Captain America: Civil War is the best Iron Man film Marvel has made.
Despite the name on the marquee and the content of the advertising campaign, this is very much a film about Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). It’s Stark who has an actual character arc, Stark whose choices drive the action, Stark whose origins are examined closely. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is relegated to reacting mindlessly in defense of his terrorist buddy, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), aka The Winter Soldier. Stark is calling the shots.
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Civil War opens with Captain America leading a squad of Avengers in an attempt to take down Crossbones (Frank Grillo). He’s a one-time Hydra operative last seen in Captain America: The Winter Soldier buried under half a building. A number of civilians are killed in the operation, the latest in a series of mass-casualty events in which the Avengers have been involved: the alien invasion of New York seen in The Avengers; the destruction of Sokovia in Age of Ultron; and the helicarrier battle in The Winter Soldier.
His conscience wounded by these events and the scolding he receives from a grieving mother, Stark teams up with Secretary of State Thad "Thunderbolt" Ross (William Hurt) to deliver an ultimatum to Rogers and the rest of the team. Either they submit to the Sokovia Accords—which have been signed by over 100 countries and would transfer control of the Avengers to a U.N. panel—or retire.
And if they don’t want to retire? They’ll face arrest and prosecution the next time they try to take down a terrorist or alien invasion.
Cap balks at the ultimatum, his resolve only hardened after his pal—the renowned international assassin Bucky Barnes—is implicated in a bombing at the official signing of the Accords that results in the death of T’Chaka (John Kani), the King of Wakanda. Cap doesn’t want his brainwashed friend falling into the hands of the authorities or the king’s son, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), who also happens to be the Black Panther. So the two, along with the Falcon (Anthony Mackie), go on the run.
Iron Man, Vision (Paul Bettany), War Machine (Don Cheadle), and the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) team up with the Black Panther—who has a standalone film hitting theaters in 2018—and a new iteration of Spider-Man (Tom Holland)—who has a standalone film hitting theaters next year that will feature a cameo appearance from Iron Man—to take on Captain America and bring the Winter Soldier to justice.
Cap, for his part, has enlisted the services of Ant-Man (Paul Rudd)—he, too, has a standalone film hitting theaters in 2018—in addition to Avengers teammates Falcon, the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), all of whom will, most likely, show up in the two-part Avengers: Infinity War series hitting theaters in 2018 and 2019.
So much synergy; such little time.
While this is going on, the mysterious Baron Zemo (Daniel Brühl) tracks down a long-hidden, deep-frozen cadre of Russian super soldiers, each of whom is more dangerous and vicious than the Winter Soldier. Is his plan to unleash chaos on the world? Or is it something simpler—and more personal?
It’s a testament to directors Anthony and Joe Russo, as well as to screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, that a movie this overstuffed never actually feels overstuffed. It’s one of the few entries in the series to earn its two-and-a-half hour running time (make sure to sit through the credits; there’s even more synergy to be had).
The Russos have a keen sense for the geography and physics of superhero combat, as we saw in Winter Soldier when Cap faced off with a squad of goons on a cargo ship and, later, in an elevator. A thrown, circular shield is an odd weapon, one that makes intuitive sense when you can trace the angles its bounces take in a comic book frame, but that also has the very real chance of looking silly in live action.
The physicality with which the Russos use Captain America—as someone who both plays the angles and uses brute force to cannonball his way through a crowd (or a building)—is pitch perfect. The little things they do to make Black Panther and Spider-Man feel real are similarly impressive: the former lands silently like a cat, no matter the size of the drop; the latter skitters about like an arachnid avoiding predators and searching for prey.
Most impressively, the Russos perfectly mix stakes big and small. The royal rumble between #TeamIronMan and #TeamCap at a German airport is the largest, most inventive battle Marvel has committed to film. But the ultimate stakes are extremely personal for hero and villain alike.
Captain America: Civil War is the rare Marvel film that does not climax in an extinction-level event, and it is all the better for that.