Despite the apparent excesses of Captain America: Civil War (2016), this raucous Marvel outing of big brother disagreements, focuses on key relationships threatened by politics and circumstance. The world has grown weary of superhero destruction in the name of salvation. The audience, along with the heroes, are forced to watch a sequence of videos from New York, Washington D.C., Sokovia, and then Lagos as destruction rains down in the aftermath of heroic action.
This sets up the grand political backdrop of 117 nations creating a registration for powered individuals. Signing, or not signing the agreement, creates the conflict. Steve Rogers / Captain America (Chris Evans) clearly believes right and wrong are non-political objective facts, while Tony Stark / Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), inheritor of a weapons manufacturing empire, sees a need to compromise in order to avoid being pegged an outlaw. As the oldest and richest of the Avengers, he seems to also want to play father to the rag-tag band of heroes, but because he has never had children, he doesn’t understand the subtleties of fatherhood, and learns too late that just putting your foot down isn’t going to change the attitude or perspective of your wayward children.
In many ways, Civil War is Marvel’s answer to Alan Moore’s Watchmen, in which reviled superheroes have been forced to retire. Here though, rather than put them out to pasture, they force the issue, sorting them into a group that supports the “Sokovia Accords” by signing them and being subject to a UN panel’s approval before being deployed, or they don’t — for whatever reason — and they are instantly branded fugitives.
Civil War echoes contemporary issues throughout. Wanda, the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), is held at the Avengers compound because she is an illegal alien, of the political variety, living in the United States. However, the central evil that spurs on the civil war and fuels it when reconciliation is near, is no member of Hydra, nor is he an extraterrestrial bent on world domination. No, Helmut Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) is a rather gifted soldier set on subterfuge after he lost his wife, son, and father in the wake of Sokovia. We hear him, multiple times, play back the last voice mail from his wife. His family is killed, miles outside of the city by debris falling from the remnants of Sokovia after it exploded in the atmosphere. Zemo is the ultimate lone wolf terrorist, possessing Cold War secrets which he invokes to wreak havoc.
Zemo represents the constraint of the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) choices in Civil War. Some may feel the film had too many characters, even at 146 minutes, with few receiving enough camera time to develop a personal narrative. Yet, with characters like Zemo, the film delivered a story un-muddled by superfluous Marvel mythos. Not only is Zemo focused, but entire groups of characters from the comic book version of Civil War are cut, including icons like the Fantastic Four, several mutants, Doctor Strange, Daredevil, and the New Warriors. And, rather than Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross leading the charge for the government, in the comic series, it was Maria Hill under direct order from the President, creating the “anti-superhuman response unit”. Except in passing reference, S.H.I.E.L.D. plays no role in Civil War.
The differences between the MCU and the Earth-616 mainline narrative in the comic books are vast, but it is important to give a sense of how much more sprawling and overstuffed Civil War could have been had director brothers, Anthony and Joe Russo, along with writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, not remained fixated on coherency.
The coherency leads to nearly flawless execution. The Russos deftly shift from complex chase sequences to intimate moments, with a good glad-handing of humor. Echoing Zemo’s motivation, Alfre Woodard’s Miriam Sharpe poignantly shoves a picture of her son into Tony Stark’s chest to remind him that real sons, daughters, husbands and wives are left dead in the aftermath of arrogant superhero justice. For feel good and humor, Captain America finally gets to kiss a Carter, but not before Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) struggles for a little leg room in the getaway car.
The major fight scene between Team Stark and Team Cap lights up the screen like no fight sequence before it. If the invasion battle in The Avengers (2012) remains the touchstone for epic, as multiple realms and giant machines battle over the World City that is New York, Civil War’s battle was small and personal. Friends fighting friends. The ultimate pre-Thanksgiving dinner smackdown for two families with differing political views slammed together by a government mandated event.
There is one sequence, however, which almost overwhelms the film because it comes across with such natural quiet amid the din of destruction: the recruitment of Spider-Man (Tom Holland) by Tony Stark. The mini-reboot of Spider-Man, borrowed back by Marvel from Sony, introduces a very modern, and more hip Aunt May (Marissa Tomei), and a very young and gregarious Peter Parker played by the charming Tom Holland. After the banter with Stark, Spider-Man’s performance in the big fight scene, his irreverent late-Millennial humor, and the post-credits Spidey moment, the next Spider-Man movie is pre-sold. Bring on the Spider-Man Homecoming.
The most pivotal introduction is that of Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), an African-based superhero from Wakanda, the home of vibranium (the super metal used to create Captain America’s shield). When his father the King dies during the Accords signing ceremony, T’Challa, takes up the family superhero mantel. Rich, handsome, and not afraid to remove his mask, the Black Panther was a symbol of the ‘60s Civil Rights Movement before the party that shared the namesake was founded — a nod to how comic books sometimes presage social movements. The character quickly finds his way into the fray, with his father’s death by terrorism a very personal motivator for choosing sides.
Perhaps the subtlest choice in Civil War was for the characters to mostly use first names with each other. Civil wars are by their nature a dis-integration of once shared values and purpose. Civil wars break families apart by creating new lines of demarcation that become physically or ideologically impossible to cross. That they know each other and that they are still family, does not change when the war occurs. The battles between Tony and Steve aren’t abstractions, but very personal playground throw-downs between people who have spent a lot of time together.
Yet, in another commentary on our modern world, we see how information plays a role in distorting truth and playing into the ideology. Bucky Barnes is accused of an act of terrorism. With all of the resources of The Avengers and the world governments, it is a blurry, low resolution photo that the world believes, with little thought and even less investigation. The image provides tabloid-level motivation for those who want quick answers to complex situations.
Unlike the far inferior Batman vs. Superman (2016), the reasons behind the Rogers and Stark rift is clear, both personally and existentially. Unlike Age of Ultron (2015), that adds nothing on a reviewing save an ever deeper longing for the film that could have been, Civil War demands repeat visits to the cinema. In both the fight sequences and the downtime, there are wonderful character moments that just can’t be absorbed properly on first viewing. Civil War isn’t a superhuman story: it is an all too human story of tragedy and regret, of misunderstanding and misinformation, of fractured souls seeking meaning, and a world where past assumptions hold no quarter.
The “Sokovian Accords” are a 20th-Century response to asymmetric warfare and alien invasion. It’s top-down control and governance in a world fueled by emergence and randomness. Whether the perceived physical or ideological threat is from ISL, Russia, North Korea, China, or elsewhere, Civil War offers an opportunity for self-reflection. The film holds up a mirror to the audience and brazenly reflects back our foibles and flaws, along with the dysfunctional ways even the smartest, richest or the bravest deal with them. Civil War offers viewers a glimpse into a new world order, but not just in the MCU: in the universe inhabited by real people sitting in a darkened theater thinking they bought a ticket just to be entertained.