Marvel’s best movie to date manages to be both a thoughtful, emotional look at superhumans while doubling as a giant billboard for future projects.
Captain America: Civil War is what every blockbuster film should strive to be: it’s fun, it services hardcore and casual fans alike, and it has some genuine skill in its character development. It’s a well-told story that completely fulfills the promise of its title and marketing (ahem, Batman vs. Superman) while still feeling evenly paced and emotionally nuanced. Yet, when all is said and done, nothing’s really changed.
Marvel Cinematic Universe has been a money printing machine ever since Robert Downey Jr. first donned the Iron Man suit in 2008. The movies have built on top of each other throughout the years, increasing in spectacle and characters, launching TV shows and movie franchises, but nothing has really ever moved Marvel from their tried and true formula. Their overall story arc is still going at a snail’s pace. SHIELD is disbanded and Iron Man’s sidekick is hurt, but that kind of plot development feels more consistent with TV franchises – something like NCIS. Sure, things change, relationships evolve, and bad things happen to minor characters, but we’re all probably going back to normal next season.
Is this reluctance to move from the status quo a bad thing? Movie development is a pretty clear case of supply and demand, or, more accurately, supply and perceived demand. It’s not an exact science, which is why we get things like the standalone Huntsman movie no one wanted to see, but some things are easy to gauge. Most of Marvel’s cinematic ventures make well over $300 million dollars domestically (some do much better, with Avengers setting the benchmark at $623 million). With returns like that, it would be pretty stupid to deviate too much from the plan. Every good business model has to evolve and take risks eventually, but Marvel’s response appears to be, “Not yet.”
So, we’re at an impasse. Some fans may have craved for the comic book ending (Cap getting shot and killed at the very end), but that just doesn’t fit with the plan. So, instead, we get a movie designed to launch new franchises — Spider-Man: Homecoming is slated for 2017 and Black Panther is slated for 2018. And it’s hard to be mad at it: Marvel set both up in this film brilliantly, with well-cast actors that already look comfortable in their characters’ skin. Tom Holland’s Spider-Man breathes life into every scene he was featured in, and Chadwick Boseman brings a legit gravitas to Black Panther.
All my talk about franchise stagnancy is probably burying the lead a bit — I loved the film. And not even in the same way I loved The Avengers. I enjoyed this movie for the characters. Steve Rogers and Tony Stark generally have opposing views on issues regarding their team, but this is the first time it’s escalated passed petty disagreements or playful banter. The movie basically has dual protagonists — Stark is feeling guilty and lonely while Rogers is feeling isolated and dubious of authorities. The movie goes out of its way to show us why they feel this way, and it’s actually handled quite well. Stark has unresolved issues with his parents, his girlfriend has left him, and he’s questioning his own nobility after the events of Age of Ultron. Meanwhile, Rogers is still stinging from the betrayal of SHIELD and feeling out of place in the world, aided by the death of his once love, Peggy Carter.
So, with the table set nicely, the two are naturally on opposite sides when the United Nations wants to regulate the Avengers’ activity. Of course, the movie makes William Hurt’s Secretary of State look a little villainous, but he definitely has a point. The Avengers are unchecked and, at least in the case of Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch, not always in control of their abilities.The two sides begin to form over a deftly depicted ideological disagreement, and things really break apart when Cap decides to protect brainwashed Nazi spy/convicted killer/his one true love Bucky Barnes from the police.
All the well-crafted plot in all the world is fine, but we came here — at least partially — for the fights. The airport fight scene is probably the most entertaining battle I’ve seen on a big screen. The Avengers line up on opposite sides and beat the crap out of each other. The battle is imbued with Marvel’s trademark light touch, but (most of) the characters aren’t pulling their punches. The battle is the good version of the Batman and Superman fight — friends and equals battling each other over seemingly irreconcilable disagreements. Spider-Man steals the show, but everyone gets their moment here — from Falcon’s misplaced nobility to Black Widow’s duplicitous nature.
As much of a spectacle as that scene is, the true climax comes later in the film. Stark temporarily teams up with Cap and Bucky after realizing their information was correct. Of course, this allegiance is short-lived and, in a gut-wrenching twist, Stark turns on them. This battle is personal and gritty and held in close-quarters and the weapons aren’t set to stun (metaphorically). Cap ends up leaving Stark broken on the floor, both physically and emotionally, before helping Bucky out. Always true to his code of ethics, he drops his shield when Stark tells him he doesn’t deserve it.
Civil War is a great addition to the Marvel universe, maybe the best yet. It manages to strike a balance between being a deeply personal film while still giving fans the great spectacle we’ve come to take for granted. From a coldly business perspective, the film managed to pull down nearly $200 million in its first weekend while probably launching at least two spin-off franchises. Marvel’s in an interesting place. Consistency and slow escalation have made them uber-rich, but at some point things will have to change. Eventually, fans will get fatigued or actors will want to move on to other projects. But, as long as everyone is happy and making money, there’s no immediate reason to veer off course. And so we get Civil War — arguably the cinematic pinnacle of what they can accomplish with these characters. It’s a great movie that doubles as a good marketing plan. I already want to see it again.