Just as conflict breaks out in Captain America: Civil War, so is the film itself somewhat conflicted. On a narrative level, it must balance its own story with that of the ongoing Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), continuing established plot lines and characters while also setting up future elements. Stylistically, it has the challenge of presenting a multitude of super abilities, and even with the massive resources of Marvel at their disposal, directors Anthony and Joe Russo face an almighty juggling act. And ideologically, the film makes an upfront declaration about its engagement with the thorny issue of vigilantism inherent in the notion of superheroes.
Narratively, Captain America: Civil War tells its somewhat intricate plot clearly. One of the great strengths of the MCU is its blending of super-heroic exploits with the features of other genres: “Ant-Man” was a superhero heist film; “Guardians of the Galaxy” a superhero space opera; “The Avengers” a superhero alien invasion film. Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans, “Snowpiercer”) has proved a particularly adaptable character, as “Captain America: The First Avenger” was a superhero World War II film, complete with a sepia-tinged visual style, while “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” also directed by the Russos, was a superhero conspiracy thriller. Captain America: Civil War has a similar grit to the Russos’ previous effort, being a globe-trotting mystery with elements of spy/crime thrillers. As events unfold, it reveals more of its generic and narrative elements and becomes akin to a revenge tragedy, where the stakes are genuinely surprising. The viewer is unlikely to fear that any character will actually die, but that is not to say the Avengers cannot suffer on a physical and emotional level. And suffer they do, as visible bruises, cuts and other injuries steadily increase over the course of the film, as do the levels of angst and anguish.
On the character front, the film is only partially successful. Marvel’s decision to make this Captain America: Civil War rather than “Avengers: Civil War” slants the narrative in a particular direction, which results in some of our heroes getting short changed. Chief among these are Vision (Paul Bettany, “Transcendence”) and Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen, “Godzilla”), who have some amusing and touching scenes together, but when they appear there is a sense of “Oh, there you are.” Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp, “Revenge” TV series) makes good on the promise of her appearance in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” but again is used far too briefly. Oddly, the brevity of Clint Barton/Hawkeye’s (Jeremy Renner, “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation”) screentime is less jarring, as his presence has a specific purpose. The same is true of the new recruits, Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd, “All is Bright”) building on his solo outing by providing plenty of levity and probably the film’s loudest WOW! moment. The much anticipated introduction of Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland, “In the Heart of the Sea”) is also effective, Parker providing multiple laughs as well as a charming innocence by virtue of his relative youth. Best of all is Prince T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman, “Gods of Egypt”), his participation properly motivated and his contribution distinctive within the overall ensemble.
The central drama, appropriately, focuses on Steve Rogers, and especially his relationships with Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan, “The Bronze”) and a more haunted Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr., “The Judge”) than we have seen before, as well as Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie, “Love the Coopers”). Loyalties between these different men are thrown back and forth, and when the film focuses on these personal clashes it works, as these clashes escalate into superhero smackdowns. The film does deliver on the action front, as the Russos rise to the challenge of presenting the various abilities. The film’s standout set piece throws no less than twelve Avengers into the audience’s sensory perceptions, and everyone gets their chance to show off. From Barton’s archery and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow’s (Scarlett Johansson, “Hail, Caesar!”) martial artistry to T’Challa’s catlike armor and Maximoff’s telekinesis, from the aerobatics of Stark, Wilson, Vision and James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle, “Flight”) to the web slinging and swinging of Parker and the shield hurling of Rogers, the spectacle is varied, dazzling and arresting.
While this sequence offers plenty of bang, there are others that offer a more emotional punch, mainly involving Rogers and Barnes. Spending virtually the whole film as a fugitive, the Winter Soldier grapples with guilt and fear, both of which manifest in crunchy chase sequences as he flees from authorities and Avengers alike. In contrast to the grand set pieces, director of photography Trent Opaloch utilizes an intimate visual style in these moments, which helps to communicate Barnes’ desperation and claustrophobia, at times following Barnes’ movements as he runs, jumps, punches and falls. In accordance with this style, Rogers’ sense of righteousness and loyalty to his friend takes on an empathetic quality for the viewer — just as Rogers suffers the anguish of his friend in danger, so does the viewer vicariously experience the visceral impact of the punishment meted out. As events spiral out of control and the motivations of villain Zemo (Daniel Brühl, “Burnt”) are revealed, it becomes clear that this Civil War can have no victor, only victims.
Victims are of course part of the issue, as the clash between the Avengers kicks off because of the collateral damage of their exploits, and the notion that such powerful individuals need some kind of oversight. But the film’s interest in this issue is only passing, as it effectively condemns the position of Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt, “Race”) through the inclusion of draconian punishments and valorization of Rogers’ self-righteous individuality. The political debate over the legitimacy of super-powered individuals who are effectively above the law is a fascinating one, given more room and attention in 2016’s other superhero clash, “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” While Captain America: Civil War has more accomplished direction and storytelling than Zack Snyder’s effort, writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely fumble in their engagement with this debate. The characters’ discussions make Captain America: Civil War one of the talkiest films in the MCU, but these discussions add little dramatic meat or impetus. This feels like a missed opportunity, the political implications of exceptional individuals raised and then dropped in favor of personal disputes and motivations. If the film maintained its focus on this aspect, it might feel more balanced and the tragic elements would be stronger.
None of which is to say that Captain America: Civil War has no strengths. As mentioned above, the action sequences are both spectacular and viscerally engaging. Rogers remains the engaging soul of the Avengers franchise while Stark’s more melancholy demeanor indicates the team’s troubled mind. Despite its unevenness, as a revenge tragedy the film is moving as well as gripping. And if it doesn’t entirely satisfy, there’s always more Marvel films in the pipeline.