This is what the thematic material of Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice looks like when it’s injected with, you know, joy, emotional coherence, and narrative thrust. Not that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is without its own problems, there’s the frequent lack of prominent characters of color, female heroes leading the way, and a general sameness in structure for the films. Captain America: Civil War sets to push those boundaries and limitations, while never completely transcending the thick borders mastermind Kevin Feige has placed around the franchise, Civil War emerges as the best work from the studio, and still the most satisfying Avengers film, without actually calling itself Avengers.
Let’s start with the major trapping of Civil War, and all of superhero cinema really, which is its dependence on mass collateral damage. The plot machinations of Civil War depend on exploring and questioning the constant destruction of property and untold civilian causalities as a result, then breaking away from these lip-serviced thoughts to demonstrate more technical wizardry in mass destruction and rubbery bodies thrashing into each other.
While this persistently undermines the general dramatic tension and narrative thrust, Civil War is still continually engaging. The great thing about the Captain America films is that they simply have to preserve him from movie to movie to ensure that he’ll be around for the next Avengers film, and they’re frequently free from the painted corners of, say, Iron Man 2 or Thor: The Dark World which shoved too much extraneous narrative threads from other sub-franchises. Civil War is a meeting of them all, with Cap leading the way, as it should be.
What’s shocking is how smartly and effectively this film introduces our third go around of Spider-Man, the first one to appear like a believable high schooler and successfully translate the lovable smartass from the comics to the big screen, and our introduction to Black Panther, which just had me ready and waiting for his 2018 solo film. These two slip into the established narratives with ease, providing unique voices and much-needed levity to some of the darker twists and turns.
I know that Joss Whedon was proclaimed the savior of superhero cinema with Avengers, but the most successful writer(s)-director(s) for the MCU has been the Russos. They find a way to marry humor, heart, thrills, spectacle, and quiet moments of character development into compelling popcorn entertainments. The Winter Soldier was one of the best comic book movies, and Civil War takes that platform and builds something bigger and better off of it.
The long list of names, faces, powers, and locations can be overwhelming for the uninitiated, but the Russos find a way to make decades of material into digestible chunks. They manage to make the obligatory beats into thrilling moments. Look, we all knew that another Spider-Man could be met with groans and eye-rolls, but Tom Hollander’s gee-whiz approach to the role, complete with a never-ending series of snarky comments, makes him a rooting interest.
Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther practically steals the movie from all of the long-running establishment, finding the grace and regality in the role. Hopefully his movie star charisma will lead to a career rivaling the likes of Denzel Washington. Thought was put into how to utilize these characters, and while some still get the short-end (Hawkeye and Scarlet Witch deserve more to do), they still manage to get brief moments to shine.
What smacks you in the face about Civil War is how closely it follows many of the same beats and themes of DC’s Batman vs Superman, but how it contrasts what that film did poorly. My god, imagine it, a film bringing together the titans of a comic publisher’s body of work, and finding the fun in it! Imagine that! And I didn’t even hate Batman vs Superman, so imagine how those that did must feel watching this film.
Marvel still has a long way to go in catching up with DC’s representation of minority characters (check the line-up of Suicide Squad, and the makeover of Aquaman) and female-led vehicles (next year will finally see Wonder Woman getting a solo film after decades of development hell), but Marvel’s ability to coherently tell a story that isn’t lackluster in live-action is unrivaled by its major competitor.
Now, if only Marvel could do something to make Thor’s solo films as interesting as the source material….