It’s a roller-coaster of a movie that doesn’t skimp on substance or action.
In an opening scene of Captain America: Civil War, one of the Avengers accidentally sends a massive fireball into a high-rise building in Liberia while trying to save another. The entire structure explodes. Glass and rubble rain down onto the marketplace below. People scream. Sirens flare. Flames jump out of the blown-out windows. It’s destruction standard for an Marvel movie.
But what isn’t standard is the look on the face of the superhuman who caused the blast. She covers her mouth with her hand, sinks to her knees, and stares up at the burning building, eyes wide with horror at the number of people she’s just inadvertently killed.
Captain America: Civil War, starring Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlet Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Chadwick Boseman, and many, many others, comes out Friday in theaters nationwide. It picks up where last year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, and 2014’s Captain America:The Winter Soldier, left off.
That early scene of destruction is the moment that Civil War reveals it isn’t just another run-of-the-mill Marvel movie. It’s the first hint that the film isn’t built on the traditional good guy/bad guy dichotomy. Because within fifteen minutes, the fact that the good guys are also mass murderers and that traditional, comic-book evil doesn’t propel the film becomes exceedingly clear. Instead, the root of conflict comes from misunderstandings and the human desire to make sense of the senseless.
A quick scene-set: Some of the Avengers believe they have to be held accountable for the destruction they’ve wrought in the past, and think the best way to do this is sign accords that would give 117 nations and the U.N. control over them. Other Avengers don’t think governments will be able to correctly deploy their powers and refuse to give up their autonomy. We’ve got our tension.
It’s more complex than that, though. The characters, both mere mortals and super humans, are fighting to avenge the deaths of people they deeply loved, lashing out with more violence in a way viewers come to understand. Because how could a man possibly believe there is a reason his wife and son should’ve died in the rubble of a bombed building? How could a man hold his father’s dead body on the ground of an explosion site and not ask the unanswerable, which is simply, “why?”
No one here seems unwaveringly evil — everyone is just deeply hurt and trying to do something about it. Which makes for fascinating drama. It’s also highly unusual for a film about superheroes not to have one purely horrible villain.
But a plot and themes, no matter how good, only get a film so far. It’s the actors who bring it home. Downey Jr., Johansson, Boseman, Mackie, and the young Tom Holland as Spiderman, in particular, are at the tops of their games here. And, for how many characters there are (seriously, I think every single famous person in the world is in this movie), each one feels fully developed. I’m not a die-hard Marvel fan — I’ve seen several of the previous films, but I don’t have the character’s middle names memorized — and I felt like I knew each one fairly well by the end. In turn, I rooted for them all, even as they were tearing each other apart physically and emotionally.
Beautiful cinematography helps the actors. Scenes are based in muted colors with mostly gray landscapes. The special effects are astonishing — I actually gasped out loud as one of the characters manages to hop onto a moving motorcycle and spin it in a gorgeous, slow-motion pirouette. The audience at the screener cheered.
All of this substance, however, doesn’t come at the expense of what makes superhero movies worth watching in the first place. The producers threw us a bone in the form of a battle in the middle of the movie when the Avengers fight each other. It’s a total blast (Paul Rudd shows up!). The dialogue is quick and predictably filled with inside jokes about the characters, as well as one-liners that play off of each one’s known faults.
The emotional stakes in Civil War are real, and the action is gripping. I left the theater exhilarated, exhausted, and somewhat giddy. It felt like I’d just gotten off a really great amusement park ride.
But I wish the powers that be had allowed some of the darkness they indulged more than most Marvel films do to linger. The most interesting parts of the movie came when characters I identified with and ached for were fighting each other and I wasn’t sure whose side I was on, or if there even was a side at all. I wish the director had allowed that ambiguity to breathe and some of that pain to hang on after the lights came up. It could’ve made a really good movie truly great.
If I had to guess, I’d say more traditional bad guys will once again enter the picture, and the depths of human drama might get a little more shallow in Avengers: Infinity War Parts 1 and 2, which come out in 2018 and 2019. But I hope not. Because Civil War proved what a great comic book movie can do: Use the superhuman to get at the deeply human.