When Shakespeare wrote about the “quality of mercy” in The Merchant of Venice, chances are he wasn’t thinking about perpetually quipping guys in shiny suits slamming each other into walls. Nevertheless, Captain America: Civil War takes up that generosity of spirit from its start. For all the heavy metal clanging and grunting in the film’s many fight scenes, it’s clear that everyone just wants to forgive everyone else and get back to being friends.
In part that’s due to the inalterable economics of franchise filmmaking. The Avengers as a concept holds that there’s always another threat coming down the pike, so the band will always get back together. Regardless of their occasional conflicts, these superheroes enjoy hanging out together. Who wouldn’t? Their headquarters is a sunny, comfortable kind of space, with coffee and cereal in the kitchen. Everybody has a decent sense of humor, the walking and talking AI Vision (Paul Bettany) works as a decent cyber-butler, and Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) seems happy to pay for pretty much anything.
Like so many comic book movie series now, the rift between the superheroes has to do with mortals’ foolishness. Although the audience knows the Avengers have everyone’s best interests at heart, the human population is starting to get sick of them smashing up office buildings and people’s homes. Mirroring the disquiet in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, where citizens and politicians argued over collateral damage, Civil War features a rundown of the Avengers’ greatest hits as seen from another, non-superheroic perspective. In the video montage prepared by a punitive Secretary of State (William Hurt), the Avengers’ great victories against Ultron and other supervillains appear on screen as if from the angle of people on the ground, getting crushed, drowned, and maimed by all the towering buildings and airborne carriers being flung around.
Unlike Zack Snyder’s brutal and brutally dull grudge match, however, Captain America: Civil War tries at least briefly to wrestle with the question at hand. Are these heroes with superpowers really altruistic or are they just ego-tripping? The same anxiety over the drones era broached in Captain America: Winter Soldier reverberates here, though in a less targeted manner. Is it possible, as Vision suggests, that the team is actually causing more problems simply by their existence?
That’s the rub dividing the team into two polarities. Iron Man argues for an international accord that sets up a United Nations council regulating the Avengers, so they’ll pursue no missions without authorization. The opposing side follows Captain America (Chris Evans), previously a dotting-the-i’s kind of guy, now gone rogue.
They’ve both got perfectly good reasons. Stark feels guilt wants to keep the powers that be from killing his old friend, the now-reformed but once-brainwashed assassin Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), whom Stark calls the “Manchurian Candidate”, well after the audience has thought it. Their teammates seem less deeply invested in causes, taking sides more to keep things evenly matched than anything else.
The sides are filled out, certainly: writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely assemble enough superheroes here to cast three Netflix series and another couple of offshoot-Avengers movies without anybody having to be in more than one of them. But that also makes Captain America: Civil War sometimes confusing. Any viewer is going to have at least a a few moments, particularly in the sprawling mega-battle about two-thirds through, where they wonder, “Hey, I thought she was with them” or even “Wait, who’s that?”
Overcrowding is an ongoing problem for the Avengers. Here the franchise masters give big bold introductions to some new additions to the super-family, like Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and yet another iteration of Spider-Man (Tom Holland). They also keep other storylines going by threading in heroes like Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) for comic relief — on top of that already supplied by the rest of the perennially wisecracking gang. There are times when the film almost seems to be showing off its supporting cast decisions, and for good reason. Whoever hired John Slattery to play Tony Stark’s father clearly understands the finer details of properly delivered sarcasm.
Like Captain America: Winter Soldier and the better moments of the Joss Whedon films, Captain America: Civil War works better as big group caper film than action extravaganza. You almost wish that Marvel could just find time in between all the gearing up for the next line of Spider-Man entries and the upcoming Infinity War two-parter, so that two of the team members could just go on a road trip or something. Imagine it: Stark and Rogers on a mission that has them driving across country incognito, no shield, no suit. They bicker, indulge in hijinks, and eventually learn a few things about each other.
Sure, some people would miss the big fight scenes, but that’s not what delivers the entertainment in Captain America: Civil War. This isn’t a film, it’s a clubhouse where everyone would like to be a member.