We are in an unprecedented time when it comes to Blockbuster filmmaking. Whether it be Godzilla vs. King Kong, the proposed Universal Monsters films, or the upcoming MIB 23 film, shared universes and crossovers are all the rage. Movie franchises are being treated more like episodic serials; yes, they tell a semi-complete story, but everything is ultimately pointing to next week’s installment. If we’re being honest, we would have to admit that while we enjoy the crossovers and easter eggs, most of these “cinematic universes” leave much to be desired when it comes to good storytelling. When it comes to multiple films connecting together, long-form storytelling is extremely risky and just as hard to pull off successfully. Lucky for us, Marvel Studios not only created this trend, but they have mastered it.
Why Captain America: Civil War Works
Captain America: Civil War does just about everything right. It dives deeper into the Captain America story, while also vastly expanding the world the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It introduces several new characters, having their character arcs grow organically out of Cap’s journey. I’m a big fan of Avengers: Age of Ultron, but I understand that many aren’t. Where Age of Ultron fell flat (juggling multiple story arcs, introducing new characters organically, setting up future films, telling one complete story), Civil War excels. This is the film Age of Ultron was striving to be. This is the film that solidifies the Captain America trilogy as one of greats. Though we need to give it some time, it is very possible this is the best film Marvel Studios has ever crafted.
Continuing narrative threads started by Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Avengers: Age of Ultron, Civil War follows Captain America (Chris Evans) as he leads the ever-changing Avengers on missions across the globe. The same type of destruction seen in the previous Marvel films follows them wherever they go, and the world is tired of having the heroes go unaccounted for – enter Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.). Tony Stark feels the guilt of not only providing weapons to terrorists (read: the Iron Man trilogy), but specifically for creating the “murderbot” Ultron, and agrees with the United Nations: the Avengers need to be put in check.
Though not the same exact conflict as the Civil War conflict, this is a substantive conflict and makes for the most dramatic Marvel film we have seen to date. The film walks the thin line between existing solely as a Captian America film and going full on Avengers film. We’ll talk about that later, suffice to say, the film stays on the Cap side by having the conflict grow out of Cap’s relationship with The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). It is in the character of The Winter Soldier that all of Civil War’s strengths can be seen. His story keeps the story focused on Cap’s relationships, his story continues the story from past films, his story is the driving factor in having the Avengers join in this time. Those three elements are what make Civil War succeed: Staying focused on Cap, picking up narrative threads from past films (some Avengers stuff in this element), and telling a complete story here in this film (some more Avengers stuff in this element).
There are a lot of characters in Civil War. With the exception of Thor and Hulk, every hero makes an appearance in this film. This is where Civil War is a better Avengers movie than the last Avengers movie we received. Black Widow, War Machine, Vision, Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch, and Falcon all continue being stellar as side-characters. We may not ever get solo films based on these characters, but the filmmaking teams behind these movie make sure each of them get their due diligence. Of all the returning characters, Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) steals every scene he is in. I just have a huge smile on my face thinking about the fact that this character has been well-received and is done so well on the big screen.
If we’re going to talk about Marvel Cinematic Universe characters, of course we have to talk about the two new additions to the team. First, we have the King of Wakanda himself, T’challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman). Like The Winter Soldier, Black Panther’s inclusion is grown organically in this film, his story is part of the Cap vs Iron Man conflict. Boseman completely owns the role of the Panther, displaying the confidence a King would have, while also having the physical prowess to back it up.
Second, after some less-than-stellar movies and insane behind-the-scenes negotiating, Spider-Man has joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and he’s just about perfect here. Tom Holland’s Peter Parker is (again) organically introduced in the midst of the Cap vs Iron Man conflict and we get to meet this Spider-Man as he interacts with the existing Marvel heroes. While it’s likely that entire articles are being written about our new Spider-Man, suffice to say that Holland totally sells the teenage Peter Parker, while his Spider-Man looks and feels right, he can hold his own when battling the other Avengers.
Cap vs Iron Man
Turning our attention back the Cap vs Iron Man story (this is a Captain America film after all), the film also features Daniel Brühl as the Cap villain, Baron Zemo. There were a lot of questions regarding Zemo heading into this film, most of which can’t be discussed here without going into spoilers. Suffice to say, Brühl is a great actor, and Zemo is appropriately menacing in Civil War. The biggest compliment I can give Zemo is that he is not the main villain in the story. Though Iron Man is not the villain, the Cap vs Iron Man story is the main conflict of the film, and Zemo plays wonderfully into that conflict.
Unfortunately, the film’s biggest strengths also lead to what could be considered its sole weakness. As mentioned above, the world-building and inclusion of Avengers works 100% in this film, it does not feel shoehorned in, all of these characters involvement feels right at home in this story. With that in mind, there are moments where you wish you could just watch another Captain America-only story. Don’t get me wrong, whether it be Cap’s friendship with Bucky and Falcon, or his conflict Iron Man, the film includes the Avengers by building on Cap’s narrative building blocks. But some might long for a film that features less characters in lieu of just a standalone Captain America movie.
All that being said, let’s not lose track that Civil War is not only an incredible Avengers movie, but still succeeds as being a Captain America film. In addition to Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige, there are two duos we have to thank when it comes to sure excellence that is Civil War: Directors Joe and Anthony Russo, and writers Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus. These four proved they are the best at what they do when they made Winter Soldier, and now they have perfected their storytelling craft with Civil War. These four understand what makes these characters tick, how to best utilize the Marvel Cinematic Universe, how to give fans what they want while also delivering twists we didn’t see coming. In addition to being experts in adapting Marvel comics, this team is just a filmmaking powerhouse. The drama found in the writing and the sure skill found in the directing is some of the best in business today (these four are working on the two-part Avengers: Infinity War. Spoiler: it’s probably going to be good).
While more can be said about Civil War, we all get the point. Yes, blockbuster films are always fun to go to and eat a bunch of popcorn, but there is something about superhero movies that are striking a particular chord with audiences today. I think that chord is that as film fans, we love characters, and when a superhero movie knows how to tell a good story with good characters, all the action in the world doesn’t matter, because we connect with the story at hand. Whether bringing back familiar faces or introducing new ones, Marvel Studios understands its characters, and films as masterful as Captain America: Civil War are the result.