Should one feel guilty for enjoying a bloated blockbuster which packs in so many superheroes that you’re practically watching life-size action figures engage in every man-child’s battle royale fantasy? When it’s written and directed by individuals with a clear understanding of how to effortlessly blend humor, adrenaline-pumped action and multiple character arcs with depth befitting of a single prestige biopic, the answer is beyond simple: absolutely not. Anthony and Joe Russo’s hugely enthralling Captain America: Civil War is the true Avengers sequel fans deserve, one whose grandiose comes more from character-driven internal conflict than the arbitrariness of throwaway plotting or diabolical villainy. Getting to brass tacks is the name of the game in this latest Marvel Cinematic Universe outing, a film that rises to such emotional and visual extremes that the biggest fear of all is how any future MCU film can possibly follow in its near-perfect wake.
Okay, so here’s my best attempt at peeling the layers of this genetically mutated onion of a plot. The film signals James “Bucky” Barnes’s (Sebastian Stan) involvement with a flashback to a secret HYDRA mission back in 1991 that involved reviving Barnes from cryogenic sleep and turning him into the deadly assassin, “The Winter Soldier.” Also in said flashback, we see Barnes ambush a car, cruelly dispose of its unseen passengers and recover top-secret blood packs hidden in the vehicle’s trunk. Flashing forward, the audience finds themselves in present day Lagos, Nigeria, the staging area for the outbreak of a biological weapon locally stolen from a masked terrorist known as Crossbones (Frank Grillo). When The Avengers attempt to retrieve the chemical agent, not only do they learn the true identity of this masked anarchist but Wanda Maximoff’s Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) unleashes her powers past the point of control, causing a nearby building to explode that takes hundreds of innocent lives with it.
Using Witch’s gaffe as evidence along with the collateral damage unleashed upon Sokovia’s populace during the battle with Ultron, Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) presents the Avengers with an ultimatum: comply with the new Sokovia Accords bill drafted by the United Nations that mandates oversight of the team or bow out from public service into forced retirement. Knowing how untrustworthy a political entity can be if given too much power, Steve Rogers refuses to sign the bill. The inevitable infringement of their rights that comes from such a mandate would reduce The Avengers to government pawns and compromise their efficacy as a unit. Much to his surprise, the normally brash Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) vows to sign the accord after recently being confronted by the mother (Alfre Woodard) of a Sokovian casualty. Tony Stark, alongside Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) and Vision (Paul Bettany), all feel as though the team must have some level of accountability if it means less bloodshed in the future.
Lines are firmly drawn in the sand between the opposing philosophies after an explosion during the Sokovia Accord ratification ceremony in Vienna robs the life of one of the bill’s most prominent supporters, King T’Chaka of Wakanda (John Kani). Working in the shadows, a man named Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl) frames Bucky Barnes for the attack by releasing manipulated camera footage of him near the scene of the crime. This enrages T’Chaka’s son, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), who dons his lethal Black Panther suit and vows vengeance against the Winter Soldier. Wanting to the get to the truth of the matter before the feds kill or capture his best friend, Captain America and his allies Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and former S.H.I.E.L.D. operative Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp) attempt a rescue mission that lands them in direct opposition of Iron Man and the entire U.S. government. Thus, a civil war between friends and patriots ensues. This eventually leads to the most gratifying action sequence in MCU history, involving an airport showdown, a few more comrades in arms – hello, Spider-Man (Tom Halland), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) — and an Empire Strikes Back reference that topples any previous attempt by cinema to pay tribute to Star Wars.
Through all the explosions, CGI and heavy makeup, Chris Evans is superb as Steve Rogers/Captain America, fiercely headstrong and unwilling to compromise his commitment to those he implicitly trusts. You’d imagine someone like Captain America would be law-abiding and prioritize the nation above personal relationships, but after seeing the corruption of men in power and the loss of allies because of such deeply rooted evil, it’s hard not to understand why Rogers has become such a jaded figure. Robert Downey, Jr. is also equally convincing on the other side of the spectrum, a former egomaniac who thought his mastery of technology and wealth would somehow absolve him from the inevitably of human error. When he’s sobered by the realization of such fallacies, he becomes fearful of the symbol of destruction the Avengers have created in the eyes of the naive world. Left unchecked, the team might very well become the alien aggressors they’ve long fought to protect against.
The one caveat of the epic Civil War is being unable to fully escape the reviled Avengers: Age of Ultron – Black Widow is still the weakest link in the hero roster, again underwritten despite Scarlett Johansson’s valiant attempt at showing Widow’s ambivalence towards two factions she deeply respects. Christopher Marcus and Stephen McFeely’s script never convincingly articulates her motivations to suddenly switch ideologies and support Tony Stark’s Iron Man. Then there’s the problematic Vision, who is once more a massive letdown considering he’s pitched as the world’s greatest weapon of defense. In Civil War, he primarily functions as a babysitter/creepy uncle to Scarlet Witch when tasked with detaining her in the Avengers compound “for her own safety.” Having an obsessive crush on a fellow team member seems like quite a stretch considering Vision is still coming to terms with his machine-to-sentient life form transition. Also of annoyance is the unrealistic difficulty in stopping a mere mortal like Zemo when you have nearly ten heroes on hand to prevent one individual from slipping through the security cracks.
New additions Black Panther and Spider-Man deliver as promised in the initial trailers. Boseman evinces an unyielding tenaciousness as the young monarch that commands respect even when unwarranted. Tom Holland is a breath of fresh air (hard to believe, I know) as the latest actor to don the web slinger’s suit, wide-eyed yet nobly adamant about utilizing his powers for the betterment of others. His colorful reactions and commentary mirror audience sentiment, so overwhelmed by the sheer amount of awesomeness that populates every explosive moment that he sometimes becomes blinded by his exuberance. In sum, Captain America: Civil War is one of Marvel’s finest accomplishments, a stunning realization that extravagance can extend well beyond the visual.
The film opens nationwide May 6th, so be sure to engulf yourself in its blissful chaos and check out the film’s trailer (seen below) if you haven’t already!