I want to punch you in your perfect teeth (spoiler notice)
Cap does it again. After being (either mildly or strongly) disappointed with every MCU offering since The Winter Soldier, the Russos show they have what it takes. They once again deliver an intriguing, heartfelt superhero thriller, without being swamped by the array of characters on display. Age of Ultron was in that manner buried under its own weight, Guardians of the Galaxy was surprising but a little slight, Ant-Man was a trifle to the point of not mattering. If you count Deadpool: for all its refreshing bravura that too was it its heart a very standard superhero film with a dull ending. It's been years since I left a Marvel film feeling electrified, much less intellectually engaged.
Oh, of course this is no Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but just like the last Cap outing most of the film feels like a murky, political thriller. In fact, the few action scenes interspersing the story feel mandatory, something to get out of the way before returning to the really interesting bits. You know, with talking and characters digging their heels in the sand. What a change from the usual setup, which tends to be the other way around! Instead of being left gagging for some interpersonal or plot-relevant moments, Civil War piles up scene after gut-punching scene. An Avengers operation that goes south, the moral ramifications of all their world-stomping and -saving so far culminating in a crossroads of ideals, Peggy Carter’s burial, the UN bombing – one after the other.
The core premise of the film – Iron Man and Cap at opposite ends of the conundrum whether superheroes should be bound by political approval – feels believable, since this is the path these characters have been on since day one. It’s not haphazardly tacked on, you can track their development. Tony Stark has always relied on technology and surveillance to save the world, lately to disastrous effect. After his idea of a planet-wide suit of armor failed spectacularly, what to do but submit to a higher body? He’s become afraid of his own power, PTSD still ringing in his body, but clings to a familiar thought: as long as there’s someone or some governmental body in control of everything, you can reign in the destruction. Control being the operative word. Steve Rogers, on the other hand, has learned time and again what happens when power resides in the hands of easily swayed rulers or shady organizations. His is the hard path: he knows there’s no gleaming outcome to this, but he’d rather rely on his own moral judgments than surrender his sovereignty to a democracy that can turn populist or corrupt. These choices are personal, more so than political.
Perhaps a still larger triumph is the movie’s climax, which for once doesn’t end on a compulsory cataclysm with globe-spanning stakes and crashing stratospheric objects. Thank goodness no. The whole struggle is focused down to a single fight between Iron Man having an emotional breakdown, Captain America taking the moral high ground at great personal cost, and Bucky as the wrongfully accused innocent. Meanwhile, the plot’s bad guy, Zemo, not only fulfills his full designs, he’s in the end defeated without a dramatic boss battle. I’d almost given up hope that Marvel would dare to deviate from its established clichés. When they do, the result can be fantastic.
You’d be excused for thinking this would be an overly serious ordeal, but the amount of levity and sheer fun here is surprising. There’s a delightful action scene in the middle where all the heroes duke it out on Leipzig airport (including Spider-Man, which is nothing short of a triumph for Marvel after all the decades he was held hostage by Sony. It’s at the same time the most refreshing version of the character in many years). The battle’s a joyous romp where every beat is both fight and joke. Don’t ask how the film pulls off this voodoo, when for instance Age of Ultron was so drainingly humorless during its fights. The balance is exactly right and they make it look effortless. Beyond that, Vision wears a goofy sweater, trying to blend in but looking all the more alien for it, and nobody recognizes poor Ant-Man.
If you asked me last week to give my outlook on the MCU’s future, the forecast would’ve been bleak. It felt like a train of movies increasingly running out of creative steam. Civil War has turned that on its head, like a magic trick (and that’s even before Dr. Strange enters the fray). I shouldn’t have doubted. Who but Captain America could save not only the world, but a cinematic universe?