Overview: The Avengers find themselves split down the middle when restrictive government regulations are demanded after a mission in Lagos results in several civilian casualties. 2016; Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures; Rated PG-13; 147 minutes.
Years of Set-up: Captain America: Civil War is exactly the film it advertises itself to be, with epic fight sequences on a line of moral ambiguity pitting friend against friend instead of foe. Though falling as the third film in the Captain America series, this is really an Avengers film on steroids, spinning a turn table of superheroes, most of whom aren’t entirely clear on why they chose the side they did. For years, Marvel Studios has cranked out movie after movie, slowly and steadily expanding the elastic boundaries of the franchise to make room for Civil War. But has the long form storytelling of Marvel stretched itself so far that it has finally snapped? Yes and no.
Friend or Foe: In many ways, directing duo and brothers Joe and Anthony Russo succeed in pulling off this behemoth comic story, arranging all of the pieces required to set up this already-dysfunctional family to implode. The action sequences are nothing short of spectacular, each character utilized to the max to create a special effect superpower extravaganza. But spectacle aside, it all feels a bit, well, vapid. The embattled tone for the assembly is established early on when Natasha is sparring with Clint and asks him if they’re still friends. When it comes down to the end goal, these characters are still on the same side and they’re not actually out to harm each other, so there is lacking a sense of danger or earnestness as this fight unfolds. Even the sobering conclusion of this confrontation isn’t given the emotional weight it deserves. The action sequences are really cool, and the whole thing is fun to watch, but the end result isn’t as apocalyptic as we might expect or want, nor is it particularly impactful in the grand scheme of the universe.
This Time it’s Personal: The fight in Civil War that deserves the most attention isn’t the epic showdown between Team Cap and Team Iron Man, but rather the two-on-one battle of Tony Stark versus Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes in the final minutes of the film. Although they’re fighting in costumes, it’s imperative that these characters use their real names instead of their superhero identities, because this fight is as stripped down and personal as they get. Stark seeks vengeance for his personal pain, and Rogers fiercely and relentlessly seeks to protect his childhood protector. And as for Bucky, he is fighting the most intimate battle of all, the one within himself as he faces the consequences of his actions as the Winter Soldier. This sequence is visceral and emotionally exhausting, packing more than just a punch behind every blow, each man using his fists to find some semblance of inner peace.
Although these three characters’ motivations are crystal clear throughout the film, which makes sense give that they’re largely the focal point, the supporting cast of characters is so massive that most of the rest become lost in the shuffle. Black Widow, although physically present on screen as much as anyone else, remains stagnant when it comes to any kind of progressive arc. Scarlett Johansson is given little to do but chew scenery when she isn’t beating someone up. Wanda’s struggles with identity begin to flourish and flesh out her character, but that is tossed out the window once Captain America comes calling for her to “get off her ass.” The rest of the Avengers don’t even seem to understand or care why or what they’re fighting for. Falcon and War Machine predictably stand by their respective bro bosses, and the new recruits are simply that: recruited.
Lack of motivation aside, these said new recruits are, by far, one of the brightest highlights of Civil War. Spider-man is finally given the onscreen presence he deserves, his youth and innocence celebrated, and his snarky, newbie sense of humor creates the enthusiastic, fun Spider-man fans deserve. Tom Holland is brilliant as Peter Parker, and his interactions with Stark along with his commentary during the assembly battle contain the best banter of the film, which is otherwise noticeably lacking thanks to the absence of Joss Whedon this time around. Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man injects additional comic relief, although the presence of these two characters is too short lived to be satisfying. The most important addition to The Avengers, however, is the Black Panther, whose backstory is touched on just enough to give audiences a good tease so they’ll come back for his solo movie. Because after all, the most significant purpose of each Marvel installment is to continue to move those chess pieces into place to further expand the Marvel universe and set up for the next step.
Overall: Although Captain America: Civil War struggles to balance the colossal cast of characters and the plot serves as a largely inconsequential stepping stone, the action and the introduction of some pivotal new characters are enough to satisfy most expectations.