There’s a scene in Captain America: Civil War in which Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr., as you know) pleads with Captain America (Chris Evans, as you also know) to stand down from a willful act of disobedience against the government, whom Iron Man is backing. “I’m not —” he starts, and then seems momentarily near tears. “I’m just trying to keep the Avengers from falling apart.”
It’s a surprisingly powerful moment from a genre often derided for not having any. But that attack rings a little hollow when it comes to the Captain America franchise — particularly Winter Soldier and now, Civil War, under the direction of Joe and Anthony Russo. They cut their teeth in the comedy sitcom world, helming episodes of Community and Arrested Development, which makes them well-versed in juggling multiple plotlines and sticking to tight schedules — two musts of Marvel’s serialization of the summer movie. But less pragmatically, the Russos have a real understanding of character beats and pacing. They understand not just that these characters have to fight, but how they have to fight and — most crucially — why.
Those whys aren’t necessarily flattering to the characters Marvel has spent the better part of a decade building a cinematic empire on. One of the virtues of this script is that it makes Captain America and Iron Man’s reasons for fighting understandable and even, occasionally, admirable, without necessarily making them right. “What’s going to happen to your friends?” one of Captain America’s allies asks after a slew of them get busted for helping him out. “Whatever it is,” Cap responds, “I’ll deal with it.” It’s clear he has resolve, but over the course of the movie, it also becomes increasingly clear that his almost religious conviction to his principles has left him a bit divorced from the complexity of the world around him. There are big explosions, shield-slinging, intangible androids and — yes — web-spinning here. But underneath the masks and armor, Captain America: Civil War is really Marvel’s take on a modern tragedy.
In the movie, an opening action set piece in Africa goes awry when innocent lives get caught in the crossfire. The United Nations intervenes on the Avengers who, up to this point, had essentially been operating as an independent force, bringing their superheroing ways to any conflict that needed their unique attention. The UN wants to put them in check, and Iron Man — burdened with the guilt of lives lost — agrees. Captain America, mindful of how well-intentioned institutions are run by “people with agendas,” resists. This sets up the titular “Civil War” that’s been teased in marketing campaigns over the past year, with half the Avengers siding with Captain America and going rogue, and the other half siding with Iron Man and trying to bring them in.
The script here deserves credit for setting this conflict up believably, and even if it hadn’t, the tensions among the Avengers have been broiling for a few years now. And don’t be fooled by the Captain America title; this is an Avengers movie — the Avengers movie that Age of Ultron wanted to be, but couldn’t quite muster. We’ve seen enough of these characters to understand their loyalties, and why things might come to blows. Civil War turns Marvel’s market saturation into a positive, allowing our over-familiarity with Captain America, Iron Man, Black Widow to do the heavy lifting, so its own exposition doesn’t have to.
It would be easy to see all this as a metaphor for a bitterly divided America, and the film does cast a few allusions towards hyper-partisanship. But the movie’s geo-political stakes actually lower over the course of its runtime, while the interpersonal stakes take the main stage. If Civil War is about anything, it’s about how our ethical principles — however noble and aspirational they may feel in our own hearts — can divide us on a human level.
At their best, superheroes serve as our own postmodern spin on a Greek myth; our human faults and aspirations writ large and dramatic. In this case, Iron Man and Captain America beating the hell out of each other is reminiscent of the clashes that take place when the ties we’ve forged come second to the things we hold dear. Our own beliefs are precious to us, maybe even noble in the abstract, but how many relationships are they worth? If all that sounds a little weighty for a superhero movie, it’s handled with a light touch — a reminder to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Snores creators that fun and seriousness is not an either/or proposition.
The movie isn’t perfect. The only true “villain” in the movie can’t quite shake Marvel’s inability to craft truly memorable antagonists beyond Tom Hiddleston’s Loki. And by my reckoning, the film doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test [EDIT: I’ve been corrected on this. The movie does pass, by the skin of its teeth], although the women here do rescue the men more often than vice versa.
On that note, Civil War features a much-discussed and much-needed injection of some real diversity into the Marvel Universe: T’Challa, the Black Panther. He’s played with a regal magnetism by Chadwick Boseman, and given the benefit of a dynamic, fluid fighting style all his own. Boseman’s hypnotic portrayal here stokes expectations for his own solo film, due out next year.
There’s also a re-introduction of sorts, and it’s a trickier needle to thread, as audiences were feeling Spider-Man fatigue as recently as two years ago. So how, pray tell, did the Russo brothers manage to make this new Spidey (The Impossible‘s Tom Holland) such a wall-crawling delight? This Spider-Man comes closer than any onscreen iteration so far to capturing the true spirit of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s original vision for their creation: a nerdy, high-pitched teenager whose belief in power and responsibility is matched only by his penchant for nervous yammering during a fight. This is the truly amazing Spider-Man fans have been waiting for.
Spider-Man’s side-splitting banter and the all-around chumminess of the rest of the cast — notable highlights include a faintly romantic chemistry between Paul Bettany’s Vision and Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda; the brooding tension between Anthony Mackie’s Falcon and Sebastian Stan’s Bucky; and the awkward new dad vibe Tony Stark has with Peter Parker — keeps things moving and smiley, but this features a darker, moodier climax than any Marvel movie yet. Captain America: Civil War knows that fans are curious to see who will come out on top in a fight between Captain America and Iron Man, and the movie answers that question in a sense. But in a larger sense, it reveals a much deeper truth about its central conflict and the major ones facing America right now: when a house is divided, there are no winners.