This doesn’t have to end in a fight.
It always ends in a fight.
In Civil War, the MCU has pulled off yet another seeming impossibility. They’ve managed to fracture our usual group of heroes on the level of actual combat and yet make it feel utterly organic, not at all a stunt. As the team of Avengers pulls apart, every character is given real motivations. Both sides have their moments of rightness and both sides make massive missteps. The film manages not to land firmly on either side, crafting a genuinely compelling dilemma that quickly spirals from the already troubling ethical arena into the minefield of dangerous emotions. It’s really incredibly compelling, not to say unprecedented, the way the MCU has managed to develop these characters over the series. Watching these characters in this film, you can see the serious character journeys they’ve been on. This isn’t a franchise where the characters reset after every installment. The wounds and betrayals of the past bleed into every present action and, as so often when the past infects the present, no one is able to think of the future. It would be compelling if this was true only of the main characters, Cap and Tony. But it isn’t. It’s easy to see and understand the positions of Clint, Wanda, Natasha, Vision, etc. The film isn’t just well-written on the level of character; it’s brilliantly written. So, no surprise that the performances are nothing short of excellent. Robert Downey, Jr., in particular distinguishes himself with what is easily his best performance in the MCU and most likely his best performance since the nineties.
And the new characters work too. Chadwick Boseman is incredibly exciting as Black Panther and it was a wise decision to weave him into the story so strongly. This is far from just a cameo introduction and to say I’m sold on the character after this film is to understate things strongly. Freddie Highmore also makes a big impression as the new Spider-Man; his chemistry with Downey Jr. is surprising, instant and utterly charming. Will this character transfer well to headlining his own film? I’m not sold on that, but I have faith. And Daniel Bruhl is perhaps career best as the villainous Zemo. It could easily have been a thankless role. He gets relatively little screen time, his motivations aren’t entirely clear until the very end of the film and, maybe most potentially crippling, he’s just a regular guy in a suit. His only super-powers are unflagging pain and more emotional and psychological insight than all the heroes put together. But it’s the very fact that he’s just a regular guy that makes him so compelling as a villain.
The stakes here are ultimately incredibly emotional and psychological. Zemo doesn’t have the ability to end the world or levitate an entire city, but he has the ability to absolutely lay waste to the psyche of the Avengers. More, to the very heart and soul of the team. This leads to a genuinely devastating climax where the violence doesn’t only feel physically punishing, but deeply, emotionally visceral. The climactic battle is a heart-breaker, a gut-wrencher that feels genuinely painful. The writing and performances are really sharp and beautiful throughout and the film has the courage of its convictions; it has no interest in doing what Batman V Superman did and bring its heroes back together via some sort of contrived circumstance or moment of epiphany. It’s okay with a relatively dark ending. There’s ultimately a glimmer of hope, but not much more. And it’s okay with really deconstructing the comic-book superhero movie by having its “heroes” behave, almost from start to finish, in completely non-heroic ways. Everyone in this movie is motivated by irrationality and emotion, by fear, anger, hate, sorrow and so it’s a movie that ends up in a strangely gray area. It isn’t a movie with bad guys and good guys; even Zemo is ultimately only interested in, believe it or not, telling the truth about something that some of our “heroes” have been covering up. If he’s okay with some collateral damage in his quest to do what he thinks is right, well, so is everyone else in this movie.
But I’m just going on at great length now and I could certainly continue to do so, but I should finish, so I’ll just say that it’s a movie that’s complex on both an ethical and an emotional level. It’s perfectly characterized and dares to see all of its characters in a complicated way, refusing to allow any of them (with the possible exception of Black Panther and, ironically, Bucky) any level of redemption or closure. This is certainly an entertaining action movie and I’ve kind of not really talked about that at all. But ultimately, it’s the characters that compel the audience to care. There a lot of wit and a lot of great action, but it’s the emotional maturity that elevates this film to its position at, or very near at the least, the top of the MCU. Talk about a movie that does everything it wants to do. And it’s even better the longer you live with it. 4 stars.
tl;dr – possibly the best of the MCU, Civil War explores ethical dilemmas & emotional damage; beautifully written & performed, this film has pitch perfect action & gripping drama. 4 stars.