I think we can all agree that THE WINTER SOLDIER is one of the very best films Marvel has released so far. There was some pressure on the Russo brothers then to outdo themselves with CIVIL WAR, but let me tell you… they rose to the occasion. A word of warning: I feel the film has been out long enough for me to take a full spoilers approach with this review – don’t read if you haven’t seen it yet.
Yes, this is the third Captain America movie, but I think we all know that we’re dealing with a little more than that here. We’ve known that ever since Robert Downey Jr. signed on to join the cast and it became clear what the premise of CIVIL WAR was going to be: Cap and Iron Man, going head to head, each with their own team of superheroes at their back. Although he is undisputably still the lead, this is not just the continuing story of Steve Rogers, but of all of the Avengers, save for a couple of notable exceptions. It’s a 2,5 hour epic that almost feels bigger than anything Marvel has ever done, even though in other ways this is actually a much more intimate story than we’re used to seeing from them.
So the world is fed up with all these superheroes running amok across the globe, resulting in untold amounts of property damage and countless civilians getting hurt. At the start of the film, Cap and his team (consisting of Black Widow, Falcon and Scarlet Witch) are in Nigeria, trying to prevent a terrorist attack by Crossbones (Brock Rumlow from WINTER SOLDIER, still played by Frank Grillo). It’s a fun but hectic action scene with Bourne-style editing, ending with an explosion that kills a number of innocent people. Sure, our heroes managed to prevent a much greater catastrophe involving a bio-weapon, but it still doesn’t look good on their resume. Back home, they’re confronted by the Secretary of State (William Hurt), who informs them that superheroes will no longer be allowed to do as they please without supervision. A set of documents has been drawn up called the Sokovia Accords (named after the country that ended up in ruins after AGE OF ULTRON). It states that the Avengers will now need to answer to the United Nations, who will determine when and where they will be deployed. Each member of the Avengers is asked to sign individually, or risk becoming a wanted fugitive.
As you would expect, some people sign, some people don’t. They form sides, then bash each other’s fucking skulls in. Well, they don’t really, not until the very end, but there’s certainly some heated debates, some annoyed looks. It gets worse once the building where the Sokovia Accords are to be officially finalized, gets blown to hell in a bomb attack. And look who apparently did it: it’s the motherfucking Winter Soldier, and now Steve’s gotta protect him from everyone else because he knows Bucky didn’t do it. As the film goes on, the rift between the two sides grows larger, leading to one of the most ambitious action scenes Marvel has ever attempted.
CIVIL WAR is an example of an almost perfect blockbuster. It truly has it all: a gripping story, great, likeable characters, thrilling set-pieces and plenty of laughs to boot. Captain America has been my favorite MCU character for a while now, with Tony Stark following close behind, making it a joy to get to follow them around for a couple of hours. The motivations of both characters are clear enough that you always understand where they’re coming from and have no issues believing the drama that unfolds between them. The rest of the cast is fantastic too. We’ve seen these people so many times now that we’ve come to feel like we know them, and watching them interact with each other is as comforting as putting on an episode of your favorite TV show. Special mention must go to newcomer Black Panther, played by Chadwick Boseman. It’s really getting ridiculous how right Marvel gets it every time with their casting, because Boseman instantly wins you over with a cool as shit performance. Before this film I couldn’t have cared less about a guy in a panther suit, but I should’ve known there was more to him than that. He actually plays a big part in CIVIL WAR, fitting into the story nicely without feeling like he was shoehorned in to promote a movie that’s only coming out in two years.
Let’s talk more about the action, which is well done and plentiful. We’ve got the aforementioned brawl with Crossbones, a nifty chase scene, a good number of short hand-to-hand fights, a huge airport battle that many critics are describing as the best comic book action ever put to screen and finally, a brutal punch-up between Steve and Tony that will make you scream “NO!!” and “YES!!” at the screen in equal measure.
It’s all good stuff, although I feel it’s worth mentioning that the immense praise for the airport battle, in my humble opinion, isn’t entirely earned. For me, the stakes were simply too low to get that type of reaction out of me. These two teams of superheroes disagree on something and feel strong enough about it to have a little tussle, but nobody is really in danger here, this is never anything more than a friendly match. These people are not trying to kill each other, they’re not even trying to hurt each other (just subdue or slow each other down, I guess), which makes for a very strange dynamic throughout the whole fight. Hawkeye and Black Widow lamely exchange punches, quipping all the while about how they’ll still be friends afterwards. Other parties go at each other with a bit more intensity, but it never becomes dangerous for anyone, except maybe by mistake, like when Ant-Man throws a truck that turns out to not be a water truck, or when Vision accidentally shoots War Machine out of the sky. Aside from that nobody seems too affected by what’s going on. Spider-Man* is happily chatting away while fighting and instantly makes us look forward to his upcoming solo film. Ant-Man gets the biggest laughs by acting as the voice of Tony Stark’s conscience (and then becoming a goddamn giant), and there are plenty of other pleasant little face-offs between our favorite heroes. It’s a joy to behold and honestly, I deeply respect the Russos for even being able to figure out the logistics of such a long fight involving so many heroes with so many different powers. It all flows super smoothly and it’s just chock-full of little creative beats that make you chuckle or nod your head approvingly. In the end though, the lack of any real dramatic stakes meant it didn’t really get my adrenaline flowing. In comparison, I was way more involved in the battle of New York in THE AVENGERS or the street fight in WINTER SOLDIER.
Luckily, they do manage to generate more drama during the final fight between Cap and Iron Man. The discovery that Bucky killed Tony’s parents was predictable, sure, but it provided a completely believable reason for Stark to go berserk on him and anyone standing in his way, even if that someone happened to be Steve Rogers. The Russos fully understood that the video Zemo plays for them had to be absolutely brutal in order to make Stark no longer care whether he would hurt or even kill Steve in the process, and boy, was it brutal. The way Bucky dispatches mom and dad would not have been out of place in something with an R rating, making it feel completely natural for Tony to lose his shit. I mean, wouldn’t you? Since throughout the three movies it’s been very well established just how much Bucky means to Steve, it’s just as understandable that he fights back, meaning this scene gave me what I was missing from the airport battle: intensity, drama and a bit of tension regarding the outcome.
There’s only two things letting me down in that final fight. The first is something that actually bothered me throughout the whole film, namely the fact that CIVIL WAR is lacking a decent soundtrack. There’s so much emotion behind the punches these two guys are throwing at each other, yet there’s none in the music. Composer Henry Jackman delivers an average, forgettable superhero score that doesn’t carry an ounce of the weight of what’s happening on screen. Remember that iconic slow-mo shot of Cap holding up his shield while Stark fires his beam at it? It’s fucking beautiful, and with the right score it could’ve been epic. It’s a real shame, especially since Jackman does seem to have some magic in him somewhere, judging by his excellent work on films like KICK-ASS and X-MEN: FIRST CLASS.
And the second thing? They used a different take of Tony replying to Cap’s statement of “He’s my friend” with “So was I.” If you remember, back in the first trailer Downey seemed really sad and emotional when saying that, selling the tragedy of the situation. In the final film he says the same thing but he says it angrily, like he could’ve added some cursing and it would’ve felt totally natural. “So was I, you goddamn flag-waving piece of shit! Remember that super-fast punching trick I used during my fight with the Hulk in AGE OF ULTRON? I’m gonna use that on your asshole, you cocksucker!”
All kidding aside, I do understand the decision to use the angry take, as it fits better with Stark’s state of mind at that point. Anger is what’s causing him to lash out against Cap, he’s deliberately ignoring his other emotions. Still, I do miss the original take – it was the standout moment of that first trailer and the thing that instantly convinced me I needed to see this film as soon as I possibly could.
By the way, can I just say how pleasantly surprised I was by the overall structure of CIVIL WAR? I knew Zemo was going to be in the film, but the trailers didn’t show him at all, convincing me there would be a secret third act after that big airport battle which would have all heroes set aside their differences and fight a much bigger threat together. But no – instead it turns out Zemo is just a soldier who lost his family during the battle of Sokovia and is now trying to get some justice. He’s very realistic about never having a chance in hell to do any damage to a superhero himself, so he needs them to take each other out. Which is why the climax of the film is all about luring the two biggest heroes to a secluded place, dropping some shocking knowledge on them and then letting hem rip each other apart. Zemo doesn’t even stick around to watch it unfold, he just strolls outside and sits down in the snow, slowly trying to gather the courage to blow his own brains out. It’s such an interesting approach compared to the now standard trope of having the heroes go all out against the evil forces in some huge battle, often ending with collapsing buildings, crashing space ships or general waves of CGI bullshit caused by one of those fucking space gems. How refreshing to have a relatively small scale fight instead, just two friends going at it and slowly reducing each other to bloody messes. In my book, that type of drama will always beat any soulless pixel feast, no matter how pretty.
To finish off the review, I’d like to quickly mention the obvious similarities between CIVIL WAR and that other comic book blockbuster that came out recently, BATMAN V SUPERMAN. When you stop to consider it, it really is interesting to see how much overlap there is between these two films that came out at roughly the same time. The driving force behind both stories is the concern with collateral damage from superheroes fighting supervillains all over the globe, resulting in countless innocent casualties. Both featured lone, sneaky villains manipulating the two biggest heroes into fighting each other, going as far as to stage bombings to make sure it would happen. Lastly, both feature new characters being introduced to set up their upcoming solo films.
Well, if we’re considering this to be a contest between Marvel and DC, I think it’s undeniable that Marvel completely crushed their opponent. While I really did enjoy parts of BATMAN V SUPERMAN and actually look forward to seeing it again, CIVIL WAR is objectively the superior film. It’s got a clearer, much more interesting story, more satisfying and entertaining action sequences, it juggles more characters but brings them into the story in a much more organic way, giving all of them (or I should say, most of them**) a believable reason to be there, and even with a 2,5 hour running time there’s no clutter whatsoever – everything feels like it should be there. Simply put, it’s an awe-inspiring achievement and the Russos should be proud of themselves. I can’t think of anyone better to direct the upcoming INFINITY WAR films.
* Though I loved Spider-Man’s contribution to the battle, it did result in some strangely confusing character decisions. Why exactly does Tony Stark draw an unexperienced teenager into this huge, potentially dangerous battle? He manipulates Peter, knowing full well the kid idolizes him, and even resorts to blackmail by threatening to reveal his secret identity to Aunt May. That’s some pretty sinister shit, especially once you realize that Spider-Man, had he known all the facts, would much sooner have joined Cap’s team than Tony’s.
** One thing that bothered me was the way Ant-Man was brought into the story. Don’t get me wrong, I loved that he was there and he was involved in some of the funniest moments in the film, but when you think about it, this is one fight he really should have backed out of. Didn’t he spend his entire solo film trying to earn the privilege to spend time with his little girl? Would he really give that up again so easily, barely even shrugging when Steve Rogers tells him he’ll become a wanted man if he joins them? I don’t believe that for one second, and I was thinking about it whenever Paul Rudd was on screen, cracking jokes like he didn’t have a care in the world.