In the the twelve Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films that preceded this one, we’ve come to know a thing or two about Tony Stark and Steve Rogers. In a sentence, Iron Man is brilliant, cocky and irrepressible. He thinks he can get away with anything, and usually does. Captain America on the other hand is straitlaced, noble and dependable. A goody-two-boots who won’t even swear when Earth is on the edge of armageddon. Now here’s the plot of Joe and Anthony Russo’s Civil War in brief: A proposal for political supervision of the Avengers splits the heroes into two opposing factions – those who agree that the Avengers need to be held in check by the government, and those who believe that they should be accountable to nobody. Iron Man and Captain America head the warring groups. Which groups do you think they are most likely to lead?
Wrong, and therein lies the beauty of the Marvel movies. More than glossy visuals, spectacular action sequences and masterful marketing, this is what makes Marvel special: they understand their characters. Just like the rest of us, these characters aren’t necessarily what they first appear to be, and their beauty isn’t spandex-deep. Isn’t it possible that Tony Stark’s unrelenting bravado might be hiding some dark wounds? Could these repressed issues catch up to him someday, denting his confidence, if not his suit? Isn’t it conceivable that Cap’s unerring moral compass would one day point in a direction away from popular opinion? After all, what is morality if not the ability to be a minority of one? Once you think a little deeper about these people, the answer doesn’t seem that obvious anymore. Civil War does this thinking, and somehow manages to do it while delivering one of the best action films to have ever come out of Hollywood.
Nope, not an exaggeration. The movie is packed with mesmerizing action sequences. I had typed ‘breathless’ in the previous sentence too, but deleted it because it’s an inaccurate adjective. Just like all good long-distance runners, this movie breathes. There are gaps between the jaw-dropping action set pieces, and these are used to intelligently further the story. The script achieves a mind-boggling balancing act. It draws out the Iron Man v. Captain America conflict with some intelligent ethical debates. It finds time to develop nine other characters (by my count), while introducing two major new heroes and one villain. It sews up stories from past films in the MCU, and sets up new ones. Oh, and at the end it turns out that the movie has been a kind of detective mystery all along; we’ve just been too bedazzled to notice.
The Russo brothers emphasize their mastery in other ways as well. The movie anticipates questions that the Internet’s legion of smart-alecks might ask, and dispatches them with a smirk. Wondering where Thor and Hulk are? There’s a snappy line of dialogue explaining that away. Think Marisa Tomei is too sexy to be an aunt? They’ve got a quip for that as well. When you watch certain scenes, you realize they were photoshopped in the trailer to hide key information. Hell, the studio has the nerve to drop Black Panther and Spider-Man in the middle of their story without troubling with backstory. Marvel’s complete command of their universe was most apparent to me when after a rather heavy moment towards the middle of the film, they had the audacity to cut to Vision cooking in a sweater, muttering “A pinch of paprika…” Make no mistake, these are storytellers at the peak of their confidence.
While this is at its heart a Captain America film, special mention must be made of two other characters. The first is Iron Man. The early career of Robert Downey Jr. introduced us to an actor of remarkable abilities, but he hasn’t really had the opportunity to showcase his talent since taking on the role of Iron Man in 2008. This film finally changes that. We get to see much more of Tony Stark here; perhaps we see who he really is for the first time. Because we’ve seen Tony joking around for so long, it really means something when he is serious. Much of the film’s emotional heft comes from Iron Man, and Downey soars to the challenge with a fantastic performance. The second character is Spider-Man. Sigh. How do I put this? I won’t attempt to distill into words the giddy highs of Spidey’s introduction into the MCU. All I’ll say to Marvel is: You had me at “Queens”.
This is easily one of the finest MCU films to date. Hell, it’s one of the finest films in the superhero genre, although slightly shy of perfect. When most people think of the climax to Spider-Man 2 (2004), they think of Peter Parker battling Doc Ock on the New York subway. That scene was so spectacular that it overshadowed the movie’s actual ending, which featured a milder waterfront confrontation. Civil War has a similar problem, although I’m really stretching in calling it a problem: the sheer brilliance of the movie’s airport sequence means that the twenty or so minutes that follow it make for a slight anticlimax.
Finally, I have to end with a comparison to this summer’s other superhero civil war, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. I hate to draw a parallel, but the similarities are too strong to ignore. Both films are about warring heroes. Both have troublemakers that try to incite and exploit the rivalry between the rival camps. Both feature other ‘enhanced’ beings that have to be recruited to a cause. Both debate the accountability of superheroes in the world. However, the difference between the two movies – pun intended – is stark. While I enjoyed BvS, I can’t objectively defend it as a good film. Even people who haven’t read a comic book or watched a superhero movie will know the iconic DC characters, but Warner Bros failed to make us care about them. Marvel on the other hand makes us gasp when Falcon or War Machine seem to be in danger. A great man once said that it is our choices, far more than our abilities, that show who we truly are. This is the true difference between the two films. DC went for spectacle without story; Marvel gave us both. DC showed us how cool their characters’ abilities were. Marvel told a story – about choices.