Anthony and Joe Russo have hit it out of the park again. Captain America: Civil War doesn’t quite manage to be the greatest superhero film of all time. But a very close second is no mean feat. Furthermore, they’ve managed to eclipse even their own previous entry, The Winter Soldier. Given how excellent that film was in its own right, this is no small feat. Brian Niemeier summed up my own thoughts best when he said that Civil War is “A two and a half hour master class on writing.” Can confirm. My immediate thought upon exiting the movie is that I hope someday to write something of my own that is that good.
The action and the special effects are absolutely top notch. But given the budget involved and the history of these films, you already knew that. Where this film really shines is in the story and the characters. You care what happens to these people. You care a lot. As others have noted, some of this is because we’ve had eight films to come to love them. This is true. Yet we must be careful to also note that the Russo brothers have built on top of that with masterful writing, without which this film wouldn’t hit the peaks that it does. And then, when you’re fully invested in these characters, the film hits you where it hurts – and hard. The climactic fight at the end is brutal – physically and emotionally.
But that’s not the only place this film succeeds. Avengers: Age of Ultron is a film about Tony Stark’s hubris. Ultimately, so is Civil War. But where that film, though ultimately enjoyable, is a bit clunky and forced, this film feels effortless and true. In many ways this film is a mirror image of that one, but it’s the stronger, better mirror image.
Most interestingly, however, this film succeeds in a way that so few modern works really do, although many attempt it. Each of these characters has an absolutely believable, absolutely understandable motivation, absolutely relatable motivation. Even though I am one thousand percent Team Cap, at no point did I think that Stark was evil or stupid. He was merely being Stark.
With that said… the film is not perfect. There’s one scene that, while wonderful in its own right, also really hurts the pacing of the film. The fight scenes are absolutely amazing, but I really wish they’d dial back the handheld camera work just a bit. It’s the rage these days, and I get why. But it’s also headache inducing, and it makes it hard to follow what’s going on. In many cases, directors use it because it makes it hard to follow the fight. This film absolutely didn’t need that, and it should have avoided the gimmick. Also, this film had so… much… falling. Seriously, there is so much falling in this film that both my wife and I independently were thinking it. Worse, we were thinking it during the movie, not afterward when we were mulling it over. But this last one is a pretty small quibble, given the film.
But two things, ultimately, keep it from dethroning The Dark Knight. First, the villain of the piece simply isn’t as iconic as Heath Ledger’s Joker. With that said, the core villain in this film is very interesting. He continues to demonstrate my thesis that there is nothing so dangerous as an ordinary man with nothing left to lose. But he will never be as remembered as the Joker. Second, this film simply isn’t quite as tight as Nolan’s masterpiece. Don’t believe me? Go watch The Dark Knight again. That film is tight. There isn’t a single frame of that film that doesn’t absolutely need to be there. Civil War is tight – but not that tight. This is partly due to the need to setup future Marvel films (Vision’s brief monologue about the soul gem on his forehead, for instance, clearly only exists to set up Infinity War). And it’s handled far better than some other Marvel films have done. Yet it’s still there.
The rest of the film is so excellent that none of this is enough to even take half a star away. This is a five star film, plain and simple. If you have ever enjoyed any of these Marvel films, get out and see this one. You won’t regret it.
Oh, and by the way – Brian is still wrong. Team Cap all the way. But explaining that requires spoilers. So with that, we’ll jump into the second part of this review.
As I’ve already noted, this film – like Age of Ultron – is ultimately about Tony Stark’s hubris. The driving force behind the Sokovia Accords isn’t the incident in the beginning of this film. That’s a convenient political excuse. The fact of the matter is that governments all over the world – including ours – participate in military and police actions every year that produce more unintentional civilian casualties than that one incident. And the plain and simple truth is that they accomplished their goal – preventing the outbreak of a bioweapon. The collateral damage came from a simple mistake of the variety that simply happens in combat. No amount of oversight will ever prevent that kind of mistake from happening, not entirely.
The true driving force of the Sokovia Accords is clearly the incident in Age of Ultron. The very name of the accords bears this out, as Sokovia was the site not of Wanda’s mistake but of Stark’s. Of all the incidents in Secretary Ross’s montage, Sokovia is the only one where the Avengers were clearly out of line as opposed to merely making a mistake. And by “The Avengers” I mean Tony Stark. All of the other Avengers tried to stop him from creating Ultron – even Banner (though Banner ultimately helped him do it). Tony simply wouldn’t listen.
And therein lies the first major problem with the Sokovia Accords: they’re unenforceable. The only people in the MCU who have the power to enforce the Sokovia Accords are the Avengers themselves. And yet Age of Ultron clearly showed us that even they can’t do it. If Tony wanted to create another Ultron tomorrow, ultimately nothing in this universe could stop him.
The entirety of Civil War continues to demonstrate this point, over and over again. Nobody can stop Cap from saving his friend. Nobody can stop Iron Man from striking off on his own once he realizes that Cap has the truth on his side. And at the end, nobody can stop Cap from rescuing his friends. The Avengers are unaccountable not because nobody wants to hold them to account but because nobody can.
Indeed, this is so true that even in the enforcement of the accords themselves games are being played. Stark tells Rogers directly that the whole thing is a farce: “…sign. We can live the last 24 hours legit. Barnes gets transferred to an American psych center instead of a Wakanda prison.” Later, Ross says something similar to Stark. If approval comes ex post facto rather than before an action then it’s completely and utterly pointless.
Have I mentioned yet that the film is about Tony’s hubris? In the handful of days over which the story occurs, Stark himself violates the Accords he pushed his fellow Avengers to sign no less than three times.
The second problem with the Accords is one that my friend Brian has already mentioned, and it’s why even he agreed that in practice the Accords couldn’t work. The UN is the most corrupt organization on Earth. It’s a cesspool of corruption and scandal, and it has no business carrying out oversight of this kind. Furthermore, the fact that 117 nations agreed on the Accords does far more to convince me that it’s a terrible idea than that it’s a good one. How many of those nations have democratically elected governments? How many of them recognize basic human rights such as free speech, free association, free press, freedom from cruel and unusual punishment, etc? None are perfect, including ours. Most of them don’t even pay lip service to those ideals.
Finally, we cannot forget that the entirety of Rogers’ previous outing was spent exposing the corruption of such bureaucracies. If SHIELD itself is corrupted through and through, than why on Earth should the Avengers even consider letting the body that controlled it control them?
Make no mistake about it. At the end of the day, the Sokovia Accords is about what such things are always about. It’s not about weapons control – it’s about people control. It’s about the people at the top maintaining their privilege and power no matter what, and it’s never about the people at the bottom. Oh, there are people involved who are well meaning. But this sort of thing never ends well.
Rogers sums it up best: “I believe in individuals, and mostly they haven’t let me down.” In our fallen world, that’s the best one can ever hope for.