“We may not be perfect, but the safest hands are our own.” ~ Captain America
“We need to be put in check. Whatever form that takes, I’m game.” ~ Tony Stark
“Captain, while a great many people see you as a hero, there are some who prefer the word vigilante. You’ve operated with unlimited power and no supervision. That’s something the world can no longer tolerate.” ~ Thaddeus Ross
“Look, man, I know you know a lot of super people, so... thanks for thinking of me.” ~ Ant-Man
“If you do this, they will never stop being afraid of you.” ~ Vision
“I can’t control their fear, only my own.” ~ Scarlet Witch
“Are we still friends?” ~ Black Widow
“That depends on how hard you punch me.” ~ Hawkeye
“I’m trying to prevent you from tearing the Avengers apart.” ~ Iron Man
“You did that when you signed.” ~ Captain America
Marvel Studios continues its run of comic book adaptations with Captain America: Civil War, which could easily be titled Avengers: Civil War, since almost all of the team turn up through the film. The film brings back brother directors Anthony and Joe Russo, who helmed the previous Captain America: The Winter Soldier, as well as previous cast members, all while introducing some key new characters. Along the way, the story ties closely to the previously established continuity of the Avengers world, and ends up pitting heroes against each other... all while a villain pulls strings from behind the scenes.
The film opens years in the past, with the brainwashed Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), otherwise known as the Winter Soldier, dispatched by Hydra on an assassination mission. In the present day, months after the Avengers defeated Ultron, Captain America (Chris Evans) and some of his fellow Avengers work to bring down a familiar adversary, though there are casualties along the way. The team are informed that the UN wants oversight on the team; the news is delivered by the Secretary of State, Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt, reprising his military officer role which he last played in The Incredible Hulk).
The issue has the team seeing things differently. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), who’s been feeling guilty about creating Ultron in the first place and the destruction caused by it, supports the initiative. Steve Rogers has more faith in himself than in government agencies. One can see the validity of both arguments, but the dilemma has the team becoming fractured, particularly after the assassination of an esteemed African king at the hands of the Winter Soldier.
The screenplay is by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who wrote the two previous Captain America films, as well as Thor: The Dark World, and the Chronicles Of Narnia series. The story really comes across as a continuation of where things left off with The Winter Soldier, while also playing off the events of Avengers Age Of Ultron. It takes elements from a comics big event called Civil War, which threw the idea of superhuman registration into the mix. One character created for that event is reprised here, the notion of regulation is explored, and two opposing viewpoints expressed most strongly by Cap and Iron Man are clearly designated. That said, the film takes those plot points and goes off in a different and much better direction (the original limited series, written by a hack of a writer named Mark Millar, can be avoided).
Rather than an epic war torn film, the script plays like a psychological thriller, with hints of the Western here and there- with clearly drawn lines and little shades of grey. It’s hard to pick sides between the schism that forms up in the Avengers, but it’s easy to understand both points of view, and that comes across through the script. The story plays around with themes of personal and public responsibility, the loyalties of friendships, and political intrigue. And while it deals with heroes finding themselves on opposing sides of an ethical dilemma, the script does allow for villainy to rear its head, giving us an adversary who’s drawn differently from his Marvel origins, and yet is just as devious. Markus and McFeely’s script even brings in some humour, while maintaining the established characterization in what turns out to be a very large cast.
The Russos did exceedingly well with The Winter Soldier, and so it makes perfect sense to bring them back to direct this film. They’ve already shown that they have a good take on action, something that’s pretty much essential in a Marvel adaptation, but they also have the right touch in letting characters shine, which happens throughout- a difficult task when one is dealing with such a sizeable cast. The film was shot in various spots around the world, suitable since the story features globe-trotting locations, both real and Marvel-created; the use of a German airport- strangely not that busy- features heavily in the film, for instance. And I really liked the look of the fictional African kingdom of Wakanda.
While many of the characters through the film are previously established in other films in terms of costume design and other such details, three new characters key to the film show up, and I like the way the production crew gave their looks. Spider-Man (Tom Holland) makes his debut in the Marvel cinematic universe (thanks to a deal with Sony, who have apparently gotten tired of rebooting the character), and the character’s look is very much in the tradition of the comics.
Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) also makes his debut, and I really liked the sleek, high tech look of the character’s uniform, fitting with his African origins and totally badass. Helmut Zemo (Daniel Bruhl), a villain from the comics, on the other hand, does not have any of his traditional look- no mask, but the character’s look fits what the story has in store for him. In addition, the Russos brought back Henry Jackman to compose the score- he did the tense, slightly nihilistic score for The Winter Soldier- Jackman’s score expands on where he started from and moves in new directions.
The cast is a big one, but everyone feels cohesive to the purposes of the story. Martin Freeman (Sherlock, The Hobbit) turns up as an American government official, Everett Ross, tied to the Panther in the comics, somewhat ambiguous in terms of his world view. Marisa Tomei turns up as Peter’s aunt May Parker- still too young, but filling the maternal worrying aspect of the character. Alfre Woodard appears as Miriam Sharpe, a character from the comics, fulfilling the same role as she did in the Civil War limited series- making Tony Stark feel profoundly guilty, while not being nearly as obnoxious as her comics counterpart. William Hurt reprises his role as Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross, who’s moved on from his military days spent hunting the Hulk to politics; he’s still as dismissive of heroes as ever, still comes across as a man bearing a permanent grudge.
John Kani was a surprise appearance as T’Chaka, the ill fated king of Wakanda; I really liked his work in The Ghost And The Darkness, and his appearance here was welcome. Emily VanCamp reprises her role from The Winter Soldier as Sharon Carter, the former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who’s moved over to the CIA. Sharon has history with Cap, and the two characters have a common world view and good chemistry. Frank Grillo also returns from The Winter Soldier as the ex-S.H.I.E.L.D. agent and Hydra loyalist Brock Lumlow, aka Crossbones, still imposing as ever (the look the production crew give him here suits him), and still bearing a serious grudge, which certainly comes across in how Grillo plays him.
Daniel Bruhl, who I last saw in Rush (opposite Chris Hemsworth- with the absence of Thor in this film, there’s a missed chance to have a double-take between the actors) plays Helmut Zemo, the villain of the film. He’s a man of facades, a military officer turned terrorist from Sokovia, the country devastated by the events of Age Of Ultron, and obsessed with revenge against the Avengers for the destruction in his country. It makes his motives understandable, at least- he’s lost loved ones and blames it on the heroes. Zemo’s quite different from his comics counterpart, in terms of background and his look, but the character in the film is devious, clever, and knows how to pull strings. Bruhl certainly plays to that, giving Zemo a ruthless, manipulative touch that fits into the Marvel universe very well indeed. He’s a bastard, but a relatable one, and he ends up making a compelling villain.
Paul Rudd reprises his role as Scott Lang after last year’s Ant-Man. The character is recruited into Cap’s faction, and Rudd provides some of the humour of the film, particularly in how he meets Cap for the first time. Some of the other humour comes from Tom Holland, debuting as Spidey; the character’s young, but already powered when we meet him (wisely the story doesn’t need to rehash the Spider-Man origin yet again). Holland gives the character the right degree of snark (he never seems to shut up), while the character takes part less out of any real principle than out of the personal relationship he has with Tony Stark- something of a mentor and student dynamic.
Chadwick Boseman is new to the Marvel universe as T’Challa, the young African prince turned king also known as the Black Panther, a royal title as much as anything else. The actor previously appeared as Jackie Robinson in 42, so I was looking forward to what he would do with this character, and he fits T’Challa perfectly. For the story, the character is a third voice, a different point of view from Steve and Cap, and his motivations are very personal in where he stands. T’Challa is royalty, coming to inherit his father’s throne in a way he would have never wanted, and I like the way the story features him trying to find balance between tradition and the modern world. The Panther comes across as the brilliant but mysterious man I would have expected from his best comics appearances- when the solo film comes along, the writers would be wise to follow the comics works of Christopher Priest, whose writing style really paid off for the character.
Paul Bettany’s been involved in the Marvel cinematic universe from the beginning, giving voice to Tony Stark’s AI program JARVIS through the Iron Man and Avengers films until taking on the role of the android Vision in Age of Ultron. He plays the character with a combination of logical and naive, a curious being searching for the meaning of humanity. Elizabeth Olsen reprises her role as Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch, having had debuted in Age of Ultron as the character. Wanda is somewhat conflicted, having had lost her brother in battle, and there’s some interesting chemistry between her and the Vision, while the position she ultimately chooses is entirely understandable.
Don Cheadle returns as James Rhodes, the military officer and best friend of Tony Stark who uses the War Machine armor. He’s been playing the character in two of the Iron Man films and Age of Ultron, still the hot shot pilot who puts up with Tony for some odd reason- and Cheadle continues to make him a more compelling character than the actor who originated him in the first Iron Man film (thank Odin for recasts). Anthony Mackie also returns as Sam Wilson, the Falcon, whose choice to join Steve’s side in the dispute is never in doubt- the two have been working awhile as partners, and there’s a lot of mutual respect between them.
Jeremy Renner reprises his role as Hawkeye; the character’s settled into a quiet life with his family. Yet he comes back and takes Steve’s side in the dispute- while finding himself on the opposite side from his oldest friend. Part of that seems to be out of an obligation to Wanda, whose brother saved his life by sacrificing his own. Scarlett Johansson returns as the Black Widow, and she’s as enigmatic as ever playing the character. She’s conflicted between the two sides over the issue of oversight, and I like that she sees both sides of the issue and that she’s even a voice of reason.
Sebastian Stan returns as Bucky Barnes, the Winter Soldier. The character has been through a lot- presumed dead in the war, brainwashed, and put into cryogenic storage on a regular basis in the decades since. He’s in a state of turmoil through the film, struggling with the darkness of his past and what was done to him. What side he’s on is a question throughout the film, as is the state of just how brainwashed he still is. Given all of that, feeling sympathy for him seems natural.
Robert Downey Jr. has been integral to the cinematic universe from the start as Tony Stark. The character’s been a wise ass, often given to try creating some new technology without thinking through the consequences. As sarcastic as he is, though, the character finds himself preoccupied by guilt- his role in creating Ultron did have consequences, and the film plays to that throughout, making his stance on the issue of oversight seem fitting. And a secret stands revealed through the story that makes things deeply personal for Tony- and perhaps putting him in a position where he can’t compromise. Having him in a position where he’s at odds with a friend and teammate makes for a compelling turn for the character.
This of course is still a Captain America film (even with almost all of the Avengers appearing in it), and Chris Evans returns as the title character. Steve Rogers is a man of principle, integrity, loyalty, and basic decency. He’s a natural leader, which we’ve already seen makes others follow his lead. While he’s strongly against the idea of oversight (rather libertarian, actually), it comes from a perspective of distrust in government officials, understandable given the events of The Winter Soldier. And as morally centered as Cap is, he’s stubborn too, not willing to concede that others might not share his integrity, not seeing the other point of view. His sense of optimism is increasingly challenged throughout by frustration, and it’s interesting to watch Evans bring that across through the film.
While Captain America: Civil War deals with serious issues, it doesn’t abandon a sense of fun along the way- a hallmark of Marvel, both comics and the cinematic universe. It has a large cast of characters- and yet none of them seem shoehorned in, and everyone gets a chance to shine, even while introducing new players. The film presents an ethical debate (amid a whole lot of action) that doesn’t really have a right answer, and in the end brings the Marvel cinematic universe to a crossroads- all while thoroughly entertaining the audience.