The emotional stakes are high in Captain America: Civil War, a film that ditches overt threats to humanity for a conflict borne from the characters’ beliefs and their love for the people who matter to them the most.
With Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice behind us and X-Men: Apocalypse looming, some moviegoers might wonder why this year our superheroes can’t all get along. Civil War shows why. This is a movie about actions and consequences. Perception and reality. Regret over roads not taken and guilt over the ones that were. Loss and acceptance and change. It’s a film where characters are haunted by relationships in their pasts that affect the present. Grief is here, too, but whenever anger drives these people, no one can think clearly.
It’s also packed with stellar action sequences, flashes of humor, and chemistry among the characters that are sheer fun to watch.
Directors Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, who helmed 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who wrote that film as well as 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger, know these characters well. There are setups from the earlier films—the most significant being the childhood friendship between Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan)—that pay off here in both poignancy and motivation. Cap’s shield might defy the laws of physics, but the characters behave in ways that track not only with other Marvel films but in a way that makes sense within the film. The script draws on characters’ histories as far back as 2008’s Iron Man to show how and why they’ve arrived at where they are today. Yet even with a full slate of characters—and a running time of 147 minutes—it never feels overstuffed or slow.
When an Avengers mission to recover a biological agent results in civilian casualties, Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) says the world’s nations are tired of the heroes’ collateral damage. The proposed solution: the Sokovia Accords, named after the fictional country blasted to the sky in 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, which would regulate when and how the team operates.
When they met in 2012’s The Avengers, Cap and Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) initially dismissed each other as an antiquated fossil and a loudmouth in a high-tech suit. A World War II super soldier living in the modern age, Cap finds purpose in protecting others as he struggles with melancholy because most of his peers are gone. Technological genius Tony tended to shoot or create first, then ask questions later.
Though they earned each other’s respect, experiences since then have changed them. Tony, already feeling guilt over creating the malevolent artificial intelligence Ultron, is doubly ready to reign in his independence once a grieving mother confronts him about her son’s death in Sokovia. But Cap, having learned in The Winter Soldier that the government agency S.H.I.E.L.D. was poisoned from within, is skeptical of any authority beyond the people he trusts.
Once the philosophical lines are drawn, a new villain (Daniel Brühl of Inglourious Basterds) stirs the pot, ultimately forcing the heroes to decide where their loyalties lie. Barnes—himself reprogrammed through the ages as an assassin a la Jason Bourne—is blamed for more mayhem, sending Cap and Falcon (Anthony Mackie) off the grid to find him. On their trail is Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), an African warrior King with a vendetta against Barnes. Meanwhile, Tony, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and the others scramble to figure out how to help within their new restrictions.
Similar to The Winter Soldier, Civil War balances the clash of ideas with action sequences that are enjoyably fast-paced and easy to follow. We know who’s against whom and who’s doing what, making it even more thrilling when tanker trunks and repulsor blasts fly. The film is full of solid performances, especially Stan as the troubled killer who’s not sure he’s worth his friend’s support; Boseman (Get on Up, 42), a mix of coiled rage and dignity as the first black superhero in mainstream American comics; and Tom Holland (The Impossible), a delight of teen awkwardness and geeky charm as Spider-Man. Spidey and Paul Rudd as Ant-Man pack gleeful surprises as two fanboys who hold their own even as they’re overjoyed to be tapped as reinforcements.
There are callbacks to the other Captain America films, such as when Tony asks Peter Parker what drives him much like the way the scientist behind the super-soldier program wondered what made a gangly Steve Rogers tick. It’s no spoiler that in both cases, these heroes have unselfish hearts.
Heart is all over this movie. These characters care about one another like a family even when they disagree. And when they come to blows, there’s a layer of trying to stop the people you love from hurting themselves or making a situation worse.
Evans sometimes gets short shrift for not having Downey’s firecracker charisma, but he’s always had the trickier task of making an inherently goodhearted character compelling. Here, he shows how Cap continues to evolve while retaining his sincerity and decency, making the Star-Spangled Man perhaps the most hopeful comics character onscreen right now, especially given the DC film universe’s darker tone with Superman.
“I’m here when you need me,” he says. And we do.