When I reviewed the previous entry in the Captain America franchise, I wondered where the Russo brothers would take Steve Rogers next. The First Avenger was a nice little homage to war movies, while The Winter Soldier was a riff on the seventies conspiracy movies. Civil War has flavours of the international espionage thriller from the eighties (re-energized by the Bourne movies, of course). Above all else, however, it is a product of the current trend of superhero megamix that Marvel itself did so much to popularize, with no fewer than a dozen featuring in the film. These characters are handled with Marvel's inimitable lightness of touch – the Spider-Man and Ant-Man, two of the more unassuming heroes here, are the most fun – but the sheer size of the roster makes Civil War more of a stop-gap Avengers than a proper standalone Captain America movie.
With a trail of destruction being left in the Avengers’ wake every time the earth is saved, the world’s governments band together to try and place the superheroes under UN supervision. Tony Stark leads the conformists, while Steve Rogers heads the opposition, an ironic reversal. The conundrum for all concerned makes for compelling viewing in the early scenes, when the heroes ponder the choice with words rather than fists. Both sides have valid arguments, and the room for compromise seems small. There’s a nice scene where, in the face of Stark’s determined yet typically egocentric appeals, Rogers replies: ‘everyone has agendas’, even the UN. Then the film unfortunately – if understandably – takes the easier way out by introducing a third party threat, represented in the low-key form of German actor Daniel Bruhl. A couple of explosive incidents force Captain America to go on the run yet again, but this time his is not the only motivation that demands sympathetic attention – the spotlight is shared by Tony Stark, who has a very heavy presence here.
I became a fan of Captain America (as per the current Marvel Cinematic Universe or MCU) after watching The First Avenger. After years of ‘dark’ heroes, heroes wracked by guilt or horrible childhood, heroes uncertain about their powers, or heroes who couldn’t seem to save the day with a straight face, Steve Rogers was a refreshing throwback. He is not weighed down by the powers he gained, and he has no qualms about the responsibilities that come with them. He doesn't have to wonder what it all means, because he already knows: do the right thing, regardless of the circumstance or the stakeholders, with few adjectives, and no whining. In this regard, Rogers actually shares a lot in common with Roscharch from Watchmen. Both have a similar 'no-compromises' approach to justice which extends as much to friends as to foes.
It's interesting to see what kind of evil Captain America fights in his MCU movies. In The First Avenger, the headline bad guys are the Nazis, but his true foe is the idea that might makes right, might in this case being physical as well as things less tangible: organizational, political, even expressions of democracy. In fact this is the setup Rogers struggles with in every one of his movies. In The Winter Soldier, Hydra is again the apparent menace but the real issue is what happens if the menace manifests itself in the form of the government. In Civil War, a terrorist needs to be brought to heel, but the big question is whether an overweening political might can force conformity without consensus. In all three movies, while the method of implementation may differ, the evil is the same, as is the Captain's reaction. Rogers is beaten up by a bully early in the first film, but this isn't the only bully he has to struggle with. Hydra is obviously another one, but just as importantly, the US Army bullies Rogers: first to try and make him quit, and then, after he becomes Captain America, to conform to propaganda. In The Winter Soldier, the defining realization Rogers comes to is that HYDRA was only able to prosper because of SHIELD (the parasite lives on because of the host) and the stronger SHIELD becomes, so does HYDRA. The decision he makes to disband SHIELD, the only place he belongs to in a world he doesn't know, is not that of the company man, kow-towing to executive decision. It is something born of a stronger principle: when it comes to justice, don't compromise for anyone, including allies.
All this is quite subversive. Captain America was renowned – and ridiculed – for being a government lackey, but in Marvel's movie trilogy he is very much the iconoclast. Civil War reinforces this more clearly than ever before. It would have been courageous – if admittedly tricky – for the Russo brothers to carry this idea all the way through, but they don't quite do this. Melodrama invades the latter stages of the movie, and what was a very intriguing conceptual standoff eventually descends into a few too many clanging punch-ups. The Russos, however, display courage in other areas, especially in how they handle the villain. The temptation in these blockbuster sequels is always to go bigger, louder, and raise the stakes. Civil War toys with that approach, but the payoff it has in mind is more downbeat and less triumphant. The denouement is surprisingly melancholy, and we find that in this Civil War, like all others, there are no real winners.
Chris Evans is once again a Gary Cooper-esque presence as the Captain. You have to admire Marvel's casting skills (at least for male characters). They did the impossible and finally got Bruce Banner right in The Avengers, Chris Pratt and Paul Rudd were pitch perfect for their respective characters, and this time around Tom Holland is a triumph as Spider-Man. But for me Evans is the best casting out of them all. He makes a difficult role look easy, and above anything else brings a considerable physical authenticity to the role. It's easy to forget that Captain America doesn't have a lot of gimmicks to rely on to make his character catchy. There's no showy ability like webslinging, shrinking or even a few arrows, and his suit is only a step above that of a SWAT member. His greatest power, as the Russos have pointed out, is his moral strength, and this isn't something that can be shown with a cape or a gadget. Evans has always been convincing in this regard, and Civil War is no exception. The problem is Tony Stark. Simply put, he is asked to do too much in the film. At various stages he is conscientious objector, peace maker, belligerent anti-hero, repentant sleuth and guilt-stricken son, as well as his usual arrogant, entrepreneurial self. Robert Downey Jr. does his usual great job in a role he was born to play, but Tony Stark performs so many narrative functions in Civil War that it's difficult not to weary of him before the end.
I liked Civil War somewhat less than its two predecessors. It takes on a bit more than it can handle, although it's still worth noting how good a job the Russos have done to make the film as nimble-footed and enjoyable as it is, all the while juggling this many protagonists and incorporating a fairly convincing origin story into the bargain. But a movie named Captain America should be about, well, Captain America. Having Iron Man play such a prominent part isn't itself a detriment, but having him also be the centre of the movie's emotional arc does detract from the experience. Tony Stark is a lot of fun to watch, but he is not a particularly sympathetic figure, and a sympathetic figure is what the movie needs Tony Stark to suddenly be and the audience to buy into. It doesn't quite work. Not enough to prevent Civil War from being a superb entertainment, but enough to make me wonder whether more balance could have made it even better.