Five Years Later, Is Captain America: Civil War Still The Best Movie In The MCU?
Diplomacy, accountability, betrayal; in a pre-Thanos world, Captain America: Civil War‘s stakes are more Blip than boom. Make no mistake though, it’s still one of the best movies – if not the most important – in the MCU.
The climax of Man of Steel felt like a turning point for audience temperaments; both slack-jawed and similarly fed-up by blasé culls of life at the hands of red-eyed superheroes, ‘Wham! Pow! Bang!’ comic book destruction was coming home to roost.
Fast-forward to 2016, with Marvel and DC’s quarrelsome duos going head-to-head. In the box office and critical battle, bar the loyalists, Batman vs. Superman had its doomsday, while fans on the other side witnessed a ‘war’ (it’s more of a heated hiccup) they’d never forget.
Superman and Zod may have torn down half of Metropolis, but the MCU’s ragtag heroes have a spotty track record, as General Thaddeus E. ‘Thunderbolt’ Ross (William Hurt) harrowingly reads: New York (The Avengers), Washington DC (Captain America: The Winter Soldier), Sokovia (Avengers: Age of Ultron) and Lagos, the scene of Civil War‘s opening disaster.
After seemingly stopping Crossbones (Frank Grillo, after a building was dropped on his face), he detonates himself. Fortunately, Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) saves Cap/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) by containing the blast with her powers and lifting him into the air, only for the explosion to barrel through a nearby building and killing innocent people, including Wakandan humanitarian workers – bringing T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) into the fold.
If you’re unfamiliar with the story, two things: firstly, I’m about to spoil a lot; secondly, I’ll try to be as brief as possible. Amid calls for accountability for a ‘group of US-based, enhanced individuals’, like a nuke, the Sokovia Accords lands on the Avengers’ laps. If they sign, they’ll be at the behest of the United Nations.
Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) thinks they need to be kept in check – ‘If we can’t accept limitations, we’re no better than the bad guys’ – while Cap, ever the libertarian, has a well-founded post-Hydra distrust of government authority.
With the exception of Thor and the Hulk (off galivanting on Sakaar, we now know), people pick their sides – it’s just a matter of when the bubble will burst. Then there’s the small matter of Bucky (Sebastian Stan), the Winter Soldier charged with bombing the UN – but Steve knows it can’t be true.
Following their success with Winter Soldier, Joe and Anthony Russo returned for Civil War and clearly illustrated their competency with team-ups, later tasked with the two biggest superhero movies of all time: Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame, all also penned by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely.
While the obvious marketing gambit was Team Cap or Team Iron-Man, one of the film’s best qualities is how difficult it is to choose. Tony isn’t the villain of the piece (that honour goes to Daniel Bruhl’s Zemo, who’s aged like a fine wine thanks to Disney+), as he believes it’s the morally right solution, especially after being scolded by Alfre Woodard in a powerful scene.
Steve’s viewpoint is, in a way, ‘dangerously arrogant’. He believes the ‘safest hands are still our own’ but can’t seem to recognise the dangers of vigilantes having autonomy. The movie does side with him over time, but it’s not as clear-cut as Batman’s misunderstanding of Superman.
The fact one can wrestle with these political debates across 147 minutes that also feature the pitch-perfect introduction of Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Black Panther being insanely cool, Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) fanboying around Cap and turning into Giant-Man and other geekgasms is one of its biggest strengths; quicksilver navigation of weighty themes – for the MCU, that is – and requisite water-cooler thrills.
If you’re a novice walking in, I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to keep up. If anything, Civil War cemented the MCU’s dedication to serialised storytelling, imploring moviegoers to hop on and learn before the arrival of the Great Titan. Everything that follows is a richer experience as a result, making it a significant point not just for quality, but the overall arch of Earth’s defenders.
(But really, if you haven’t been watching, what have you been doing? Get on it.)
Action-wise, moments in the beginning are frustratingly choppy; Black Widow’s sequences are well-choreographed stroboscopes. But by the time we reach a close-quarters stairway brawl (reminiscent of the hectic glory of Winter Soldier‘s elevator) and a high-speed pursuit, grievances become a distant memory.
The fight at the airport is different gravy all-together. Sure, Endgame’s Portals scene and the ‘Avengers… assemble’ charge are the most rousing moments in the franchise – if not all of cinema, sue me! – but the slow walk morphing into a run between two tribes going to war was – and is – immense.
The Russos have one thing down a tee: a fundamental grasp on why people love these superheroes. All of their powers are given a fair shake, played with, messed with and enhanced in one-on-ones, whether it’s Spidey slinging Cap’s shield, Hawkeye ‘making Iron Man look’, Wanda’s god-tier magic against… well, everyone, and Vision’s omnipotence.
With regards to the latter two heroes, Civil War makes their fate in WandaVision even more affecting, seeing the delightful, meaningful origins of their bond. Vision also has one of the best lines in the entire series, foreshadowing the universe-halving snap: ‘Our very strength incites challenge. Challenge incites conflict. And conflict… breeds catastrophe.’
Also, a film that gets Spider-Man this right deserves all the plaudits available. From his Queens bedroom to Berlin’s empty airport, Holland is a joy – dare I say it, he’s the best big-screen wall-crawler. ‘Hey buddy, I think you dropped this,’ cracks me up every time.
During my rewatch, I found its sadness most striking. Downey Jr.’s comedic timing needs no criticism, nor does Evans’ likeable rectitude, but carefully planted lines cut through the fun: ‘Your judgement is askew,’ Tony says, without a smile in sight; Steve hesitantly admitting he knew Bucky killed Tony’s mum and dad; ‘He’s my friend’, ‘So was I.’
The headline fight between Cap and Iron Man is worthy of a pay-per-view, going mano a mano with no pulled-punches. Every hit is fierce, made for pain, rooted in vengeance. We cheer, but the emotional gravity of their fallout looms on the heart. Between the arrival in Siberia and the credits, there was a large gap in my notes, before I jotted down one word: wow.
Infinity War and Endgame are destined to hold the spotlight – as they should, really. But Civil War operates on a different level; not a worse one, nor something better. There’s no big bad hellbent on the end of the world, no cities being levelled in the name of saving the day. It rises and falls under our friendships defining who we are, what we do, what we believe, to the bitter end. It’s the MCU’s Soul stone.
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