Captain America: Civil War is a good Marvel Cinematic Universe movie. It has beloved characters engaging in rip-roaring action sequences, and bantering in between. It has something of a point beyond mere action movie tropes, this time, as with previous Captain America films, to meditate on America’s place in a complex world, vigilante justice, the nature of freedom, etc. And, most MCU of all, it naturally ties into the other films, with those big character introductions and continuing plotlines that make watching the whole mega-franchise a little like following along with the most expensive TV serial of all time.
The creators that make these movies have them down to a science — there’s x percent action, x percent witty banter and light sight gags, x percent man-pain, and x percent pure, sweet fan service. Civil War is no different. You pretty much know who is going to end up being who – and since the Civil War name itself is an indication of a schism within the Avengers, the whole thing boils down to an excuse for all of these cool, larger-than-life superheroes to beat the pudding out of one another. As always, it’s tied together in such a way that leaves you PUMPED for the next one, whenever it falls on the summer release schedule.
It’s formulaic, but not inexpert. This time around, the Avengers — including, but not limited to Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson), Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and War Machine (Don Cheadle) — are in trouble for causing far too much collateral damage in their world-policing efforts. A whole bunch of people died from a building collapse in a fictional African country caused directly by their Avenging, which leads to 117 nations creating a whole set of rules for the Avengers to abide by.
Tony Stark is totes cool with having some oversight, but Captain America, being the rugged individualist that he is, wants none of the bureaucratic bullshit (or buck-passing). This sets up the central conflict of the film — and serves as much of its philosophical meat. Do the world’s most awesome (and American) world police need to answer to anyone? Are the safest hands truly their own? Should the world totally trust a bunch of weirdos in costumes to always do right by them?
There’s a line in the discussion about these “Sokovia Accords” where the Cap, looking for all the world like a hapless white cop, grumbles about the oversight committee being stocked by people with “agendas.” Pray tell, Mr. America, what about YOUR agenda?
It’s impossible to ignore this worldview in 2016 America, given the current (very difficult) questions we face about police power in our culture (and subsequent questions about the abuse of that power, particularly in communities of color). Civil War doesn’t exactly shy away from those implications, but it doesn’t really do justice to them either. For a movie called “Civil War,” with a prominent black character literally named Black Panther, it all feels a little weird.
Civil War does do a great deal of things well, and Black Panther is one of them. I’ll stay out of spoiler territory, but suffice it to say that it is fantastic to see several characters of color who are prominent, strong, honorable people who fight for their beliefs. Likewise, there are a number of women characters worth rooting for in the mix. Like Star Wars, the MCU is becoming more diverse, with heroes that don’t all look like, well, Captain America.
It also does action well. There are a few centerpiece fights in the film, none of which repeat a beat — chases with acrobatics and superheroics, a massive showdown that has as many weird little jokes and surprises as it does punches and kicks, and that super-dramatic fight among Stark, Captain America and Bucky/Winter Soldier that we all saw bits of in the promos. Pitting hero versus hero feels a little like hyper-powered fan fiction: ever wanted to watch, say, Black Widow vs. Hawkeye? Falcon vs. Iron Man? Iron Man vs. Captain himself? Well, feast your eyes and make your bets now!
Of course, it’s filmed with an eye for spectacle and maximum (PG-13) impact, and there were plenty of “oohs” and “ahs” in my audience this evening. Civil War doesn’t disappoint on the pure entertainment spectrum, and all that fighting certainly keeps things moving swiftly.
I do wish there was space for a little more nuance in the tentpole Marvel films. Projects like Jessica Jones prove that there’s room for far more complex storytelling in the MCU, and the nods towards bigger ideas – about freedom, police power and the responsibility of those entrusted with it – show that the writers are willing to at least dip their toes in more difficult water. As it stands, this is a fine MCU movie, hitting all the right cues and reaching, ever so subtly, for something a little deeper.