If you had told me five years ago, fresh off the release of The First Avenger, that the Captain America Trilogy would go on to rival Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy someday, perhaps the most generous reaction you could expect was laughter. Now it is 2016, where superhero films dominate almost every inch of entertainment accessible to man, and fresh out of Civil War, that statement carries an argument that packs its share of punches. The Russo brothers have shown, with The Winter Soldier, their ability to take an unshakeable love of comic-book mythology and pop culture, and arm it with a penchant for intelligent direction of political thrillers, an art they perfect in the latest film in the franchise. Civil War not only gives its audiences their money’s worth in a visual feast of action set-pieces and homage to the source material, but also gives them emotional satisfaction in the interactions and development of these characters that have been carefully built over the past films.
Captain America: Civil War is the culmination of the patriotic tale of Captain Steve Rogers, a super-soldier for the U.S. government in World War II who was preserved in a block of ice, only to be awoken to a world of technology, aliens and super-powered beings. However, as became clearer through the course of the trilogy, it is also the culmination of the eternal bond between Steve, the scrawny kid from Brooklyn, and Bucky, his only friend in a world that ostracized him at every turn. It is also, in many ways, an Avengers film, where the eponymous team is faced with the tough questions of culpability and checks for their actions, and the diverse perspectives of its members on the issue. Guilt-ridden by the stark realization that their missions came at the cost of wiping out lives of individuals with families and dreams, Tony proposes to submit the Avengers to the Sokovia Accords, a treaty signed by 117 nations, to keep them under the constant check and sanction of the United Nations. When Steve – based on his experience with governments and organizations controlling forces such as his, a perspective not helped by the events of The Winter Soldier – decides he cannot but take a firm stand against this agreement, our heroes are forced to take sides, on allegiances of personal and ideological nature, and have no option but to take arms against each other.
While the Civil War event in the comics was an all-out superhero fiesta sprawling the Marvel universe and all its characters – including the X-Men and the Fantastic Four, to which the MCU has no rights – the war that is played out on the big screen enjoys the advantage of its smaller scale, in being a more personal conflict for its characters, none of whom can be classified as hero or villain. And that last point is the precise reason why the film works as well as it does: that each character has her/his own personal motivations – clearly fleshed out and defined – for why they choose their sides, so that when they do leap into battle, every blow and punch is felt in the true essence of the conflict. It is also the reason why this film works far better in handling strikingly similar issues to that which Batman v Superman did, since the conflict here has the history of so many events and relationships riding on it, making the stakes all the more felt in the viewers’ minds. And speaking of blows and punches, Civil War also features easily some of the best hands-on action, with the finesse of each sequence upped in game from the already brilliant Winter Soldier. The reason the motivations behind are so organically understood and felt by the audience is that Marvel has taken the time to patiently construct the personalities and pasts of the characters fighting it out on screen, to the point that they have become ingrained in our minds. We know what burdens each of them carry, and the many events and people they have encountered that shape their judgment today, and it is this instinctive knowledge that gives rise to the great character moments in this film, particularly those between Steve and Tony.
Indeed, at its heart, the conflict in Civil War boils down to that between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, whose relationship we have seen break free of its initial roughness and grow over the years, adding that much more weight to the war ensuing between the factions led by them. And it doesn’t make it any easier that we understand where both are coming from: Tony, riddled with the guilt of countless lives lost due to his expensive hobby, and Steve, who knows what agenda-driven control can result in – especially from what happened to Bucky – and who wants to prove his friend’s innocence against all odds. Adding to this conflict, justifiable from either side, are the other characters we have grown to love over these films – with the exception of a certain Norse god and a green rage monster, who are surprisingly not missed – and the new additions of T’Challa’s Black Panther and Peter Parker’s Spiderman, who are given sufficient space for establishment, while saving the rest for their respective solo films. The MCU has been immaculately cast so far, and these two are no different: as Chadwick Boseman creates a dominating presence with the extremely physical warrior-king persona, Tom Holland proves to be every bit true to the essence of Spiderman – from the wise-cracking mouth to the teenage fanboying – as he slings into action during what is perhaps the greatest super-powered battle sequence ever put to film. And while this film needed no villainous character rubbing his palms behind the scenes, what with the characters’ ideological differences proving sufficient to move the story along, we were lucky enough to get one in Baron Zemo, portrayed with all the pain he carries, by Daniel Bruhl.
The men responsible for the masterfully crafted showdown between these familiar heroes in new light are Anthony and Joe Russo, brothers who understand character relationships and emotions really well, unsurprisingly, considering their past work on character-driven shows such as Community and Arrested Development. There is humour and smartly written dialogue abound, as we see certain characters interact with each other at such close levels for the first time: a special one being Scott Lang’s Antman meeting Captain America, as the former is clearly the one with least stakes in the conflict. The MCU, a franchise built on light-hearted banter and the wry wit of Tony Stark, and in dire need of a direction that can elevate the stories to more serious levels while maintaining the tone at heart, seem to have found their minds in these two, who have brought with them their ability to have fun with even the most passionate of situations. It also helps that they know, better than anyone else, how to blend gritty, Bourne-like action sequences with the unique powers and skills each hero possesses, something spectacularly displayed in the airport scene. Giving us what is deserved of such a conflict of heroes, they present to us a story of extremely grounded characters with realistic struggles in a fantastical universe, helping to build the world while simultaneously breaking down its key players to their very core. While Joss Whedon was exactly the kind of fanboy Marvel needed in Phase One to assemble the Avengers and create history, what they need at this stage is a creative force that allows the more difficult questions and conflicts to mingle with the established universe, and the Russo brothers are it.