The third installment of Marvel’s Captain America franchise could just as easily be marketed as the third Avengers movie, though Cap is front-and-center enough to justify the branding, and the film serves more as a sequel to Winter Soldier than Age of Ultron. The latter film is a significant contributor to the story, particularly in its introduction of several vital cast members. Let’s do a spoiler-free run-down, shall we?
Note: Some people feel that any mention at all of anything that happens in a film constitutes a spoiler; while discussing Star Wars: The Force Awakens, somebody protested that my quoting of the first four words of the opening text crawl was a spoiler. So let’s define terms, shall we? If it’s something that’s part of the movie’s ad campaign (like, for instance, which heroes are on what side), it’s not a spoiler. If it’s an obvious extension of a plot-point from one of the previous films (like, for instance, that Bucky Barnes is still out there on the loose somewhere), it’s not a spoiler. If it’s something inconsequential AND it’s in the trailers (like, for instance, the fact that Vision dresses like an accountant in his off-hours), it’s not a spoiler. Spoilers are things that the audience doesn’t know, the reveal of which are part of the fun of seeing the movie; in other words, things that would spoil the surprise. Like, for instance, if I told you that [REDACTED] has a great scene where he [REDACTED] and [REDACTED] says “[REDACTED]!”, that would be a spoiler. Are we all agreed? Okay then.
Captain America: Civil War, while being a worthy sequel to two previous films (possibly three, since Iron Man 3 sets up a lot of the action here), also succeeds as a stand-alone film in its own right. This is a solid, well-plotted, compelling story, and the Russo Brothers are masters at juggling a huge cast and multiple storylines while keeping us emotionally invested.
Following the major destruction caused by the Avengers fighting aliens over New York, Ultron over Sokovia, and by Captain America dropping a few SHIELD helicarriers on Washington DC, the UN feels that perhaps there should be some government oversight for these superheroes, who are in essence walking weapons of mass destruction. Some heroes agree with the proposal, others object, but the abstract principles become concrete and immediate when Bucky (AKA Winter Soldier) is the subject of a global manhunt following an assassination; when Cap interferes to keep Bucky from being captured and killed, things come to a head. Conflicts ensue.
As both Russo brothers explained, action in a film is only really effective when it defines a character or moves the story forward, and the action scenes here do both, and do it better than most such films. From the opening mission to the final battle between Cap and Iron Man, it’s the characters and their relationships that drive the action.
Like Winter Soldier, Civil War is as much a political intrigue film as it is a superhero movie; the questions about power and its responsibilities remain central, with characters’ decisions being largely influenced by their relationships; Tony and Steve’s conflict, Tony and Rhodey’s partnership, Vision and Wanda’s slowly-growing connection, and most significantly, Steve’s lifelong friendship with Bucky, the last remaining connection to his pre-WWII life, all provide motivation for everything that occurs.
But it’s not all emotional gnashing; there are hilarious moments, from Ant-Man going full fanboy on Cap to Spider-Man’s nonstop mid-battle wisecracking (one thing that had been sorely lacking in every previous film outing by the wallcrawler), and breathtaking action scenes. The battle between the two teams was described by producer Kevin Feige as “the splash panel scene,” and he’s right. Every shot looks like a two-page spread Alex Ross might have painted for the Marvels graphic novel. The sequence is glorious, with Paul Rudd and Tom Holland dominating the show.
While the story centers on Captain America and his hard choices, the rest of the characters are well-served, each getting their moments in the spotlight; the few scenes we get with Peter Parker make us eager for his solo movie, and the same is true of Chadwick Boseman’s terrific performance as the heir to the throne of Wakanda and protector of his people, T’Challa, the Black Panther. That film can’t get here soon enough. Paul Bettany’s Vision remains a great character, and his nascent relationship with Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), adds some charming moments and a basis for one of the film’s key events. Hawkeye and Black Widow provide solid support in the action scenes, and Emily Van Camp’s Sharon Carter carries on the family tradition established by her Aunt Peggy.
One area in which Civil War beats Age of Ultron is that it doesn’t have to serve multiple masters to the same extent. The story has been widely told of Joss Whedon’s conflict with the studio executives regarding all the scenes that were demanded in order to make the film serve as a sequel to a few movies and setup to a few more. Ultron spent so much time carrying wood for other movies that it barely had time to tell its own story. That doesn’t happen here. While Civil War follows the events of the two Avengers films, Winter Soldier, and Iron Man 3, it doesn’t rub your nose in the fact; they remind you of anything you need to know, to the point that one could walk in cold without having seen any of the previous films and still make some sense out of the goings-on. Our own Matt Blum has helpfully run down which Marvel films tie in to Civil War, so if you want to take a refresher course before seeing the new one, you can check the list.
Of course, Civil War does set up a couple of things that will pay off in the future. It introduces Spider-Man into the Marvel Cinematic Universe so Peter Parker can hit the ground running in Spider-Man: Homecoming without making us plod through Uncle Ben’s inevitable demise a third time. It also provides the origin story for Black Panther, so we can also jump right into that film without spending the first 45 minutes waiting for him to get to the costume already. That’s about it, I think, unless there’s a Vision and Scarlet Witch movie in process, and if there’s anything setting up Infinity War, Dr. Strange, or Ant-Man & the Wasp, I must have missed it. I guess I’ll just have to go see it a few more times to make sure.