Far back in the mists of time I named Marvel’s 2006 series Civil War as one of my all time favourite comics which was proof enough for many of you that I was a fool and a scoundrel whose opinion on comics wasn’t worth a soiled back issue of Youngblood. It’s a controversial story, no doubt, and while I probably wouldn’t keep it on my Top Ten list if I was to do another, I stand by what I said about it before. It was a new kind of comic event, one where right and wrong wasn’t clear cut and black and white and which had a real, lasting effect on the status quo. Comics are a very conservative medium. Sooner or later, everything goes back to how it was before. No one stays dead, the bad guys always lose, the good guys aways win. In a word, they’re safe. Mark Millar, who wrote Civil War, has been accused of many things over the course of his career…
…but being safe has never been one of them.
The story kicks off with a young superhero team called the New Warriors trying to catch a group of supervillains as part of their reality TV show (hey 2o06, how ya been?). Turns out one of the supervillains is a dude called Nitro whose power is that he explodes. Which he does, killing most of the Warriors as well as a nearby school. “The Stamford Massacre” causes a massive sea change in American public opinion and swift legislative action from the federal government in exactly the same way that real life school massacres don’t. The superhero community is given an ultimatum: Either give up their secret identities, submit to training and register and work as a paid employee of the US government or give up being a superhero. This splits the superhero community right down the middle. Iron Man supports registration, seeing as any alternative would likely be much more draconian. But Captain America sees it as massive government overreach, like if the only way you could intervene in a mugging was if you were a cop. So right there we have a conflict that’s really fascinating and multi-faceted. Both sides have perfectly valid concerns and points of view. Personal liberty versus the greater good. The desire for security versus the rights of the individual. Heady stuff. Aaaand then Mark Millar kinda turned Tony Stark into a Nazi because it was a Marvel event and SOMEBODY has to turn into a Nazi in these things.
I love Civil War…
Let me clarify that, I love Civil War the comic, but it’s got big problems, the most glaring being that it undermines its own unique premise by having the pro-reg side resort to increasingly extreme and amoral methods and making Iron Man and Mr Fantastic into outright villains. But there’s more good than bad and I think its reputation has risen quite a but in the years since it was published, not least because virtually all the events Marvel has done since form an elegant, unbroken chain of perfectly formed turds.
In the MCU, the Captain America series was the natural home for a movie version of the Civil War story, especially since Winter Soldier had already touched on its themes of government overreach and the War on Terror’s intrusion on personal privacy and liberty. Winter Soldier was a high-watermark for Marvel critically, and with the Russo brothers back directing, the writing team of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (both previous Cap movies and Agent Carter) and Chris Evans returning to sling the shield you’d think that Cap 3 would be about a safe a bet as a movie could be. But it nearly all went terribly, terribly wrong thanks to Marvel’s other civil war which was just now coming to a head. The head of Marvel studios, Kevin Feige, had been butting heads since the start of the MCU with the CEO of Marvel comics, Ike Perlmutter.
Perlmutter is, by all accounts, about as pleasant to deal with as a scorpion in your anal cavity. Miserly to a Scroogian degree and a rather nasty racist (if you ever wondered why Don Cheadle was chosen to replace Terrence Howard it’s because Perlmutter thought they looked exactly the same. Yeah.) He’s also an alleged war criminal and I say “alleged” because I don’t want him to sue me. And for no other reason. Things came to a head when Perlmutter told Feige that this Robert Downey Jnr kid was costing too much money and that they should fire him.
Feige went directly to Disney who re-organised Marvel studios so that Perlmutter was completely cut out of all decisions involving Marvel’s films. And so Perlmutter was defeated and left with nothing but his incredibly lucrative job, his billions of dollars and the immense power that comes with being part of Donald Trump’s inner circle (come one, you knew this guy was friends with Trump as soon as I described him). It’s probably just a coincidence that Marvel’s notoriously racist CEO was kicked off the film lot right before Marvel released “the blackest Marvel movie ever” but it’s pretty sweet nonetheless. But is the movie? Let’s take a look.
So it’s 1991 and Bucky Barnes (Sebastien Stan), the Winter Soldier is awoken from cryosleep and has to sip strapped to a chair while a shady military agent recites random Russian code words to him until his programming kicks in.
Bucky is sent to America to kill somebody and bring back some bags of blue goop, which he dutifully does. Fast forward to the present and in Lagos, Nigeria, the Avengers are looking for Brock Rumlo (Frank Grillo). Sorry, did I say Lagos? I meant of course LAGOS because the movie does this thing where any new location is announced, not by a small unobtrusive subtitle, but by big white letters that take up most of the screen. It’s actually a really visually distinctive touch and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t dig it a lot.
So the team in LAGOS is the same one that was formed at the end of Age of Ultron, Captain America, Black Widow, Scarlet Witch, Falcon, the Vision and of course, fan favourite D-Man.
Sam tracks Rumlo’s crew with Redwing, who in this continuity is not a majestic falcon, prince of the sky, with a telepathic link to Sam but just an automated drone because apparently America isn’t “ready” for a brother who can talk to birds post-racial society my ass. Rumlo and his goons attack a centre for infectious disease control and steal several samples of deadly viruses. The Avengers chase them into a crowded market place and Cap beats Rumlo who taunts him by telling him how Bucky remembered him before he was brainwashed. Rumlo then blows himself up but the explosion is caught in a forcefield by Wanda tries to launch it into the air to protect the nearby crowd but instead ends up destroying several floors of a nearby building. With several floors worth of people inside.
Meanwhile, in MASSACHUSETTS, Tony Stark is giving a demonstration of his new technology, the Binary Augmented Retro Framing (gotta work on that acronym). He shows the students a digital representation of his last time with his parents, right before they were killed in a car accident. To help him overcome his trauma, he’s altered the memory so that his younger self (a rather scarily good CGI effect) actually tells his father that he loves him before he goes on that final journey. We also learn that Howard and Maria Stark were going on vacation, which raises questions as to why Howard had a suitcase full of super soldier serum on him when he died. I mean…why would you need that if you were going on holiday with your wife to the Bahamas?
Tony announces to the ecstatic students that he’s just funded all of their research projects which makes them all love him and forget the time that the rogue AI he created destroyed an entire city (Steve Jobs used to to do that all the damn time). But someone who hasn’t forgotten is Miriam Sharpe who is played by Alfre Woodard. And man, I just hope Miriam stays out of Harlem and never runs into Mariah Dillard or else the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe will fold in on itself.
Miriam tells Tony that he’s responsible for the death of her son, who was doing humanitarian work in Sokovia when Ultron attacked. She slaps him with a picture of her son and storms away leaving Tony reeling with guilt.
At the mansion, the Avengers are payed a visit by the Secretary of State, Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt), and oh my stars and garters! Incredible Hulk is actually canon! I thought I had but dreamed it! Mind you, this Ross seems very different from the one Hurt played previously, to the point where Hurt actually stated in an interview that he considered them to be different characters who just happened to have the same name. This Ross is considerably more chill and laid back, but he says that he recently had a heart attack followed by thirteen hours of surgery so that probably has something to do with it. Ross tells the Avengers that the rest of the world is getting increasingly leery of this group of superpowered Americans running around and blowing shit up willy, nilly and yon and shows them a highlights reel of the battles of New York, Washington and Sokovia which look considerably less fun from the perspective of the civilians on the ground getting pelted with bits of rubble and Chitauri giblets. Ross says that the world has decided that enough is too much and that 117 nations have agreed to the Sokovia Accords, placing the Avengers under the control of the United Nations. Steve says that the Avengers have made the world a safer place and Ross asks him if he knows where the Hulk and Thor are right now and my God, the stones on this guy! He helps create the Hulk, loses him, and fails to find him for years and now he’s asking Captain America where the Hulk is? That was his job! And he failed at it! TOTALLY!
Ross goes on to say that if he misplaced a pair of nukes there’d be consequences (as opposed to losing a green rage monster where apparently the only consequence was BEING MADE SECRETARY OF STATE) and tells them that the Sokovia Accords are the best deal that they’re going to get. Steve tells him that they’ll think it over.
Meanwhile, in CLEVELAND, a Russian named Vasily Karpov gets a visit from a quiet, unassuming man named Helmut Zemo (Daniel Bruhl). Zemo overpowers him easily and leaves him hanging upside down in a sink with the tap running while politely asking him for details of a HYDRA mission from 1991. See, Karpov has been on the run ever since Black Widow exposed all of HYDRA’s agents. Why, I have no idea because law enforcement does not seem to be in any damn hurry to bring them in.
I know I’m always banging on about how much I love moustache-twirling villains and Zemo is the absolute opposite of that but good God DAMN I love Bruhl’s performance in this. He plays Zemo like he’s the lead in a different movie, a kind of gritty Jack Reacher-esque loner who’s nonetheless unquestionably the good guy. He’s soft-spoken, calm, patient and polite. He genuinely seems to find violence unpleasant and regrets when its necessary. He’s a very unique villain and I think it works wonderfully. Karpov refuses to talk and Bruhl leaves him to drown, stealing a notepad marked with a black star from Karpov’s safe.
At Avengers mansion the team is already falling apart over whether to submit to the Sokovia accords. Cap and Falcon are agin’ it but Iron Man, War Machine, Black Widow and Vision are on a spectrum of cautiously in favour to full throated support. Rhodey in particular says that the accords are an agreement between 117 nations to protect the world and only the worst kind of narcissistic moron would jeopardise something like that.
Steve says that they can’t give up just because they’ve made a mistake and…okay, sure. You shouldn’t give up when you made a mistake…but you gotta change, right? I gotta admit, this kinda rubs me the wrong way. The fact that Cap can’t even seem to acknowledge that it can’t be just business as usual any more is (as Rhodey points out) insanely arrogant. In the comic there was a more concrete reason for Cap to oppose registration, namely that it would involve all superheroes giving up their secret identities which would place them and their families at risk. In the MCU though, no one really bothers with secret identities so it just comes across as Cap not wanting to have to give up control of his personal little super powered army. But the argument is cut short when Steve looks at his phone and finds a message from Sharon Carter.
Now, you might think it’s kind of cheap to kill Peggy offscreen like this but I think this is phenomenally good story telling and here’s why. It doesn’t give the audience a chance to brace themselves. All through the scene in Winter Soldier where Steve is talking to Peggy I was waiting for her to die. Everything, from the staging to the music to the performances, was telegraphing that this was a death scene, a final farewell to the character. But death isn’t like that. I’ve lost seven people who were close to me over my life (I’ve been lucky) and I wasn’t present in the room when they died for any of them. Most people, you don’t get to tell them goodbye. You’ll go about your day just like normal and then, suddenly, bang. A text out of the blue. They’re gone. And there’s no big orchestral swell. No climactic moment. No great catharsis. Just you, standing there, feeling numb and empty. This is a fantastic scene because it puts the audience right there with Steve.
We weren’t expecting it. We weren’t ready.
Peggy is buried with full military honours and at the funeral Sharon gives a eulogy where she recalls her aunt telling her that “When the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth, and tell the whole world – No, you move.” Now, I really like this because it’s actually lifted verbatim from a speech Captain America gave Spider-man in the comics, and it’s probably one of the most famous quotes from the character. I like it because, by giving this speech to Peggy (via Sharon), the movie underlines just how much of an impact Peggy had on shaping Steve into the hero that he became.
In VIENNA, Nat is at the signing of the Sokovia Accords and gets chatting to T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), crown prince of the secretive nation of Wakanda. He tells her that he is in favour of the Accords but not of all the politicking that it took to achieve them saying “Two people alone in a room can get more done than a hundred.”
T’Challa stands by the window while his father, King T’Chaka, addresses the assembled delegates. Suddenly a bomb goes off and T’Chaka is killed. News leaks that the main suspect is the Winter Soldier and Steve and Rhodey track Bucky down in BUCHAREST. Bucky says “Wuzzen me” but suddenly German Special Forces burst into Bucky’s apartment with orders to shoot on sight and Captain America and Bucky have to fight their way through.
They escape but then get stopped in their tracks by this cat…
Oh man but that is just gorgeous. I even love the silver details on the mask because it makes the Black Panther look a little like Adam West’s Batman.
Falcon chases Captain America who chases Black Panther who chases Bucky and they all go dancing ’round the Mulberry bush until War Machine shows up and tells them to stop all this foolishness. Black Panther is unmasked and revealed to be T’Challa and all four are arrested and taken to a United Nations facility in BERLIN. There they meet Everett Ross, Deputy Commander of the Joint Counter Terrorist Centre which has stepped in to fill the vacancy left by SHIELD which is bullshit because it doesn’t even have a cool acronym. JCTC? Amateur hour. Null point. Ross is played by Martin Freeman in a casting move no less perfect for being obvious (although Patrick Bateman would also have been great). Steve asks Ross what’s going to happen to Bucky and Ross says he’ll be psychologically evaluated and extradited. Steve says “What about a lawyer?” and Ross replies “Lawyer, that’s funny.” which is actually is not funny at all, but terrifying. Ironic.
We get a quiet little scene between Tony and Steve where Tony tries to convince his friend to sign the Accords. He also finally admits that he and Pepper have broken up and explains why, despite trashing all his suits at the end of Iron Man 3,he was back as Iron Man in Age of Ultron. Basically, he came out of retirement to help hunt down HYDRA after the Battle of Washington, and then Ultron came along finally he realised that he was making excuses and just being Iron Man because he wanted to be and so Pepper left him. I think it’s really interesting that in this continuity Tony still has an addictive personality but his drug isn’t alcohol, it’s being Iron Man. Steve almost signs but backs off when he learns that Tony is keeping Wanda a prisoner in the Avengers compound.
Meanwhile, a psychiatrist has shown up to evaluate Barnes and starts with the old Freudian technique of reciting random Russian words aw shit I see what happened here. So yeah, Zemo’s whole plan was to frame Bucky for a bombing and get him arrested so that he’d be taken to a facility where Zemo could impersonate a psychiatrist and trigger his programming. And I’ll stop there, because after that it gets really complicated and nonsensical. Much as I love Bruhl as Zemo, I have to admit this is one of the most crazy-pants plans of any villain in a major blockbuster in quite some time (and we are living in a goddamn Golden Age of bullshit movie villain schemes). It doesn’t bother me as much as it might because, while Zemo’s methods of getting what he wants is a chain of crazy troll logic, why he wants it at least makes perfect sense. A script can support a lot of suspension of disbelief if it makes emotional sense, even if it doesn’t necessarily make logical sense.
So Bucky goes on a rampage through the facility and escapes with the help of Sam and Steve. Oh, and Steve bicep curls a helicopter.
Bucky reveals to Steve and Sam what Zemo wanted, which was the location of a secret HYDRA base in SIBERIA. Bucky says that there’s five more Winter Soldiers in suspended animation up there and that in the wrong hands they could topple whole governments. Reasoning that this is what Zemo wants to get his hands on, Cap decides that they have to head there and stop him. To do this, he enlists the aid of the League of Dads Who Don’t Mind Never Seeing Their Kids again, roping in both Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Ant-Man (Paul Rudd). Oh and he also has Hawkeye bust Wanda out of Avengers mansion.
Meanwhile, Tony’s also putting together a team to bring back Steve and decides that he’s going to get someone with a little actual brand recognition. Arriving at his home in QUEENS, teenager Peter Parker (Tom Holland) finds his dear old, kindly, ancient, frail Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) flirting with billionaire industrialist Tony Stark.
Okay so first things first. Spider-man’s in the MCU.
Awesome. But let’s talk about Aunt May for a second. Aunt May is one of Spider-Man’s very oldest supporting characters, appearing alongside him in his very first appearance in Amazing Fantasy #15 in 1962. She looked like this:
Now May has been consistently aged down in subsequent portrayals (Rosemary’s Harris wonderful portrayal in the Raimi films notwithstanding) and I don’t think it’s just because of Hollywood’s usual attitude of “ew, old people”. To a modern reader, Aunt May in her original depiction doesn’t make sense. She’s too old to have a nephew who’s only 15 years old. A grand-nephew, sure. And this is because people age more slowly now than they used to. Watch an episode of the first season of Doctor Who and pay attention to William Hartnell. Silvery white hair, creaking voice, heavily lined face, struggling heroically to remember his lines as well as his rapidly deteriorating memory will allow. Now consider that this old man, seemingly close to death’s door, was only fifty four, actually younger than his current successor, Peter Capaldi, a man who’s still running around and punching Daleks in the dick with vigour. May’s de-ageing is as a result of having to reconceive the character as someone who wasn’t born in turn of the century New York and lived through six decades of bad food, poor medicine, copious tobacco, two world wars and a Great Depression.
So May lets Peter take this eccentric billionaire back to his bedroom (top-notch parenting there, May) and Tony reveals to Peter that he’s been watching him for months (DANGER! DANGER!) and that he knows that he’s Spider-Man (oh thank God).
He finds Peter’s Spider-Man suit which, for once, actually looks like something created by a 15 year old boy and not a professional costume maker. Tony recruits Peter right there and then because nothing says “responsible modern super-heroing” like “recruiting fifteen year old sidekicks like it’s the forties all over again”.
Meanwhile, Cap’s team are…
Right. So. Cap’s team arrive at LEIPZIG airport to steal a jet and fly it to Siberia and Tony’s team show up to stop them and they have a fight so awesome, so spectacular, so momma-fruckin’ cool that I must stand aside and allow it to be recounted by someone more qualified. Please welcome back my inner child, Baby Mouse.
That pretty much sums it up. Only other thing I think it’s interesting to note is how the movie subtly pushes Spider-Man (seeing as he’s the next one of these characters to get a movie that wasn’t already in production). The scene is pretty democratic in doling out “FUCK YEAH!” moments, with all of the principals getting a moment in the spotlight to do something cool. But Spider-Man gets two, one after the other, to really get the audience on his side. Not that they need it. The costume looks better than it ever has and Holland is just a perfect Peter Parker. Oh, I will quibble at one point though. Peter mentions “the walker thingies” in that “really old movie The Empire Strikes Back” which…no. Peter Parker, who was a nerd before it was cool, would know what an AT-AT is. He would also know that they were designed at Kulat Drive Yards and first deployed during the Clone Wars at the Battle of Jabiim. He would know these things because I know them, and a world where Peter Parker is less nerdy than me is not a world I wish to live in.
Steve and Bucky escape in a jet and as they fly off War Marchine tries to stop them. But he’s shot by Vision, who was trying to hit Falcon and goes plummeting towards the Earth. Tony flies down and cradles the unconscious, nearly dead, body of his best friend in his arms. Sam flies down and simply says “Sorry…” and Tony blasts him with his repulsor because frankly he is not in the mood.
The rest of Steve’s team are brought to a super secret base under the sea.
Tony talks to Sam who tells him that Zemo was behind the bombing, not Bucky. Tony does some digging of his own and heads off the Siberia with Black Panther secretly following him.
Steve and Bucky arrive at Siberia and are met by Tony who tells them that he’s learned the truth about Zemo and is not lookin’ to start anything. Steve and Tony have a moment and it looks like the Civil War has ended with everyone being civil. They proceed into the base together, ready to face Zemo’s super soldiers.
Who are already dead. Because that’s never what Zemo wanted.
Zemo instead shows them grainy CCTV footage from 1991 and Tony watches as Bucky Barnes murders his parents in cold blood. And suddenly, things get very un-civil again.
The final fight between Steve, Bucky and Tony is brilliantly staged and brutal but a universe away from the pop and fun of the airport clash. This is just three desperate dudes who’ve exhausted all their options and have been reduced to whaling on each other until someone gives. It’s brutal, and sad, and ugly. And when Steve finally beats Tony down and limps away with a wounded Bucky, Tony yells after him that he doesn’t deserve to carry his father’s shield.
Outside the base, T’Challa talks to the man who killed his father. Zemo tells him that his entire family was killed in Sokovia and so, knowing that he could never defeat the Avengers himself, he plotted to have them destroy each other. His mission completed, he deletes a voice mail from his wife off his phone and tries to shoot himself. T’Challa, seeing that revenge is a hell of a drug, saves his life and tells him that he’s going to jail.
Later, Tony helps Rhodey with his physical therapy, who tells him that, despite the fact that he may never properly walk again, he has no regrets. Tony gets a package delivered by a strangely familiar looking Fed Ex courier.
Inside is a message from Steve, telling Tony that he’s sorry for not telling him about his parents and that if he ever needs him, he’ll be there along with all the other Avengers that he’s even now breaking out of Ross’ top secret prison.
This is how you do it folks. This right here is the best Avengers movie and it’s not even officially an Avengers movie. The plot honestly doesn’t make that much sense if you think about it but it hangs together remarkably well and it all builds to satisfying conclusion, stopping only to indulge in some of the best superhero action ever committed to film.
A less daring, slightly safer version of the Civil War story, but unquestionably a more polished and less messy execution.
Our Heroic Hero: 25/25
I’ve officially run out of ways to say how great Chris Evans is in this part.
Our Nefarious Villain: 20/25
Bruhl gives a great performance as a completely different kind of villain, a completely unpowered human who’s nonetheless smart enough to bring a team of near gods to their knees.
Our Plucky Sidekicks: 25/25
The old hands bring their A game as usual. Boseman nails T’Challa’s regal mien and I really want to see him centre stage and in less of a reactive role. The fun of Black Panther, after all, is that he’s already ten steps ahead of everyone else. And Tom Holland is the best onscreen Spider-man ever. Period.
Bucky tells Steve that he’s got to be put back in deep freeze so that he won’t hurt anyone and Steve reluctantly agrees. We see that the Avengers have now set up shop in Wakanda. Steve warns T’Challa that others will come looking for Bucky and T’Challa grimly replies “Let them try” and the camera pulls out to reveal a gigantic mechanical panther standing guard.
And the audience went
Roll on Black Panther…
The Second Stinger
Peter tells Aunt May that he was hit by a boy in school (“Steve. From Brooklyn.”) and after she leaves he starts playing around with a gadget Tony gave him which turns out to be…THE SPIDER-SIGNAL.
And the audience went
WHICH NOBODY CARES ABOUT. Seriously. Nobody cares about the Spider-signal. It’s one of the least essential elements of the Spider-Man mythos, right up there with the frickin’ Spider-mobile. Swing and a miss.
Infinity Gem Count: 4
Wait a minute, was that Stan Lee?
That was Stan Lee, playing a Fed Ex agent delivering a package to “Tony Stank”.
Hey, what’s Thanos doing?
FINAL SCORE: 93%
NEXT UPDATE: 06 July 2016
NEXT TIME: Well. This is unexpected.