Captain America fascinates me for the same reason I once felt he was obsolete. A product of the Greatest Generation, his defining characteristic is his moral certainty, not his chiseled muscles and good looks. Doubt and anxiety may define modern superheroes, yet Captain America believes his essential goodness can guide him through a complex world. This impasse between certainty and doubt define Captain America: Civil War, the most successful Marvel Cinematic Universe entry since Guardians of the Galaxy. Directors Anthony Russo and Joe Russo strike a difficult balance between strong characters, confident action scenes, and fan service. There is little depth here, only the illusion of it, and that turns out to be enough for a conflict with actual stakes and an uncertain outcome.
If Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a throwback to conspiracy thrillers from the 1970s, then the clearest inspiration for Civil War are Craig-era Bond films (the only missing is distinct cinematography, as the Russo brothers instead prefer clean, bright colors). Still, the standalone opening sequence has its basis in Bond and Mission:Impossible adventures. Captain America (Chris Evans) finds himself in Lagos, Nigeria, tracking a terrorist who wants a biological weapon. The ensuing fight and chase is deadly, despite the best efforts of Cap and his team: Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) stops a suicide bomber, yet there are some civilian casualties, anyway. The Russo brothers film the sequence with visual clarity, even if the impossible physics of Cap’s shield leads to eye strain. More importantly, the suicide bomber imagery adds a sense of horror and a more palatable human dimension to the abstracted casualties from other Marvel films.
The Secretary of State (William Hurt) has had enough of the unchecked aggression from the Avengers, so he proposes the Sokovia Accords, a document that only allows the Avengers to act after United Nations approval. Cap is against it, of course, while Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) craves for the decision-making to be made elsewhere. The negotiations continue without Cap’s approval in Vienna, and they’re upended by an attack that has the Winter Soldier Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) as the chief suspect. The Vienna attack is the catalyst for the titular war: Cap fights for his friend’s survival, following him across Europe, while the authorities and Stark want him dead. Neither aside can afford a stalemate, so Cap and Stark recruit heroes for a final standoff.
The key to Civil War’s success is a familiar, strict adherence to a three-act structure. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely make it easy to anticipate each major plot point and set piece, so when they divert from the action with a world-building scene, we are anxious to get to the good stuff, too. Right before the heroes have their big fight for Bucky’s safety, there is a funny diverting moment where Stark convinces Spider-Man (Tom Holland) to help him out. The theater felt electric – fans were freaking out to see the new Peter Parker – and part of that excitement was that the film’s biggest set-piece was also moments away.
When it’s time for the good guys to face off like adversaries, the Russo brothers stage one of the best, most satisfying action scenes in a superhero film. The setting is an airport runway – the area is clear of civilians, naturally – and the open space gives the Russo brothers a large canvas for how different superpowers would interact. There are visual surprises, sight gags, and an “aw shucks” nature to the dialogue so we know that no one takes the fight personally. The airport also means there are plenty of large vehicles that serve as weapons, knocking around our mostly invulnerable heroes with playful force. At last, this is a superhero sequence that unfolds like the way children might play with their action figures. And since the special effects are about as good as our imaginations, the strong performances push the material beyond action for its own sake.
Despite all the meta-references and emphasis on fun, serious conflict is what makes Civil War stand above most summer blockbusters. Neither Cap nor Stark want to admit their disagreement is personal, to the point where their clash feels operatic. I don’t want to spoil the climax, but I will say that it manages to be exciting since it’s so self-contained and intimate. Two new characters also show how personal vendettas trump common sense: Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) is intriguing because he keeps his own council, ultimately fighting on Stark’s side because of his need for satisfaction. Daniel Brühl plays Helmut Zemo, Civil War’s de-facto villain, and there is a reasoning to his arc than those who want world domination for its own sake. Zemo has a Machiavellian plan, as villains must, and while his scheming cannot withstand much scrutiny, the emotional thread salvages his agenda. Holland, Boseman, and Brühl are convincing as newcomers, fitting into the franchise alongside strong actors and characters we’ve known for years.
The marketing for Captain America: Civil War creates a feud to drum up interest: inspired by the Twilight films, ads everywhere ask us whether we’re #TeamCaptainAmerica or #TeamIronMan. This choice and the semi-plausibility of the Sokovia Accords suggest that Civil War might be more political than previous Marvel films. The Russo brothers and their screenwriters brilliantly write their way around taking a side: they create situations and moments where Cap and Stark seem right, and then invalidate their arguments moments later. It’s a zero-sum game designed to give Civil War more heft than it has, and I mean that in a good way. Like a sharply-defined TV drama, Captain America: Civil War builds on previous entries to create a situation with characters who are frustrating because we understand them too well. This film is so entertaining, so sharp and confident in its sweep, that it retroactively raises Captain America and Tony Stark’s previous adventures to its level.