This review contains spoilers for Captain America: Civil War.
So let’s start off with the big reassurance–no. Captain America: Civil War doesn’t follow the narrative of the comics event like, at all, and that is a very good thing.
The Sokovia Accords and governmental oversight thing that is the premise of the movie and the tenuous link to the comics event is just that–a premise and tenuous connection. What drives the narrative, what makes the movie a success, and what has made past Marvel movies successful, is the focus on interpersonal relationships, and narrative consequences.
Ostensibly, Civil War was supposed to be the first movie of Marvel’s Phase Three. But in reality, it feels like the final movie in Phase Two. Civil War is the spiritual and narrative sequel to Avengers: Age of Ultron. It could (and maybe should) have been called Avengers: Civil War, because there will no doubt be people out there who will be angry that Steve was denied another solo film. However, this titular decision invites the question of whether there can be room in the MCU for solo films when you have a universe filled with as many characters as the MCU, but in a good way.
I, like many others who saw AoU, thought that it proved that the MCU had gotten too big, the universe too complicated and filled with too many characters for any one person to create a cohesive narrative. After all, if Joss Whedon couldn’t do it, who could?
Maybe the answer is as simple as needing another person, because while one person can play in their own sandbox, the Russos prove that teamwork makes everything better, on a thematic, narrative, and logistical level.
In terms of editing, there were times that I questioned the time spent away from the main narrative, but I questioned the length of the action sequences more. What Civil War also proves, as also happened with Age of Ultron, it’s not the amount of characters, but the length of the allegedly necessary action sequences that detract from the narrative and the movie the most. (Sidenote: the most impressive CGI scene in the entire movie is an amazingly de-aged-and-body-doubled Robert Downey Jr.. I wish we’d had this technology for the first Captain America movie, because badly CGI’d pre-serum Steve annoyed me a lot.)
The Russos were given a fairly impossible task, which we know shifted at several points during the process (having to incorporate Spider-Man, for example). What makes the movie succeed is that, with the exception of Scott, every character–Steve, Tony, Bucky, Natasha, Sam, Rhodey, Clint, Wanda, Vision, T’Challa, and Peter–has a moment in the narrative that connections them back to the larger theme of the movie: trauma, and more importantly, how we react to trauma–both trauma that is done to us, and trauma that we ourselves cause, even when we might have had the best of intentions.
Even the “villain” of the story, Helmut Zemo, played by the wonderfully subtle Daniel Brühl, is responding to trauma. Bruhl’s character is completely absent from the trailers and the press tour, understandably, but his absence also makes his part of the narrative a surprise, and a pleasant one. This isn’t the Baron Zemo from the comics. There are no superpowers in sight. The Zemo of Civil War is just a man, and that makes his story all the more powerful (and if no one has yet compared the machinations of Lex Luthor in BvS to the actions of Zemo, they should. There are many ways the two movies could be compared, but this one was the way that stood out the most to me).
It’s this thematic focus on trauma that makes Civil War a cathartic experience for the audience on the narrative level, but also on the meta-narrative level. In the broadest narrative sense, Captain America: Civil War is also Iron Man 4. It provides a resolution to Tony’s storyline that started eight years ago with Iron Man, and it gets at that resolution through Tony’s traumas, which are inextricably linked to US and global politics. There have been many articles and academic papers written on Iron Man as a post 9/11 film, and Civil War feels post-post 9/11 in the sense that it reflects what it’s like to live in an age of exponentially increasing catastrophes.
It also prepositions the personal as political. There’s no longer a sense of the greater good. There’s no longer right and wrong answers. There’s only individuals, motivated by personal reasons. For many of our heroes, and our villain, their actions are variations on atonement. They do what they do in order to make up for what they did–or didn’t do–in the past. It’s the most toxic form of survivor’s guilt, self-righteously reframed as avenging. People will do a lot of fucked up things seeking psychological resolution to trauma, the narrative tells us explicitly through Tony. Even self-sabotaging things. Seen through the lens of each character’s storyline as a response to trauma (except Scott’s), we get a sense of narrative growth, even if it is not yet resolved.
We also see interpersonal relationships change, with some (Steve and Bucky) feeling resolved while others (Steve and Tony) are left unresolved. There was speculation that Civil War was shaping up to be not Team Cap vs. Team Iron Man but Team Stucky vs. Team Stony. As a Steve/Tony fan, I was very satisfied with the narrative (I had this song going through my head while watching the final scene of Tony reading the letter). But from what I have seen on social media, the Stucky shippers also walked away from this movie feeling incredibly satisfied (and, even as a friend-shipper and not a romantic-shipper, how could you not be?).
There are some narrative threads left hanging, and conflicts left unresolved. The fate of Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. is never mentioned (Sharon Carter is now working for the CIA). Hulk and Thor are mentioned as MIA. Natasha disappears from the narrative completely before the final part of the story, presumably on the run. We don’t actually know what’s going to happen next for Steve, Tony, Bucky, Sam, Rhodey, Clint, Wanda, Vision, Scott, Peter or T’Challa (although Scott, Peter, and T’Challa have solo movies in the works). But overall, I walked away feeling satisfied, and feeling like people who don’t like the same things that I like would also be satisfied. I walked away feeling sad but happy, in a communal sense, a cathartic sense.
There are still more Marvel movies to be made, more narratives to tell, and more characters to introduce into the MCU. But Civil War gives us a place to pause, rest, and reflect on where we’ve been, and it gives a place to start.
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. – T.S. Eliot.