There’s no denying the power of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Since it kicked off in 2008, it’s been the driving force behind Hollywood’s blockbuster season every year, evolving into the well-oiled superhero machine we know it to be now. The rhythm of its releases has been easy enough to get a feel for: A bunch of standalone character pieces, building toward a team-up Avengers movie. Marvel’s breaking that trend for Captain America: Civil War though, it had the potential to create a host of problems for the studio. Lucky for us, the film was in good hands with Joe and Anthony Russo.
After Joss Whedon’s departure from the MCU, the Russos stepped in as the heirs apparent to Marvel’s creative throne. A career of writing and directing primarily for comedies like Community and Arrested Development brought a unique skill-set, and we saw it on full display with their first project, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Civil War was always going to be a tough follow-up effort for the talented duo, and given the monumental task assigned to them, they completely knocked it out of the park.
To understand where and how the Russos succeeded with Captain America: Civil War, you need look only as far as the laundry list of creative tasks they had to accomplish. These tasks included: telling a standalone Captain America story, introducing both Black Panther and Spider-Man to the MCU, making us understand Tony Stark’s side of the conflict, bringing in virtually every hero we’ve ever seen in a Marvel movie, doing justice to the source material comics, and providing a preferred alternative to DC’s Batman v Superman. Going down the list, it’s hard to find a place where Civil War didn’t check the appropriate box (and for anyone wondering, yes, Tom Holland is incredible as a young Spider-Man).
The comparison to Batman v Superman is unescapable for Civil War. Both films carry similar story elements, with a narrative based around two feuding iconic heroes. For that to work, we have to understand both sides of the issue, and that right there is where BvS failed, and Civil War succeeded. DC’s central fight revolved around Batman wanting to kill a man he’d never met, spoken with, or really ever heard of for more than a few months. It carried little to no weight, and when they finally did throw down, it was hard to feel like anything was really at stake.
For Civil War, the Russos cleared this potential hurdle by spending a fair deal of time helping us see the “why” of it all. At the center of the conflict are the Sokovia Accords, a document ratified by the United Nations that puts the Avengers under the complete control of a governing body. Tony, after being accosted by the mother of a son who died in Age of Ultron, becomes the leading advocate for the Accords. Steve Rogers, still distrustful of large governing bodies after the fall of SHIELD in The Winter Soldier, feels the safest hands for the Avengers are his own. Maneuvering all of our players into place is our villain, Helmut Zemo, a former Sokovian soldier who lost his family to Ultron.
Where Civil War is head and shoulders above Batman v Superman is found in all the character context provided to us throughout. Every time we see Tony and Steve go head-to-head, it’s tough to shake the “I wish Mom and Dad would stop fighting” vibe, a byproduct of all the well-established interpersonal relationships. It’s partly an advantage of a franchise that’s been around for almost a decade, but it’s also a testament to the considerable work the Russos did making us feel for the myriad of heroes. Steve and Tony have been friends (and sometimes rivals) for years now, and it’s that shared history that makes us feel for their eventual falling-out. That, combined with just enough levity to keep things honest, amounts to a knockout blow for DC’s fledgling superhero universe.
More than any other Marvel movie, Civil War explores the depths of real, true consequences. We see the emotional weight of civilian casualties practically crushing the consciences of our characters, and how each unique personality reacts to that trauma. For Tony, we see a man who’s constantly trying to reconcile his ego with his need for redemption. On Steve’s side, we see a war veteran who’s rightfully distrustful of the government. There’s very little (if any) black and white morality, and it lends a metric ton of emotional weight to the ensuing conflict. Needless to say, when it comes to compelling action, believable discord, and sheer entertainment value, it’s not even a contest. Marvel sits atop the mountain as the premier superhero franchise, and Civil War goes a long way toward strengthening that title.
Captain America: Civil War released nationwide on May 6, 2016.
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