In this day and age, spectacle should be easy to come by on movie screens. With advances in computer technology and corporations spending a small country’s GDP on each blockbuster, it shouldn’t be too hard to conjure up imagery so amazing it sticks with an audience for years. But the reality is that far too many films fall far too short, filled with forgettable moments that are hollow and confusing. It’s not that, through years of inundation of spectacular images, we’ve become jaded. No, the real culprit is lazy direction and shallow screenwriting, robbing the spectacle of any emotional resonance. Luckily Captain America: Civil War doesn’t suffer from this trend in blockbuster filmmaking. Anthony and Joe Russo, along with screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, have imbued the latest Marvel event with tons of heart and great character beats. With this film, the fifth and latest iteration of Captain America, they resist going on autopilot (although, Iron Man does so for a bit) and simply smashing together heroes to reveal that it’s the people throwing the punches that matter much more than anything else.
As the film begins, Captain America, aka Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), is leading the newest version of the Avengers when tragedy strikes, leaving civilian casualties in the wreckage. Facing pressure from the international community, the United Nations seeks to pass the Sokovia Accords: the Avengers will now operate under the discretion of a UN panel that will dictate when and where to fight. Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) backs these measures as a necessary precaution to limit the body count and causal fallout of the Avengers’ work, but Rogers is dubious of bureaucrats deciding which fights are the ones worth fighting. When the Winter Soldier, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), shows up again, the political disagreement gets even more muddied and much more intense.
The Russos’ film works so well partially because it is based on eight years of storytelling that layed the groundwork of these characters. Using audiences’ familiarity with Iron Man and Captain America, in particular the testy camaraderie they’ve shared since The Avengers, the filmmakers are able to show the virtues of both sides, and the problems with their decisions. But what really makes it all tick, outside of the grand action set pieces and solid performances from the ensemble cast, is that every single character has at least depth to them — some moment to showcase not just how badass they are but also how funny, tragic, and human they can be beneath the codenames and the superheroics. In the midst of brawling, they deliver pithy quips, but also communicate the anguish that they feel in choosing between friendship, duty, and doing what they believe is the right thing.
At its heart, Captain America: Civil War is a love triangle, founded on friendship instead of romance. Captain is in the middle, torn between his allegiances to his complicated oldest friend (and last surviving connection to the old world) and his desire to do right alongside his greatest ally. Sure, superpowered blows are delivered, as well as impressive chase sequences and perhaps the best comic book fight in cinema thus far, but those are just external expressions of the interior issues each character faces. When Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) joins in the fight, it’s not just an excuse for some impressive fight choreography but also represents the heartache and anger that is eating him up following a personal tragedy.
It’s unfathomable how the writers and directors were able to juggle this many characters so deftly, granting each of them a moment — even if brief — to shine, a line to remember and repeat, and a look at who they are beneath the mask (well “mask” as most of these costumed crimefighters don’t actually wear masks). Even the new characters, like Black Panther and a rebooted Spider-Man (Tom Holland), don’t feel shoehorned in but instead represent an important part of the larger debate that is going on amongst the old friends. They join in the old roster of Marvel alums relatively effortlessly, each undergoing a personal journey. That’s what makes the punches — particularly those during the film’s central fight, which takes place at an airport — count: we know these characters, understand their motivations, and perhaps even care about them.
The film isn’t perfect, of course. A few scenes feel out of place, awkward, and unnecessary. The ending, while a daring downer, feels lacking the heft it should carry. And once again, in what feels like a requisite for the genre, a superhero lacks film a good musical score: here, it feels like an afterthought that fails to create atmosphere or add to the iconography of the characters. But these are minor quibbles. Mere hiccups that don’t interfere with the grander gestalt of producing an emotionally honest film with some perfectly executed action beats.
Before any of the Marvel films were made, a Captain America movie was always seen as a gamble and a bit of a jingoistic joke. Weirdly, though, they’ve made him the heart and soul of the Marvel cinematic universe. Who would’ve thought that a supremely fit man whose only weapon is a shield would end up showing larger blockbusters how it can all be done? Captain America: Civil War not only continues the tradition of the films before it, but also establishes itself as the standard bearer for serialized storytelling for other continuity obsessed films. True spectacle is hard to come by in mainstream movies these days, precisely because of the deep understanding of characters and emotions it requires. With Civil War, the filmmakers have shown a firm command over all of these necessities, and produced something special.