RECAP: Captain America: Civil War

Captain America: Civil War (2016): Anthony and Joe Russo

The 2014 sequel titled Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a taut political thriller that dealt with espionage and double agents. Were it not for a guy in a blue spandex suit, we might have forgotten we were watching a Marvel movie.

For Cap’s third solo turn, Marvel decided to cast Robert Downey, Jr. on the same level. The studio used a major plot line from the comics and maxed out the emotional stakes for the world’s greatest team of heroes (Justice League be damned).

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: Captain America refuses to sign away his do-gooding powers and suffers the consequences. 

Hero (4/10)

Captain America (Chris Evans) must be the hero of a Captain America movie, right? Call me unconvinced, but he’ll get the benefit of the doubt, for now.

The earth-shaking events of The Avengers: Age of Ultron resonate more than a year later in Captain America: Civil War. Cap opens the film leading a team of heroes in Lagos, where some scuzz buckets are trying to steal a biological weapon.

We know Cap as a capable leader, a front-lines guy who will scrape with anyone, a fighter who “can do this all day,” he says as he puts up his dukes. Ghosts of his past threaten to subsume him, but he’s unswayed by their plight. Cap believes, rightly, that the Avengers organized to fight the world’s troublemakers, and that they’ve succeeded.

The central conflict of Civil War involves the fallout from not only Ultron, but all of Captain America’s fights. The world wants all “Enhanced Peoples” to sign over their fighting prowess to the United Nations by agreeing to the Sokovian Accords.

Cap and Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) are haunted by ghosts of their pasts. Cap believes that he is right, and when he’s right he never backs down. UN oversight, he argues, might prevent them from going where they need to go to fight do-badders. “This job… we try to save as many people as we can. Sometimes that doesn’t mean everybody. But if we can’t find a way to live with that, next time… maybe nobody gets saved.”

Enter Bucky Barnes. The Winter Soldier is back and causing more problems. Rogers doesn’t care at all what others think–Bucky didn’t do it. The world thinks he’s bombed the UN. Nope, not to Steve, and he’s gonna find him and help him clear his name.

Rogers never shows more righteous fury than in Civil War. Whenever Barnes is mentioned, he tells Scarlet Witch that he reverts to a 16-year-old kid. He’ll never stop helping Barnes, and whether that puts him on the right side or wrong, so be it. “He’s my friend.”

Villain (7/10)

“So was I.” That’s Tony Stark, reminding Cap that he, too, was a friend. Stark and Steve Rogers lead the Avengers technologically and tactically. But the Sokovian Accords divide the two into rival camps. That these two guys opposed each other did not surprise me, because I am not immune to ad campaigns. Their stances did.

Years ago, freewheeling, egocentric Tony Stark sat before a Senate subcommittee and refused to give the US government his Iron Man technology. This is the same Tony who, in Civil War, believes in government oversight of his, and his friends’, powers.

What changed? Pepper Potts. Stark admits to Rogers that he’s signing the Accords for Pepper, so they can be together. He’s putting his ego in check for his beloved.

He also says, “If we don’t do this it will be done to us.” Stark wants to keep the band together, if under house arrest, because he prefers that to having the world break them apart.

Civil War‘s Stark is a broken man. His Iron Man suit is often damaged. Ant-Man, Winter Soldier, and Captain America each disable the suit during two fights. Stark bleeds after fighting Cap and Barnes in Russia, and he’s nearly beaten to death.

He also watches his parents murdered at the hands of the man he stands beside. How could a person not fly into a rage after that? Before seeing this footage, Iron Man arrives in Russia on his own, admitting to Barnes that he was wrong about him. When has Tony Stark ever admitted to being wrong? Civil War delivers changes to Tony Stark, a character Downey, Jr. has played FIVE times before this movie.

Stark/Iron Man in a villainous role enfeebles him, weakens him emotionally, physically, and technologically. Fighting friends doesn’t help him, and it seems that after decades of ego, his past might finally catch him.

Action/Effects (10/10)

Captain America: Civil War promised fights amongst its Avenging heroes and allies. Boy, did it deliver.

The titular action scene occurs at Berlin’s airport. Rogers has assembled Falcon, Scarlet Witch, Ant-Man, and un-retired Hawkeye to assist Barnes in their quest to clear Barnes’s name of the UN bombing. They arrive at the airport in a tiny Beetle, because it’s low profile.

After greeting each other, they hear the wail of an evacuation alarm. They know what that’s about, practically groaning in the way teenagers do when a parent interrupts a sleepover. Team Captain America walks onto the tarmac. Iron Man and War Machine fly down and beg for their surrender.

They don’t. What follows is the cataclysmic battle that engulfed nearly the entire airport. Stark has the Blacks Widow and Panther, Spider-Man, and Vision supporting him. The twelve fighters stand opposite each other on the tarmac and start running toward each other. The ones that can fly, fly (three to two, Team Iron Man).

Ant-Man rides a Hawkeye arrow into Iron Man to disable some flight mechanisms. We see mostly one-on-one fights. Iron Man and Cap spar. Hawkeye pulls punches with Black Widow, because they’re still friends. Vision flies through people.

These are the world’s best warriors. They are evenly, differently, matched. Spider-Man gets a chance to hold Cap’s shield. War Machine has some kind of sonic weapon that disables Scarlet Witch. The entire fight is the world’s most complex game of Rock, Paper, Scissors.

The surprise of the fight was Ant-Man (Paul Rudd). In his origin movie he transforms from human size to ant size and on down to infinitesimal size. But he tries a new trick in Civil War, one that might rip him in half.

Rogers and Barnes need a diversion to hijack a jet and fly to Siberia. Cue Ant-Man. Ant-sized, he runs along a stair car and leaps off as he ratchets up to 50 feet tall. He never tried that, even hinted at it, in Ant-Man, and I suspect Marvel saved that move specifically for Civil War.

Ant-Man stumbles around like a big drunk baby. Team Iron Man must contend with him exclusively. Spider-Man swings around Giant Man, wrapping his legs in webbing as he discusses “that old movie” Empire Strikes Back. Kid barely knows what an AT-AT walker is, and he considers himself a nerd.

Iron Man and War Machine fly around Giant Man like tiny snow speeders, diverted from Team Captain America’s team captain Captain America. The Blacks are not fooled, neither is Vision, who chooses to float through Giant Man instead of around him.

Widow faces down Cap. She understands that he won’t stop until the job is done. She uses some blue lasers to stun Panther long enough to allow Rogers and Barnes to escape.

The film’s crew found ways to highlight each hero’s strengths and counter them with their foils. Cap absorbed blows from the vibranium-clad Black Panther. Witch and Vision sparred in mind-laser-offs. Widow and Hawkeye, the two people without suits, without enhanced cells or limbs, punched, kicked, and bantered.

For most of the Avengers, the fight is super serious. Spider-Man is having the time of his life, doing that thing teenagers do when excited–chattering away. Hawkeye begrudgingly joins the fray, complaining all the time, like a grandpa forced into the front yard baseball game.

On the day of the fight, Ant-Man woke up in his apartment, napped in a van, met Captain America, turned 50 feet high, and was arrested. For Scott Lang, it’s as if he attended Comic-Con in the morning and was drafted to appear in an Avengers movie the same afternoon.

The characters are themselves before, during, and after the fight. That the stakes differ for each fighter ensures unique flavors with each person on the screen. Enough characters enjoy the brawl that viewers can, too, without feeling overwhelming solemnity. A smashing success.

Oh, the effects. Industrial Light & Magic rendered the airport fight. And not only the principal players. The entire airport was digitally crafted. The Russo brothers admit to scouring the Leipzig airport with LiDAR, an act that can’t sound more illegal.

Costumed Spider-Man and Black Panther are completely digital. Five characters fly. A tremendous undertaking that the ILM team perfected. Not once did I consider every single image on screen to be fake. When Giant Man crashed into a jet, sure, that was fake. But when the jet was standing there, that was fake, too? It sure was. Amazing.

Sidekicks (7/8)

Two new heroes join the Marvel Universe in Civil War. The first one we know from five previous movies–a scrawny kid from Queens named Peter Parker.

Tom Holland is literally a teenager, and he plays a younger one in his first turn as Spider-Man. Somehow Stark tracks Spidey down, flirts with his aunt, and lies about a grant.

Parker endures interrogation from Stark in his bedroom. He gives Stark the pep talk he needs. Parker believes that if you have the power to change and you don’t use it, whatever happens is your fault. That’s pretty close to “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Stark doesn’t want to hear that noise, he just wants the webslinger on his side. Of course Parker agrees. When he shows up to fight he’s as giddy as a kid sitting courtside at a Lakers game. All his heroes are there. He chats with the enemies and friends, too much. He’s funny and gleeful, exactly the opposite of his new teammate.

Chadwick Boseman dons a vibranium suit to play T’Challa, prince of Wakanda, a small central African nation flush with most of the world’s supply of vibranium. When not at the UN on diplomatic missions, he fights for justice as Black Panther.

Panther’s suit gives Iron Man a run for best looking and most intimidating. White eyes exude from behind a black suit and mask. And he has retractable claws. Vibranium claws. They are crazy scary.

His fighting skills match each Avenger, and his suit is impenetrable. He fears nothing. “How long can you keep your friend safe from me?” he asks Rogers on their way to jail. At that point he was the new King of Wakanda, so I guess he expected to go free.

Panther follows the clashing heroes to Siberia. We see him skulking around and think he’s about to pounce on Barnes, but he’s absent from the ensuing fight. It seems that he went to Siberia to capture Zemo and bring him to justice. Panther has seen what vengeance does to people, and despite his father’s death, he is through with it.

Henchmen (2/8)

Daniel Bruhl plays Colonel Zemo, a Sokovian assassin orchestrating the plot to frame and capture the Winter Soldier. All the events of Civil War are technically Zemo’s plan, but since he gets far less screen time than Iron Man, and the brainwash plot takes a back seat to the Avenger internal strife, he’s relegated to henchman status.

(As Captain America picks up his gear from Agent Carter’s niece, Sam Wilson [Falcon] and Barnes await in a small VW Beetle. Talk about taking a back seat to the Avengers, Barnes is literally in the back seat, behind an Avenger.)

Zemo watched his family die in Sokovia. They believed they were a safe distance from the city section that Ultron rose from the ground. Turns out they were wrong, as all but Zemo died.

He wants the Avengers dead. But “more powerful men than me have tried.” If he could get them to kill each other…. That’s just what he sets out to do.

What’s unclear is if Zemo knew all along the mission report of 16 December 1991, or knew only that it was important. I suppose that difference matters not, as much as his reason.

Zemo has little screen time and few lines, but in a movie as huge as Civil War, that’s probably a good thing.

Stunts (5/6)

Wow wow wow. Civil War‘s principal fighters, Captain America and Winter Soldier, can’t fly, don’t have hi-tech weapons, and don’t use mystical energy. All they do is fight, and the Russos did not ignore it.

Rogers tracks Barnes to his Bucharest apartment to escort him from the German special forces coming to kill him. Barnes magically appears behind Rogers as the latter explains the situation, a scene fraught with tension, without music. The only audio is Rogers and Barnes speaking, and Falcon speaking in Rogers’s ear, counting down the seconds until the black-clad spec ops grunts invade the flat.

When they do…all hell. Barnes uses Cap’s shield to block bullets. He even uses his metal hand. He throws a cinder block (common Bucharest interior design objects?) into a cop. A mattress, somehow, protects him from gunfire.

The action moves into the hall. The cops have a battering ram, which Barnes snatches and uses on the cops. So far he’s killed no one, as he told to Rogers moments before. The winding staircase seems full of cops. Barnes leaps down, Rogers follows, and they beat a few more guys.

Barnes then jumps down several flights, rasping a railing with his metal arm. He uses his strength to rip the railing apart like a series of twigs, turning the railing into a rope that he uses to swing himself through a window. A spectacular move of power and creativity.

Barnes finds himself on the roof of the neighboring building. He runs to escape, but–MEOW–it’s Black Panther. T’Challa believes, like most of the world, that Barnes killed his father. Also arriving is a gunship, peppering the roof with bullets. They bounce off Panther, or rather his vibranium suit, but Barnes is forced to flee.

Falcon gives Cap an assist onto the roof. Cap and Bucky run into a tunnel, followed by Panther and Falcon. All these guys are outrunning cars. That’s an impressive feat, I don’t have to tell you.

Cap decides it’s faster and more convenient to drive, so he commandeers a police SUV. Panther latches onto the back. Barnes grabs a motorcycle from a rider, flips it over and around, and hops on without stopping. That move garnered slow motion.

Cops and Cap chase the Barnes-bearing bike. Panther leaps onto the bike, is beat back, leaps onto the flying Falcon, and is thrown off after Barnes triggers an explosion. Panther runs through the fireball unharmed and is ready to kill Barnes. Cap ditches the car in a flip and rolls out, barreling into Panther, absorbing the claw strikes with his shield, which has never been damaged before.

War Machine and the rest of the cops arrive to arrest the trio, but not Panther, because he must have diplomatic immunity?

This fight and the opening scene were brutal in their quickness, force, and potential lethality.

Climax (6/6)

You’re forgiven for thinking that the titular civil war would end a movie subtitled Civil War. It certainly took the longest. But Captain America had to fight a real villain.

Zemo finally discovers the Siberian facility packed with the frozen bodies, still alive, of other Winter Soldiers. Cap, Bucky, Iron Man, and Black Panther aren’t far behind, each arriving to the party at different times, to make it seem like they didn’t come together.

Iron Man arrived on his own, without Secy. Ross knowing, and he says, about Bucky, “I was wrong.” Stark knows that Barnes didn’t blow up the UN. The three fighters enter the huge facility with the freezing chambers. Zemo is also there, and he’s been busy.

The heroes believed they were there to save the soldiers who, like Bucky, suffered from Soviet brainwashing. That’s like, all of Russia, right? He-yo. Zemo didn’t want to free the soldiers, he says, as the heroes see the entry wounds on each frozen skull. Zemo only used them as bait for the The Avengers. Bait dies.

We finally learn what Zemo wanted to know, the mission report from 16 December 1991. Rogers, Stark, and Barnes watch a security camera feed of a cold street in New York. “I know that,” Stark says.

He soon knows why. A car crashes. Barnes parks beside it. Howard Stark crawls from the car, absorbs three punches from Barnes, and dies. The Winter Soldier walks around to the passenger side and chokes the life from Tony’s mother.

No scene in any Marvel movie is as powerfully devastating. Downey crushes the rage beneath him, staying focused. The murders cause more dis-ease because they appear to be shot on 25-year-old cameras. It’s like watching an episode of COPS.

Zemo escapes to let the three of them work it out. Stark doesn’t pull punches. He tries to kill Barnes. “He killed my mom,” Stark says, with full conviction. He won’t stop, and the viewers and Rogers know it.

Barnes tries to escape the facility through an open roof. This complex might be a repurposed missile silo, though no one says so. Rogers fights Stark, disabling one foot, enough to let his friend escape. Barnes nears the roof, but Stark shuts that down with a rocket he eyeballs into the door hinge.

Eventually all three combatants are on the ground. Rogers, his shield, Barnes, and his arm chip away at Iron Man’s armor and weapons. Stark, clearly, won’t stop until Barnes dies.

Barnes is the first to bow out, after Stark destroys his metal arm. Stark and Rogers fight as the movie cuts to Zemo. He’s outside, hunched, and holding a gun. Black Panther, who was lurking around earlier, approaches him from behind.

After two-plus hours we finally learn what this is all about. Zemo’s family died in Sokovia as the Avengers fought Ultron. He sought revenge, but understood his limitations. “I couldn’t kill them,” he says, speaking while we watch, in slow motion, Iron Man absorb punches from Captain America. He would “get them to kill each other.”

Rogers goes down, bloody. Stark is ready to end the fight, probably to kill Barnes. Rogers recovers long enough to send Stark into a concrete wall. Rogers mounts Stark and wails on his mask with the shield again and again until it cracks open. Rogers lifts the shield one final time, and briefly you fear he will kill Stark. He smashes the shield on the suit’s arc reactor, destroying it.

Rogers helps Barnes limp away. “My father made that shield,” Stark says. Rogers drops the shield, claw-marked, which occupies the entire frame.

The fighting juuuust avoids going over the top. I counted three moments when I thought the fight was done. The emotional weight of Iron Man and Captain America wailing on each other, nearly to death, resonates. A great conclusion to a terrific film.

Jokes (2/4)

Civil War is as heavy as comic movies get. But “comic” remains in the description. Even Civil War is funny. At the airport Spiderman is just happy to be there. He chats all the time. Falcon tells him that’s there’s not usually so much talking in a fight. Spiderman was absolutely charming in his teenage fear of homework and Aunt May.

Iron Man calls Barnes “Manchurian Candidate” in an attempt to calm him. Downey, Jr. is an actor who can’t help himself. That attitude has allowed him to help himself to as much money as he wants to play Stark/Iron Man. Downey again charms in his staccato speech patterns and try-to-keep-up speed.

Thank goodness the filmmakers stuck some levity in this movie. At nearly two-and-a-half hours, Civil War was always in danger of toppling from its weighty issues. The jokes lightened the load.

Setting (3/4)

Credit to the filmmakers for using actual places in Civil War. I loved the aesthetic of putting a place name in large white letters on screen, filling the frame. Credit for just using city/borough names. Lagos is the largest city in the largest country in Africa, and it does not get a country indicator.

Berlin, London, Bucharest, Vienna and Queens are all locations in the movie. If that sounds like a set list for a Bond, Mission Impossible or Bourne movie, that’s no accident. Captain America is a series in the long tradition of spy thriller, and Civil War falls in line.

Locations within cities are bland and unmemorable. Lagos is not a pristine landscape of green parks and labyrinthine rivers. It’s got slums. Barnes’s Romanian flat is as bare as flats get–his mattress doesn’t even have sheets.

The biggest fight took place on an airport tarmac, one of the most placeless human environments. The climactic battle occurred on a brutalist concrete ledge that screamed John Le Carre.

Set designers evoked the personality-free architecture of the ’70s and ’80s, allowing, forcing, viewers to focus on the character battles. No turning away here. Colors are practically bled from the screen. Remember the verdant forests from The First Avenger? It’s only squalor in Civil War, and it works.

Commentary (2/2)

Central to Civil War is the question: should those with special powers do what they want or kow-tow to the will of the public?

Steve Rogers, a man who always stood up for the little guy, believes in freedom of action. This coming from a guy who is actually a captain in the US Army. Tony Stark spent years cultivating a personal and corporate brand that loved to thumb its nose at the world as much as it loved building toys.

That these two would oppose each other philosophically did not surprise me. Which side they chose did. However, Civil War convinced me of their choices.

Stark is visited by the mother of child who died in the Sokovia attacks. He cares a lot about that boy, less about those who were saved.

Rogers hears about Charles Spencer, the boy, and it moves him not. He decided long ago that bullies have to be stopped, and there will be consequences. He’s a child of World War II, and that war was the first to teach us that there are no more civilians; everyone is a combatant.

Rogers fears that registration will handcuff the Avengers’ crime-fighting abilities. He’s certainly right. Stark believes that the world will force the Avengers to handcuff themselves later if not sooner. One hand on the wheel is better than none at all. He’s certainly right.

Both characters make persuasive arguments. I side with Stark. Specially skilled people without oversight tend to do what they want, good or bad. Rogers might be right that he is uncompromisable, but is Stark? Hulk isn’t. Is Black Widow? Rogers doesn’t say and doesn’t seem to care.

Offensiveness (0/-2)

An African woman actually speaks a line in a comic book movie. Has this ever happened? Black Panther, Falcon, and War Machine are heroes with baller suits. And although Falcon and War Machine are technically sidekicks, there’s no reason to believe it’s because of their martial skills. It’s probably their marketability; their buddies came first.


  • Few actors could portray a bureaucrat less frighteningly than Martin Freeman.
  • That code book was nearly a dead ringer for Mao’s Book of Quotations.
  • (1) Rogers, unarmed but using his guns, holds back a helicopter.
  • I am still confused about Vision. I know that’s intentional. Vision seems to have unlimited powers, save for Scarlet Witch’s mind lasers.
  • Calling Empire Strikes Back and old movie was a nice joke, but at 36 years, I think it qualifies as old.
  • Why does Vision wear human clothes?

Summary (49/68): 72%

Marvel laid the groundwork for Civil War way back in the ancient times of 2014, when Bucky Barnes went rogue. Every movie since then was a step in the road to Civil War.

And what a destination. Captain America: Civil War is Marvel’s best movie to date. The stakes were never higher, the action never better. What more can you ask for?