The best thing Marvel's put on the big screen yet.
Captain America: Civil War
In large part, what made Joe and Andrew Russo’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier such a successful and somewhat transcendent superhero movie was that its going concern wasn’t a global or even galactic catastrophe, but a personal one. The friendship between Brooklyn bros Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan) threatened to fall apart over the course of the film’s explosive events, though, in the end, their lifelong bond endured.
“I’m with you to the end of the line,” Captain Rogers says to his brainwashed, killing-machine friend at the close of Winter Soldier in a chilling, melodramatic declaration of brotherly love. Their bond is once again the beating heart of the story in the Russos’ follow-up, Captain America: Civil War, and it’s the key ingredient that makes Marvel Studios’ latest offering their best yet.
Unlike last year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, Civil War is an ensemble superhero movie whose heroes don’t get lost in all the ass-kicking commotion. Sure, there’s more than enough ass-kicking to satisfy even the most rabid MCU fan (more on that later), but the impressive thing is that each character has an emotional arc that’s at once affecting and easy to keep track of.
Take for example Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch. In Age of Ultron, we learned that her parents were killed in a city-leveling act of war; at the outset of Civil War, we see her on the other side of that scenario as we watch her inadvertently kill innocents during an Avengers mission in Nigeria. The wicked irony of the situation leaves her in an awful state of mind, but she finds solace in the arms of her otherworldly android teammate Vision (Paul Bettany), who’s feeling romantic butterflies in his semi-synthetic belly for the first time.
You’ll find simple, affecting side stories like this running throughout the movie, but the going concern is the moral divide between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). Following the destructive events in Nigeria, the governments of the world decide it’s time for the Avengers to answer to a higher power, stripping them of the liberty to choose when and where to act. Tony, tormented by guilt (the lives lost in Nigeria, New York and Sokovia as a result of the Avengers’ gigantic battles hang over his head like the sword of Damocles), is in favor of the proposal; Steve still feels the world is safest in the Avengers’ unshackled hands.
Some of the heroes vote with Tony, like Vision, his best buddy, War Machine (Don Cheadle), and the painfully conflicted Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson). Falcon (Anthony Mackie) goes into hiding with his Captain, and they finally track down Bucky, the ever-elusive Winter Soldier, who’s deemed public enemy number one when he’s framed for recent deadly terrorist attacks. When Steve uncovers that the person responsible for the attacks is a man named Zemo (Daniel Bruhl), he gathers fresh recruits to help him stop the mad bomber, including Scarlet Witch, Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). Tony’s counter move is to recruit two new faces to the MCU: The Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and a bright, super-powered teenager from the Bronx named Peter Parker (Tom Holland). Yes, Spider-Man’s MCU debut is as amazing (no pun intended) as anyone could have hoped.
The ensuing clash between team Stark and team Rogers (taking place in an evacuated Leipzig/Halle airport) is the most gloriously nerdy thing I’ve ever seen. It’s so fun I wanted to burst, with the Russos giving each of the heroes an incredibly cool moment or two to flex their powers in strange and inventive ways. What really puts things over the top is the dialogue, which showcases each character’s colorful personality in an economic, wildly entertaining way. Spider-Man is fascinated by Bucky’s metal arm (Holland is terrific), Ant-Man is still getting used to the abilities he gained in his solo movie (he even breaks out a new trick), and Black Widow and Hawkeye discuss how bizarre it is to be fighting each other as they pull their punches.
The airport showdown (shot in glorious IMAX) is hard to top, but the climactic one-on-one battle between Iron Man and Captain America (with poor Bucky caught in the middle) raises the stakes to new levels of tear-jerking high drama. The unexpected star of the show here is RDJ, who gives not just his best performance as Stark, but one of the best performances of his career. Civil War is as much his movie as it is Evans’, and the emotional rollercoaster he takes us on is unpredictable and utterly heartbreaking.
Civil War is the best thing Marvel Studios has produced. Not only does it work well as the third act of the ballad of Steve and Bucky, but it sets up the future of the MCU brilliantly. I can’t wait to see how the odd mentor/pupil relationship between Tony and young Peter Parker develops in next year’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, and the romance between Scarlet Witch and Vision is so strange and delightful that it may be one of the main reason’s people will shell out even more dough when we arrive at Avengers: Infinity War (or whatever they’re calling it these days). Then there’s Black Panther, whose forthcoming solo movie will mark the first minority-led (and directed) entry for Marvel studios. Somehow, eight years in, the future of the ever-expanding MCU looks brighter than ever.