Warning: Spoilers for the film follow.
I’ve long thought that the Captain America parts of the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) are the most artistically, narratively, and philosophically mature, and Captain America: Civil War proves to be no exception. As is the case with the best superhero films, it asks the thorny questions, such as: at what point does vengeance slip from justified into outright murder? What is the line between the individual conscience and the collective good?
The plot, in brief, is this. Tony Stark/Iron Man still feels conflicted over the events that happened in the previous film, in which the Avengers managed to foil Ultron (the AI system created by Stark that unfortunately went rogue), in his attempt to literally destroy the entire planet. While they saved the world, the Avengers also inadvertently killed several bystanders. Civil War opens with another unfortunate incident of collateral damage, which leads the UN to want to leash the Avengers through a set of legal injunctions. Cap and Tony find themselves divided on this issue, as with so much else, and the rift soon spreads to the others as well. Black Widow, Vision, War Machine, and the newly introduced Spider-Man and Black Panther align with Team Stark; Falcon, Ant-Man, Bucky, Hawkeye, and Scarlet Witch align with Team Cap.
This conflict intersects with the return of the Winter Soldier/Bucky Barnes, who has at last begun to reclaim a measure of his own identity and sanity after the brutal events of the last Captain America film. Unfortunately, it is gradually revealed that is responsible for a number of important deaths, including that of Tony’s parents. The three men, and the rest of the Avengers, are actually being manipulated by Helmut Zemo, a survivor of Sokovia whose family was killed during their foiling of Ultron’s plan. While the three leads survive their titanic final clash, the rift remains largely unhealed as the credits roll.
I have heard this film referred to as a male weepie, and that is certainly an accurate description. Each of the three primary heroes has good reason(s) to feel as they do, even as we also recognize that it is their own stubborn belief in their rightness that is both their greatest strength and their greatest weakness. It is hard not to feel for each of them, as we know (even better than they do), all of the trials that have endured and how much baggage they continue to carry. It’s also hard not to feel a mingled sense of sadness and uncomfortable exhilaration as the three of them battle it out in the frozen wastes of Siberia.
The fraught relationship(s) among the three leads is troubling precisely because it intersects with the larger political and philosophical questions the film raises. And it is even more troubling because of how irresolvable they are. Should superheroes be subject to the stricter rules by the government, especially when their rise seems to cause that of the villains and threats they are then called on to confront? Is Tony justified in wanting to kill Bucky for the death of his parents, even though he was not in his right mind while he did it? These questions, like all of those asked in the Captain America films, resist the easy answers that the genre seemingly provides, precisely because the various opposing answers are equally valid. As always, the film ultimately denies us a satisfactory conclusion.
While the primary conflict is, of course, between Cap and Tony, and while the primary (b)romance is between Bucky and Cap, the supporting players are given plenty to do. Each of them must ultimately choose which side of this rift they are going to occupy, and Black Widow and Scarlet Witch are extraordinary in this regard. Both Scarlet Johansson and Elizabeth Olsen shine in their respective roles, though (as is unfortunately all too usual in the MCU), they are criminally underused in this film. It still confounds me that Black Widow has so far been denied her own stand-alone film, but hopefully that will change as the MCU makes a more concerted and genuine effort to diversify its offerings.
The two newcomers that enter the stage at this point deserve especial merit. Tom Holland as Spider-Man is truly one of the breakout stars in this film, as he manages to bring out just the right blend of nerdy and sassy. He is clearly star-struck by being in the presence of these magnificent superheroes who have been his own role models, but he doesn’t let that get in the way of his fighting ability. Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther likewise delivers a star-worthy performance, combining a resolute sort of honour with an ability to adapt. I know that I, for one, am really looking forward to the release of his own films (2018 can’t get here soon enough!)
The fight scenes are carried off with characteristic aplomb. I’m always struck by the strong bodily response these films elicit, as they encourage a feeling that through these antics the spectator can achieve a similar measure of bodily (super)agency. These superheroes are, in a way, our own bodily ideals sold to us
There are also a few moments of genuine sadness, as when we learn that Agent Peggy Carter has passed away in her sleep. While this is not shown on-screen, we are left in no doubt as to the effect this has on Cap, who clearly carried a torch for his former compatriot. Equally sad is Tony Stark’s regret over his adolescent petulance toward his parents on the night that they died, a traumatic memory that clearly casts a shadow even into the present. Both instances, different as they are, remain potent reminders of the central humanity of these superheroes, and a troubling reminder of how much gets left behind in their efforts to make the world a better place.
In the end, though, Captain America: Civil War also leaves us with a troubling question. Are the Avengers really performing a service for the human race (as the surface narrative would suggest), or are they actually giving birth to the very forces that so frequently threaten the world and that they must then contend with? The question is actually posed by Vision who, as the sole nonhuman voice in the film, actually possesses a measure of intellectual and emotional distance from the events and their consequences. This is a question that the Avengers will continue to struggle with, and the fact that it is ultimately irresolvable may be the greatest hurdle they will have to collectively overcome.
It remains to be seen whether they will be able to do so.