in Retrospecticus, Review

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

Original Review: The War of Bucky Aggression (five stars)

Captain America: Civil War is the beginning of a shift in focus for the MCU away from common people. A division subtly starts to erupt between “enhanced individuals” and everyone else, so subtle I didn’t really notice it until Infinity War. It makes sense as a natural progression of the shared universe; the more supers there are, the harder it gets to justify screentime for normies. We are about eight years in at this point, the days of SHIELD keeping everything quiet in Phase One and the “you’re that guy from the thing in New York” obfuscations of Phase Two are over. Black Widow released everything SHIELD and Hydra had onto the Internet and Ultron scooped up a city and blew it up. It’s a super hero’s world, everybody else is just living in it.

So it goes that seemingly major events – like Tony and Pepper breaking up – can happen off-screen, between movies, without Gwyneth Paltrow even showing up. This movie has 12 super heroes’ stories to tell, so it can’t even afford to put everything relating to them in the movie. After this point we’ll get other super hero-focused stories that also put so much emphasis on their enhanced main characters that they just write off the bad guys’ evil plans as world/universe-ending so that we don’t have to spend any time with the common man. Don’t believe me? I can’t think of a Marvel-made Phase Three movie where that’s not the case: Doctor Strange is caught up in the Ancient One and Kaecilius’ grudge, Heimdal does more to protect Asgardians than Thor does, we have no real sense of what the average Wakandan thinks about their king, and so on. The one exception is Sony’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, a movie all about the differences between being a regular kid and becoming a super hero.

Which leads to Zemo, a normal man who takes it upon himself to split up the Avengers. But he’s less of a wedge and more a final nail in that coffin. There’s some convenient timing at play, with Zemo’s scheme to make Iron Man realize Bucky killed his parents lining up exactly with Tony and Steve ending up at odds about the Sokovia Accords. Unless… Are we supposed to think Zemo was involved in the Accords somehow? He is Sokovian, after all, and the inciting incident took place in Lagos, so shouldn’t they be the Nigeria Accords? But that’s too much, right? Is he really that much a genius?

I don’t think so, I think Zemo’s mostly lucky that by the time he really gets involved by bombing the signing of the Accords, Tony and Steve are already on opposite sides. Daniel Bruhl gives a great performance, but this makes me wonder if maybe the movie would have worked better without him? The story does a great job showing how remorse has turned the renegade Stark into someone who respects accountability while secrets and manipulations had shattered former soldier Cap’s ability to trust in authority. I bet they could have come up with a story about Cap going rogue to save Bucky and Iron Man being forced to catch him without Zemo at all. But maybe Marvel was afraid to make a movie where Iron Man was the main villain?

As it stands, Zemo’s plan is the straw the breaks the camel’s back and allows Tony’s rage to get the better of him. It’s a trick that screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely will rely on again and again in Infinity War – pushing characters to emotionally make the wrong decision – with varying success. But here I think it works, as Tony channels his frustration with Steve’s stubbornness, shame for allowing Rhodey to be injured, and grief over his parents’ deaths into a brutal, sad battle. My only complaint about the ending is that it’s undermined by the decision to cut away mid-fight to T’Challa explaining to Zemo why Tony and Steve are being dumb by letting revenge get between them. It’s hard to go from an emotional scene to an extremely logical one that refutes it, then back to the emotional one, and still feel it.

Speaking of feelings, how about that action! Nobody does Marvel action scenes better than the Russo brothers, and some of their best are in Civil War. I know the airport fight scene is on a lot of people’s lists of the best scenes in the whole MCU, but it’s just one of several standout moments. My favorite is when Cap pulls down a helicopter with his beautiful, beefy bicep. I also love all the upgrades they made to some of the weaker characters so they seem more competitive: Falcon’s wings now can serve as shields and are loaded with additional firepower, War Machine gets some crazy new guns and a stun baton thing, and of course, Ant-Man goes all Giant-Man. On the other hand, I’m into how Black Widow still seems like someone who is mostly only good at flips and shooting pistols, but is continually proven to be on an even level with the rest of the team. She’s just really, really good at kicking ass, I reckon. Even better than our boy Hawkeye, who brags to have golfed a perfect 18 in the early days of his retirement.

The opening chase and fight in Lagos is an early highlight, as the Russo’s don’t miss their opportunity to show the New Avengers at work before splitting them up. Or rather, splitting Vision and War Machine from the team, neither of whom are actually in this scene. Huh. That’s weird. The Russos also take their opportunity to introduce two new super heroes, Black Panther and Spider-Man, and for how over-stuffed the movie should feel, they do commendable work. T’Challa gets a complete story arc about not letting hate consume him, and all the Spidey scenes are really fun, even if it is worrying that Tony’s first thought was to bring a 15 year old into a battle. Given the scuttlebutt that Peter Parker was added to the movie during production, I hope the Fantastic Four and X-Men get a similar chance to pop up in Phase Four. I mean, who knows how far out their individual movies must be.

But more on them (and Martin Freeman’s token white guy) later. Let’s talk about how this is another fuckin’ Howard Stark-featuring movie. Dude, chill out, you’re not an Avenger or Nick Fury. Stand down! At least he’s died on screen now, so that’s probably it for him. On the flip side, I’m way into the idea of bringing back William Hurt as Thunderbolt Ross and making him secretary of state. That a villain is in such a high position reinforces the MCU’s lack of faith in the American government, which grooves with my interpretation of the last Cap adventure. Civil War also has the most egregious example of actor double-dipping in the MCU: Alfre Woodard, who will go on to be the main villain of Luke Cage that same year, appears as the grieving mother who makes Tony feel bad. I see you, person who cast that Netflix show. I know what you did.

MCU Power Rankings: Totally bad ass, no doubt, no doubt. I feel like one of those people who’s favorite Star Wars movie is Rogue One saying this, but I’m putting this at number two, right behind the first Avengers.