The best superhero film of the millennium (thus far) is Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. It’s a brooding masterpiece, drenched in noir and teeming with the questions of life that we face every day. That its hero is a comic book warrior is almost irrelevant; it is a film rooted firmly in the moral battles of real life.
Captain America: Civil War is not as good as The Dark Knight, but it is closer than anything we’ve seen since 2008. It’s Marvel’s masterpiece and one of the best films of the year.
Surprised? Me too.
As some of you will know, I am one of those who believe that the superhero genre’s (especially the superhero sequel genre) dominance right now is a weakness and not a strength of the film industry. I’ve said before that the way franchises have consumed the movie market tends toward lower quality from studios and less risk tasking from filmmakers. I still believe that. I still believe that on any given day a 6th installment of a film series—especially a comic book one—is probably designed to help its audience expect less from a film.
But the great thing about movies is that sometimes, it all just falls into place. Sometimes your expectations and carefully thought out analyses get broadsided by a great story, compelling characters and bold, smart filmmakers. What’s great about movies is that sometimes you get one like Captain America: Civil War.
Civil War builds extensively on the events of Captain America: Winter Soldier. A few years ago it was probably easy for someone who had never seen an Avengers movie to jump right into the latest installment. Not anymore. If you don’t know at least the basic universe and events of the previous movies there’s practically nothing to grab onto here. None of the characters are “introduced” (save for two new superheroes, a familiar web-slinger and a prowling prince) and most of the action is thematically anchored in the past. This makes for an unusually intelligent and perceptive script, but a pre-movie refresher is mandatory.
Do I need to describe the plot? A quick glance of the trailer would at least explain the film’s title to you. The most important thing to know is that at the heart of Civil War is a question that haunts not just the Avengers but every superhero story I’ve ever heard: What about the humans who are in those buildings that always blow up? What about the faceless, nameless average folks who are not hero, villain, or rescued? Most movies in this genre either seem to pretend that these people don’t exist (the amount of vacant real estate in New York City is astonishing) or pretend that they can somehow withstand being caught in the middle of supernatural apocalypse. Civil War drops both these illusions. Like Nolan’s Dark Knight, Civil War uses the mythology of the superhero to ask moral questions of its characters, and its audience.
Should those trying to save life care about “collateral damage”? Is the power to intervene for good always tempered by the potential to do harm? Who and what determines innocence? This is normally the stuff of Oliver Stone war pictures, not comic book adventures. Here is that rarity: a superhero film willing to question itself, to not drown out thought in a torrent of CGI destruction.
As Civil War opens, the powers that be believe that the Avengers, heretofore an independent, apolitical group of an “enhanced” warriors, need governmental oversight. The debate amongst the heroes centers on whether their power to defend life is helped or hindered by submission to political bureaucracy. Some of the Avengers agree with Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) that the lost lives of innocents demands that the heroes surrender some of their autonomy; others side with Captain America (Chris Evans) that such submission will only handcuff their abilities.
This may sound like another edition of the “Hero or vigilante” trope so common in this genre. But where this theme is often treated with either glib humor (think Sam Rami’s Spider-Man trilogy) or a kind of meandering sanctimony (think Man of Steel), Civil War takes it seriously and asks the audience to as well. An early encounter between Tony Stark and the mother of a young man killed in one of the Avengers’ battles is a deeply affecting and uncomfortably realistic sequence. There’s a maturity and confidence in this writing that elevates Civil War far above the level of live action cartoon. Children will still delight in these heroes, but adults will leave thinking more seriously about a superhero’s world than perhaps they have in a while.
One thing I noticed about Civil War is that its action sequences seem more grounded and physical. I’ve seen a lot of Marvel films where the heroes defy the laws of physics in a way that doesn’t feel thrilling. Here the visual effects seem to have more humanity; the biff-bam-pow spirit of the comics is more evident than the flawlessly pixelated violence of video games. This too was true of Nolan’s Batman films (a very different sort of comic book film, of course). Except for some inexplicably jittery photography in the movie’s very first battle, Civil War features some of the best superhero battling I’ve seen in years.
Though the title says this should be Captain America’s film, it’s really another volume for the Avengers as a whole. That’s good news because Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans together are far and away the best asset this franchise has. Their rivalry is the soul of Civil War. Marvel deserves credit for not turning its cast into human placeholders for green screen, which would rob us of the serious talent on display here. The two new heroes are particularly well picked, and Martin Freeman has a great (though short) time as a government agent.
Not just another episode of digital playtime, Civil War offers the superhero genre humanity, thoughtfulness, and a higher plane of excitement than it has seen in a while. It all works, from the intelligent and even surprising screenplay by Stephen McFeely and Chris Markus, to Joe and Anthony Russo’s confident direction. If future comic book films will learn the lessons in craft found in this movie, our death-by-nostalgia Hollywood may yet have a fighting chance.