Finally, there are consequences, real, deep-set consequences intrinsic to the universe Marvel has crafted over the last eight years. New purpose has been given to the characters who, previously allies, now find themselves opponents with differing ideals. Characters here are not faced with good and evil, but instead with opposing ideas of politics, friendship and morality.
“Captain America: Civil War,” the third movie headlined by the old-fashioned captain, places character motivations and reactions on a scale weighed equally both ways. The dynamics shift suddenly but smoothly, so that audiences do not feel cheated by a narrative slip or an unforeseen event. Depending on whatever viewpoint a viewer takes, this may be a cast of heroes fighting, ideologies battling or a simple battle between good and evil. Take a pick or not, in the end the three choices are not much different.
After eight years of Marvel Cinematic Universe building, the earthly destruction of several large cities wrought in nearly every installment has finally reached a pinnacle. The near-catastrophic destruction of New York, Washington D.C., Sokovia and, most recently, Lagos, has the world and its governments questioning the rights of a privately-operated group of godly humans and, well, actual gods to work without government approval. One would think this would have been deliberated earlier, but apparently the world needed massive destruction several times over to open its eyes.
The solution, of course, is political management for the Avengers team. Beneath the watch of the United Nations, a new set of laws would attempt to relegate the team to only the most serious of brawls. Here begins the rift, separated not so much as the Republican and Democratic parties of our own system, but by an ideological divide great enough to make former friends bicker. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) feels the need to sign the new accords into effect, himself recently motivated by being personally blamed by a grieving mother for the loss of a son who perished in the Avenger’s Sokovia battle. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) does not trust any government to control the Avengers, his doubts still strong after the events of “The Winter Soldier.” Although the two motivations are made clear early on, the ongoing story and history of this universe create different facets of purpose to the overarching discord.
The conflict rises when a bomb goes off at a U.N. meeting in Vienna and blame is placed on Roger’s childhood friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan). Even while the world deems Barnes a criminal, Rogers sides with and protects the accused man. Captain America is now suddenly an enemy of the world’s governments, and may be one of the film’s antagonists, but that depends entirely on your beliefs and what you have invested in these characters.
The narrative approach of heroes combating heroes raises the stakes of “Civil War” much higher than any previous Marvel film. These are not our beloved heroes battling the typically-faceless Marvel baddie –though that is present here, too– but the faces of Marvel heroes we have come to identify and sympathize with through the years are battering the other heroes we’ve come to love. With that, the consequences of every blow and every revelation feel more genuine. The build-up here pre-dates the movie’s two-and-a-half hour long run time. In many ways, we have lived with these characters, even idealized or pretended to be them, so to see them battle and not know who to side with creates the movie’s most puzzling conundrum.
Along with the old, familiar leads, several newcomers arrive who are given ample time in the spotlight. Chief among them are Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland). Both are incorporated smoothly into the narrative, enough so that you do not feel like you are gorging yourself on the already oversized feast of superhero action. Holland must be praised additionally as his Spider-Man is the most respectable element of the story. Is it a coincidence that the best rendition of the web-head comes after Sony gave his rights away?
What has always been the biggest crutch of Marvel’s heroes is that it seems they do not care about the dire stakes around them during battle. That has always been these movies’ biggest weaknesses, as a climax is reached where civilians perish during the final battle, and all that the Avengers’ members can deflect tragedy with are cheesy one-liners and a wink at the camera. Maybe that is why so many people in this film find the Avengers apathetic to their disasters and strife.
What we have here is much more morose and emotional. When Captain America and Iron Man clash in the final moments, there is only heartache to feel. This may be Marvel’s least humorous outing, but that does not harm the film in the slightest. Yes, there are jokes, but this climax and consequences feels very real. Once the two leads commence in their final showdown, the audience absorbs their every blow. There is no time to breathe in relief, as the tension is not broken by a witticism meant to tell you everything will be okay. All there is to feel is the merciless clash of iron, vibranium and flesh, each a reminder that this moment is not to be taken lightly.
“Civil War” reaches a promise that some may find a threat. What happens here will shake the MCU up, or at least that is the hope. By the end, allegiances are broken, and friendships and ideologies are crushed. Like the war it is named after, there are victories, too, but nothing that says this world and these characters will be the same.
Maybe that is why heroes truly clash, not just to tell the same story on the same stage, but to forge new narratives. With a steady lineup of films to follow over the next few years, we as an audience can only hope these consequences do not leave this genre stagnant; but hope, instead, that the old, clichéd world of superheroes can, actually, change.