Captain America: Civil War is surely one of the greatest of all superhero movies, a rambunctious, intelligent entertainment that deserves to be mentioned in the same discussion groups as Spider-Man 2 (2004) and Batman Begins (2005). Finally, the metallic Iron Man and the patriotic Captain America can sit down and talk like human beings, about real, human issues. Yes, they also engage in routinely explosive bouts of violence, but Civil War instructs that they have brains in their heads, and they’re ready to use them.
This is a superhero movie that looks at its superhero characters and offers them a listening ear. It absorbs their problems and fears and sympathises with them. The screenplay, one of the tightest I have come across, unfolds organically, through dialogue and reason, and leads to a painfully rich conclusion that doesn’t seem phoned in from the Hollywood Satisfactory Ending Warehouse. It emerges from character. Before any physical conflict in this movie, there is at least one extended sequence in which our heroes conference, deliberate, argue, and negotiate. It’s only when diplomacy fails — as it does quite literally in the plot — that fists, shields, missiles, and all manner of superhero projectiles are thrown all over the place, usually to the immeasurable destruction of surrounding edifices. In lesser films of the genre, like 2011’s Green Lantern, the action serves as the dialogue, and great pride is taken in boasting visual effects and superpowers. The Marvel movies have so confidently established themselves that showing off is no longer a priority.
Observe the careful plotting of the movie’s first two thirds. After the total annihilation of an entire city in Avengers: Age Of Ultron (2015), Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) wrangle with their consciences, weighing the collateral damage and the deaths of countless innocent civilians. Weren’t superheroes meant to save people, not kill their loved ones? You get the cunning sensation from these passages that Marvel is responding to rival company DC’s maddening scale of destruction in their two movies about Superman and Batman. By the time the end of Civil War comes around, the writers have so astutely personalised the scope of large-scale devastation we want to stand up and applaud their audacity and intelligence.
The US government intervenes, presenting The Avengers with the Sokovia Accords, a political tome dictating total control of the superhero team by a special United Nations panel. Stark, who feels directly responsible for the Sokovia incident, wants to be put in check. The Avengers are clearly incapable of handling themselves, so he wants them to be babied, and agrees to the accords. Rogers, conversely, is an honourable man, and decides true responsibility is in taking the blame for The Avengers’ shortcomings, not brushing them off to governments whose agendas may not always align with their own. Again, the writing here is so clear and so darn good at furthering character we can’t help but admire it.
Both Stark and Rogers present convincing arguments. We want them both to have their way.
The Avengers, of course, has many members, and they too are split more or less down the middle so that lines are drawn (sometimes literally) and hesitant alliances are formed. On Stark’s team is his old friend Rhodes A.K.A. Iron Patriot (Don Cheadle); the android Vision (Paul Bettany); Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson); and two fantastic newcomers, King T’Challa, A.K.A. Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), and a quippy Spider-Man (Tom Holland). On Rogers’ team is his old friend Bucky A.K.A. the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan); Falcon (Anthony Mackie); the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen); Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner); and a funny Ant-Man (Paul Rudd). It’s a serious superhero showdown. All bets are off.
This melting pot of superheroes exists merely to incite action scenes, which it does deftly. Civil War is a well-crafted movie, made from technically gifted stock, and some of the battle scenes are so preposterous we, again, are left with little to do except commend the skill involved. There is a big confrontation in an evacuated German airport that is simply a spectacle of fists pounding away at flesh, and a much more intimate, ultimately more traumatising skirmish towards the end between Cap, Iron Man and Bucky Barnes. The genius of these fights is in the way the story naturally leads to them, through developments affectionately laid out by the filmmakers. Nothing is cheated.
Civil War is Captain America’s movie. It’s not an Avengers movie, which means Cap should dominate the foreground. He does — his story with Bucky is what drives the narrative forward. I’d say the other Avengers are called in because, by this point, they have to be.
Their villain this time (apart from themselves) is a remnant of their torrential past, someone who is, unconventionally for a superhero movie, a person and not a megalomaniac who wants to reshape the world. As sinister villains go, Zemo is low on the Richter scale, but Daniel Brühl is a complete humanist in the way he depicts his torment.
I could go on and on. Every now and again a movie of this calibre comes along and reminds me that the superhero genre is not just a mess of CGI and brainless oafs hurrying about to whack one another. They can also be sentimental, smart, patient, mature, and still pack a punch. They can be about humans, which is, after all, what most superheroes are. So why not treat them as such? Give them human drama. Give them emotions. Give them something to fight for. Don’t just make them fight.