To destroy or not to destroy. That is the question, both for the superheroes anchoring our biggest blockbusters and the filmmakers who bring them to the screen. Critics and audiences alike are tiring of buildings being toppled, cities being leveled and innocent bystanders being dismissed — partly because these climaxes are aesthetically enervating and partly because they’re morally troubling. And so it’s no longer entertaining for the next comic-book property to be bigger and louder than the last one. There’s a hunger for a superhero flick that’s lighter on its feet, smarter in its conception and more personal in its execution.
Captain America: Civil War is all of these things. At once the third Captain America movie and the third (and best) Avengers movie, Civil War takes as its premise the very question I initially asked. After a series of Avengers missions have resulted in mass destruction and civilian death, the United Nations has proposed an accord to bring the superhero team under U.N. authority. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), the increasingly beleaguered face behind Iron Man, agrees that he and the other Avengers need to be reined in, but Captain America (Chris Evans), a literal product of World War II, refuses to give up their identity as an independent American force for good. This tension is exacerbated with the return of Bucky/the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), Cap’s childhood friend turned brainwashed assassin and the key to a conspiracy to get Cap and Iron Man to turn on each other.
If this sounds familiar, that’s because Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice tried to set up a similar confrontation only a few weeks ago. Yet whereas the character motivations there were murky at best and contrived at worst, here they’re intensely intimate. The personal dynamics among the Avengers that have been nurtured in the various other Marvel films up until now come into play, of course, but the screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely also manages to provide motivation for the newcomers. Recruiting the recently super-empowered Spider-Man (a charming Tom Holland), Stark asks him why he bothers fighting crime. His answer speaks to his own experience, but also offers a way to think about the film’s larger question: how should the powerful exercise their power?
The emphasis on intimacy carries over to the action sequences.
This emphasis on intimacy carries over to the action sequences. There are some big explosions to be sure, but most of the action — overseen by returning Captain America: The Winter Soldier directors Joe and Anthony Russo — involves tight, hand-to-hand combat. Indeed, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow fights best in close quarters, and she has an acrobatic takedown of a terrorist in a marketplace that’s worthy of a bruising Bourne movie. Overall, Civil War is structured as a narrowing down of spectacle, so that the action sequences gradually shrink in scale. At the end, the movie is reduced to a bitter brawl involving Cap, Stark and Bucky, in which the framing is mythic — the Russos place the three figures against a series of rectangular windows and use every inch of the widescreen frame — yet the punches are personal.
Throughout Civil War, there are acknowledged costs to the movie’s confrontations, from the bruises that almost every character sports by the end of the film to the bystanders who are killed in the crossfire. (Newcomer Black Panther, played by Chadwick Boseman, enters the fray because of the Avengers-related death of a loved one.) The Russo brothers are careful to stage the movie’s bravura set piece — a battle royale between Cap’s renegade Avengers and Stark’s loyalists — at an empty airport terminal, taking collateral damage out of the equation. Yet even here the fighting suggests that these former comrades are somewhat pulling their punches, trying to sorrowfully subdue, not illogically annihilate, each other.
Such relative subtlety is a key point of distinction between Civil War and Batman v Superman. Another is the movie’s ability to inject elements of levity here and there. Holland, as Peter Parker, brings much of this (I have to believe he was cast for his squeaky voice alone), while we also get comic relief from cameos by Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Ant-Man (Paul Rudd). It turns out that when you’re pondering the geopolitical implications of exercising your influence as a superpower, it’s nice to have a moment in which two superheroes bicker over their seats in a cramped Volkswagen Beetle.
It’s the geopolitical stuff that ultimately distinguishes Captain America: Civil War, however. I don’t want to overplay this aspect of the movie and suggest it offers any ingenious insights in regard to global security and foreign policy. But I don’t want to underplay it either. The fact that a film this big is even asking such questions — and offering a variety of perspectives in place of propaganda — makes it an especially significant piece of popular culture. When American-led air strikes in places like Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan result in civilian deaths, many of us scroll right past the story in our newsfeeds (if the story even makes it there). But when something similar becomes a point of contention between Iron Man and Captain America, most of the movie-going nation pays attention. The hope is that at some point, we’ll put the two together.