Life is about choices. What you choose to do defines who you are, and the conviction and strength on which those choices are made determines how you live your life. Captain America: Civil War, is all about choices. Freedom to choose who you are, the removal of that freedom, the choice that you are given when you don’t trust anyone else to make the right one, and the realisation that really, you don’t have any choice at all.
The three main protagonists embody all three of those elements. The movie revolves around The Winter Soldier (James Barnes), Captain America (Steve Rogers) and Iron Man (Tony Stark). The Winter Soldier’s past as a brainwashed assassin intimates the idea that his freedom to choose was removed long ago, and even when he thinks he has control of his life back, he’s wrong. His free will is still at the behest of whoever controls his mind. Captain America feels the right to choose is what should set The Avengers apart from any other government agency, and the Sokovia Accords (the treaty which drives a wedge between him and Iron Man), are the work of politicians who wish to control the team for their own ends. Tony Stark, confronted with both his own failures and the need to control the collateral damage The Avengers create, thinks he’s left with no choice at all, lest the power of the team is forcibly taken out of their hands.
The 13th movie in Marvel’s latest pantheon, Civil War is much larger than just a Captain America feature. It gives depth to many other characters, notably Iron Man – in fact it’s just as much his movie as it is the man the film is named after. Dealing with the fallout of the major conflicts that The Avengers have taken part in over the last four years, it draws out the issue of oversight in a way Batman v Superman didn’t. A brief turn for Frank Grillo’s Crossbones at the start of the movie is the tipping point for the world’s authorities to demand The Avengers become accountable for their actions (in a nod to the villain Nitro’s atrocity in the comic version of the storyline).
The previously mentioned Sokovia Accords (named after the country largely destroyed in the battle at the end of the previous Avengers movie, Age of Ultron) are the authorities’ answer to that, placing the superhero team under the governance of the United Nations. Given Captain America’s experience with S.H.I.E.L.D in his previous movie, he doesn’t trust any kind of centralised political control. Iron Man, having been made aware of how his actions have negatively impacted on the public at large, and haunted by the deaths he perceives are on his hands, decides that being kept in check is the right way to go.
That’s only the beginning of the story though, as the actions of a former Sokovian soldier, Helmut Zemo, bring The Winter Soldier into play. His alleged involvement in the bombing of the signing of the Accords bring both him and the Wakandan King, T’Challa, into the story, T’Challa sees his father die in the bombing, imbuing him with a hatred for Barnes and drawing him into conflict with Captain America, who is willing to protect his friend. Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa is a wonderful portrayal of the character, driven by both duty and righteous rage. He is gritty without being dark, a welcome antidote to many a grim story told these days. Boseman gets the regal air of T’Challa spot on, as well as the responsibility that comes with being both king and protector of his country. He too, feels like he has no choice – whereas his father would have advocated diplomacy, T’Challa feels he can’t do anything else but pursue vengeance. His relentless drive to kill The Winter Soldier makes him both tragic and dangerous – even if his redemption does come in the end.
Zemo’s further indiscretions seek to implicate Barnes further, and that sets up the superhero smackdown of the title. While Captain America seeks out the retired Hawkeye and rescues the Scarlet Witch (who, after causing the film’s opening crisis, is confined to the Avengers’ compound, again, not given any choice in the matter by Stark), Iron Man recruits T’Challa, and then arguably the star turn of the film.
Tom Holland’s Spider-Man puts a fresh spin on the character. Gone is the doe-eyed hipster of Andrew Garfield and his penchant for removing his mask at every opportunity. Marvel get right in the space of 30 minutes what Sony tried desperately to perfect over the course of five films – and still fell short. Holland is only given a brief introduction, but one that chimes exactly with what his character should be. The fact that Tony Stark becomes a father figure to him emphasises both his loneliness and his intelligence. The two bond over their geekdom when it comes to technology, and his transformation from onesie-clad red blur to fully formed superhero is thanks to StarkTech.
More so, the issue of choice comes to the fore again here. The interaction between the two, about why Spider-Man does what he does, comes down to the fact that Peter Parker thinks he needs to act, to protect people, because if he ignored that choice, it wouldn’t be the right thing to do. Spider-Man is motivated by, as he says “standing up for the little guy”, and maintains that he should use his talents for his own personal gain just because he has them – rather, he should do something useful. It further reinforces the doubt in Tony’s mind that the growing conflict between he and Captain America is one of ideologies. He doesn’t necessarily think Steve Rogers is wrong, just misguided, and can actually see why he’s doing what he’s doing. That said, he doesn’t agree with his choice.
With both sides suitably stocked with heroes, the inevitable showdown occurs at Leipzig Airport, and it’s here that the movie just becomes immense fun, with friends battling friends, rivals unleashing their abilities on each other, and in a far more coherent way than Batman v Superman’s near pitch black showdown with Doomsday. Highlights include Spider-Man’s pursuit of Falcon and Winter Solider through a terminal, Black Panther’s remorseless beatings of those who stand in his way, and Vision and Scarlet Witch slowly becoming closer while simultaneously trying to stop each other.
The highlight of the set-piece though, is Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man, who after being slightly overwhelmed at being introduced to Captain America, injects some humour into the fight scenes with every line. His transformation into Giant-Man (another nod to the comics, this time to 2001’s Ultimates series, from which most of the early Marvel Cinematic Universe took its influences), is fun for both him and the audience.
While the whole sequence is fun to watch, it does have a somewhat depressing ending. As War Machine and Iron Man pursue the fleeing Captain America and Winter Soldier, Vision takes a shot at the chasing Falcon. He misses, and War Machine is crippled as a result. A shot that was hinted at in the trailer, many thought that James Rhodes would die. When he’s found to be still alive after a colossal fall from a great height, there’s somehow a lack of emotional resonance as his vital signs spring to life. The one issue many have with the Marvel movies is that no one, apart from throwaway villains, ever dies. This movie was perhaps the ideal time to do that, with Rhodes’ death spurring on Iron Man to lose all patience with Captain America, despite how much he wants to keep the team together. As is glimpsed at the movie’s end, Rhodes is already on the path to recovery thanks to Stark’s technology, and in a world where Thunder Gods and aliens exist, creating a frame that allows Rhodes to function normally again isn’t too much of a stretch to imagine. If the movie had followed the comic book story from which it takes it’s name, then a far more significant character would have met their end (and in case you haven’t read the book, we won’t spoil it for you here, although we’re pretty sure you can guess who it is).
The final scenes are packed more with drama than action – and the Russo brothers weave a conspiracy that ties in to both the previous Captain America movie, and the established history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With Iron Man repentant for doubting Steve Rogers and the actions of The Winter Solider, he travels to Barnes’ Hydra “home”, where his conditioning and hibernation in between assassinations took place. There he finds the pair he spent the majority of the film chasing, and offers them an olive branch, only to be caught in the denouement of Zemo’s plot.
Eagle eyed viewers who harked back to the scene in Captain America: The Winter Soldier when Toby Jones’ Arnim Zola revealed the extent of Hydra’s infiltration of S.H.I.E.L.D, will have noticed Barnes was responsible for the deaths of many important historical figures – including Tony Stark’s parents. Stark himself though, was unaware, until Zemo presents him with the facts, driving what seems to be an insurmountable wedge between he and Captain America.
It’s at this point that viewer has to make a choice of their own. On one hand, is Captain America, who has been justified in his belief that his friend is innocent of the crimes he is accused of in this film, and is trying to protect his oldest friend from authorities who would hold him accountable for action that he feels Barnes is not responsible for. That said, it’s hard not to feel that Rogers’ hiding of the truth from Stark was somewhat self indulgent (something he admits in his final monologue), knowing that Iron Man would try to find him, and separating the team in exactly the way Zemo intended.
On the other hand is Tony Stark, who has had all his faith in his friend removed. It’s hard not to feel sympathy with him, when the theme of his arc over three Iron Man and two Avengers movies has been to escape the shadow of his father, improve on his inventions, and become something better. Here is a man who missed the chance to show them in life the love he exhibits for them in death, only to find that death was caused by a man harboured by his best friend. Anyone who has ever felt that someone else took something important away from them will identify with that.
So while some people may choose to protect their friend, others may choose the path of vengeance, and the fight at the end is as brutal as you could expect in a movie with it’s destiny guided by Disney. Captain America fights out of the need to protect his friend, Barnes fights for survival, while Iron Man fights out of revenge and anger. In the end, Captain America is the one left standing, but not without cost. The Winter Soldier has to go into self imposed hibernation (sans his Vibranium arm), Captain America and his allies go into hiding as they are now unlicensed superheroes and therefore criminals, and Tony Stark is in a place where once he felt at home, but is now confused and upset by what he has learned. His only friends are a convalescing James Rhodes and Vision, who is wracked by doubt that his wayward shot that crippled War Machine was caused by his growing feelings for the Scarlet Witch. No one ends this movie where they want to be (apart from a jubilant Spider-Man, who now has a costume upgrade), setting the stage for a fractured Avengers team when the soon-to-be-renamed Infinity War movies roll around, and allowing other characters, such as Doctor Strange, Black Panther, Spider-Man and the still-to-be-introduced Captain Marvel time to grow before the next multi-hero epic.
Captain America: Civil War is a movie that takes the Marvel Cinematic Universe to the next level of its evolution. It has already gripped the billions of comic books fans around the world who are eager to see more of these characters, but it also seems to have reinvigorated a genre that only a few months ago, people were talking about as being spent. Without wishing to compare it too much to Batman v Superman, it has a lot of things that lacked. The theme of accountability in both, is handled much more adeptly in Civil War, as there are consequences for the heroes’ actions (something that’s forgotten after two huge knockabouts at the end of BvS), while the sight of seeing characters who had been so close before, now at each other’s’ throats not because of violence, but because of ideologies based on their past experiences, adds depth to their personas. That’s testament to the cast on show, all of whom get their moment to shine, whether through doubt, comedy, pain or hardship. All have something to offer – with special mentions to Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr, Chadwick Boseman and Tom Holland, who embody their alter egos to the extent that makes it hard to believe anyone else could play them.
It may be part of a bigger juggernaut, it may even be the greatest superhero movie that’s been made, but the most important thing is that it lets you choose who you want to side with, because all have compelling arguments. There’s no right or wrong here, it’s just who you choose to believe, and when the audience is making that decision, it shows how valuable they are to Civil War itself.2