, who's seen his own creations subverted and used for evil, who ends up fighting his own plans gone out of control almost as often as he's fought the bad guys. Time and again, Tony has been shown there's a cost to people like him making their own rules, and he's finally reached the point where he's smart enough to take a compromise, rather than face the full force of what will happen if they REALLY provoke the world governments.
Cap makes some good arguments about how this agreement could make the Avengers the tools of an agenda they don't want to serve. What happens the next time someone wants to send a strike force into Iraq based on dubious info about WMDs? They've signed up to be heroes, not soldiers. The problem is that Cap is an idealist, and while he's absolutely right, it's an argument that reminded me of a favorite quote from Deep Space Nine's Garak, "I live in hope that you may one day see the universe for what it truly is, rather than what you'd wish it to be."
As interesting as all this is, the Accords take a backseat to the real thread for most of the film. The signing of the Accords is bombed and Cap's brainwashed buddy Bucky Barnes aka The Winter Soldier is the prime suspect. Since Cap's refused to sign the Accords, he can't be an official part of the hunt and when he and The Falcon go after Bucky on their own, the collateral damage he causes only further widens the schism between him and Team Iron Man. By this point, the film mostly abandons the ideological debate about the merits of the Accords and mostly uses it as a plot device to turn friend-against-friend.
Along the way, Iron Man picks up allies in Spider-Man and Black Panther. Both do a good job of scene-stealing and it might be the best example yet of Marvel seeding future films inside current films. If you really look at the film objectively, it becomes extremely apparently that both of these characters could be lifted out in a rewrite. Spider-Man in particular is a lot of fun, both in the battle and in his interactions with Tony Stark and it restored my interest in seeing another Spider-Man film after the debacle that was AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2.
Thankfully the other franchise outbuilding is equally unintrusive. The Infinity Stones are only alluded to once, I believe and there's nothing that feels like an unnecessary tangent like "Thor takes a bath" in AGE OF ULTRON, or a misfire like spending an entire movie with Thanos as "Guy who ominously sits on an uncomfortable throne." The real teases towards future films come from character. A lot of relationships come out of this changed permanently.
I'm torn about how much to reveal when it comes to the third act, because that's when we realize the movie has played all of us. We've been misdirected with talks of security vs. liberty, and dazzled by superhero slugfests so when the main event arrives, it's a gut punch. The real endgame here is not about a conflict of principles and pragmatism - it's a personal fight that goes right to the core of one of the characters. Even as the road to getting to this point is revealed as the manipulations of a villain, the clash works because everything about the combatants up to this point tells us they can't walk away from this fight, no matter what contrived to put them at odds.
We've seen how a shared universe can lead to bad creative calls in a film - this time the advantage of that larger world is the depth that it brings to a confrontation like this. Marvel often gets flack because as fun as their films can be, they're often too escapist and surface-level. That's a hard point to deny, but CIVIL WAR is the most ambitious of their films in terms of dealing with weightier issues. (And unlike BATMAN V. SUPERMAN, it delivers on that ambition.)
Some shorter takes:
- I respect Cap's loyalty to Bucky, but there's a point where you wish someone would point out to him that no matter how much a victim he is of Hydra, he WAS a brutal assassin. We don't really get a sense of if Cap is willing to accept that he might have to become a guest of the government, particularly if the brainwashing can't be undone. Knowing what Cap planned to do for Bucky once he caught him might have helped.
- I usually use my non-geek wife as a "control group" for movies like this. She didn't go with me and I really regretted that because I'd love to know how this film plays to someone who's not seen any of the earlier films. It feels like there's enough here to help the film stand-alone, even if the juggling act is the most complicated one in comic book films, save for perhaps X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST. (Which my wife DID enjoy, by the way.)
- Didn't miss Nick Fury, though I thought there might have been a chance of him covertly popping up to help Cap.
- I hope the Accords aren't forgotten in future films. Using them again will make them feel less like a plot device here.
- In a crowded film, I was glad to see Emily VanCamp get to briefly kick ass as Agent 13. If AGENT CARTER has to go, maybe there's a place for an AGENT 13 series.
- With the way this film ends, it's gonna be a long two-year wait for AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, which seems to be the first time the most interesting dangling threads will likely be addressed again.