About midway through Captain America: Civil War, Steve Rogers (played again by Chris Evans) is involved in an impromptu make-out session on the side of a German highway. (I won’t say with whom, as to avoid those dreaded spoilers.) After, he looks back at the beat-up Volkswagen Beetle he’s been driving. Inside of the VW are his friends, Sam Wilson (a.k.a. Falcon, played by Anthony Mackie) and Bucky Barnes (a.k.a. The Winter Soldier, played by Sebastian Stan). Sam and Bucky don’t get along too well – Sam and Bucky had just been bickering about the legroom in the car – but both stop long enough to give Steve that “Oh, yeah” look of approval. Everyone in the audience I saw it with laughed.
This is the point in this piece where I mention Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. I didn’t really want to, but it’s incredible how watchable Captain America: Civil War is and how dull Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice turned out to be when you consider that both movies have pretty similar core plots: Superheroes fighting against each other, a mysterious figure behind the scenes pulling the strings … and, remarkably, a superhero’s mother plays a large role in both films. Yet Marvel has this down. Marvel knows how to move the story along and keep us entertained. Marvel knows how to trick us into liking these characters and caring about what happens to them. (That trick is by making them “likable.”)
Sure, Marvel is marketing Captain America: Civil War as “dark,” but it’s not “dark.” “Dark” is boring. Everyone thinks they want a dark film because the word “dark” sounds cool. So pretty much every movie that falls into the nerd genre will be marked as dark. Go back and look it up for any movie. “Oh, it will be dark.” That’s pretty much every director or cast member talking about his or her next superhero film. The trick is not actually releasing a “dark” movie. Hey, I’ll hand it to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, it’s kind of a dark movie. It’s so dark I almost fell asleep.
The go-to “dark” movie is The Empire Strikes Back. (Which is referenced in Captain America: Civil War in the best possible way, which made me very happy.) The Empire Strikes Back isn’t “dark,” it’s just “good.” There’s plenty of humor. And then bad things happen to characters we care about. I wish we could ban the word “dark.” It’s a crutch. Do you want to watch something “dark?” Stare at this for the next two hours. Knock yourself out.
There is a lot going on in Captain America: Civil War, but, as a viewer, you don’t really notice any of that until it’s over. After I saw the movie, I sat at a bar with a colleague for two hours going over the plot. After that two hours, we both decided it made sense. Things said early in the movie have huge repercussions late in the movie. (Here’s a hint: Pay attention to everything Daniel Brühl’s character says.)
Early in the film, Captain America, Falcon, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) are on a mission in Africa. Things go well, until they don’t. Yet again, innocent people have died because of something the Avengers are directly involved with and the governments around the world have had enough. Accords are drawn up – spearheaded by Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt… it’s kind of fun to see characters from The Incredible Hulk. Remember that movie?) – that all the Avengers are expected to sign. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr. … ha, like you didn’t know!), who had been confronted earlier by a woman (Alfre Woodard) whose son died in Sokovia during the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron – is in support of signing these accords.
I don’t think learning about an innocent person’s death changes Tony, but it feels more like “the final straw.” This isn’t a “dark” (there’s that stupid word again!) or evil Tony Stark in Civil War. It’s more a Tony Stark we’ve seen build to this moment. It’s a Tony Stark who, in the first Iron Man movie, had an epiphany and decided Stark Industries would no longer sell military weapons. Now, it seems like he looks at the Avengers the same way: Something he once saw as “good” or, at the very least, “business,” is now something that should be kept in check. Remember, it’s Tony’s fault that Ultron was unleashed on the world. This is a guy with a lot of guilt.
Tony isn’t different, he’s just become jaded – jaded at how and why this group does what they do. Batman and Superman fight because, well, that sounds like a cool movie. Iron Man and Captain America fight because this is the 13th movie and, after some time, everyone will get in arguments about something. Only in this case, the people with a disagreement either have super powers or they have a super suit.
(Without giving too much away, the accords spark a disagreement, but “other things” factor in that truly make Tony and Steve hate each other. I will not reveal what that is, but it’s earned.)
Oh, yes, “the big fight between all of the Avengers.” This scene is cinematic joy. I found myself laughing a lot, even though what I was watching wasn’t that funny. But it made me happy, and I like being happy. Even though here are all the Avengers (plus Black Panther and Spider-Man and Ant-Man), turned against each other, it’s still handled in a way that is mostly fun. Good gracious, is it fun. Why are they fighting?
Again, it’s not really the accords. A bomb goes off near a United Nations meeting in Vienna while the accords were being signed. The world blames Bucky Barnes. T’Challa (a.k.a. The Black Panther, played by Chadwick Boseman), who was at the UN when the explosion goes off, really blames Bucky. The world wants Bucky Barnes dead. Captain America won’t let anyone harm Bucky. This is what sets up the major conflict in the film. (Again, hint: Pay attention to everything Daniel Brühl’s character says.)
I’ve probably written too much already. I am really trying to be careful not to give too much away. But this movie is a delight, though dense. People will love Tom Holland’s Spider-Man, who is in the movie a lot more than I thought he’d be. People will love Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther. Even those who missed Ant-Man will love Paul Rudd’s starstruck superhero who can’t believe he’s meeting Captain America. Good grief, I still haven’t even mentioned Paul Bettany’s now-domesticated Vision, who looks like he shops at The Gap – which so much reminds me of those mid-‘80s Avengers comics. I also haven’t mentioned Don Cheadle’s Rhodey, who has a scene that ignites an entire narrative. I also haven’t mentioned Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye, who probably has the smallest role of the major players, yet still has an arc. Even Emily VanCamp’s Sharon Carter has a much bigger role than she did in The Winter Soldier. There are so many characters in this movie… I give up. It’s a minor miracle this movie not only makes any sense, but is also good.
Captain America: Civil War feels like a pinnacle for Marvel. Like, I can’t imagine their movies getting any better. This feels like the crescendo. This feels like the movie this series has been building towards for eight years. After all these movies, Marvel earned this fight. This is the best Marvel movie so far. This is not hyperbole. I have my doubts they can make anything better. This is as close as things come to “superhero movie perfection.” This movie made me really happy.
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.