The Long-form Storytelling of the MCU Pays Off

Captain America: Civil War shares very little plot with the comic book event that it takes its name from. The collateral damage and loss of life related to superhero activities sets in motion the Sokovia Accords, which stipulates that the Avengers must act under the supervision of an international committee, or retire. The team is fractured down the middle, and the side that disagrees with the new laws are branded as criminals and hunted down by their former teammates. This sounds incredibly similar to the Superhuman Registration Act of the comics, but the similarities end there. As its title suggests, this is a Captain America movie, one that’s more of a sequel to The Winter Soldier than it is a follow-up to last year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron. The most compelling journeys of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are the ones taken by Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, and here the changes both of them have undergone bring them into philosophical and physical conflict.

It shouldn’t work, but it does. That’s what I said when I saw The Avengers, and that’s how I feel now. Marvel pulled off the impossible by bringing these heroes together and having their different worlds intersect, and now they tear them apart. A more appropriate title may be Captain America: Disassembled, as there is a palpable tragic overtone as these characters turn on one another, something that works because we have spent time with them as a team. Markus and McFreely’s script is extremely well-paced despite its long run-time and myriad characters to deal with – everyone gets an arc, and interact with each other in a way that reflects their differing personalities.

The Russo Brothers, returning to direct after The Winter Soldier made its mark as a paranoid political thriller, know how to have fun while keeping the action grounded in character. The opening sequence has too much shaky cam to be entirely coherent, but otherwise they are successful in bridging the gap between the relatively grounded fight choreography of The Winter Soldier and the stranger world the Avengers work in. The airport fight featured heavily in the trailers is referred to by the Russos as the film’s “splash page”, and it treads the line between lightness and darkness. If I have one major criticism, it’s that often the drama is undercut by the need for every other action beat to be punctuated by a quip. These are passing moments though, and anything that doesn’t land is immediately followed up by either an emotional gut-punch or things I never thought I’d see outside of a comic panel.

Spider-Man and Black Panther are introduced in impressively economic ways, where we understand who they are and where they come from small well-written scenes of dialogue, and then are given their time to shine in costume. I won’t say much about Spider-Man, but as a lifelong fan I felt like a 7-year-old again, full of wonder and joy. This is the masterstroke of Civil War, the Russos indulge us in the full glory of its premise, before pulling the rug from under our feet. A failing I think is present even in Marvel Studios best efforts is the need to make the finale as huge and explosive as possible. Bigger isn’t always better when it comes to action, and Civil War shows that as long as the emotional stakes are high enough there’s no need to collapse skyscrapers or rain fire from the sky. The full spectacle of a superhero brawl is given to us, but it all boils down to the discord between two multifaceted, well-meaning characters.

While most Marvel movies have a similar tone, I don’t think anyone can claim there’s a common aesthetic after watching this. It feels like we are seeing this connected universe through a particular perspective – in tone, visuals, and character. This is how Cap experiences the world, and so the film is set in the grounded world of espionage – albeit one with splashes of colour and science-fiction at its edges. The colour palette of the film is neither the washed-out realism of The Winter Soldier nor the vibrant explosion of Age of Ultron. There are earthy tones that contrast with the vivid; it’s like seeing an Ed Brubaker Captain America comic come to life.

While I’m overall feeling very positive about the movie, it isn’t without flaws. The plot starts to make less and less sense the more you think about it, especially the machinations of its villains. What matters, however, is that they make emotional sense. The way each person reacts to the situation feels so true that it hits you regardless of their place in the overarching narrative. I would have liked the film to be bolder in its shake-up of the cinematic universe, but it is daring in the way it tears these characters apart.

I was worried that the film would take Cap’s side too much as the underdog, and effectively use his stance as a meta justification of the excessive collateral damage of these movies, (in the same way that Skyfall justifies Bond’s reckless and outdated ways), but the question that Civil War asks is purposefully left unanswered. Tony and Steve get put through the wringer separately, and are brought to the point where we understand where they are both coming from. You feel the blows they deal to each other, because they are both shown to be human – with all the fallibility that comes with it.