I saw Civil War a couple of days ago and I’m glad it’s taken that long for me to write this piece. It’s the single most complex, thematically and ideologically chewy movie Marvel have produced to date and there’s a huge amount to discuss. It’s simultaneously a capstone to the Captain America trilogy, Avengers 2.5, and a very clear progression down the road to the Infinity War films.
It’s also really, extraordinarily good.
The problem is that in order to explain why it’s so good, the temptation to spoil huge chunks of it is almost overwhelming. I promise that, with one tiny exception, there will be no spoilers in this article. That single exception is a topic of conversation that comes up at one point in the film. In context it’s a throwaway gag. In reality, I think it’s the key to why the film is so good.
The Empire Strikes Back: The film comes up in conversation at one point during Civil War but I’d argue it’s the closest thing the movie has to a blueprint. The characters, plot, and overall arc all have that same beaten-down, on the ropes feeling that Empire remains the cinematic definition of. Crucially, Civil War also maintains that earlier film’s core humanity and focus on character even in the middle of the largest action sequence the MCU has produced to date.
Let’s start with the characters. Thematically, the movie is the same as the early ‘00s comic crossover it shares a title with. This is a story about an ideological clash between Captain America and Iron Man. However, where the comic ultimately leaned on heavy-handed imagery and mean-spirited violence, the movie never loses sight of just how personal this situation is for everyone involved.
Brilliantly, it does so by refusing to make either man the outright hero or villain. Steve is painfully aware throughout the film of the price of his actions. His refusal to let Bucky go is the perfect endgame for a series which has always been about Steve making the hard, right choice instead of simply the right one. In fact, the film folds Steve’s very personal quest into his objection to the Sokovia Accords. He believes with every fibre of his being that Bucky can be saved, on his terms. His refusal to hand that off to any form of oversight, especially in the wake of the fall of SHIELD, is both tremendously arrogant and absolutely understandable.
In many ways this is a Steve Rogers movie rather than a Captain America one, as we see him make his way out from under the shadow of SHIELD, the Avengers, and ultimately his own reputation. Captain America was built by the Super Soldier serum. Steve Rogers was built by a childhood of hardship, tragedy, and endurance. That’s what he relies on here, for better or for worse, and that brings us back to The Empire Strikes Back. Steve pays the price for his choices willingly, clutching just as the characters in Empire do to the hope of something good being on the other side.
In both literal and metaphorical Stark contrast, Tony has everything to work with and no idea where to start. The arc that culminates for him in Civil War can be traced across all three Iron Man movies and both Avengers movies to date. It incorporates an element of the long-wished for discussion of addiction that the character compels, and wraps that around two especially brave narrative choices, both of which are direct spoilers.
More importantly, it leads to an entirely new perspective on the character. Tony is still the glorious, stream of consciousness genius/jackass that’s been the heart of the MCU since its inception. But he’s also an increasingly tragic figure. The anxiety and PTSD that Iron Man 3 explored is a big part of his arc here, as is the long overdue teaching moment that Age of Ultron provided. Tony is a genius—and when unbound by consequences, social niceties, or morality, he’s terrifying. His support for the Sokovia Accords make perfect sense as a result, casting him more as a power-suited Robert Oppenheimer than an Elon Musk. It’s a heady cocktail of liberal guilt: the same redemptive instinct that led him to stop producing weapons and the crushing horror at how destructive he and the Avengers have been.
However, where Steve is a man defined by faith in himself and others, Tony is defined by the need for damage control. He’s proscriptive, arbitrary, and hard line. Steve listens to his colleagues; Tony tells his what to do. Where Steve leaves the movie with his faith in his choices secure, Tony leaves it with the sneaking suspicion he’s made yet another terrible mistake, even as he’s tried to do the right thing.
That moral complexity is present with every single character, on both sides. Scarlet Witch, Vision, Black Widow, and War Machine all have deeply personal, nuanced responses to the conflict—and Widow’s arc in particular adds to the increasingly massive body of evidence that she needs a solo movie of her own. However, it’s Civil War’s new arrivals Black Panther and Spider-Man that impress the most. Chadwick Boseman owns every second he’s on screen and deals with one of the most intensely personal arcs in the movie with focus, intelligence, and dignity. T’Challa feels completely different to every Avenger we’ve met to date. He’s regal without being arrogant, physical but with morality and intelligence. He’s an intensely compelling figure and a highlight of Civil War. Likewise Tom Holland’s wonderful take on Spider-Man. For the first time in modern movie history, Peter actually play as genuinely young. His combination of stream of consciousness enthusiasm and massive heart is another highlight and, like Boseman’s scene-stealing turn, promises much for his solo movie.
The plot folds each one of these personal responses together to create a story which is both intimate and the largest Marvel film to date. Everything you’ve seen in the trailers is present: the crunching fights, the huge-scale action sequences, the massive stakes. But instead of buying into the constant threat escalation most sequels (and arguably Age of Ultron) suffered from, Civil War always feels personal. Everything from frantic battlefield gambits to a final, bruised moment of kindness and hope comes directly from the characters. This is a story they drive, not a story they ride in, and it’s easily one of the strongest Marvel movies to date as a result.
And, once again, that brings us back to The Empire Strikes Back. As well as being a conclusion to the Steve Rogers trilogy, Civil War is to The Avengers what Empire Strikes Back is to A New Hope. Both first movies are about triumph against impossible odds. Both second movies are about the cost of that triumph to the individual characters and what they represent. Leia loses Han; Steve and Tony clash. The Rebellion is routed; The Avengers split down ideological lines. There’s no definitive victory in either case, but there is survival. And that’s a start.
It also promises much as we accelerate into the Marvel phase 3 endgame—much has been said about how difficult it will be to make the Infinity War movies work and it’s impossible not to look at Civil War as a proof of concept for them. The fact that it’s so good, and so satisfying on multiple levels, goes a long way towards allaying concerns about Infinity War. That isn’t to say the MCU has no major issues to address, at this point; the fact that the first non-white and non-male leads for the series don’t debut for another two and three years respectively with Black Panther and Captain Marvel is indefensible. However, Civil War not only moves the arc that will lead to them along, but does a lot to open the stage out for them and the characters that will follow. Again, just as Empire successfully expanded the universe of Star Wars, Civil War does the same for the MCU.
Civil War is an extraordinary blockbuster. It’s a massive action movie in every way, but one that is continually powered and defined by its characters. It makes intensely brave narrative choices, is darker than any Marvel movie to date, but never loses sight of the goodness in its characters or lets them off the hook for their actions. It ends definitively but in a way that does nothing but open out future movies. It’s tragic, hopeful, funny, and immensely enjoyable and has the single best Empire Strikes Back conversation in modern cinema history. Go see it, pick a side, but don’t get comfy. You may change your mind…
Alasdair Stuart is a freelancer writer, RPG writer and podcaster. He owns Escape Artists, who publish the short fiction podcasts Escape Pod, Pseudopod, Podcastle, Cast of Wonders, and the magazine Mothership Zeta. He blogs enthusiastically about pop culture, cooking and exercise at Alasdairstuart.com, and tweets @AlasdairStuart.