This year’s mammoth addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe was far better than last year’s. As a matter of fact, it was far better than most any other film, show, or short that Marvel has ever put out. What could have been a complete and utter failure turned out to be a superhero masterwork, a true contender for the title “best superhero movie ever”, and a lasting and influential contributor to a universe of films that has turned the entire world on its head.
Where Avengers: Age of Ultron so mightily failed was in the way that it squeezed too many characters into a single film. Each character only averaged about twelve minutes of screen-time or something shockingly like that. There was too much clutter, too little focus, too much chaos on the screen—with far too many objects jumbling it up—to really assert itself as a great movie.
Captain America: Civil War could have been Age of Ultron. Even worse, it could have been Batman v. Superman. But it wasn’t. Instead, Captain America: Civil War stands out as one of the truly great superhero movies of our generation, maybe of all time. Even more than that, though, Captain America: Civil War is a testament to the ageless principle that, in the right hands, any movie can work. Whether that is a movie about the life of a donkey, a movie about a dead newspaper magnate, a movie about a tap-dancing silent star who tries to make a talkie, or a movie about superhumans and androids battling it out over a controversial UN protocol, a good director can infuse his or her character, artistic view, and filmic interpretations into the picture, creating a delicious slice of cake for all the world to share.
In the case of the movie at hand, there were actually two directors: Joel and Anthony Russo. After their triumphant success in the second Captain America movie, they were signed on to not only direct Civil War, but also the upcoming Avengers two-part Infinity War movie. After a career of success in television making such comedies as Arrested Development and Community, the Russo brothers had developed two special skills. First, they learned how to compose complete stories in short time frames. Second, they learned how to make true ensemble pictures that don’t merely have a multiplicity of characters, but actually depend on those characters. Like the Bluth family, the Avengers each had a unique personality that made up a complex tapestry of color.
The tapestry was not only made up of characters in terms of the script in which they operated, but it was exemplified by the palate of colors that their interaction brought to the screen. The aesthetics of Civil War, though not as fantastic as those we see in The Avengers, go a long way to reflect the interconnection of its many personalities. This is yet another way in which Civil War separated itself from its 2016 superhero v. superhero contemporary.
What I think is most interesting about what the Russos were able to accomplish was that every character had its moment in the sun. Even brand new additions seemed to take over the picture when it was their turn. It was like every character stole the show. But, that can’t be possible. Yet somehow, it was. I remember in the weeks leading up to the release of the film, I was closely following all the press releases and reviews from major outlets. It felt like every day there came out a new article: “Civil War is Iron Man’s movie”…”Civil War is Black Widow’s movie”…”Civil War is Scarlet Witch’s movie”…you get the idea.
A case could, seriously, be made for Iron Man as the film’s most compelling personality. Though the movie is named for Captain America, this could, ironically, be considered the best Tony Stark movie in the MCU. Ironic, because a man of his ego shining in a film that is not his own is not what one would expect. But then again, we’ve seen how that ego has been slowly eroded over the course of five movies (and some). The Iron Man personality-adventure is perhaps the most epic of any in the whole universe. This is as it should be. He is, after all, the flagship character.
The truth is, though the movie is still Captain America’s. The title isn’t a lie. In him we see the truest conflict of the film, the greatest weight, the toughest choices, and the most epic battles. The conflict exists because of, and despite of, him. He overcomes the most—from the mental and emotional conflicts of friendship and freedom, to the literal fights against literal foes more powerful than himself, characters like Iron Man, Spider-Man, and Black Panther.
A review of Civil War, however brief, cannot be complete without mentioning those last two personalities. I don’t think that any cameo in movie history has been more awaited and anticipated than that of Spider-Man’s. This was a heavy task for young Tom Holland, and I think, without question, he easily took the title of the best interpretation of the character that we’ve ever seen on the big screen. Granted, we still have a lot to see when it comes to the Peter Parker persona, but that is forthcoming. As for Black Panther, he was equally fantastic. He clearly had the upper hand in most all of his fights, and T’Challa (the man behind the mask) was a Byronic powerhouse in the few dialogue scenes he had. Chadwick Boseman has proven to be yet another in a very long string of practically-perfect casting decisions by the powers-that-be over at Marvel Studios.
Perhaps the greatest feat of Civil War was not in the amount of characters that it put into the film, but in the amount of plot that it was able to put in to it. The Accords. The Winter Soldier, both past and present. The various interplays between the characters. The Iron Man/Captain America rivalry. The puppeteering of Helmut Zemo. The Ringers. So much happened in this film, and yet it all fit together so well. So frequently, popcorn flicks collapse under their own weight, the weight of ten of thousands of pieces of animatronic wizardry and digital animation. What Marvel has done in many of its best films is not only work to keep its vessels afloat, as it did in Age of Ultron, but work to propel them forward. Clearly that is the case with this movie. This was a movie-watching experience almost beyond compare, and one of the best “popcorn movies” that I have seen in years.
Previous: #4: Iron Man (2008)