In this boldly efficient house of cards that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), carefully constructed by Kevin Feige and overwhelmingly, consistently successful both in monetary terms (unsurprising) and overall quality (more surprising), something…even a little something…had to give eventually. Behold, Captain America: Civil War.
That’s not to say the movie is a failure, or even that it’s at all bad. To the contrary, it’s satisfyingly reflective of the current quasi-autopilot state of the traditional MCU circuit (not including the quirky outliers like Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man, which are freer to be freaky). It ticks off the crowd-pleasing boxes, floods the screen with a crossover contingent of endearing familiar faces, all of whom participate in a new would-be death-defying adventure that is compelling as a serial episode but always building toward a broader picture. Such is this current MCU “phase,” one level closer to completing its empire. Only nagging issue with Civil War is that, more clearly than ever before, it really feels like the emperor is operating the machinery.
Of course, the Civil War storyline is essential in Marvel Comics lore, and thus becomes essential to the MCU world-building. Not like this is some superfluous layer of fluff that distracts from the central thrust of the Marvel endgame. But that endgame hovers so ominously over the onscreen proceedings that we feel the weight of its pressure more significantly than in any of the previous 12 MCU movies. So we have the politically-charged battle of the wills inherent to the Captain America and Iron Man characters in Civil War – actually quite compelling at its core – but also must reckon with the many other moving parts that are tied to the MCU but not to this particular story, which is already epic enough on its own. The result is an unofficial third Avengers movie that is superior to Age of Ultron (and to Batman v. Superman, to no one’s surprise), but is nevertheless even more bloated, which puts our ultimate enjoyment on a narrative delay and weakens the overall experience. But the machine must rage on, you see.
The Captain America films have distinguished themselves in this universe by moving politics and espionage to the forefront, and Civil War is no different. In the wake of the fallout destruction and innocent casualties resulting from the otherwise heroic exploits of Cap (Chris Evans) and his Avenger counterparts, the U.S. government engages the United Nations in a pact that would regulate superhero actions, put strict controls on the scope of their engagement in counterterrorism efforts, and enforce punishments for overstepping. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr., the MCU’s on-screen godfather) becomes the U.N.’s unlikely ally in this effort, stemming from his own guilt over the perception of Iron Man’s recklessness. This sets up an ideological battle with Steve Rogers/Cap, for whom the fallout is something to reflect on, but not at the expense of defending the greater good.
Factions form among the Avengers, with Stark recruiting Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), War Machine (Don Cheadle), and Vision (Paul Bettany) to defend the U.N. agreement, while Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) stand with Cap in rebellion. Both sides also have unexpected allies, with The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) fighting alongside Captain America’s crew and Prince T’Challa of Wakanda, otherwise known as Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), siding with Iron Man. Both are integral to the screenplay’s broader story, the former eyed as the perpetrator of a terrorist bombing in Vienna, the latter out for vengeance since his father was a victim of said bombing. But Black Panther isn’t the only hero whose origin is woven into this would-be Captain America sequel – there’s also young Spider-Man (Tom Holland), freed from Sony encumbrances to join the Marvel fold and sought out by Stark in an Ocean’s Eleven sort of recruitment montage.
Spidey enters the fray for what amounts to a schoolyard battle among the superheroes, featuring all of the above plus Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), in a sequence which has no legitimate bearing on the narrative conflict of the film other than to witness 95% of our favorite Marvel heroes (sorry, Thor, Hulk, and Guardians) brawl for 15 minutes of tantric nerdgasm. It’s fun and impressive, like the majority of the film. And once the story’s true narrative crux is revealed (literally over two hours into this two-and-a-half-hour film), it’s unexpectedly resonant for these characters we’ve come to know. But that just makes all the preceding material feel like busywork to keep all the MCU pieces on the board and in proper position. That kind of background organization has been going on all along, clearly, but moves to the foreground in Captain America: Civil War, which functions like a blueprint with an affecting story hidden within the instructions.