In my review of Ant-Man (2015), I described the character of Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) as hardly the equivalent of an A-list celebrity when it comes to his superhero currency. Personally, I had no idea Ant-Man even existed prior to coming across the film. Captain America (Chris Evans), of course, is without a doubt an A-lister, and so the pendulum swings again, from the mega-budget Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) to the more modest-scale Ant-Man to the star-studded Captain America: Civil War (2016). Reportedly budgeted at $250 million, Marvel Studios and Walt Disney Pictures intentionally designed Civil War to kick off Phase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with a bang, and it certainly succeeded in that respect, drawing critical praise and collecting $1.1 billion at the worldwide box office. It’s essentially an Avengers movie in all but name, with twice the number of Avengers in this film as in the original Avengers movie released just four years prior.
The Avengers (2012) had the difficulty of fitting all six of the original Avengers — Tony Stark (Iron Man), Bruce Banner (Hulk), Thor, Steve Rogers (Captain America), Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow) and Clint Barton (Hawkeye) — in and giving each of them their due. Well, Captain America: Civil War does not feature Hulk or Thor, but in their stead are Bucky Barnes (Winter Soldier), Sam Wilson (Falcon), Rhodey (War Machine), T’Challa (Black Panther), Vision, Wanda Maximoff (Scarlet Witch), Scott Lang (Ant-Man) and Peter Parker (Spider-Man). That’s twelve — twelve! — Avengers in a movie that, on the surface at least, is nominally a Captain America film. For those keeping score at home, just four Avengers were in 2014‘s phenomenally successful Captain America: The Winter Soldier: Captain America, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and (of course) Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) — though he was on the opposing side.
The decision to triple the size of the main cast this time around is something of a head scratcher, since it’s basically unprecedented. In particular, the inclusion of Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) is worthy of proper discussion. Whereas all of the Avengers were introduced pretty slowly into the MCU canon during Phase One and Phase Two, the first Phase Three film greatly accelerates the introduction of new Avengers and also kicks the plot of the Infinity Saga into higher gear as well. Thanos (Josh Brolin) may not figure into the lives of the Avengers yet, but it can’t be denied that the stakes feel way higher in Civil War than they did at any point in Phase One or Phase Two. Even though Avengers: Age of Ultron featured a comparatively huge roster of heroes, it felt like a more or less normal outing with a fairly standard-issue villain — the only difference was that it was bigger and more expensive than the other entries in the MCU.
Captain America: Civil War is quite different. The villain, to the extent there is one, possesses no superpowers whatsoever. This is just as well, frankly. We just sat through Age of Ultron, where all of our heroes took on a big bad villain together in spectacular fashion. Been there, done that. Instead, as the “Civil War” title suggests, the Avengers unravel, cleaving neatly into two groups of six. One group is led by Rogers, the other by Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.). And what, you ask, could possibly pit the Avengers against each other? Good question! If you remember way back in Iron Man 2 (2010) — ten MCU movies ago — a significant subplot involved Tony testifying in front of Senate Armed Services Committee about whether Iron Man was in the public interest and whether Stark should be able to operate without any government oversight. Back then, it was more of a philosophical debate since the Iron Man technology more or less existed in a vacuum — at least until Whiplash (Mickey Rourke) came out of the woodwork.
A lot has transpired since the good old days of Iron Man 2 though. The roster of Avengers has grown by leaps and bounds. Villains have been defeated. The world has been saved many times over. In the process, however, there has been considerable collateral damage, with many innocent people losing their lives in New York in The Avengers, in Washington during The Winter Soldier, and in Sokovia during Age of Ultron. And so it is time to revisit that oh so thorny issue of oversight once again. After a short prologue (more on that later), Captain America: Civil War opens with a bravura action sequence in Lagos, Nigeria. By the end, the Avengers involved — Captain America, Black Widow, Falcon and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) — have stopped a heist whereby S.H.I.E.L.D.-soldier-turned-Hydra-man Brock Lumlow (Frank Grillo) leads an attack on a Nigerian Institutes for Disease Control building in order to obtain a biological weapon.
However, when Lumlow is defeated, he blows himself up right next to Rogers. Fortunately for Cap, Maximoff is able to divert the explosion away from him using her telekinetic abilities, saving his life. This is somewhat hard to describe with words, but she basically encases Grillo and the explosion in a force field and moves it like a hundred yards away. Unfortunately, she moves it right next to a nearby building, causing it to explode and kill and injure many. This is what sets the stage for the oversight debate. Secretary of State Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt) — previously seen way back in The Incredible Hulk (2008) when he was General Ross — introduces the “Sokovia Accords” to the Avengers and gives them a less than ideal choice: sign the agreement or retire. Watching Civil War again, I find that some circular logic, unfortunately, prevents the film from exploring the issue at hand more deeply.
Let me ask you this: is it the Avengers’ fault that villains keep showing up? And would these villains even be defeated if the Avengers weren’t around? Pretty sure the answer to both questions is no. So why doesn’t anyone in the movie bring this up? It seems like a pretty reasonable defense, does it not? Well, circular logic basically prevents anyone from asking. In order to make a movie with superheroes in it interesting, you have to have them fight against enemies with superpowers. Inevitably, this results in collateral damage with stuff blowing up and innocent people dying. So the longer this same universe exists, spawning villain after villain, the more the wreckage piles up. (And make no mistake, the MCU conceit is entirely built on introducing more and more characters.) In other words, the only way to actually solve the collateral damage problem is to stop making MCU movies altogether. Obviously, no character in these movies quite possesses the kind of fourth-wall-breaking omniscience to argue for that.
So while the conversation about oversight and collateral damage is certainly worth having, the movie unfortunately can’t be meta enough to tackle the subject fully. Maybe there was a way to shove this square peg through a round hole, but the way the movie’s universe has been drawn essentially prevents this from happening. Contrast this with Christopher Nolan‘s Batman trilogy, which features different world dynamics. In that trilogy, Batman doesn’t actually possess superpowers, and, crucially, neither do any of the villains he faces off against. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is a rich guy enabled by technology; Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy), Joker (Heath Ledger) and Bane (Tom Hardy) are just criminals with eccentricities (to be polite). Working within this scope, Nolan could inject many heady themes, the most important of which — escalation — is first articulated by Lieutenant Gordon (Gary Oldman) at the end of 2005‘s Batman Begins: “We start carrying semi-automatics, they buy automatics. We start wearing Kevlar, they buy armor piercing rounds.”
This theme is explored fully throughout the entirety of The Dark Knight (2008) and the beginning of The Dark Knight Rises (2012). The Joker embodies the concept of escalation outlined above — he keeps attacking and attacking and even disrupts an attempt by someone else to unmask the identity of Batman on TV because that would mean the game would be over. At the end of the film, Batman realizes the need to disappear, because his presence is attracting criminals who otherwise would never step foot in Gotham. And as we see in The Dark Knight Rises, he remains in the shadows for eight long years as the so-called Dent Act allows police to finally fill up the prisons and wipe the streets clean. Watching Civil War, it’s easy to see they were trying to go somewhere similar by calling the Avengers’ to account for the collateral damage as a result of their existence, but this is ultimately undermined by a few things.
First and foremost, any collateral damage pales in comparison to the actual damage done by the villains if they were to remain unopposed. And while it is true that the villains would not be there if any of the Avengers were not, this is only true in a meta sense. In the MCU, villains come out of the woodwork all the time, and they can only be stopped by the Avengers. Therefore sidelining the Avengers entirely for any period of time, as Nolan did with Batman, is pretty much an impossibility in the world defined by these movies. In Nolan’s trilogy, law enforcement is able to carry on without Batman and lets Gotham not need Batman once the Dent Act is in place. There’s no semblance of this dynamic in the MCU, unfortunately, resulting in an “all or nothing” setup that’s considerably less shaded; the United States’ military/defense/police apparatus is portrayed as more or less unable to stand up to the Avengers’ enemies.
This dependence on the Avengers makes the push for oversight via the Sokovia Accords pretty natural and inevitable. In fact, it probably shouldn’t have taken this long for the subject to surface, since the need for oversight isn’t misplaced or anything. Even superheroes probably shouldn’t have agency that is unilateral and unsupervised. Vision makes the case for this fairly well:
VISION: In the 8 years since Mr. Stark announced himself as Iron Man, the number of known enhanced persons has grown exponentially. And during the same period, a number of potentially world-ending events has risen at a commensurable rate.
ROGERS: Are you saying it’s our fault?
VISION: I’m saying there may be a causality. Our very strength invites challenge. Challenge incites conflict. And conflict… breeds catastrophe. Oversight… Oversight is not an idea that can be dismissed out of hand.
In that second paragraph of Vision dialogue is the MCU’s version of George Lucas’s ridiculous “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” would-be wisdom from The Phantom Menace (1999). Anyway, he certainly makes a sensible argument for not dismissing the potential need for oversight and alludes to the same problem of escalation that arose in Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Predictably, Stark and Rogers take opposite sides in the oversight debate.
STARK: There’s no decision-making process here. We need to be put in check! And whatever form that takes, I’m game. If we can’t accept limitations, we’re boundaryless, we’re no better than the bad guys.
ROGERS: Tony, if someone dies on your watch, you don’t give up.
STARK: Who said we’re giving up?
ROGERS: We are if we’re not taking responsibility for our actions. This document just shifts the blame.
RHODEY: Sorry, Steve, that… that is dangerously arrogant. This is the United Nations we’re talking about. It’s not the World Security Council, it’s not S.H.I.E.L.D., it’s not Hydra.
ROGERS: No, but it’s run by people with agendas and agendas change.
STARK: That’s good! That’s why I’m here. When I realized what my weapons were capable of in the wrong hands, I shut it down. Stopped manufacturing.
ROGERS: Tony, you chose to do that. If we sign this, we surrender our right to choose. What if this panel sends us somewhere we don’t think we should go? What if there’s somewhere we need to go and they don’t let us? We may not be perfect but the safest hands are still our own.
STARK: If we don’t do this now, it’s gonna be done to us later. That’s the fact. That won’t be pretty.
It’s a worthy debate, to be sure, and I find myself siding with Rogers here. How can you know that the oversight panel will always direct the Avengers in the public’s best interest? Of course, if you’re the American citizenry or government, you’re no doubt asking whether the Avengers can always be trusted to act in the public interest in the absence of oversight. These are questions seldom asked in these kinds of movies, so I certainly give Civil War credit for asking them. To me, the answer comes down to who is more easily corrupted. If an oversight panel does see the light of day, wouldn’t corrupting this governing body top the list of things evil people would want to accomplish? We just saw Hydra successfully infiltrate and take over S.H.I.E.L.D. in The Winter Soldier. Couldn’t that all just happen again? And how tenable is an oversight panel anyway? If the oversight panel directs the Avengers in a way they don’t agree with, what’s to stop the Avengers from just doing their own thing?
The script probably could have used just a little more padding here to sort out these extra questions, but ultimately that still wouldn’t solve for the weaknesses inherent to the construction of the MCU world. Without proper shading on that front, the oversight debate lapses into circularity. The Avengers are needed because villains keep popping up (and only they can defeat them), but these villains wouldn’t keep popping up if MCU movies didn’t exist (and therefore Avengers didn’t exist). Then again, oversight isn’t necessarily a matter of if the Avengers should be a part of the world’s defense apparatus, but how they should be managed as part of it. But to some extent these two things are one and the same: wouldn’t the oversight panel therefore have the power to disband the Avengers if they so desired? Wouldn’t they have the power to devise an organizational chart that makes some Avengers report to Avengers or non-Avengers they don’t want to report to?
Captain America: Civil War never quite pushes the debate far enough to cover this aspect of it, and there’s something else a bit puzzling to me about the film: the complete absence of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Where is S.H.I.E.L.D. (or at least what’s left of it post-Winter Soldier) in all of this? The movie never really explains why Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. are nowhere to be found. Is this because the only way to make the story work (i.e. dividing the group into two) was to conveniently exclude the boss and organization the Avengers supposedly work for? Perhaps this could have been smoothed out if the oversight debate was all there was to Civil War, but it isn’t. Frankly, the film manages to squeeze an impressive amount of plot into its 2.5-hour run time, resulting in a super-sized story that picks up where previous MCU films’ narrative threads left off. In particular, Civil War is a continuation of both Age of Ultron and The Winter Soldier.
That the Winter Soldier is revealed to have murdered Tony Stark’s parents (albeit while brainwashed) is certainly an interesting development and is truly what justifies the civil war conceit at the heart of the film, allowing it to transcend being a mere gimmick. Of course, Captain America: Civil War is notable not just for tying together old threads but also for introducing new ones with the MCU debuts of Black Panther and Spider-Man. While Spider-Man’s relevance to the plot is a little shaky — the justification is that Stark needs to recruit more Avengers to his side for an upcoming battle — Black Panther is much more integral to the movie as a whole. In fact, he’s the one who brings the film’s villain — a Sokovian who lost his family during the finale of Age of Ultron — to justice. (In a mid-credits scene, we see Rogers drop Bucky off in Wakanda to be frozen à la Austin Powers while he remains a fugitive in the eyes of international law enforcement.)
In the end, this is a very good movie and my criticisms are pretty minor nitpicks. It’s not quite is refined as The Winter Soldier, but Civil War is certainly a worthy sequel and more than makes up for not being quite as good by being much, much larger in scope. (Not to mention it just plain works.) The oversight theme could have been fleshed out a little more philosophically and is basically left unresolved at the end of the movie, but this is pretty easily forgiven. If you are interested in reading how Captain America: Civil War looks and sounds in 4K, I would suggest checking out the review of the 4K Blu-ray release on Blu-ray.com. Keep in mind that although Civil War was reportedly digitally shot at a mixture of resolutions — 2.8K, 6K and 6.5K — it was finished on a 2K digital intermediate, making the 4K presentation an upscale of that finished 2K image. To my eye the 4K version looks pretty good, and the HDR coloring is a real standout, particularly during the early sequence in Nigeria.