You’ve heard enough of TV’s golden age, the period starting probably with The Sopranos in which suddenly there were too many great shows to watch. It’s gotten to the point where some people say TV has surpassed movies, especially when it comes to comedies and dramas, while cinema has become obsessed with franchises and blockbusters. I don’t really think it’s as simple as that narrative, but it is definitely something to be aware of as Marvel Cinematic Universe begins Phase 3 with Captain America: Civil War, the best episode of the MCU Show yet.
This year has given us several takes on the superhero in-fighting genre; Marvel did it itself a few months ago with the second season of Daredevil, which pitted The Man Without Fear against The Punisher. That was an ideological battle, with Punisher believing that Daredevil’s belief in redemption really just gives criminals more opportunity to hurt people, and Daredevil arguing Punisher killing villains makes him no different from them. It was good. Also there was Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, which was more obsessed with how the fight between those two titans would play out than why such a fight would ever happen. It was bad. Civil War is closer to Daredevil, thankfully.
It’s been a recurring criticism of Marvel movies that they do a great job fleshing out the main characters and a terrible job making villains interesting, so it figures one of their best villains would be the original MCU hero, Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.). After another Avengers-caused disaster, the governments of the world demand that superheroes register with a UN-run agency or retire. Tony Stark becomes the face of the pro-registration movement, and many of the Avengers join him, but Captain America’s (Chris Evans) justifiable skepticism stops him from signing, and the ill-timed reappearance of the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) quickly leads to Cap and those that side with him ending up on the wrong side of the law.
Seeing heroes fight each other is dumb. So the movie has to earn it, and the ideological battle here is a good one. Ever since Man of Steel, if not earlier, audiences have been concerned about the collateral damage of super heroics. One of the best aspects of Age of Ultron was that it showed the Avengers work just as hard trying to save people as they did fighting the bad guy. The debate of accountability also fits the character arcs of both Cap and Iron Man. Over four movies, we watched Steve Rogers become disenfranchised – we know he doesn’t feel like he quite fits in the 21st Century, and even though he started out as literally a soldier, he doesn’t trust organizations anymore after seeing how corrupt SHIELD was. On the other hand, over his five movies, we saw Tony Stark go from the rebel who gave the finger to the board at his company and congress, to a man constantly beaten down by his hubris. He was already dealing with intense PTSD before Ultron, now the guilt of that is destroying him. The soldier becomes the rebel, the rebel becomes the soldier, and it all absolutely fits these characters.
It’s also great that the movie shows the Avengers really don’t want to fight each other. They strongly disagree, but in the big six-on-six battle, it’s made obvious nobody really wants to hurt each other. The most heated parts of that battle are based on misunderstandings and mistakes. And the final battle, which is real, is justified by heightened, compromised emotions. It’s the part of the movie that worked least well for me, especially since the epilogue has one character tell the other that there are no hard feelings.
What I’m trying to tell you is that Civil War does everything Batman v. Superman failed to do, and it does it effortlessly. A believable, meaningful fight between the rich, technology boy and the blue boy scout? Pretty much nailed it. A meddling human who’s masterminding the whole thing? They give us Zemo (Daniel Brühl) an ultimately unnecessary but still interesting villain. An expansion of the cinematic universe by adding new heroes? We get Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) a badass warrior king who learns a lesson about the price of vengeance and MF’n Spider-Man (Tom Holland), a briefly shown, delightful guest in the fray.
Most importantly, the movie is still fun. Juggling this many characters is hard, what’s even harder is making sure each character seems cool, tough, and funny. The Russos pulled that off somehow, as every damn character in this movie felt like they belonged. Yes, even Don Cheadle’s War Machine. It’s an amazing feat, at it only came at the cost of the movie not really feeling like a movie. This is just part of the story of these characters, a film akin to (but more satisfying than) something like The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 in its absence of a beginning and lack of a true ending. Welcome to the new age, movies aren’t movies anymore. You either going to love that or hate that. Time to pick a side.