Written by David Holland
Phase Three kicks off with a bang! That’s right, today we’re getting into the wacky world of the Civil War! (No, not that one. The good one.) I like to think of “Civil War” as “Avengers 2.5” – we get most of the cast of the Avengers (minus Hulk and Thor but plus Spider-Man and Black Panther). It’s a sort of ensemble with a gut-punch of an ending, so let’s jump right in.
There were a few Marvel storylines I made sure to read once the MCU kicked off. Infinity War was the first. Civil War was the second. It’s been a while since I revisited the comics, but from what I remember they have a similar “Team Iron Man” vs “Team Cap” premise, but without the Winter Soldier undercurrent. I didn’t follow comics very closely, dipping in and out to find important stories in a similar fashion to the helpful people who put together this list of the most important Clone Wars episodes. (I am going through all of those episodes though. No shortcuts. Yes, I know I’m late. Back off.) All of this to say I found the premise for the Civil War sort of flimsy in the comics – it seemed like an excuse to play out a giant “Yeah, but who would win?” discussion on the pages.
Like I said before, this is no ordinary solo film. It has an ensemble of heroes bigger than either of the previous “Avengers” installments. But the relationship between Rogers and Bucky is the through-line with the final reveal that Winter Soldier murdered Howard and Maria Stark. The original plan was to bring in Spider-Man, but Sony was hesitant to give up the rights so instead Black Panther was written into the script. Then Marvel got the rights to Spider-Man and put him in as well. Oh and why not throw in Ant-Man too? Apparently Robert Downey Jr pushed hard for a larger role than originally planned, very nearly getting written out of the movie in the process before settling on agreeable terms. But unlike the other “Avengers” movies, there’s no alien or super-robot here. Just a Sokovian commando with a chip on his shoulder. It is directed by the Russo brothers, who also directed “Winter Soldier”
How Does it Hold Up?
Part of what made “The Winter Soldier” so good was that it created a tone that was pretty unique for the MCU, a sort of superhero spy-thriller. For good or bad, a film with such a large ensemble as “Civil War” means that the titular hero does have to share a fair bit of screen time, but the “Civil War” storyline from the comics is just too iconic to pass up. I suppose it could have been a standalone “Avengers” movie, but at the film’s heart is the Rogers/Bucky relationship and that plants it firmly in Captain America’s wheelhouse.
Usually when I’m doing these recaps I try to write and watch at the same time. For this one, I found myself repeatedly setting the computer aside so I could focus on watching. Everything from Cap’s pursuit of the Winter Soldier from his home to the iconic airport showdown that led data analysis website FiveThirtyEight to break down the odds that Captain America’s team triumphs in that fight diverted my attention from this post. The odds are not good, by the way, Vision and Iron Man alone are the strongest two contenders in a field that lacks heavy-hitters like Doctor Strange and Captain Marvel.
“Civil War” does a great job building to the most important scenes. It starts out with Cap leading his team of New Avengers, then we get a bit of that spy-thriller in the search for Bucky, culminating in the airport fight. After that, the movie steps up, bringing Bucky’s connection to the Starks’ deaths full circle and landing the emotional gut-punch – just when it seemed like the two lead Avengers would patch things up, everything gets worse. Those who have been following the unfolding Infinity Saga know that Thanos is out there, but now Earth’s mightiest heroes have torn themselves apart. Not everyone will love “Civil War” (“Why are you fighting? You’re supposed to be on the same team!”) But it’s well-paced and well-toned, with a few head-fakes along the way to keep the audience in suspense.
“What would you call a group of US-based enhanced individuals who routinely ignore sovereign borders and inflict their will wherever they choose and who, frankly, seem unconcerned what they leave behind?” This question is posed at the beginning of the movie by Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross, and it gets to the heart of the film’s central conflict. In a lot of ways Zemo is a catalyst but the seeds for the Avengers’ dissolution were planted in Sokovia. There’s always been drama on the team, even outright conflict – Captain America vs. Iron Man vs. Thor in “Avengers”, Hulk vs. Hulkbuster Iron Man in “Ultron” – but this is the first time we’ve seen it come to genuine blows. I grew up on “Superfriends” and later the “Justice League” cartoon where I got used to episode after episode where groups of superheroes travel around the world with impunity. But the scene early on in which the Avengers fight (verbally) about whether to sign the Sokovia Accords summarizes the theme of the whole movie. Who should Steve Rogers answer to? Or Thor? Or Vision? We may not want government bureaucrats in charge of decision-making for the Avengers, but their track record isn’t necessarily the best when it comes to making their own decisions.
That scene dovetails with the tension between Stark, Rogers, and Bucky. Tony insists that Bucky is responsible for his parents’ death, but Rogers rejects this. This goes beyond the simple “Team Iron Man” or “Team Cap” that divided fans about the Accords. This is personal, painful, and it tears at the very core of the friendship between the two heroes in a way that is even deeper than the iconic comic storyline on which the film is based.