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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Captain America: Civil War movie review: the consequences of superpowers

Captain America Civil War green light

Tough, unanswerable human questions frame spectacular, innovative action sequences that are like superhero ballets. This series just keeps getting better.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): love the Marvel movies

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

What is the best way to deploy vastly superior abilities against less capable but nevertheless still very dangerous bad guys? How best to minimize collateral damage — of both the human and the infrastructure kind — when those vastly superior abilities are put to their use? What happens when people of good conscience, all of whom genuinely want nothing more than to increase net happiness and general well-being in the world, disagree over the answers to these questions? And who should get the final say: politicians sitting at desks thousands of miles away from the fields of battle, or the soldiers fighting those battles?

There’s a recent movie that Captain America: Civil War feels a helluva lot like, in tone and in objective, and it’s not Batman v Supermantweet, though the two do bear some superficial similarities. No, it’s Eye in the Sky, the superb drama thriller about drone warfare. The philosophies of both films go way beyond the mantra of “With great power comes great responsibility”; they take that as a given as they explore what, precisely, that responsibility means and how it gets expressed.

I predicted in my review of the previous Captain America movie, The Winter Soldier, that public opinion regarding the Avengers was bound to turn more condemning in the wake of yet another city — in Soldier, Washington DC — wrecked by one of their battles with bad guys… and that was before what happened in the most recent Avengers movie, Age of Ultron, when the capital city of the (fictional) Eastern European nation of Sokovia was, well, “destroyed” barely begins to cover it. And all that was before the opening sequence ofCivil War, in which a battle set in the very real city of Lagos (though it wasn’t shot there) ends with a terrible mistake by the telekinetic Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen: Godzilla, In Secret), aka Scarlet Witch, that results in the deaths of many innocents.

Now, the world has had enough, and the UN proposes that the Avengers come under the umbrella of an international oversight panel that will decide where they go, what they do, and also where they shouldn’t go and what they shouldn’t do. But the gang cannot all agree to these limitations, with the two factions aligning behind either Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.: The Judge, Chef), aka Iron Man, who believes they need some reigning in — I like to think this is because he’s still feeling guilty over how he became an accidental mad-scientist villain in Ultron — or Steve Rogers (Chris Evans: Snowpiercer, The Iceman), aka Captain America, who doesn’t want to hand over his autonomy to a governmental body, probably because he hasn’t had the best experiences in the past as a tool of politicians. (His early life as a supersoldier in WWII, after all, was all about political propaganda: looking good, not doing good.)

Now, this is almost an Avengers movie in its own right, with so many familiar faces here: Natasha Romanoff the kickass spy Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson: The Jungle Book, Hail, Caesar!); Sam Wilson the flying Falcon (Anthony Mackie: Triple 9, The Night Before); James Rhodes, who wears Iron Man-esque powered armor as War Machine (Don Cheadle: Miles Ahead, Flight); archer Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner: Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, Kill the Messenger). And they are joined by some newcomers: Scott Lang (Paul Rudd: They Came Together, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues) is recruited when his Ant-Man skills will be useful; Peter Parker (Tom Holland: In the Heart of the Sea, Locke) joins in when Stark decides his Spider-Man schtick is pretty cool but needs some honing; and — most excitingly — Prince T’Challa (an absolutely electrifying Chadwick Boseman: Get on Up) of the (fictional) African nation of Wakanda, who is secretly the badass Black Panther. (That there are multiple women, including one significant other whose presence I won’t spoil, and three black men among this cast, all with stories of their own, is beyond delicious. Diversity isn’t a buzzword: it brings genuine freshness to what is too often, across the genre, insipidly monotone storytelling.) When the two factions meet in a spectacular battle over the UN issue, it’s thrilling and often amusing not only because they’re all pulling their punches — none of them actually wants to hurt their friends — but also because we witness them combining their powers in weird, intriguing, and effective ways across a grand canvas. It’s superhero action on a scale we haven’t seen before, and even better, it’s a superhero ballettweet, not a bloodbath; it’s fantastic. (Ironic that the battle to decide how the Avengers will respond to public opinion turning against them will likely result in even more bad PR for them. This is a major airport, and it gets trashed. It’s gonna cost a fortune to repair.) The brother directing team of Joe and Anthony Russo, returning from Winter Soldier, and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely — who wrote both Soldier and the first Captain America flick, The First Avenger — ensure that all the action sequences are magnificent, innovative, and, perhaps most importantly, do not drag on past the point at which you’ve had enough.

But this most definitely is not an Avengers movie. When the US Secretary of State (William Hurt: Winter’s Tale, The Host), who brings the UN’s not-really-optional oversight proposal before the group asks a question — “Where are Thor and Hulk?” — that works as both a snarky joke about their noteworthy onscreen absence and as commentary about why some think oversight of the Avengers is needed: No, really, who knows where they are or what they are up to? And this is primarily a very personal story about Rogers and his friendship with Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan: The Martian, Ricki and the Flash), aka the Winter Soldier, who looks to have committed another terrible and very public crime as a result of his Soviet conditioning as a supersoldier and is now being hunted by police worldwide. Rogers believes in Barnes’s innocence, and his siding with Earth’s most wanted combined with his rejection of the UN proposal makes Rogers an outlaw, too. But is Rogers deluded about his old friend? Rogers’s supersoldier treatment was targeted only at his body and not at his mind, but Bucky’s brain was messed with. Is there any coming back from that? How do you trust a guy that you don’t know you can trust? How far can faith alone in someone take you? Aren’t some safeguards a good thing?

These are the unspoken questions that hang over everything going on in Civil War, between the world and the Avengers, and among the Avengers and their hangers-on themselves. (I cannot decide if I am #TeamCap or #TeamIronMan…tweet and that’s a marvelous thing.) There’s barely a villain here at all, just unanswerable questions: What legal framework are superhumans best placed in, or can they be placed in one at all? What is the morality of using superpowers even by undoubtedly good people? More than one of these superhumans flirt with the Dark Side here, which never causes us to doubt their basic goodness but instead only highlights their humanity: rage and grief can make almost anyone do irrational things that they’ll regret later. And we all understand that we have to live with the consequences of our actions… or inactions. But rage and regret and consequences are radically different the more powerful you are. And that’s true whether your power comes from a gun or a drone-fired missile or a spiderbite.

One of the things that has made the Avengers movies work so well is that all these characters feel like real people: they are never cartoonish, and, ironically, they feel like they are at their most human when they are behaving in superhuman ways. That’s never been more true than in Civil War. And that’s what makes the questions it asks impossible to dismiss as simple, “mere” fantasy. This is one superhero series that only keeps getting more relevant, more pertinent, and more necessary.

green light 4.5 stars

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Captain America: Civil War (2016)
US/Can release: May 06 2016
UK/Ire release: Apr 29 2016

MPAA: rated PG-13 for extended sequences of violence, action and mayhem
BBFC: rated 12A (moderate violence)

viewed in 2D
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • Fro

    Great review, great stuff, nice site as well. I love the whole biast thing. Will definitely check out your other reviews.

  • Jack Chesters-Bartley

    Beautiful review. Well written, thoroughly thought through, and your bias towards the MCU allows for some very astute analysis which evades the average reviewer.
    I agree that it’s just shy of a perfect score (the tonal shift in the rather cartoony airport battle is what takes it down half a peg for myself), but it’s damn well near the closest thing we have to the perfect superhero movie.

  • Jurgan

    Looking forward to this. The Civil War comics were an exciting premise that fell apart partway through, mainly due to a lot of out-of-character bits and heavy-handed moralizing that didn’t really fit the world. It sounds like they’ve taken the core concept and done something different with it. Also, the MCU appreciates consequences more than the 616 universe- trying to reset the status quo after something like this doesn’t work, and I’m hoping the future movies feel the impact of this one.

  • Payne by name

    Great review. I thoroughly enjoyed the film. I liked that the airport battle was ‘pulling punches’ because it gave the directors the chance to have the final showdown to have a lot more ‘edge’ to it. This only made the stakes and involvement and drama even greater.

    I was relieved that the film still felt that it was connected to Cap and did him proud. He is my favourite character in the films because of his nobility and goodness. This being wonderfully reminded in his stoic line ‘I can do this all day’ and the letter that he wrote to Tony. Only Cap would write a letter.

  • TheButterThief

    Cue the MRA activists and Snyderites: “How much did Disney pay you for this article, MaryAnn?!” Seriously, though: this is an extraordinarily well-written review, and I’m beyond excited for this movie.

  • Beowulf

    Damn this review! I had just about convinced myself not to start with a film that is about to branch out into 17 other films over the coming years. But no-o-o-o-o. You and many others I respect are all but forcing me to see it. And then I will be trapped, forced to travel into the Marvel Multiverse time and time again. Thanks a lot!!

  • Beowulf

    Geez, buddy — get a hold of yourself. It’s just a movie.

  • Hank Graham

    My attitude about these movies is that Marvel should just let me know when they’re releasing one, so I can give them my money.

  • JRcanReid

    Sweet! Can’t wait.

  • amanohyo

    Not quite as entertaining as Winter Solider, but significantly more interesting, rewatchable, and comicbookish. As a fan of HK action flicks, I’ve always appreciated that the fight scenes in CA films are mostly martial arts based and less about explosions and special effects. There were a couple of moments when the quick cut, shaky cam was unintentionally disorienting and I lost of track of the relative positions of the fighters, but most of the choreography was on point and struck a nice balance between visceral realism and balletic fantasy – very difficult to pull off when so many people and powers are involved.

    Unlike, Avengers 2, the film balances a huge cast perfectly, giving each their moment to shine. There was a brief stretch when it felt as if Black Widow was being a comforting BFF to several characters in a row which was slightly repetitive and out of character. There’s a Scarlet Witch/Vision interaction that goes downhill bizarrely quickly, but they’re both weirdos so its understandable. Other than that, motivations are clear and everyone has something unique to contribute. As with the action choreography, the overarching conflicts are ultimately personal and human-sized rather than being about armies of robots, gods, and aliens trying to take over the world.

    T’Challa is an excellent foil to two of the other characters – he could have easily become a forgettable noble African stereotype, but Boseman sells every line and actually made me excited to see the Black Panther movie. His and Scarjo’s stunt double pull off some slick moves too. Rudd and Bettany are standouts (Rudd literally) in their scenes. Can’t say that I’m psyched to watch yet another Spiderman reboot, but it’s not the fault of this film or Holland, I’m just tired of the character in general.

    More than any other recent big budget superhero movie, this is morally nuanced – that goes for the heroes as well as the “villains.” It truly feels like a superhero comic brought to life – intricate, character-driven, melodramatic, unpredictable, unresolved, fanservicey in a good way. This is about as close as it gets. In order to improve further (and I hope they do) Marvel tentpole films will have to transcend their source material.

  • Screamin_Ruffed_Grouse

    I’m with you on the Spider Man reboot, though I was thoroughly (and unexpectedly) entertained by Mr. Holland’s performance and the young fanboy tone of this incarnation.

    I hope that if they do another Spider Man feature, they first develop him as a secondary character ala Hawkeye or War Machine, so that when that feature comes we can just hit the ground running without another origin story.

  • Matt Clayton

    I felt pummeled after this movie ended. Wasn’t a good kind of pummeled either. There’s a lot of wonderful highlights that you excellently pointed out in your review, but it didn’t gel together in my eyes.

    For me, there’s too many characters that detract from the Steve/Tony/Bucky A-plot. Some of them are necessary because they serve as plot devices or a key part of the airport fight (very fun!), but getting sidetracked affects the pacing. And it feels incomplete, even with the two stingers during and after the credits roll.

    I wish this had been a more low-key “Captain America” sequel, and save the Civil War arc for the two-part “Avengers” film.

  • bronxbee

    i enjoyed the movie on the whole, and really enjoyed it in some parts, appreciated the moral dilemma that steve and tony were in, but have to agree with the “too many characters” and how it gets distracting. i was glad that the hulk and even thor were missing, and thought that would whittle stuff down a bit, but adding spiderman and ant man (not my favorite) got very distracting. and sorry to say, i still find the fight scenes go on way too long.

  • Bluejay

    – Spoilers – Great review. Although some others in the comments might disagree, I didn’t think the film was overstuffed at all; thanks to the careful world-building in the MCU, these are all characters I care about and want to spend time with, and their little side-plots didn’t come across as distractions to me but as stories I could enjoy in their own right. Even more impressive was how much care the film took to introduce characters who could easily feel shoved-in — particularly T’Challah, who amazingly has his own hero’s arc and ends up being the one who recognizes the futility of vengeance and forswears it. Between his appearance here and the very promising new Black Panther comics being written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, he’s well on the way to becoming one of my new favorite characters.

    This is still very much Cap’s movie. What strikes me, now that I think of it, is how much Steve and Bucky’s friendship serves as the core of all the Cap films. True, they’re all thematically different, with First Avenger exploring the nature of patriotism, Winter Soldier contrasting old-school virtues with murkier modern political realities, and Civil War asking questions about power and accountability. But at the heart of all of them is the story of a guy trying to save, protect, and be true to his best friend. I think that’s pretty awesome.

    Also, I loved seeing this in a New York theater, where the audience cheered and applauded when Spidey says he’s from Queens and Cap says he’s from Brooklyn. Local boys made good!

  • Danielm80

    I saw it in Queens, so there were exactly half as many cheers.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    I very much enjoyed it. It’s definitely the second best CA movie (after Winter Soldier, which remains my favorite MCU movie), and probably the second best Avengers movie, even missing two key Avengers. But there are some, well I don’t want to say missteps, but definitely some missed opportunities in the script that keep it from greatness.

    The movie works best in the aspects that make it a direct sequel to Winter Soldier. The Civil War story arc was always kind of half-baked, even in the comics. Here, it’s basically inconsequential, at least in this film. Protecting Bucky is more than enough motivation for Steve Rogers to go against the Avengers, and he’ certainly have allies in that choice. Meanwhile, in yet another example of MCU writers not picking up plot threads left them by other MCU writers, Tony’s desire to keep the Avengers together can continue to stem frrom the vision Wanda gave him in Age of Ultron. No need to contrive some sort of guilt-based motivation for him. Alternatively, they could have chosen not to save Tony’s discovery as the big reveal at the end, setting up a natural, movie-long conflict.

    Meanwhile, and probably under the supervision of Kevin Feige and the Marvel suits, the script insisted on starting Steve and Tony on the wrong sides of the Sokovia Accords issue. Lawful Good Steve Rogers is the one who, initially, would see some oversight as valuable, especially given the havoc and death wrought when individual Avengers (himself included) have operated independently. (I’ll grant the MCU has tried to shift Steve into a more antiauthoritarian mode, but even in Winter Soldier, it turned out it was Hydra all along, so it doesn’t really fly.) Chaotic Good Tony on the other hand doesn’t like people telling him what to do. This set up would have yielded an even more compelling story: the situation changes drastically from here, putting both Steve and Tony into positions where they have to swap sides on the Accords issue, creating both internal and external conflict for both characters.

    The story also tries to hinge emotionally on the collapse of the friendship between Steve and Tony. This never works, because in the MCU, Steve and Tony were never friends. Steve doesn’t trust Tony’s arrogance and recklessness. Meanwhile, Steve represents the ideals and accomplishments of Tony’s father, against whom Tony is still rebelling. Which would have made the fight between against Steven and Bucky a chance for Tony to both avenge and excise his father’s ghost.

    Also, while it’s nice for Disney/Marvel that they have the rights to the character back, I’ve decided I just don’t like Spider-Man. He’s a non-factor in the plot, overpowered, and obnoxious more than charming. Also too, Marisa Tomei is a fine actress who deserves much more work, the entire concept of “hot aunt May” creeps me out.

    While Ross’s question about the locations of Thor and Banner is pointed one, the script missed the chance at a great dig at him, and a good inside joke: Thor of course is pince of Asgard, and can’t be made beholden to anyone on Midgard, no matter how many countries sign a paper; and someone should have asked ol’ “Thunderbolt” Ross on how to find Bruce Banner, that being his life’s work for a time.

  • Captain Megaton

    Good essay!

    “it turned out it was Hydra all along” is a dodge, and since everyone can see it coming a mile off it lowers the stakes. Is Bucky innocent or did he really commit those crimes? I don’t even have to see this movie to be able to answer that, and that’s a problem. If Captain America’s best friend *had* betrayed him on his own free will, then yes, we’d be onto something with a real backbone, and Marvel would be half way to making a movie I’d be interested in seeing.

    Disney can’t even get the “collateral damage” angle right. The deaths of innocents are literally just convenient plot devices, serving to motivate the actions of the principle characters and never brought up again after the story arc is resolved. Honestly I find that more cynical than the previous “we’ll flatten this city for your digital enjoyment” approach seen in earlier films.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    So, I was wrong about Cap. This is kind of old, but if you haven’t read it, do so immediately: http://www.lawyersgunsmoneyblog.com/2013/10/steven-attewell-steve-rogers-isnt-just-any-hero
    I still think they had to contrive a way to put Tony Stark on the authority side, and that having both characters switch sides would have been much more dramatic, and that there’s a general problem that Rogers and Stark were never friends. But I seem to have this image in my head-cannon of Captain America as a very, well, conservative hero. Which I think comes from a couple of things: 1) he was kind of that way when I was growing up in the ’70s and ’80s; 2) it says something about my relationship with the concept of “patriotic”.

  • That’s a great piece at LGM. Thanks for sharing it.

  • Bluejay

    I’ve been thinking about this movie since I just mentioned it as a point of comparison in the Kubo and the Two Strings thread, and I’m continuing to appreciate how much there is to unpack in this film, in terms of theme and character. Here’s an observation about Tony, Bucky, guilt, and accountability that I found enlightening:


  • Danielm80


    I might compare the ending of Kubo to the new Harry Potter play: If you live your life being told that you’re a certain type of person, do you try to live up to an idealized image,* or do you rebel against it? Maybe a little of both.

    *Or, for one or two characters in the play, fulfill the expectations of people who think you’re a terrible person.

  • Bluejay

    I might compare the ending of Kubo to the new Harry Potter play

    That’s strange, I didn’t see any blatant queerbaiting in Kubo.

  • ??

  • Danielm80

    Draco and Harry’s relationship has been the subject of so much fan speculation that Rainbow Rowell wrote a more-than-500-page novel about it:


    It’s quite good.

  • Bluejay
  • Bluejay

    I’ve read it, and it is VERY good. But the queerbaiting in the play isn’t about Draco/Harry.

    I doubt that this discussion belongs on the Civil War thread, or the Kubo thread. MaryAnn, any plans to open up a discussion on Cursed Child? :-)

  • Danielm80

    But the queerbaiting in the play isn’t about Draco/Harry.

    I disagree, but there’s plenty of other baiting, too. I’m not sure it’s possible to be Harry Potter fan without creating your own head canon and shipper pairings, queer or otherwise.

    MaryAnn, any plans to open up a discussion on Cursed Child? :-)

    That seems like an excellent suggestion.

  • Danielm80

    I’d actually missed that controversy among all the other recent JK Rowling controversies and the many other fandom controversies.

  • Bluejay

    I’m not sure it’s possible to be Harry Potter fan without creating your own head canon and shipper pairings, queer or otherwise.

    This isn’t about what a fan may imagine; it’s about the storyteller actually giving strong indications that a relationship (Albus and Scorpio’s) is queer — i.e. if they were different sexes, there would be no question that it’s a romantic bond — and then pulling a “no homo” at the end. That’s queerbaiting; gay relationships are always subtext, never text. And coming from Rowling — who outed Dumbledore off the page, but in whose entire textual Harry Potter universe there isn’t a single explicitly LGBT character — it comes across as yet another missed chance to make Harry Potter’s world as openly diverse and representative as she seems to want it to be.

  • Danielm80

    We desperately need more stories about people who aren’t white, straight men, but something about the Vox article really bothers me.

    I hadn’t heard the term “queerbaiting” until now, and it strikes me as an odd phrase. It sounds a bit like Rowling is maliciously teasing her fans, as though she’s deliberately hinting at a queer relationship and then taking the possibility away.

    Our culture makes it very easy to take for granted that cisgender relationships are the norm. So I suspect that Rowling wrote the story as a straight romance and didn’t notice the blatant queer subtext, even though it was screamingly obvious to many of her fans.

    That’s a serious problem. An author writing in 2016 shouldn’t overlook the many LGBT people in the world. And it’s particularly sad that an author who’s as committed to diversity as Rowling keeps writing such uninclusive stories. (Her depiction of native peoples certainly deserves the criticism it’s received.)

    But the Vox article makes it sound as though she went out of her way to erase LGBT characters from the story, as though she thought, “These characters are coming across as gay. I’d better fix that before sales go down.” This is a missed opportunity, and a huge one, but never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

  • Bluejay

    I’d first heard the term “queerbaiting” with regard to The Legend of Korra, and how simultaneously joyous and flabbergasted the show’s fans were (me included) that a key relationship turned out NOT to be queerbaiting, but actual, confirmed queer representation.

    I didn’t interpret the Vox article as accusing Rowling and her collaborators of deliberate malice — merely of deeply ingrained heteronormative sensibilities and frustratingly willful naivete, after years of criticism and the culture’s increasingly sophisticated awareness of queer subtexts and lack of representation. But in any case, I think the term “queerbaiting” is a necessary description and critique of the act itself, regardless of the author’s intention.

  • Bluejay

    And it’s particularly sad that an author who’s as committed to diversity as Rowling keeps writing such uninclusive stories.

    If she keeps writing such uninclusive stories, maybe we should rethink how committed to diversity we think she is. Or at least of how aware she is of how short she falls of her own professed ideals.

    It sucks, because Rowling’s instincts aren’t flat-out terrible. She clearly has heart and compassion, and deals with themes like friendship and longing and loss and parenthood with great sensitivity and powerful insight. Which makes it all the more screamingly frustrating to see how huge her blind spots are. It’s a testament to her that her fans CARE enough about her stories to be upset at their shortcomings. We love what she’s made. We want it to be better.

  • Okay, but what the heck does this have to do with the ending of *Kubo*?

  • Bluejay

    Absolutely nothing. Danielm80 compared it to the new HP play, so I thought I’d get in a dig about the HP play. Sorry for the thread derailment.

  • Bluejay

    Thanks! Wish there were a way to transfer the conversation Danielm80 and I have already been having… I’m sure I can post over there and recap. :-)

  • Danielm80

    I try to be forgiving of her blind spots, because I have so many of my own. (People on this site have helped make me more aware of them, for which I’m thankful.) I also try to remember that, during some of the worst culture wars in recent memory, gay marriage became legal in the U.S., so maybe progress is possible even with blind spots.

  • Bluejay

    I’m not condemning her as a person; I’m critiquing the work, and whatever attitudes she reveals through her work. It’s Harry Potter, it’s undeniably a huge influence on pop culture, it’s a story that millions worldwide pay attention to, and so it deserves scrutiny. And if it marginalizes or excludes a group of people, whether through malice or ignorance, it deserves to be called out for that.

    Want to continue the conversation here? :-)

  • Hmm. I figured as much. :-/

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