After a fairly stagnant summer of mixed to positive reception to Marvel’s two artistic gambles that were Age of Ultron and Ant-Man, the Russo brothers return to the Marvel universe to once again shake it to its foundation after the triumph that was Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and what results is undoubtedly the greatest achievement that a shared universe like this can offer.
Eight years ago, when Tony Stark strapped on that hot-rod red ‘n' gold metal suit for the first time in Iron Man, something like Captain America: Civil War could’ve only been imagined as a glint in Nick Fury’s good eye. The phrase “the Avengers initiative” sounded like goofy nerd nonsense to most audiences in 2008, but it has become almost as ubiquitous as something like “Agent 007” or “May the Force be with you.”
And now after eight solid years of films and universe-building pieces locking into place, finally Marvel feel they don’t have to spend too much time introducing new ideas or characters because by now we’re so familiar with this universe and its inhabitants that it’s no longer necessary. The introduction of characters like Wakandan prince T’Challa (better known as the Black Panther) and Tom Holland as our third Spider-Man in 15 years feels so assured and effortless, it’s strange to recognize this is the first time we’ve met them in Marvel’s cinematic universe. Civil War operates like a true comic book event—a massive, multiple-issue arc that brings in characters both new and familiar to tell an expansive story that somehow maintains both coherence and intimacy in the midst of so much bombastic action.
After the disaster in Sokovia averted by the Avengers during Age of Ultron’s climax, Captain America and the rest are still galavanting around the globe, stopping the bad guys with little to no government oversight. That is, until an honest mistake by newbie Scarlet Witch forces the Avengers to finally face the scrutiny that’s been building among the people of the world since Loki and the Chitauri touched down in New York. Cap feels that the new “Sokovia Accords” will only hinder the team’s ability to do good since they’ve always proven to have the people’s best interests at heart, while his counterpart Tony Stark, plagued by the horrors his creation Ultron caused in Sokovia, thinks the Avengers need some accountability after the mayhem they’ve caused since he took up the mantle of Iron Man.
Like any compelling debate, both sides have great points, and one of Civil War’s greatest strengths is giving both Cap and Iron Man equal reason to righteously feel the way they do. With Marvel’s diligent planning out of the arcs each film should take, the seeds of this diametric opposition have been sown since Iron Man 3 showed us Tony’s post-traumatic reaction to New York and Winter Soldier turned Cap’s trust of the government completely on its head.
Civil War may boast the cast of an Avengers follow-up, but the film’s emotional crux is undoubtedly Cap and his relationship with comrade-turned-communist Bucky Barnes, a through-line begun in Winter Soldier that becomes the heart of Civil War’s conflict. Bucky is all Cap has left of his past life and he’ll do anything to protect him, even at the cost of abandoning his ties with Tony and his counterparts. Luckily for him he isn’t alone, and the various superheroes start forming along party lines, ultimately leading up to a direct confrontation where Cap and Iron Man’s teams have to decide if they really want to punch each other after all they’ve been through together.
The resulting decision to come to blows is where things start to ascend into jaw-dropping spectacle. The showdown of Team Cap and Team Iron Man on the abandoned tarmac is something comic book geeks could’ve only imagined in their wildest fantasies a few years ago, but here it is as the zenith of pure popcorn entertainment. Spider-Man zips around, popping off quip after quip, while Black Panther locks claws with the Winter Soldier; it’s sheer bliss even if we don’t want to see anybody seriously hurt.
Ultimately this desire is what makes the face-off that follows it infinitely more compelling. The long-teased slugfest between Cap and Iron Man is exciting on paper but absolutely devastating to witness, as two friends come to blows in an absolutely heartbreaking moment that shifts this cinematic universe for good.
Captain America: Civil War is an achievement only hinted at in previous Marvel movies, and to see it come to glorious fruition is absolutely mind-blowing. Robert Downey, Jr. turns in his best performance since the first Iron Man, as he’s asked to run an emotional gamut from his standard cocksure, quippy playboy, to a resigned, guilt-ridden participator in the Accords, and ultimately into a wounded child who can only lash out in frustration at the betrayal he’s been faced with. It’s not perfectly paced and has some seriously bad shaky cam/action choreographing in its opening moments, but it’s ultimately the film’s compelling characters that steer Civil War into “best ever” superhero film territory.