This month marks the 75th anniversary of Captain America. For three-quarters of a century he has stood as a symbol of optimism, courage, duty and sacrifice. Few Superheroes have such a storied legacy or hold such an iconic place in American culture. If Superman always stood for “hope”, then Captain America always stood for “Can do”. There was just no “quit” in Steve Rogers. Chris Evans brings him to life as naturally and effortlessly as Christopher Reeve once did Superman (What is it with these guys named Chris?) Captain America is a big character and he deserves a big film. He got it.
The fact that the behemoth that is Captain America: Civil War doesn’t collapse under its own weight and form a singularity is a tribute to its directors, Anthony and Joe Russo as well as its deft screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. What could have been an angst ridden, dreary, bloated slugfest (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) is instead premium Summer entertainment and the crown jewel in Marvel’s cinematic universe. It is at once, thoughtful, entertaining and moving; the best of the Captain America trilogy and certainly the best comic book movie I have seen. And make no mistake, this is a serious film…seriously fun!
I’ll say that again as it bears repeating, this film is fun. Because comic book movies are supposed to be fun. Yes, this film deals with serious issues and features adults going through adult conflicts…sometimes in childish ways, but the Russos never forget that their first job is to entertain. The action set pieces sizzle, the jokes strike just the right tone and character interactions, well established by now, work to draw us into the conflict without requiring us to choose sides. Even as the Avengers “family” begins to disintegrate, the less invested players like Spider-Man/Peter Parker (Tom Holland) and Ant-Man/Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) manage to crack jokes and keep things light. But this is happening while the rest of the characters are realising that their relationships are coming unglued. The balance between the humor and the pathos is near perfect. It needs to be.
The film could just have easily been titled Avengers III: Civil War. The action picks up where Avengers: Age of Ultron left off. “Cap” has been training his new team of Avengers – Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), Falcon/Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), Scarlet Witch/Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), Vision (Paul Bettany), War Machine/Lt. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) – to fight as a team. And fight they do, with dazzling precision, this time in Africa against scumbag terrorist and former HYDRA muscle, Brock Rumlow (Frank Grillo). Disaster is averted but not without collateral damage. Civilians are killed. The team takes this hard but the world of normal folks takes it even harder. Collectively, the world has had enough. They want the Avengers put on a leash and placed under the control of the United nations.
Predictably this doesn’t sit well with “Cap”. His dealings with S.H.I.E.L.D in Captain America: The Winter Soldier have left him leery of government oversight. He believes in free will and thinks the Avengers need the freedom to act unilaterally and at a moment’s notice. He trusts his own judgment more than that of governments and their agendas. Other Avengers, most notably Iron-Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) and Wanda are still smarting with guilt from the fallout of their recent actions. Sides are chosen, the team divides and we have our conflict.
The main catalyst for this conflict is the Winter Soldier/Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan). “Cap’s” one time partner stands accused of acts of terrorism that result in the death of King T’Chaka (John Kani) of Wakanda. His murder inspires his son, T’Challa (brilliantly portrayed by Chadwick Boseman) to take up the mantle of The Black Panther and attempt to hunt down the Winter Soldier. Against this backdrop the tension and the action begin to mount. Steve steps in to defend his friend and the Avengers family begins to unravel like a cheap sweater.
This is at heart, a family feud and that is why some scenes are painful to watch. But that is also part of why the film succeeds so fully. The viewer feels an investment in the characters and their motivations. With the exception of Ant-Man (Is it hero worship? Is he a rebel? Is it on the cutting room floor?), all the characters have a clear reason for why they do what they do and why they are willing to push things so far. For “Cap” it’s duty, for Tony and Wanda it’s guilt and for Prince T’Challa it’s vengeance. Even the mystery villain, moving in the shadows has a compelling impetus for his vicious machinations. Everyone has a good reason for playing along and, as in any family fight, no one wants to be the first to back down.
If all this all sounds a tad too familiar and a tad too somber for you, fear not. I said it was fun and I meant it. This isn’t a grim and gritty grimace fest like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. This is good, popcorn entertainment., The actions sequences, of which there are many, are scintillating. The Russo brothers take what they learned on Winter Soldier and crank it up to 11. The penultimate battle at the German airport is quite simply the best superhero battle committed to film, thus far. It has exuberant action, laughs, excitement, drama and surprises (one really, really BIG surprise). It is, in fact, much more bombastic than the final battle sequence. Trust me, you’ll be talking about this fight when you walk out of the theater. This is the scene you will replay over and over when this film comes out for home viewing.
The finale is a bit more subdued than you would expect. But the emotional impact is staggering and it’s impact on the Marvel Cinematic Universe is yet to be seen. The shadow villain springs his twist (not a stupid or improbable one for once) and characters say and do things that change everything between them…just like in a real family fight. At the core of this film is a message of loss and its impact. Wounded characters lash out in their raw anguish. Some bonds are broken, others are strengthened. By the end of the film most of the players have lost someone they love or are threatened with losing everyone they hold dear. It’s like a gut punch. It’s brave filmmaking for a Summer action flick and, if you have any investment in these characters at all, quite moving.
Of course, by now you should be invested in these characters and Marvel has bet the farm that you will be. The stellar cast works overtime to assure that you will be. Newcomers, Paul Rudd, Chadwick Boseman and Tom Holland steal every scene they are in while Paul Bettany manages to look mesmerizing and intense even through his fx makeup. Even those actors who get short shrift on the dialog (hint, hint, Jeremy Renner) still manage to squeeze life out of their roles. But it’s Robert Downey Jr who really shines here. This is his best outing as Tony Stark since he took up the part. Gone is the glib, fast talking narcissist. In his place, RDJ manages to project a man possessed by deep pain and unresolved grief. Pain evidenced first from his guilt and later from the loss of a friendship…and still later, from a more anguishing loss. If you walk into the theater thinking you will be rooting for Team Cap all the way, you may be very surprised.
So, there you have it, spoiler free. Captain America: Civil War is a triumph on every level. I can’t recommend it highly enough. This film will entertain and satisfy while leaving you eager for the next Avengers’ outing. As well as the next Captain America…and yes, the next Iron-Man. I give it 5/5. It’s serious fun…deadly serious.
He also sings for the Supra-70s band, RIFLE.