I'm on record of really, really, really hating the Marvel Civil War comics. I think Mark Millar is a shit and like most UK writers, doesn't really get (or like) U.S. Superheros. So I have been dreading Captain America: Civil War more than any movie in my memory. Literally dreading it. And much to my surprise, there wasn't a lot to hate in this movie.
The movie mostly jettison's the comics to stick with it's own continuity, which is wise. I will be talking about the movie in way too much depth, so spoilers will abound.
Plot summary first:
Building on the events of the past Avengers (and other Marvel) movies, the collateral damage from the shenanigans of various villains has reached the point where the United Nations has decided to demand regulation of the Avengers. Tony Stark is given a particularly-pointed guilt trip early in the film. The happy-go-lucky capitalist from Iron Man 1 and 2 is gone and what we have is a careworn, stricken man with an obsession for trying to protect people. The US - UN negotiated treaty, the Sokovia Accords, would put the Avengers under UN control. Half the team immediately agrees to be placed under higher authority while others are more reluctant. Steve Rogers alone seems to immediately reject substituting their judgement for a panel of bureaucrats.
At the same time, Bucky Barnes -Steve Roger's childhood friend turned programmed assassin - is being sought with shoot to kill orders for a bombing of UN members that takes the life of the Black Panther's father. Black Panther then swears revenge against Bucky. Steve risks much to try to apprehend his friend without him being killed. He succeeds but he, Falcon and Barnes are arrested. A Sokovian intelligence agent, Helmut Zemo, orchestrates Bucky's escape and asserts control over him as well. In the confusion of Bucky's attempted escape, he, Rogers and Falcon escape. The remaining Avengers are tasked with finding and apprehending the three of them.
Rogers finds proof that Bucky was framed for at least one bombing and discovers that Bucky was just one of 6 'Winter Soldiers', the others being kept on ice in Siberia. While attempting to fly to Russian, the Avengers come and fight with Rogers and those Avengers who have decided to help him. Rogers and Bucky escape with the rest of Roger's allies being apprehended and thrown into a maximum security prison. However, in the fighting, the Vision hits War Machine in an instance of friendly fire, crippling him.
However, Zemo left evidence as to his destination and Falcon tells Stark where Bucky and Rogers are heading. Stark, followed by Black Panther, arrives at the Siberian holding facility. There Zemo shows them the dead Winter Soldiers and video footage of Bucky murdering Stark's father and mother. Zemo's family was killed in the fighting in Sokovia and he wants the Avengers to tear each other apart. He seems to succed. Stark snaps and tries to kill Bucky while Rogers tries to protect him. Meanwhile, Black Panther finds Zemo, sees what Zemo's obsession with revenge has done to him and takes him captive instead of killing him. Rogers defeats Stark but Bucky is crippled in the fighting. He leaves his shield behind and takes Barnes into hiding. As a last gesture, he sends Stark a note and a phone to call him if he's truly needed, and breaks out his friends and allies from the maximum security prison.
And that's leaving a lot of details out :)
As you can see, there's a lot going on here. No less than 12 super heroes are involved in the big battle at the airport, plus side characters who impact the plot like Sharon Carter and ol' Thunderbolt Ross. And, a quick aside, I understand the need to recycle characters but having a former general as Secretary of State just felt odd. I realize Alexander Haig and Colin Powell have served in that role. Just felt odd.
Honestly, too much plot for one movie but I'm not sure folks would like another Civil War movie.
So what worked?
Well a lot of it did but what I liked best were the characters themselves. Their interactions, their emotions and the performances by the actors. Everyone felt real and felt like 'themselves'. In particular, I feel like this is the first movie to get Spiderman right. These actors and characters have been established for years now and they've fought side by side, shared secrets, tragedies, pain and triumph. They really seemed to care about each other.
The special effects, including a de-aged Robert Downey Jr, are so good nowadays that I almost forget to notice them. Which is an accomplishment worth shouting about....if you can remember to.
Black Panther worked, good performance. I think Wakanda is silly wish-fulfillment but I'll watch the Black Panther movie if it's as good as this.
And...I feel like I shouldn't be struggling to come up with a fourth thing in a movie I liked. But really, 'characters I care about, caring about things' sums it up. Chris Evan's performance as Captain America is one of the truly iconic movie performances of this century. Seriously. The guy makes what could have been a cliche, work. Similarly, Robert Downey Jr's Iron Man is going to be the defining performance for that character.
I will give a shout out to the writers and directors. The Russo brothers did a fine job with a complex list of characters. Markus and McFeely turned in a screenplay where it feels like I took a pass on it myself. They got some moments just perfect.
For example, there's a fairly minor (from a plot perspective) moment after Peggy Carter's funeral where Black Widow is talking to Cap. She's not trying to persuade him to sign, though they talk about it a little. Instead she says she's just there so he won't be alone. And then they sorta awkwardly hug. For a woman who is often depicted as a supreme Femme Fatale in the comics, it is a very human moment between two friends. And stuff like that is what grounds a movie where guys shrink to the size of ants or shoot yellow beams of energy out of their head.
Or the motivation behind Cap asking Barton to rescue Scarlet Witch. Not to pad the movie (I hope) but to show that he cares for his teammate who's being kept under house arrest back at the Avenger's base. He doesn't have her rescued because he needs her, he does it because it's right.
Or the Vision trying to cook for Scarlet Witch.
Or the Hydra agent choosing death, dying with a 'Hail Hydra' rather than provide information to Zemo.
Or the camaraderie between Cap and Falcon, Iron Man and Rhodes. The writing and performances got so much right.
So what didn't work?
Well, the plot and the antagonist are two big stumbling blocks.
The "shaky cam" at the beginning is another dig.
The biggest problem is that, despite the fine acting (yes, even by Scarlett Johansson), it does not make sense that the Tony Stark we saw in Iron Man 1 and 2 would agree to government oversight. He's already been on record rejecting that. Sure, there's some nods to guilt trips and character evolution but it just doesn't quite fit and it's one of the main problems with the whole frelling concept of the story. Why tell it? Why couldn't the whole conflict of the movie have been solely over what to do about the Winter Soldier? I get that it makes sense for the governments of the world to want to control the Avengers, that's what governments want to do: control things. But it's startling how many Avengers are ok with this.
The plot is thin and not well developed. Zemo is trying to tear the Avengers apart from the inside, which is the same plan Loki had, interestingly enough. Only Zemo has better instincts on what stakes are required to pull people apart. Transparently he knows, somehow, that Bucky murdered Stark's parents. (side note: the name 'Stark' seems to be cursed. Do not name your kid 'Stark', if your last name is 'Stark', change it.) This isn't explained, to keep the reveal powerful. But the tradeoff of that, is a lack of clarity and focus.
Also the decision to regulate the Avengers feels forced and random. I fully expect this to be yet another conspiracy, especially after Hydra's penetration of SHIELD. It felt odd no one bringing that up as a reason to be cautious of governmental supervision.
Zemo isn't a bad antagonist, he's written almost sympathetically, as a good villain should be. But because this has aspects of the thriller or mystery, we don't see him doing much. And your villian needs to be doing, Loki was a do-er, even Ultron was. Zemo could have been far more cunning and charismatic but the character from the comic is ultimately wasted here.
Too much going on for one movie. If we just had a movie focused on Bucky and the hunt for him, we might have a short, solid Captain America movie. If we had a movie focused on the Civil War aspect and the desire of humans to control the Avengers, you might still have a pretty good-length movie. Combining the two, even woven together as it was, just gives us too much material to put into one movie. For example, showing Cap breaking his friends out of prison could have been a great set up and action scene. Instead we get it summarized, all the action is off-camera. Not a big deal but it's an example of what was sacrificed to make this one movie.
On the other hand, two-parter movies are a pet peeve of mine. And I'm not sure audiences would want to see two movies of heroes fighting other heroes instead villians, as they should be. Marvel and Feige seem to have a vision and a story they're telling and at this point, I trust them to tell it.
And that's my summary: if you like the Marvel movies, go see this one. It isn't as deep as it could be...I think. And it makes some mistakes but it's more good than bad.