Superheroes are often thought of as our modern mythology, Captain America—our Zeus, Iron Man—our Ares. Captain America: Civil War takes the gods we have loved and cheered on for almost ten years now and makes them human. Civil War, directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, forces these heroes to look at the destruction they’ve caused, the destruction we’ve enjoyed, and to take responsibility. It’s the first Marvel film with a real conscience and a moral dilemma with no clear right answer. Despite being Marvel’s biggest film and largest cast to date, Civil War feels like the most personal superhero film the studio has made. Marvel and the Russo brothers have pushed the boundaries of what is possible in superhero blockbusters by making the focus the emotional and philosophical conflicts between the heroes, rather than a simple take-over-the-world villain. (This paragraph contains spoilers for Age of Ultron, Winter Soldier, and the premise of Civil War). Civil War subverted my expectations of a Marvel film, particularly with its central conflict. Since the first Iron Man film, destruction has followed these heroes wherever they have gone. The films have never asked us to consider what all this destruction means, until now. In the wake of the events in Age of Ultron (the direct predecessor to Civil War), where the Avengers were directly responsible for the destruction of a city and the deaths of an untold number of civilians, the governments of the world have come together to draft the Sokovia Accords—named for the country Ultron took place in. The Accords would put the Avengers under the jurisdiction of the United Nations in order to reduce the number of civilian casualties and destruction in the future. The different members of the Avengers disagree on whether or not they should submit to the accords and the UN’s oversight, with Steve (Captain America) and Tony (Iron Man) at the center of the opposing sides of the eponymous Civil War. Bucky (Winter Soldier) also returns to further drive Steve and Tony apart over whether Bucky should be held accountable for the assassinations he was forced to commit by the group Hydra, providing a direct connection to Captain America: Winter Soldier.
Civil War does an excellent job of driving home its themes of responsibility, guilt, and revenge. Early on in the film, Tony delivers a speech at MIT and announces that he will be giving a huge sum of money to the students to fund their education. Shortly afterwards, a woman confronts him, and says that those with the greatest guilt are the most willing to give. She then hands him a picture of her son who died because of the Avengers’ actions in Ultron, and calls him a murderer. This sets the tone for Tony’s emotional arc in the film and the guilt many of the characters deal with. The conflict over the accords and Bucky has remarkable nuance. Unlike prior Marvel films, punching will only get these characters so far, and here violence is treated as the true last resort. The growing schism between the Avengers is motivated by the different backgrounds and philosophies of these characters. Those with the most guilt regarding their actions, like Tony and Natasha (Black Widow), are the ones most willing to give control over to the UN and distrust their own judgements. The slightly different perspectives of the Avengers are forced to extremes by the circumstances of the accords and Bucky.
Despite having twelve major heroes in one film, Civil War grounds everything in character-focused, personal moments. Steve, Tony, T’Challa (Black Panther), and Wanda (Scarlet Witch) get beautiful, solemn moments to reflect on the seemingly unstoppable collision course they are all on and who they stand with. It was painfully clear that none of these heroes wanted to be fighting each other. And yet, when the characters did end up resorting to violence, it felt all the more powerful because of the incredible tension and motivation they are given by the film’s events. The fight scenes in Civil War are nothing short of incredible, and one chase scene even channeled some of the breathtaking pace of last year’s Mad Max: Fury Road.
The Russo brothers used the internal contradiction of the heroes fighting each other in spite of their tenuous friendship in order to bring out both Civil War’s funniest and most tragic moments. In one scene, as Natasha (Black Widow) and Clint (Hawkeye) are fighting, he lightheartedly asks if they are still friends. Natasha chuckles and says of course they are. Ensemble characters like Ant Man are also utilized as brilliant comic relief, without ever detracting from the emotional core of the film.
Spider-Man is the one character who feels out of place. Both the writing of his lines and his delivery feel forced, in a “Hey! Look at me! I’m funny!” kind of way. It’s perplexing in a film with so much restraint and well thought-out comedy in every other character. More effective are characters like Sharon Carter and Sam Wilson (Falcon) who are by no means the film’s focus, but give the superhuman conflict even more human sides.
The characters’ hesitance to fight is actualized by the writers and actors with subtle dialogue that kept me enthralled in the many scenes of the Avengers simply talking to each other. Their internal conflict brings out the film’s most painful and emotional moments. During the final fight between Steve and Tony I was internally screaming “No! Please just stop!” as I hugged my knees to my chest. Few films, and fewer action films, get me so emotionally invested. The Russo brothers managed an incredible balancing act of including funny moments with the ensemble while consistently returning to a few main characters to ground the conflict in the heroes we have slowly come to know and love.
The script and story of Civil War is packed with layers of meaning that slowly reveal themselves. Short moments repeat themselves throughout the film, like one character listening to a voicemail. At first, I did not understand their significance, but with each repetition my associations with these scenes or moments expanded, until they were allowed to fully, painfully resonate with the film’s themes of revenge and guilt. The Russo brothers’ use of repetition was far more nuanced than I ever expected from a Marvel film’s blunt action. Likewise, they were able to characterize and give depth to new character T’Challa (Black Panther) in a very short amount of time. Amid the Avengers schism, Civil War introduced and allowed me to empathize with Black Panther by giving him his own personal reasons for fighting heroes he views as villains. The depth of the writing makes me want to rewatch this film to pick up on more of its thematic brilliance.
Civil War feels like the culmination of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s narrative up to this point. It both builds off the previous films and give those prior films more significance in light of the conflict between Steve, Tony, and the other Avengers. Some people may bemoan franchising and the seemingly endless deluge of superhero films, but Civil War would not have been possible in an era before the shared cinematic universe. This movie has so much emotion and weight entirely because we have gotten to know these characters and seen them become a found family over many films and many years. This is truly a cinematic achievement of the modern era.