Why Captain America: Civil War Worked So Well
Earlier this year, Marvel released the third Captain America film, and the third Avengers film: Captain America: Civil War. This project had an enormous amount of challenges to tackle, and accomplished all of them with grace. While other films like Suicide Squad imploded under the sheer amount characters they were dealing with, Civil War managed to handle its story with skill, and set up future Marvel events. Key in Civil War’s success was its ability to balance the numerous plotlines and story arcs that crowded the script, and once a correct balance had been achieved the film was able to properly introduce psychological questions and emotional turmoil. Spoilers follow.
The challenge in achieving a decent balance cannot be overstated. Even excluding Hulk and Thor, the film had to handle ten pre-existing heroes, the introduction of Black Panther and Spider-Man, and the inclusion of a new villain. Films like Spider-Man 3 crashed and burned with a total number of three villains, and Civil War had many more characters to contend with.
In order to avoid this fate, Civil War had to prioritize its characters while making sure that none of them were left behind. The Russo brothers, Marcus, and McFeely decided who their main characters were, and then gave the remaining roster fantastic, although short, moments where they were able to shine. The men behind the camera were able to solve a problem that has alluded many directors for years, and for that alone they should be commended.
An example of their technique can be seen when examining Ant-Man’s role throughout the film. Scott Land occupies a very small role throughout Civil War, but his most impactful moment is among the film’s best. During the airport battle scene, Ant-Man turns into Giant-Man and fights with characters like War Machine as if they were toys. This scene was not essential to grasping the philosophical arguments in the film, but it was a fantastic moment nonetheless, and that is why Ant-Man was so beloved after Civil War was released. Not every character is essential to the theme or the plot, but nearly every character is essential to the film’s quality, something the directors and writers seemed very aware of.
The introductions of Black Panther and Spider-Man show this same technique. Every scene the two characters were given was important. Nothing was wasted, unlike in Iron Man 2 where multiple scenes were dedicated to discussions regarding Vanko’s bird. This allowed the audience to quickly get a sense of who these characters were, and their relevance to the story.
Take Black Panther’s opening scene for example. T’Challa starts off in a short meeting with Black Widow where he establishes that he is not fond of diplomacy, before having a quick conversation with his father T’Chaka, revealing their intense dynamic. Once that conversation has ended, T’Chaka is killed in an explosion and T’Challa helplessly cradles his dead father in his arms. T’Challa soon learns that the Winter Soldier, Bucky Barns, is suspected of detonating the bomb, and in response tells Black Widow “Don’t bother Ms. Romanoff, I’ll kill him myself.”
All of this is established in around four minutes. In four minutes, Civil War was able to establish a character the audience could connect with and understand, an accomplishment that many directors never achieve even when given hours of screen time.
It does help that Captain America: Civil War was the 13th addition to the MCU, rather than the second or third, as many of the characters had already been introduced and fleshed out. The writers, directors, and the audience already had a clear sense of who these characters were, so when crafting the story, the Russo brothers had more time to focus on the underlying themes and character motivations instead of structuring a cohesive and balanced plot.
Although being tasked with introducing two Avengers instead of ten eased the burden of storytelling, the men behind the camera should still be praised for their tremendous work in managing so many superheroes. And with the character work completed, the Russo brothers, Marcus, and McFeely were able to produce a layered and complex film.
Few would say that The Avengers or Ant-Man are complex, deep pictures (although I love both, and acknowledge that both have tremendous character work for the most part), but Civil War provided a great sampling of the dark and intellectual storytelling that the MCU films are capable of.
Civil War certainly boasts its fair share of humor and brightness, as nearly all of Spider-Man and Ant-Man’s scenes provided moments of fantastic comedy. But central to the film’s story is an intricate question: should the Avengers answer to a government?
Following the aftermath of yet another catastrophe involving the presence of the Avengers, one hundred and seventeen countries join together in order to draft the Sokovia accords, which states that the Avengers can only operate under the supervision of a United Nations panel. Tony Stark, wrapped in the guilt of creating Ultron, supports the accords, while Steve Rogers, having just witnessed the collapse of Shield in order to weed out Hydra, opposes the document.
While this question may have a correct answer in reality, the film decides not to directly provide it. Instead, it has two sides argue and debate, using sound and rational arguments. Captain America argues that signing the accords strips the Avengers of their control and puts the world in greater danger, but Stark points out that the Avengers have done their fair share to destabilize the world as well. Looking back at the MCU, Stark’s arc reactor technology led to Iron Monger and Whiplash, Banner’s blood led to the Abomination, Thor brought down Loki from Asgard, Hank Pym’s technology led to yellow jacket, and Stark and Banner’s collaboration led to the creation of the nearly world ending A.I.: Ultron.
Looking back again reveals that Thor saved the world from the Dark Elves, Captain America’s actions stopped the Red Skull and saved the eastern seaboard, Shield acted as a safe harbor for Hydra and led to the near end of the free world, and the World Security Council nearly dropped a nuclear bomb on Manhattan to save it from aliens…which makes no objective sense.
Both sides argue their points, and the film never draws a true conclusion, which in turn allows the audience to question it for themselves and arrive at their own beliefs.
Captain America: Civil War is not the only story in the comic book landscape to bring up this question. Batman v. Superman brought it up earlier this year, the Civil War comic brought it up a decade ago, and Watchmen brought it up all the way back in 1986.
What sets Civil War apart is its more balanced approach to the question, as opposed to the comic which favored Captain America, and the emotional conflicts driving the story.
After being framed for detonating a bomb at a UN meeting, the entire planet turns its attention to finding the Winter Soldier. Rogers, who has been loyal to Barns since his childhood, stands up for his friend even before he knows he is innocent. This dynamic adds a layer of complication to the Avengers’ situation, as Barns, Rogers, Wilson, and T’Challa are all arrested after a conflict in Bucharest.
The tension between Stark and Rogers begins to increase after the fiasco, and shortly after imprisonment the Winter Soldier escapes confinement with the aid of Zemo. Zemo, who I will return to later, had retrieved the handbook on the Winter Soldier, and managed of gain control of Bucky’s mind. Captain America, along with Falcon, chases after his friend, and the three soon become fugitives from the law. Barns warns of even more Winter Soldiers lurking in Siberia, and in response Rogers gathers a team.
Cap’s team calls in Ant-Man, Scarlet Witch, and Hawkeye. Stark, pursuing his friend, gains the support of Black Panther, Spider-Man, Vision, War Machine, and Black Widow, and the two sides meet at the now famous airport battle scene. Although this twenty-minute-long scene is the visual highlight of the film, it is not the true climax.
Stark’s side wins, but Rogers and Barns escape. Stark soon finds them in Siberia, and Zemo, who was responsible for framing the Winter Soldier to begin with, reveals that Barns was responsible for the deaths of Howard and Maria Stark. Iron Man becomes enveloped in rage, and attempts to kill Barns, fighting off Captain America at the same time. It is soon revealed that Zemo’s family was killed during the battle in Sokovia, and that he had been seeking revenge against the Avengers ever since.
The true brilliance of Civil War is on full display here. Tony Stark supports the Sokovia accords, but the document essentially treats the Avengers as the Winter Soldier: a powerful force under the government’s control. The accords allow for the corrupt use of the most powerful individuals on the planet.
Steve Rogers opposes the accords, but his opposition essentially makes him Zemo: an outlaw who answers to no one, seeking justice as he sees fit. The independence of the Avengers opens the doors to future injustice, because nothing is set in place to prevent the rise of an unstoppable force.
Here, Civil War managed to be intellectual, emotional, and unbiased all at once. Not only do you feel for the main characters, but you can understand their logic, and more importantly, you recognize that their logic is sound.
This balancing act of characters, intellectual themes, and emotional arcs made Captain America: Civil War fantastic and prevented it from imploding. The film very easily could have become Spider-Man 3, but due to well-structured storytelling, it was anything but.