Reader, I smiled. I had a big, goofy, excited grin on my face as I exited the cinema where I’d just seen Captain America: Civil War. If you had asked me ten years ago if I’d even go to watch a film called Captain America (with or without subtitle) at the cinema, with a protagonist of the same name, I’m sure I would’ve laughed in your face and possibly bought a ticket to some Swedish drama, but Marvel has convinced me.
To be clear: like The Winter Soldier, and like most of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Civil War is a good, very enjoyable film, but it is hardly a film that will still be talked about as one of the greats in ten, twenty years’ time. It is no Raiders of the Lost Ark or, to compare it to something a bit more current, Mad Max: Fury Road. Its direction is very effective but not inspired, its characters charismatic and fun, great to spend 2 1/2 hours with, but they have relatively little depth. The movie won’t convert those who aren’t already at least somewhat invested in the MCU and its growing cast of characters. Having said that, though, a lot of this criticism misses something relevant to the discussion: Captain America: Civil War does a few very difficult things extremely well, perhaps more so, and more consistently, than any other superhero movie I’ve seen, including its various predecessors. In part, its effectiveness is due to the MCU’s serialised approach: like a series, and more specifically like a genre series along the lines of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it gives us a cast of characters that is in effect a surrogate family of sorts, if perhaps a dysfunctional one. It develops this family over a long span of time, making us care about it (to various extents – I still haven’t particularly warmed to Cousin Thor), and it then uses this development, which feels more significant for having taken its time, to motivate its characters.
More than any of the MCU films before it, Civil War works with the characters the franchise has developed; in fact, while there is an antagonist of sorts, he is mainly there to trigger the conflict, and then it’s largely a clash of the personalities we’ve been watching since 2008. I haven’t seen Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but from what I’ve read about the film its conflict never rings true. Civil War gets this right: every one of Steve Rogers’ actions, every reaction by Tony Stark, every decision made by the protagonists, they all feel credible. Not necessarily logical or smart – you do wish these characters could actually sit down together and talk for more than five minutes – but this is how the Iron Man we’ve been watching for eight years would act, this is what the Captain America we first met in 2011 would do. They may be stubborn idiots, but they’re believable stubborn idiots, in particular Tony Stark.
The film’s secret weapon is how the characterisation carries over to the action sequences, to great effect. While I’ve liked a lot of the MCU, I’ve been critical of the franchise’s flaws, one of the greatest being the often perfunctory action scenes. Again, take something like last year’s Mad Max, and you’ve got action that’s directed, shot and acted with operatic flair. Action setpieces in the Marvel movies have been workmanlike much of the time, and sometimes downright generic, with only the occasional flash of originality (take some of the miniature battles in Ant-Man) or personality. The climactic battle for New York in The Avengers worked because it was the payoff to years of building up the characters and Joss Whedon’s effective writing and direction that made these individuals into a team – but the action itself was still nothing special: our heroes had personality and style, but the bad guys were faceless CGI minions. Civil War, though, finds ways of having the characters’ personalities and even ideals inform the way they fight that were witty and even elegant; there’s a close-quarter fight with a German SWAT team trying to apprehend or kill Cap’s friend Bucky Barnes (the Winter Soldier of the second Captain America film), with Bucky, intent on survival and escape above anything else, using brutal, ruthless moves, while Steve Rogers goes out of his way to keep his well-trained, heavily armed and doubtlessly dangerous opponents alive and relatively unharmed. The scene deftly juggles different aims – exciting action and characterisation – with an assuredness that action movies rarely display, let alone superhero movies.
All of Civil War‘s action setpieces equally serve at least two purposes, developing characters and even relationships, something that The Winter Soldier only just about hinted at. This is perhaps best seen in the climactic fight, which for the first time in the MCU is not between the heroes and a (usually underdeveloped) antagonist: it is between characters that we root for, making the conflict not external but internal, and doing so believably. Whoever wins, whoever loses, it matters, it makes a difference. I think it may be the first action climax in the franchise that had me fully interested and engaged since The Avengers, and arguably it tops that one with its generic alien bad dudes.
Mind you, it also has me somewhat worried about the future plans for the Avengers films, since those seem to aim at a showdown with Thanos, a galactic villain that has been teased since the team’s first outing, since what the MCU has shown of him makes him look only marginally less stupid than the latest X-Men instalment’s Oscar Isaac-wasting Apocalypse. Will they make him work? They’ve already laid the groundwork, but what we’ve seen so far – a post-credit teaser here, a few proper scenes there – isn’t altogether promising. More than that, though, while Marvel has been building up its characters, it is still prone to telling stories that are only minor variations on the same basic tale: a band of characters comes together in spite of internal and external conflict to fight a greater evil. It also tends to tell these stories pretty much the same way. As much as I enjoyed Civil War, I very much hope that Marvel uses the trust it has built up among the fans of its films to change things up, in terms of style as much as of story.
In the meantime, though, that goofy, excited grin? It’s still there when I think about Robert Downey Jr.’s yet again pitch-perfect Tony Stark, Peter Parker’s introduction that actually makes me curious about yet another Spider-Man, or that fight at the airport that brings the joyous, exhilarating potential of superhero comics to the screen so well. It may well be that without the novelty of seeing it for the first time Civil War won’t hold up as well, but right now I am looking forward to revisiting it and spending some more time with that ever-growing, ever-squabbling family of costumed misfits, narcissists and idealists.