Captain America: Civil War is the beginning of a huge structural shift in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As the beginning of Phase Three, Civil War has the job of introducing the qualities that distinguish this movie and all subsequent movies of this Phase from the previous two. Phase One consisted of movies with the purpose of introducing the three core Avengers: Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America, as well as their sidekicks, love interests, villains, and overall worlds. This culminated in The Avengers, the first and most important superhero team-up movie until Infinity War is released at the end of this month. Phase One was mostly successful: each of Iron Man, Thor, and Cap’s intros are still well thought of, The Avengers made over a billion dollars, and no-one cares about the missteps. Phase Two was a little trickier.
For Phase Two, the writers and directors at Marvel had to forget all about the recent team-up and continue their hero’s single stories, while also introducing some wilder ideas, which paid off handsomely in the form of Guardians of the Galaxy. Again, this phase culminated in an Avengers movie: Age of Ultron slipping in just before Scott Lang left prison. Ultron perfectly encapsulates Phase Two’s strengths and weaknesses. Each character progressed in their own movies, but when Ultron came calling, they fell back into old patterns. The only character that had any major progression was Tony. The MCU had a problem, a problem that Scott hilariously pointed out in Ant-Man. When any kind of shit goes down, why not call the Avengers?
This is where Phase Three finds a solution. Phase Two, due to many studio-based reasons no doubt, felt like it should be keeping these characters apart. With Civil War and each Phase Three movie, except Doctor Strange (with an origin story still to get out of the way), the MCU became more integrated and much more willing to take risks.
Like most of the MCU’s risks, it’s hard to remember that they were risks in the first place. Captain America: Civil War, to me at least, is the most TV-like chapter of the MCU so far. You don’t have to squint hard to see the MCU template shares a lot in common with most TV shows, and Phase Three feels like season three of this cinematic TV show. Keeping with this view, Civil War does what all great ensemble TV shows do: it takes it cast of characters, some who we have spent years watching, some only recently introduced, and tears them apart.
Unlike Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, Captain America Civil War had a compelling reason for our heroes to fight. Having Cap and Tony on opposing sides of an ideological war isn’t out of nowhere. Since they met in The Avengers, these two have always been at loggerheads about something.
Tony’s position has been seeded from his first appearance. He is responsible for causing nearly as much damage as he’s averted with Ultron, the arms race caused by the very existence of the Iron Man suit, and all the years of profiteering before the events of the first movie. To say that he has some regrets is an understatement. When he tells the team that they need to be put in check he really means himself, and as the hero that kicked off this cinematic universe in the first place, this is the most interesting position for him to be in.
Steve Rogers is a whole different ball game. This version of Captain America has spent most of his time fighting against governments that want to control the world, basically Hydra’s many forms, but also taking on beings, like Loki or Ultron, who think they know what’s best for mankind. Tony is in that position, in Cap’s mind. This division leads to some incredible action, though the Russo Brothers don’t thrill me as much with their expanded set pieces as they did with the more realistic (for a superhero movie) The Winter Soldier.
Civil War isn’t a perfect movie. It’s a little too stuffed with characters, all of which have to have their own plots. But most are just functional. The decision to make Bucky the MacGuffin of the movie was a shrewd one as his past actions, much like Tony’s drive the movie’s central theme. Even with heroes battling heroes, and the pros and cons of governmental oversight, Civil War’s main theme is loss. The heroes lose their unity, and Tony’s grief over Bucky killing his parents, put together with Cap’s foreknowledge of this, cuts deeper than any Sokovia Accords. Rhodey’s loss of mobility and Team Cap’s loss of their freedom irreparably changes the face of the MCU. Steve’s decision to oppose the Accords in the first place is driven by the loss of Peggy and the legacy he left behind.
Moving away from the leads, let’s go back to Civil War’s resemblance to a TV series by thinking about backdoor pilots. The definition of a backdoor pilot is using an episode of a show to introduce a new or existing character within that universe with a view of spinning that character off in a show of their own. The MCU does this all the time with its use of Easter Eggs and post-credits sequences, but Civil War goes full on with the introduction of Black Panther and an extended cameo for the MCU-approved new version of Spiderman. Both of these characters, perhaps better than most of the supporting cast, encompass civil War’s theme of loss. T’Challa is introduced only moments before his father is killed: which makes him King of Wakanda, and the next Black Panther. His character arc is the most defined of the supporting players, as he learns the value of justice over revenge when he stops Zemo from killing himself. Peter Parker’s arc is less defined, but we all know why he became Spiderman – we’ve had five movies about it before this, so the Russo’s don’t waste time telling us that uncle Ben died for a third time this century. Admittedly, this makes Peter’s role in the movie more showy than pivotal, though it does seed the mentor/mentee relationship with Tony for his own solo movie.
Ticking the Romance Box
So, Sharon is Peggy’s niece, and Steve seems to be into that. I’ll be honest, this is a real contender for the worst romance in the entire MCU. Even Hayley Atwell, Peggy Carter herself, thought this was icky.
The Wasted Villain Corner
This feature feels moot when considering Zemo. Since Civil War is about hero on hero action, it’s not surprising that Zemo gets lost in the mix. Still, he is played by the excellent Daniel Bruhl, and his motivations sync up with the themes, which is a lot more than I can say for Lex Luthor in a similar position.
Unlike most MCU fans, I don’t think Captain America: Civil War is a masterpiece of the genre, but it is an important step forward for the MCU. It shows a willingness to shake things up, it integrates its future heroes into the plot rather than bringing them out for a distracting cameo, and it put an end to the idea that every character has to stay in their own franchise until and Avengers movie.
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By Kevin Boyle
(header image courtesy of Activist Boost)