Captain America: Civil War is not the best movie Marvel Studios has made. That honor still belongs to Guardians of the Galaxy. But it is the best proof of concept for Marvel’s now eight-year-old shared-universe plan. This movie doesn’t excel in spite of its overabundance of characters and reliance on plot points from films past. It excels because of them, and because it uses the characters’ histories to add texture you just can’t get from a stand-alone film. When Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) start throwing punches at each other, the blows sting all that much more because we know what these guys have gone through together. And it makes the circumstances that have brought them to this troubling point all the more painful.
Yes, heroes fight heroes in Civil War, and in spectacular, awe-inspiring fashion. But that doesn’t remotely describe the film in total. At its root, it’s a direct continuation of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, both in terms of plotting (the actions of one James “Bucky” Barnes are again a chief concern) as well as theme (conspiracies loom large here, as does a slowly unraveled mystery rooted in the past). It’s also a sort-of follow-up to Avengers: Age of Ultron, in that differences of ideology continue to fester inside the Avengers community.
Civil War opens with the team waging a battle against Crossbones (a returning Frank Grillo) that goes horribly wrong, resulting in the death of a number of innocents. Tired of the ancillary damage and loss of life, the nations of the world present the heroes with the Sokovia Accords, a document that, when signed, will put the Avengers under United Nations control. A guilt-ridden Tony think’s its the best and only option available to them. Steve, however, would rather the Avengers govern themselves, free of possibly corrupt influences. A rift forms, one that widens to a canyon when there is a terrorist attack on the United Nations, killing the king of Wakanda, among others. Surveillance photos show Bucky (Sebastian Stan) is responsible, though Steve is not convinced, and the hunt for the brainwashed spy is on. The militaries of the world plan to shoot on sight, and Tony has no choice but to comply. So Steve goes rogue in an attempt to find Bucky first. Meanwhile, there’s a mysterious man named Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl), who’s going around collecting long-lost HYDRA documents pertaining to the Winter Soldier program. It’s pretty clear this man is framing Bucky, but his motivations remain purposefully hidden for most of the movie.
Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, along with directors Anthony and Joe Russo, weave the narrative in a way that makes room for both jaw-dropping, super-powered spectacle and smaller moments of emotional struggle. There’s a lengthy throwdown at an airport, where Tony’s team (consisting of Black Widow, War Machine, Vision, the new MCU version of Spider-Man and the Black Panther, a Wakandan warrior-prince who is the son of the murdered king) attempts to block Captain America and Bucky from fleeing to a Siberian HYDRA facility. Cap’s rounded up his own crew for protection, including Hawkeye, Falcon, Ant-Man and Scarlet Witch, and the ensuing battle is the stuff nerd dreams are made of. Spider-Man swipes Captain America’s shield with a nifty bit of web-slinging. Ant-Man shrinks down to infiltrate and short-circuit Iron Man’s internal systems. No one is trying to kill anyone else per se (you won’t find any of Batman v Superman‘s cruelness here), but the stakes are high enough and the action written cleverly enough that the whole sequence proves exhilarating.
Screen-time for each character varies, but the Russos make sure everyone gets an arc and a few moments to shine. Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) fits in more naturally here than she did in Age of Ultron. There is some subtle and canny foreshadowing concerning Vision (Paul Bettany) and the Infinity Stone that’s stuck in his head. Ant-Man basically shows up, fights at the airport, earns a few good laughs and then departs. But as usual, any minute Paul Rudd appears on screen is pure gold. Then there are the new characters, who absolutely rule. Black Panther (a regal Chadwick Boseman) factors into the plot more than I thought he would, instantly becoming a key piece of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And Spider-Man … where do I even start with Spider-Man? He’s my all-time favorite superhero, but until this movie, I never saw the character I loved from the comics properly portrayed on screen. Sam Raimi and Toby Maguire never quite got it. Marc Webb and Andrew Garfield definitely never got it. But Tom Holland’s version of Spider-Man is the best possible version of the wall-crawler brought to three-dimensional life. A nervous and paranoid teen at home, he fires webs and zingers with eager abandon once he’s suited up and on the front lines. I am not ashamed to admit I quite literally cried over how perfect the Russos were able to realize Spider-Man in this film. His Marvel Studios-produced solo movie can’t arrive soon enough.
Toward the end, the movie sheds its large cast and hones in on those characters most important — Cap, Tony and Bucky. There are revelations that shake the MCU to its core, and Evans, Downey and Stan do some of their best work of the entire Marvel saga in this film’s final act. Civil War also breaks Marvel formula by not having a big action climax, offering up more of a personal, emotional finale instead. And one with kind of a downer ending, at that. Still, the MCU was due its Empire Strikes Back moment, and Civil War earns the uncertainty that permeates its final minutes. At this point, it’s almost passé to say it when it comes to the Marvel juggernaut, but, boy, I cannot wait to see what comes next.