Released: 6 May 2016
Director: Anthony and Joe Russo
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Budget: $250 million
Stars: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Elizabeth Olsen, Daniel Brühl, and Chadwick Boseman
After saving the world from a near-extinction event, Steve Rogers/Captain America (Evans) and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Johansson) work alongside a new team of Avengers. However, Wanda Maximoff’s (Olsen) unpredictable powers damage their credibility and spell the end of the team unless they agree to fall under the jurisdiction of the world’s governments. This causes tensions between Steve and the other Avengers, particularly Tony Stark/Iron Man (Downey Jr.), that are only further exacerbated when Helmut Zemo (Brühl) activates James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes/The Winter Soldier’s (Stan) brainwashing and inspires a conflict within Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.
Considering that Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Russo and Russo, 2014) was such a massive hit and that, by 2016, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) had basically become an unstoppable franchise juggernaut, a third Captain America movie was never in question. The first film of Phase Three of the MCU was originally revealed under a very different title before it was revealed to be taking inspiration from the controversial storyline of the same name. Pitched as a psychological thriller, Captain America: Civil War quickly became the biggest solo Marvel movie when many returning characters and Avengers signed on to feature. The film saw not only the debut of a new team of Avengers and the introduction of T’Challa/Black Panther (Boseman) but also the long-awaited inclusion of Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) to the MCU. The directors lobbied hard to include Spider-Man and, after much negotiating, Marvel were able to reach an agreement with Sony Pictures to recast and share the character. Though ostensibly Avengers 2.5, Captain America: Civil War was incredibly successful; it made over $1.150 billion and was the highest-grossing film of 2016. Like its predecessor, the film was almost universally praised; while some criticised the film’s bloated cast and premise, many were impressed with the film’s action and intrigue and the dramatic way it fractured the Avengers to set the stage for the MCU’s biggest film yet.
I honestly can’t say that I really had much of a reaction when I found out that the third Captain America movie wouldn’t be tackling the Serpent Society; I only really know the group from the Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes (2010 to 2012) cartoon, where I found them to be annoying and over-used. However, I was a bit concerned when it was revealed that Marvel Studios would be adapting the “Civil War” (Millar, et al, 2006 to 2007) storyline as not only was I not a fan of how out of character everyone (especially Iron Man) acted in that story but the MCU Avengers had just ended Avengers: Age of Ultron (Whedon, 2015) on a high note and, like the downfall of the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division (S.H.I.E.L.D.), it seemed a bit too soon to be tearing these characters apart when they were still so new as a group.
One thing I’ve always found odd about the “Civil War” storyline is the fact that Captain America, the living embodiment of America’s ideals, is the one fighting against the government and Stark, the arrogant industrialist who actively spits in the face of governmental boards, is the one pushing for registration and culpability. Yet, it sends a clear message when the bastion of truth and freedom finds something oppressive about the ruling body and Steve is a proud man who sees the world in old-fashioned shades of black and white and has learned enough about the modern world to become suspicious of those who wield too much political power and who just wants to do the right thing without compromise. The trailers and hype for the film excited me and I was keen to see a Marvel solo movie featuring so many additional costumed characters in supporting roles as I am a big fan of that in my superhero movies after years of them all living in isolated bubbles. Plus, even with the expanded cast, the film remains, at its core, a Captain America story and is completely focused on Cap’s divided loyalties between his Avengers team-mates and his old friend-turned-brainwashed assassin, Bucky. Cap begins the film as the field commander of the newly-formed team of Avengers we first saw at the end of Age of Ultron; as always, he is all business when on the job and determined to teach the younger members of the team, like Wanda Maximoff, how to best scope out potential targets and situations and build a rapport as a team.
The catalyst for the eventual conflict within the Avengers is Wanda; unlike the other members of the Avengers, she’s still very young, inexperienced, and an outsider. Add to that the fact that her “Hex Powers” are both unpredictable and volatile and she is a bit of a powder keg, despite her generally calm and composed demeanour. Deep down, she just wants to help people and do the best she can so, when she instinctively uses her powers to hurl Brock Rumlow/Crossbones (Frank Grillo) into the air to keep his suicide bomb from killing innocents, she is devastated when her throw goes awry and kills several Wakandan humanitarians. Although Steve tries to console her, rightfully pointing out that no-one, however (super)powerful can save everyone, she only really feels a connection with the Vision (Paul Bettany), another being born of an Infinity Stone to whom she has grown very close and who desires to not only explore his abilities and humanity but who also seeks to understand the nature of the Infinity Stone embedded in his forehead.
Cap’s team is also comprised of his friends, Sam Wilson/The Falcon (Mackie) and Black Widow. Now much more comfortable in his role as a superhero, the Falcon has built a camaraderie with the other Avengers and is a vital member of the team thanks to his drone, Redwing, and his specialised flight suit, both of which allow him to provide unprecedented air support. Natasha, meanwhile, continues to be an absolute bad-ass in the field, striking with speed, precision, and power, while also sharing the responsibility of teaching Wanda how to conduct herself out in the field. They, and many of their team mates, live and train at a specialist compound, paid for by Stark’s not-inconsiderable funds. Stark, meanwhile, has semi-retired from the superhero life and is only brought back into the fold after the incident in Lagos which, especially after the devastating events in Sokovia in Age of Ultron, call into question the unchallenged actions of the Avengers. Thus, in a continuation of his growing sense of impending cosmic danger and his desire to protect the planet by any means necessary (and due to his guilt at being responsible for collateral damage caused by the Avengers’ actions), Stark is immediately onboard with the “Sokovia Accords”. Although Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross’s (William Hurt), now promoted to Secretary of State, acknowledges that the world owes the Avengers an unpayable debt, he stresses that they must register to answer to a democratic committee before acting so that they can be properly held accountable for their actions. The Sokovia Accords rattle each member of the team in different ways based on their previous experiences and relationships; James “Rhodey” Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle) and the Vision, for example, look at the numbers and the orders and, influenced by their relationship with Stark, believe that signing the Accords is the only logical action whereas Sam is adamant that it will only be a matter of time before the government screw them over.
Steve, ever the soldier and pragmatist, argues against “[surrendering] their right to choose” and his conviction to take a stand against being controlled, even by the United States government, is galvanised after the death of his former flame, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), who firmly believed in standing up for her beliefs. However, when it appears as though Bucky has attacked the ratification of the Accords and killed the peace-affirming Wakandan king, T’Chaka (John Kani), Steve makes it his mission to personally track down his former friend and bring him in before he can be arrested by the authorities. T’Chaka’s son, T’Challa, overwhelmed by grief and bloodlust, dons the ceremonial Vibranium suit of the Black Panther to hunt down and kill Bucky, causing tensions to bubble to boiling point. It is into this tumultuous storm of ideals, emotions, and conflicting beliefs that Zemo enters the fray. A survivor from Sokovia who relentlessly goes on a hunt torturing and murdering Hydra operatives to acquire “Mission report. December 16. 1991”, a document that proves the final spark to ignite the titular civil war within the Avengers. Zemo has acquired the Soviet’s book of codewords and is able, through his charm and false documents, to gain access to Bucky after he is arrested and activate him in order to acquire the information he seeks. Bucky, who has been living off the grid and on the run since the end of The Winter Soldier, continues to suffer from decades of cryogenic stasis, manipulation, brainwashing, and memory wiping, which have made him a confused and purely instinctual creature. Although Steve still remembers their time together as friends and the entirety of Bucky’s past, Bucky is haunted by fragmented memories of his time as an assassin and naturally paranoid, lashing out at friend and foe alike when they try to reach him.
While Wanda shoulders a lot of the guilt for what happened in Lagos, Steve feels he is also to blame as he was distracted by Rumlow’s mention of Bucky. Still, he is steadfast that what he, and the other Avengers, do cannot be regulated by a governing body, especially after how deeply entrenched Hydra was into S.H.I.E.L.D. This causes a clash of ideals and beliefs between and Stark; showing his partial growth as a character, Stark is now more than willing to compromise and work within the system to keep them in check and also to ensure that the team stays together but Steve is adamant that they shouldn’t have to answer to anyone lest they be stopped from intervening where they are most needed. While the Sokovia Accords themselves probably would have divided the Avengers enough to cause some kind of conflict, they potentially wouldn’t have come to blows if it wasn’t for Zemo’s manipulations and Bucky’s apparent culpability in T’Chaka’s death. When he comes to his senses, Bucky reveals that he was just one of many Winter Soldiers created by the soviets and that Zemo was responsible for the bombing at the ratification. Stark, however, remains oblivious to the deception that has taken place and takes it upon himself to lead his allies in apprehending Bucky, even if it means recruiting the young and relatively untested Spider-Man to help throw Cap off his game and fighting against his allies for the greater good. Steve, realising that he is now, once again, a fugitive, puts together a team of his own to defend Bucky and fight their way to uncovering and exposing Zemo’s plot. To this end, he recruits Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and, on Sam’s suggestion, Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) to help him out, and such is the strength of Captain America’s conviction and fortitude that he is able to convince ex-cons like Scott, retired heroes like Clint (both of whom have familial responsibilities), and Agent Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp) to put themselves and their careers at risk to help his cause.
Being as it’s basically an Avengers movie in disguise, Captain America: Civil War is a natural escalation of The Winter Soldier in every way. As a result, it’s bigger and far more intricate and bombastic than the previous Captain America movies but, arguably, maybe not the definitive ending to a trilogy of standalone movies in the same way as, say, Iron Man 3 (Black, 2013) tried to be. However, there is a very good reason for this and that is that, at this point, MCU movies were much more about focusing on a singular hero but also expanding their shared world exponentially in the lead-up to their biggest movies ever. Despite its heavy subject matter and action-packed events, the film also has time for absolute tone-perfect comedy; Bucky and Sam’s reaction to Steve’s admittedly awkward kiss with Sharon, Scott’s gushing over meeting Captain America and the other Avengers, and Spider-Man’s incessant quips and references during the big airport fight all brilliantly break the tension and add some pitch-perfect levity to the film.
Of course, one of the main selling points of the film is the climatic fight between Team Cap and Team Iron Man and the introduction of Spider-Man to the MCU. As much as I loved Andrew Garfield in the role and still think it would’ve been a lot simpler and easier to simply fold him and the Amazing Spider-Man films (Webb, 2012 to 2014) into the MCU, casting a younger actor as an inexperienced version of the character was a great way to introduce Spider-Man with a clean slate and Tom Holland played the role to perfection. Although enthusiastic about getting a shot to team up with heavy-weights like Iron Man and the Vision and eager to impress both Stark and the Avengers, Spider-Man is in way over his head; still he holds his own and delivers both quips for days and some of the best web-slinging in just one big fight scene even after (at the time) nearly fifteen years of Spider-Man movies. Though young and operating in a homemade suit that allows him to use his powers responsibly, Peter is still portrayed as something of a child prodigy as he manufactures his own webbing and web shooters and, despite not mentioning his beloved Uncle Ben by name, has the same strict moral code as any other iteration of the character, making for perhaps the most well-rounded portrayal even after many decades of Spider-Man adaptations.
The clash between Team Cap and Team Iron Man isn’t just about Spider-Man, though, or even Steve and Stark; instead, it’s a reluctant fight between close friends and allies, many of whom use known weaknesses against their team mates in order to gain a bit more ground. While you might think that a guy like Hawkeye is no match for the Vision, his various trick arrows do a decent job of disrupting the synthezoid and burying Iron Man beneath a pile of cars. Similarly, Cap is technically physically outmatched and reluctant to fight against a teenager like Spider-Man but is able to best him using his shield and distracting him with falling debris. Another star of the conflict is Ant-Man who, in addition to enlarging vehicles with Pym Particles, makes an entertaining and amusing debut as Giant-Man, and we even get to see Hawkeye and Black Widow go at it, albeit with an acknowledged reluctance. Even Stark doesn’t actually want to fight; he brings his team to the airport to convince Cap to stand down out of respect for their friendship and for the sake of the team, and specifically orders them to subdue their former allies rather than grievously harm them. However, despite this, and as entertaining as this clash between the two groups of Avengers is, things end up becoming much too real when an errant shot from the Vision ends up crippling Rhodey from the waist down, which only adds further fuel to Stark’s fire.
Both Steve and Stark make compelling arguments for and against signing the Sokovia Accords but, as is to be expected of the storyline and these larger than life characters, take their argument to the extreme. In the source material, this led to Stark hunting down and imprisoning his fellow heroes in the ultimate act of uncompromising betrayal, becoming something of a tyrant in the process. Here, he doesn’t go quite that far until he has absolutely no other choice; despite his grating personality, it’s clear that Stark sees Steve and the others as trusted friends and allies and like Natasha, is more than willing to compromise to keep the team together, in check, and to advocate for amendments to the Accords later down the line. However, both Steve and Stark are pushed too far when the others continuously refuses to see things from their perspective and to compromise their integrity or conscience. After the climatic airport fight, however, and the truth of Zemo’s manipulations is revealed, Stark swallows his pride and heads to Siberia to investigate the other Winter Soldiers. Unfortunately, his conflict with Steve and Bucky is reignited when it is revealed that Bucky was brainwashed into killing Howard and Maria Stark (John Slattery and Hope Davis, respectively) to acquire super soldier serum for the Soviets. Stark’s introduction to the film, and a major sub-plot of his previous appearances, dealt with his unresolved issues with his father and, upon learning that both of his parents were taken from him, he flies into a mindless rage and attacks the two in a fantastically realised and emotional fight scene. Though torn between his friendship with Stark and his loyalty to Bucky, Steve ultimately has no choice but to choose to defend his old friend in order to get him the help he needs and, in the process, Zemo’s master plan succeeds as the Avengers are torn apart and Cap gives up his shield to go on the run with Bucky.
This finale is the perfect culmination of a film that is packed full of fantastic action sequences and fight scenes; expanding upon the brutal, gritty action of The Winter Soldier, Civil War continues to deliver some hard-hitting action from the likes of Cap and Black Widow, especially. Their fight against Rumlow is a great way to open the film and, following an equally engaging conflict of ideologies and beliefs, the action only escalates as Steve desperately tries to reach Bucky and bring him in independently only to end up fighting against the German police in a cramped stairwell and racing across the rooftops and streets of Berlin. Black Panther joins the battle for this latter sequence in a brilliant introduction to the character that only scratches the surface of his physical capabilities. Unlike other MCU villains who, by this point, showed glimmers of complex personalities and had somewhat multi-faceted personalities but were often just dark mirrors of the titular heroes, Zemo is quite the layered villain. Unlike his comic book counterpart (who, visually, he wouldn’t come to resemble for some time), Zemo isn’t some crazed fascist dictator or maniacal supervillain. Instead, he’s a former Sokovian soldier haunted by the loss of his family in Sokovia due to the Avengers’ actions and who wants to bring them down from the inside out in order to ensure that they never again threaten the safety of innocents. Simultaneously, Zemo has no love for Hydra either and wishes to see both costumed heroes and villains made a thing of the past; he also views his crusade to be a suicide mission as, once he sees Iron Man driven to the point of murderous rage, he considers his mission complete and prepares to kill himself. He is stopped, however, by Black Panther who, having witnessed the Avengers tear themselves apart over grief and rage, chooses to spare his father’s killer and see him brought to true justice. The damage, however, is done; even though the film ends with Cap going to rescue his friends from imprisonment on the Raft and offering an olive branch to Stark, the Avengers are effectively disbanded and wouldn’t come together again until the greatest threat imaginable came knocking.
As brilliant as the last two Captain America films were, Captain America: Civil War was a massive escalation for the character. In many ways, you could make the argument that Marvel Studios could have had the third Cap film focus solely on his hunt for Bucky and made a third Avengers movie for the “Civil War” storyline, but it does a surprisingly good job of balancing its different characters and themes. None of the extra Avengers or the wider conflict between them overshadow Cap’s story or the continuation of his character arc and story with Bucky and, if anything, all of the different conflicts and personalities help to bolster this narrative. At its core, Civil War is a film about secrets, truths, and complex ideologies; both Steve and Stark have valid points for and against superhero registration and Bucky is a tortured soul responsible for an untold number of tragedies and atrocities and yet he wasn’t in full control of himself and was forced into perpetrating those acts and that, as much as their friendship, motivates Steve to protect him to see that he gets help rather than be unjustly imprisoned or killed. Black Panther vows to kill Bucky to avenge his father but chooses to spare Zemo when he learns the truth, showing a fundamental moral compass that helps to define him in his brief screen time. Stark is also driven to avenge his parents when he learns that the Winter Soldier killed them and the result is the complete fracturing of any trust between him and Steve, disassembling the Avengers and, similar to the destruction of S.H.I.E.L.D. in The Winter Soldier, fundamentally changing the nature of the MCU to ensure the stakes are as dire as possible for when Thanos (Josh Brolin) comes calling. As under-rated a gem as Captain America: The First Avenger (Johnston, 2011) is and as impressively thrilling as The Winter Soldier is, Civil War edges both out in terms of sheer spectacle and showed that even a solo MCU film could have Avengers-level implications for Marvel’s shared universe.
Were you a fan of Captain America: Civil War? What did you think to the conflict between Steve and Stark and were you on Team Cap or Team Iron Man? Did you enjoy seeing the other Avengers in the film or do you feel like it got a bit too crowded for a Captain America movie? What did you think about Zemo, his character and motivations, and Bucky’s overarching story? Are you a fan of the “Civil War” comic book? Did you enjoy the debut of Black Panther and Spider-Man? What did you think to the decision to tear the Avengers apart at that stage in the larger MCU story? Are there any Captain America stories and villains you would have liked to seen make it to the big screen? How have you been celebrating the Star-Spangled Avenger this month? Whatever you think about Civil War, or Captain America in general, drop a comment down below.