Except for what is known from the trailers, this is going to be a spoiler-free review…up to a point. But don’t worry, I’ll mark that point clearly.
See, this is it. This is how you make a Superhero 1 v Superhero 2 movie. You don’t even need to have it in the name. Captain America: Civil War isn’t perfect, certainly, but it’s a very good film.
The main reason for that, of course, is that the motivations and actions of the protagonists make sense and are understandable. I think the creators managed, for the most part, to make all of the choices relatable, up to and including actually dividing people pretty equally between the support for the two sides of the ‘civil war.’ A sizeable chunk (at least among my limited sample) are even saying that they are on neither side, because they can see the point of both, and also the failings of both.
There’s one downside to this, though – one that doesn’t detract for the quality of the film as such, but may affect your viewing experience. In spite of giving both sides compelling motivations, the story is not neutral, and keeps proving one side right and the other one wrong. If you happen to side with the one that ends up mostly being in the wrong, the film becomes a frustrating experience, because it is in some ways as if you were watching a film where the writers side with the bad guys. Yes, I am speaking from experience.
One of the problems that influence this is that the plot point of the Sokovia Accords, the agreement by which superheroes become subjects to oversight, is rushed to make enough room for the action itself. This makes it very contrived and problematic on levels it was not, in my opinion, meant to be, since no one even raises it as a point. We don’t see Steve complaining that they were not consulted when the Accords were written or anything similar, so it seems we are meant to accept that the accords seem to have been put together in an absurdly short time, and with almost no discussion involved, something that bears no resemblance to how this sort of process normally works.
Related to this rushing is also that the ostensible theme of the film – the disagreement about the Accords themselves – is pushed aside quite early on in favour of different themes. These themes are perhaps interesting as well, but could have well been explored in other films. I thought that was a pity, because I believe that the topic of responsibility and accountability as it plays out among superheroes with different worldviews and value would be interesting to watch.
What also ties in with that is the relative superfluousness of the villain, who serves mostly as a catalyst, but because he is a catalyst to these different themes, I would have preferred him to not exist and let the just the film be truly about the civil war – about the conflict of ideas and approaches. Oh and his plan was very contrived and made no sense when you think about it, or rather, could have been achieved much more easily, so that didn’t help my frustration with him. Up to that moment, the plot of the film mostly worked, and then…
Another problem is that we never really see the Sokovia Accords at work. Instead we see some ranks take control that were never even specified in the agreement, from what we know about it. Where is the UN? Why is the US Secretary of State ex-general involved instead? It seems to me like they didn’t manage to make Cap’s argument convincing, and so they had to artificially make Tony’s side not work. All in all, this plot point had a big potential that was mostly wasted.
But, well, the fights were great. Which sounds like a sarcastic remark, but seriously, they were. The airport scene was creative and inventive and funny and just… I want all of my superhero fights to be like this. It was also a nice contrast with the mostly-conventional ass kicking that was being done at the beginning, and the intimate and emotionally intense fight towards the end, making sure each of the major clashes had a distinct feel.
The surprising hit, for me, was Spider-Man. He’s not one of my favourite superheroes, to put it mildly, but here he was great, and especially his interaction with Tony are absolutely priceless. And speaking of Tony, they at least addressed some of his recent character inconsistencies a little bit, or rather gave them some consequences, so I appreciate that.
The superhero who leaves the least impact as a character in this is probably Ant-Man, but he doesn’t really get much space to work with, and he certainly makes himself felt in the fights. I was also sorry Rhodey didn’t get more space, though in his case, the space he did get was mostly great, and when it wasn’t, it wasn’t his character’s fault. In fact, for me, he was probably the second most sympathetic and relatable character in the film, a track record that continues from his appearances in the various Iron Men.
The character highlight of this film, though, the most reasonable, relatable and capable person present, was T’Challa (Black Panther). There were one or two aspects of his scripting that I find a little uncomfortable – I understand they are taken from the comics, but they do not have to adapt everything – but overly, I loved him, and I loved every scene with him.
I’m just a little dismayed by Natasha’s role in all this, and upset that there wasn’t enough time to explore the implications properly…something that could be repeated with most characters. But the film is limited by time and there are a lot of topics to be explored, so I try to be understanding. Natasha also has a number of fantastic fight scenes at the beginning, and she serves as a nice counterpoint to Wanda there – Wanda being very powerful, but not very experienced, and Natasha having all the experience, but compared to the rest of the Avengers, not that strong powers. Wanda was well done here in general, even though her personal motivations for which side she decided to pick were perhaps the least clear. Still, I truly enjoyed the scenes with her and Vision. They had a degree of intimacy to them that hardly any of the characters that weren’t part of the main trio got.
I enjoyed both Steve and Bucky and their scenes together, even though they had perhaps less drama and intimacy than I expected. I suppose that is what fanfiction is for. I was also a little sorry I didn’t get to see how Sam fits into their dynamics more, since he remains my favourite part of Cap’s crew.
I had the most problems with Clint, who was a little jarring for me, I have to admit. I’m not sure how his characterization was consistent with that from Avengers 2, and he just seemed to be randomly dickish in a way that was unearned. Perhaps his comics personality was making an appearance?
Anyway, the next topic I want to discuss is, I’m afraid, impossible to touch on entirely without spoilers, so…I won’t give away any actual major plot points as such, but there will be some more minor things mentioned or hinted. Proceed at your own risk, and know that the territory is safe again in the last paragraph, under that Wanda picture.
There have been some concerns about racial implications of this film based on the trailers, so let me comment on that (obligatory disclaimer: a white person discussing racism). While the worst had not happened, it is still true that the person who paid the heaviest price for the whole ‘civil war’ is a character of colour, which I find upsetting. But that’s not even the main thing.
The Avengers make a mistake at the beginning, and the mistake is paid for by lives of black people. As a result, a representative of the dead pushes for the Sokovia Accords to be ratified, stating that the death of his people cannot be without consequences. And yet certain segments of the superhero team remain unmoved and unconcerned, because it would get in the way of them playing heroes.
Actually, black people in particular are placed in the position of victims in this film: apart from what was mentioned above, there is even an African-American woman who tells Tony about her son who had been in Sokovia during the disaster and died there. We see a picture of said son. A named black character dies in this film. The victims are consistently black people (though not all black people in the film are victims, that needs to be pointed out), and one part of Avengers refusing to accept any consequences thus gains racial overtones which I do not believe were intended, but which are kind of inescapable, even though Sam is on Cap’s side. It becomes especially ironic when it’s Captain America who does not take their deaths seriously enough. As a non-American and non-black person, I do not quite have the agency to talk about this, but certain parallels do come to mind, and someone better qualified to speak about this will, I hope, write a more extended article on the topic.
Apart from this, I also want to return to that thematic shift that I mentioned: from the ideological dispute between Cap and Tony to more personal things. Their conflict is really only about the Sokovian Accords for a very short time, then it shifts to the government wanting to basically kill Bucky while Steve wants to save his life and doesn’t particularly look like he intends to incarcerate him either. That’s a conflict that could have easily arisen even without the Accords. It becomes about personal priorities, about whether personal friendship and loyalty takes precedence over public security and respect of the law. This theme is then turned on Cap himself in the film’s final, where it is him who sins against loyalty and another character that prioritizes their personal issues. The question of loyalty and its borders is explored pretty thoroughly here, and so is the matter of personal priorities and such. It’s interesting and compelling, and so the tear I shed for the absent examination of the Accords argument is smaller than it could have been. But I still shed it, because what Wendy says in that article I’ve already linked is still very true, at least from my point of view.
All in all, I think this is a very good film in basically all aspects, and I only have two major points of criticism. For one, I feel that they pull their punches sometimes, and so the emotional impact is mostly not as strong as it could have been; and another, that it wrestles with some thematic issues, leading to leaving some of them unexplored and to some unfortunate implications. But it is true that this also probably deals with more serious themes – and deals with them more seriously – than any MCU film before, so perhaps I should not be too hard on them.
PS: There are two after-credits scenes. Wait for both.
All images courtesy of Marvel.