For the past eight years, Marvel has been teaching a clinic in how to make superhero flicks.
From Iron Man to Guardians of the Galaxy to Thor, the company has honed a rhythm and a pattern that encourage consistency; the result is that none of the studio's films, regardless of who's in the director's chair, will ever stray too far from the crisp, almost bookish Marvel formula (good guys don't know they're good guys; good guys squabble; jokes are made; bad guys acquire devastating weapon; more jokes are made; good guys come together to defeat the Big Bad, etc.).
The most common criticism of this approach is that the company's blockbuster behemoths come away from this formula feeling clinical, that they're soulless, corporate exercises obscured by flash and gloss. And we're all too busy grading on a curve to notice.
After seeing Captain America: Civil War, which is perhaps the most quintessentially Marvel movie about the most perfect and soulless superhero in the company's war chest, I say: Fuck that noise.
Directed by brothers Joseph and Anthony Russo (who also directed Marvel's second Captain America film, 2014's The Winter Soldier), Civil War is a crackling bundle of celluloid that reminds us of just how dazzling superheroes can be. They have the unique ability to bring us sweet joy, to make us question our own morality, and to leave us in sheer awe. There is a moment in the new film where Chris Evans's Captain America bicep-curls a helicopter. A man bicep-curled a helicopter, and it touched my soul.
If loving Captain America: Civil War is to love a soulless beast, then just leave me here. Let me lie back and dream of the English countryside as Chris Evans bicep-curls me into oblivion. And don't wait up.
This is one of the best movies Marvel has created.
Civil War says it's about politics, but it's really about friendship
Civil War is loosely wrapped around a political skeleton: After cities like New York, Washington, DC, and Lagos, Nigeria, are caught in the crossfire between good and evil, Captain America and his fellow Avengers are given a choice: Either sign away their autonomy to the United Nations, or retire. It's an incredibly difficult decision to make, since Captain America and his friends are professional fighters; it's not like Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) can just start selling yoga pants at Lululemon or Falcon (Anthony Mackie) will be just as happy teaching diners how to construct lettuce wraps at P.F. Chang's.
What happens when the only reason these people have for living is taken away?
Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) sees regulation as a necessity, the only thing that separates superheroes from supervillains. Captain America wants no part of that. Cap believes that becoming a free agent for the United Nations means fighting other people's wars.
But at its core — without giving too much away, because the plot is incredibly intricate and riddled with spoilers — Captain America: Civil War is about friendship. Peel back the layers of sparkle and shine, the muscles on top of muscles, the zipping around through the sky, and all the brutal fights, and you've got a movie that earnestly believes our friendships have the power to define us, and to reveal humanity at its best.
It also dares to ask: How much is one bromance worth?
Chris Evans is a bona fide star
Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America, started off as a fascinating, faintly plastic character in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), graduated to comedic foil in The Avengers (2012), transitioned into a man out of time and place in The Winter Soldier (2014), and became a de facto leader at the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). Civil War represents the summation of Rogers's journey; in the four years or so since he's been thawed from his deep freeze, he's finally figured out who he is.
And Evans has evolved right alongside his character, becoming a fine actor who easily holds his own against Downey as Iron Man, Civil War's main jerk/villain.
Evans's role is less flashy than Downey's. His dialogue isn't peppered with one-liners or doused in sardonic humor. His most emotional scenes sometimes feature only him and his chiseled jaw. His character, Steve Rogers, is the kind of man who probably spends his days off just driving along an open road in a Volvo, 5-star safety rating and all, a mere 7 miles an hour above the speed limit.
Yet Evans manages to infuse Rogers with a sense a dignity and humanity that makes the film work and gives the audience confidence that they've picked the right man.
This entire movie depends on viewers taking Rogers's side and agreeing with him that superheroes should be free to run fast and loose despite the fact that letting them operate unregulated would never happen in real life. There's no way anyone would want superheroes, some of whom could level an entire city in an afternoon, running around without being subject to any laws. Just look at the way so much of the world stops and drops what they're doing whenever North Korea so much as musters up a fart.
There's also the fact that Sebastian Stan's Bucky Barnes is basically the romantic lead of this film opposite Rogers. Rogers would do anything for his BFF Barnes, including breaking international law and risking precious things like the lives of his fellow Avengers. And Rogers's love for Barnes, just like his desire for unregulated freedom, must be compelling and convincing for Civil War to succeed.
Not to worry: Buck and Cap's relationship is the one true bromance that every other bromance should be judged against.
A misstep here or an unconvincing performance from Evans there, and Civil War would begin to crumble, because Iron Man has logic on his side. But it never does, because Evans is determined to make a believer out of you. In fact, there's never a moment where you'll think Rogers might be wrong. And that's all a testament to Evans's strength and evolution as an actor in this franchise.
Spider-Man and Black Panther are fantastic
Some parts of Civil War are so perfect, they almost feel mean.
It's like the creative team at Marvel got an early look at Batman v Superman and took it upon themselves to show the executives at Warner Bros. how to make a superhero-versus-superhero film built on many of the same themes as Batman v Superman but that isn't a dark hurricane of disappointment and stink.
The two films share similar parallels (see: the importance of parents and billionaire antiheroes) and themes (see: accountability, heroism, etc.). Both movies also feature the introduction of new heroes. But Marvel is just operating at a different level.
Spider-Man's introduction is a testament to that.
Played by Tom Holland (a genetically engineered human who's seemingly spliced from the best parts of Jamie Bell and Josh Hutcherson), Spider-Man has once again undergone a reboot (Holland is the third Spider-Man in 14 years). But in Holland's winsome hands, and under the joyous, self-aware supervision of the Russo brothers, it's one that you hope will stick. Because, as Civil War proves, it's impossible not to smile when you see Spider-Man done right.
The other hero making his appearance in Civil War is T'Challa, a.k.a. Black Panther, played by Chadwick Boseman. It's not an easy role, as Boseman has to muscle through a Wakandan accent (Wakanda is a fictional African country in the Marvel universe). But the actor is equal parts graceful and regal, showing off why Marvel is granting him a solo Black Panther movie in 2018.
If we're being cynical, Spider-Man and Black Panther's scenes in Civil War could be seen as Marvel's marketing pushes for their respective upcoming solo films (Spider-Man: Homecoming is scheduled for a 2017 release). And make no mistake, these two characters' introductions, along with a giddy cameo from Paul Rudd's Ant-Man, are filmic detours, and the result is that Civil War doesn't feel as tightly scripted or cogent as The Winter Soldier (which is technically the better movie).
But the highs that Spider-Man, Black Panther, and many of the other Avengers provide — Mackie, Olsen, Scarlett Johansson (as Black Widow), and Paul Bettany (as Vision) are all very solid in this film — are powerful in a way we haven't seen since the first Avengers movie.
Civil War has genre-defining fight scenes
When people pay to see superhero movies, they're hoping to see moments they thought could only exist as static, 2D comic illustrations — Scarlet Witch's red bolts of energy, Vision's laser beams, Vibranium-induced concussions — depicted onscreen in dynamic live-action sequences. And Civil War's fight scenes are arguably the best (I'll have to watch The Avengers again to make sure) of any that Marvel has ever created.
Under the Russos' direction, fight choreographers Sam Hargrave and James Young have created absolute magic. The movie plays with, leans into, and bends the laws of physics in such a distinct way that if you were to strip away the characters' costumes and just have stunt doubles in potato sacks go through the motions of each fight scene, you'd still be able to tell the scenes belonged to Captain America: Civil War.
Hargrave and Young display a deep understanding of each character's powers, creating scenes where those powers collaborate and fuse together in innovative ways. A sizzling opening sequence featuring Falcon, Scarlet Witch, and Captain America is just a hint of what's to come: an Avenger-on-Avenger melee that is, without a doubt, the best single fight scene to happen in any Marvel movie to date and totally befitting of the title Civil War.
Civil War isn't perfect. But it doesn't matter.
There are some spots where the film's political angle and its characters' internal logic don't make sense. (For example, I have a difficult time believing that Civil War's iterations of Peter Parker and Black Widow would be so quick to sign free agent contracts with the government.) There are also times where the film is so busy and jam-packed with characters that it wastes too much time catching up with each one. And there might be three too many self-aware Marvel jokes.
But ultimately, Civil War combines everything we cherish about superheroes — their strength, their powers, their goodness, their poreless skin and square jaws — and then elevates it to a higher level than I thought Marvel movies could reach. If Civil War is now the new standard for superhero movies, take my money and let everyone know I'm Team Cap.
Captain America: Civil War opens in theaters this weekend.