Published May 04, 2016Captain America: Civil War is Marvel's strongest film in years, a thematic reshuffling of the deck for Phase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and a restatement of purpose after eight years and 12 films. Smart and surprisingly emotional mature, Civil War pulls off what Marvel has struggled with in recent years: telling a story that feels singular and thematically cohesive on its own, while building on our investment with these characters through the strength of long-form storytelling.
It's the fulfillment of a promise that was offered to us way back in 2008, when Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury made a pop-up appearance at the end of Iron Man, suggesting a larger possible world ripped from the comics. Marvel hasn't always pulled off this shared universe conceit gracefully (see last year's entertaining but wheel-spinning Avengers: Age of Ultron), but Civil War feels fresh, defined by a more streamlined approach to story and character that's organic and thrilling.
That tighter focus means ditching some of the more auteurist, idiosyncratic flair of earlier Marvel films. Jon Favreau's Iron Man felt like a Favreau film, all loose and talky and layered with hangout vibes, while the third instalment of that series is a straight-up Shane Black movie. Thor had director Kenneth Branagh's signature Dutch angles and Shakespearean family dynamics, while the sequel brought director Alan Taylor's Game of Thrones-influenced, high fantasy sweep to the series.
But Marvel's moved into a more committee/producer-based mode of filmmaking, and these movies feel tighter and more unified for it. The Russos understand Marvel's shift as a necessary compromise, and their assembly-line formal workmanship is solid. They have a George Miller-esque understanding of action and how to root it in character, building impactful gags with a weight that feels uncommon in studio filmmaking.
Their previous Captain America instalment, The Winter Soldier, brought an edge to the action that Marvel hadn't deployed before, leading to misguided comparisons to gritty '70s conspiracy thrillers, but here, the Russos are a little more graceful, delving further into the fantastical and building to the onscreen equivalent of a two-page comic book splash illustration, one of the most emotional moments of Marvel's oeuvre.
Civil War picks up where Winter Soldier and Ultron left off, building on threads from both films with Chris Evans' Captain America looking for his friend-turned-enemy Bucky Barnes, and Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark reeling from the fallout of his Ultron project failure. The two find themselves on opposite sides of a political debate when the U.N. proposes regulations on superheroes that would see the Avengers turned into a government outfit, and Cap becomes defensive as others hunt for Bucky, building to an irreparable conflict that tears the Avengers apart.
The Russos know how to exploit the relationships between frenemies, giving everyone something to do. Rather than feel overly busy, Civil War roots everyone's struggles in theme, as they wrestle with impossible decisions and themes of responsibility. In a way, the film does correctly everything DC's Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice did wrong. They're similar stories, but Marvel's film shows the value of pacing and motivation, making everyone's decisions feel right at the same time. The Russos understand that narrative filmmaking is about fulfilling a promise made to the viewer, and they have a deep bench of characters to draw on from the last 12 films.
Even the new characters feel like part of a whole, rather than shoehorned in. Chadwick Boseman's Black Panther brings a whole new side to the usual Marvel male protagonist, a regal and quiet master of power and control that feels welcome amid the chaos of the MCU's talkier "white dudes named Chris" (Evans, Hemsworth and Pratt) heroes. Meanwhile, Tom Holland's Spiderman gets the best introduction of the year, a fan's dream that erases Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield's brooding performances and replaces them with the kid from Queens we know from the comics.
Meanwhile, Daniel Brühl's Zemo is a villain we haven't seen before in the MCU, a welcome change from the generic cosmic villainy that has marred the final acts of far too many films to this point. He has motivation and, without giving too much away, a thematic purpose for being included, a human face for the struggle between gods.
Civil War is excellent, and a strong indicator of what's to come for Marvel in Phase Three. Evans is fine as usual, but the surprise comes from Robert Downey Jr., who infuses Tony Stark with a new kind of human empathy, far from the phoning it in he's done in recent films. The MCU is in strong hands with the Russos, and their Avengers: Infinity War should be a strong way to cap off this run. Bring on whatever's next.