There’s an atmosphere of exhaustion that seems to come up anytime you talk about superhero movies. Now, eight years after Marvel’s Iron Man first introduced the world to a vast cinematic universe, we’ve all grown accustomed to a new action-packed comic book blockbuster once or even twice a year with the assumption that cinematic quality has gradually dipped with each new iteration into this universe. After seeing Captain America: Civil War, I can honestly say that this opinion has never been more untrue. A breath of fresh air into a franchise inundated with tropes and a genre fraught with shallow storytelling, the Russo Brothers-helmed Civil War is exciting, complex and well-crafted.
The movie tells a story we’ve already seen on the screen this year: The concept of two superheroes feuding over conflicting ideologies was already explored — or, at least, was attempted — in Zack Snyder’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Snyder’s big failure, however, was relying on an assumed connection between the audience and the characters in the film, rather than taking the time to develop those characters to maintain the audience’s investment in the big fight. Luckily, Anthony and Joe Russo’s sequel to 2014’s The Winter Soldier carries with it 12 movies’ worth of development to inform each character’s decisions. When Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark (Iron Man) gives Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers (Captain America) the ultimatum to place the Avengers under governmental oversight, he’s more than just an antagonist getting in Cap’s way. We’ve been with Iron Man since day one — way back in 2008 — so when he tells us his intentions are to keep his team together, we sympathize with him. We understand that he believes he’s right, because we’ve experienced the trials that led him to make these tough decisions in the first place.
The marketing of this movie tried to force audience members to choose a side, and the filmmakers have made that extraordinarily difficult. The two teams are composed of superheroes who have their own motivations for joining up with Tony or Steve. The internal conflict they’re faced with as they’re pitted against their own teammates is real and believable. Elizabeth Olson’s Wanda Maximoff (Scarlet Witch) has a particularly compelling arc. She initially sides with Tony Stark after blaming herself for several casualties that occur after a mission goes wrong, believing that she should be regulated to protect others. However, when Tony compromises her freedom for that protection, switching over to Cap’s side becomes an inevitability, a confrontation of her own fear of those who would reject her. It’s not an arbitrary decision for Wanda to flip sides; she’s not being wishy-washy. Her character is written with human emotions that confuse her and empower her, and her decisions are essential in order for the film’s plot to move forward.
Action films are typically constructed a certain way — putting emphasis on the action, of course. While Captain America: Civil War does put a heavy emphasis on the characters’ motivations and internal conflicts, it also excels at an exciting cinematic technique not often seen in action movies. Although the fight scenes are quickly cut together, much like a Bourne movie or Mission Impossible, the editing isn’t distracting, nor does it cause you to lose focus on what’s going on. Cinematographer Trent Opaloch, returning from Winter Soldier, does a great job at keeping a scene’s dramatically important elements centered in frame during almost every shot, regardless of how chaotic the scenes get. This is particularly noticeable in scenes with Black Widow and Spider-Man, played by Scarlett Johansson and Tom Holland, respectively. Their fights have the actors — or stunt persons — performing complicated acrobatic feats in which their bodies are twisted and contorted in a manner that might cause you to lose track of where they are in space and time. Opaloch is able to find a point of focus on each of these characters — usually emphasized by the color red — that helps the audience follow their movements smoothly yet rapidly. That kind of keen eye — paired with the highly versatile Alexa 65 camera — allows Civil War to feel even more lively and colorful than the pages from which this monumental narrative was lifted.
Many people have a hard time getting into superhero movies, especially Marvel movies. It’s easier to spend ten bucks on a Netflix subscription and binge-watch Daredevil or Jessica Jones than to show up to the theater twice a year or try to keep up with all the blu-rays and extra content. Missing just one of these films might cause you a great deal of confusion when approaching the next one, which can make it feel like it’s not worth the effort. For anyone who has stuck it out for these last eight years, or for anyone who feels like tackling a big Marvel marathon, Captain America: Civil War is a satisfying reward. With the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Kevin Feige has produced an epic series of carefully interwoven tales that have culminated into a compelling catalyst for a bigger war to come. Twelve movies of character development have led us to a film in which we are not just invested in both sides, we’re also confused about who to root for and wind up questioning our own ideologies. A good superhero movie will thrill you, keep you on the edge of your seat and cause you to cheer when the good guy saves the day. But a great superhero movie forces you to confront your own beliefs long after you leave the theater and gets you wishing next year would come sooner.
Patrick Garcia-Jurado is a fifth-year BFA film major at UCF.