Countdown to Endgame #15: Dense and Deep, Civil War Levels Up

As The Avengers: Endgame approaches, Team Midnight has committed to watch all the Marvel Cinematic Universe films released to date in chronological (story) order: 22 films in 8 weeks. Follow along with us.

Captain America: Civil War kicks off phase 3 with a banger. All the Avengers are here (well, almost) – and things are not going well. In addition to the folks we last saw in Age of Ultron, the action also ropes in Ant-Man, features the first appearances of Black Panther and Spider-Man, introduces Agent Everett Ross (who we’ll see again soon), and hales the return of Thaddeus Ross (see The Incredible Hulk), who has gotten himself a fancy appointment as Secretary of State.

Hero: Steve Rogers / Captain America

“I know you’re doing what you believe in, and that’s all any of us can do. That’s all any of us should.”

As the title suggests, this is the film in which the Avengers officially split. The folks who take the side of our uncompromising rogue hero include:

  • Sam Wilson / Falcon
  • Clint Barton / Hawkeye
  • Wanda Maximoff / Scarlet Witch
  • Scott Lang / Ant-Man
  • Bucky Barnes / Winter Soldier

The folks who side with the man:

  • Tony Stark / Iron Man
  • Colonel James Rhodes / War Machine
  • T’Challa / Black Panther
  • Peter Parker / Spider-Man
  • Vision

Natasha chooses the Avengers staying together – so, both teams and neither.

Villain: Helmut Zemo

“An empire toppled by its enemies can rise again. But one which crumbles from within? That’s dead… forever.”

Zemo is a Sokovian assassin/intelligence officer whose father, wife, and son were killed a year ago, during the Avengers’ conflict with Ultron in Sokovia.

Villain Complexity Rating: 3.5/5

Heartbroken and grieving, Zemo is obsessed with getting revenge on the Avengers, who he blames for the death of his family. Rather than trying to kill the Avengers himself, he decides to orchestrate and execute an incredibly elaborate plot involving tracking down Hydra’s mind control protocols, bombing the U.N., framing Bucky for the bombing, flushing him out of hiding, activating his Winter Soldier brain in order to get intel, releasing the details of his plot to the C.I.A. just in the nick of time, thereby attracting both Tony and Steve to the Hydra compound, where he shows Tony footage of Bucky murdering Tony’s parents back in 1991 in order to get them to fight to the death. It’s super complicated espionage and infiltration stuff – maybe a little too fragile to actually believably work, once you piece together all the details.

But more importantly, Zemo is a distilled, concentrated example of the seed of the conflict that is growing within the Avengers, a personal story underlying the emerging pressure to submit to governmental oversight. Despite all the lives saved, the stories of innocent loved ones lost during the Avengers’ big fights are starting to pile up – and the governments of the world are demanding that the team submit to control of a task force created by the United Nations. Cap is having none of it.

“What’s at Stake” Rating: 3.5/5

If Zemo wins – and you could argue that he does, to some extent – the Avengers fall apart. If he really gets his way, they kill each other. Either way, earth is left without its mightiest heroes, vulnerable to all sorts of malicious intergalactic villainy.

What did our hero(es) learn?

Everyone chooses whether they believe The Avengers should continue to be free agents, or if they should submit to bureaucratic oversight – and they each learn how far they’ll go to fight for the principles on which they made that choice. Tony and Steve are the most extreme examples. Steve has learned to deeply distrusts institutions of all kinds and is comfortable following his own moral compass; Tony has fucked up so many times and is so destroyed internally by his guilt and shame, he no longer trusts himself to lead.

Heroism Rating: 5/5

Captain Rogers is at it again – doing the most on the right side of justice. Something doesn’t smell right to him from the beginning and he manages to stay one step ahead of the establishment, on his own, even though folks keep arresting him and/or taking his shield away. He is unwilling to compromise in what he believes is right – even when it means losing his friends, his team, and his home, and giving in to the restless underground life of an international fugitive. No matter how many times brainwashed Bucky chokes him or throws him out of windows, he keeps chasing him and saving his life.

And in the end, even while on the run, he has time to be the bigger person – sending Tony a thoughtful note to make sure he knows that – even though Tony totally got him kicked out of the Avengers and forced him to go on the run and tried to kill his best friend and maybe knocked some of his teeth out, no hard feelings. He believes in you, and he’s still got your back.

Visual Aesthetic/CGI Rating: 4/5

This is a fight-heavy movie, and the fight scenes are visceral, easy to follow, and rich with meaning. Though many of the MCU movies find reasons for heroes to fight each other, Civil War is an “X vs. Y” extravaganza – from the Winter Soldier/Captain America/Black Panther chase to the team VS. at the airport to the final, brutal Cap/Bucky vs. Iron Man beatdown, each frame of the action is thoughtfully planned and beautifully executed – building suspense and keeping you connected with individual characters’ evolving state of mind. Even though there is so much action and chasing and fighting – it’s very engaging, leaving no room for you to check out, and without crossing the line into gaudy “look at how great this camera movement is” obviousness. The Russos frame up some beautiful shots that are saturated with meaning, like the most memorable frames from comics. The only bummer here is the gumbi-body CGI effects on Spider-Man and Black Panther – so gummy, so often. I just feel like it’s possible for guys in suits not to look this cartooney. Anyone?

Heroic Cinema Saturation Index

Betsy Rating: 4/5

Civil War is dense – lots of characters, lots of action, lots of moving pieces, lots of connections to other movies – and after this watch, I’m even more convinced that the Russo Bros have done a miraculous job with all this complexity. Super satisfying and pretty awesome, Civil War is a herald of the kind of ambitious, massive team-up storytelling that is coming. It works because this story – so big in scope – is grown from intimate, personal pain. The root conflict arises from individual people grappling with the pain of loss and violence in very personal ways: Tony’s parents, Zemo’s family, Cap’s beloved Peggy, T’Challa’s father, Bucky and Wanda’s victims. All the unique, innocent people who have died in the midst of all the world-saving start to emerge as individuals with loved ones and stories, and they float through each characters’ consciousness, apparitions pulling their emotional strings.

Watching the movies so close together added needed texture to the characters’ choices – especially Tony’s. After my first watch, I remember feeling annoyed by Tony, feeling that he had been written to be uncharacteristically compliance-oriented in order to advance the story and make the conflict work. But this time through, it was so clear that Tony’s guilt and anxiety are destroying him and he’s making decisions not as his strongest, best self – but through the lens of crippling self-doubt and fear. And looking back over his track record so far, he has lots of good reasons to mistrust himself…they’re all the same reasons Cap doesn’t trust him, actually.

It’s hard to know what even to say about Captain Rogers – his clear-eyed, steadfast resistance to the pressure of the times is as uncompromising as it is saturated with kindness and empathy for others. His open-heartedness is a deep well of power, and yet his own life is clouded with loneliness and grief. I love that he – the boss – is probably the Avenger we’ve seen cry the most – he’s like a paragon of emotional availability. Plus the dude can really manhandle a helicopter.

But these two guys are just two of, like, 15 heroes – and after a two hour nonstop crescendo of story, it feels like I’ve spent good, memorable time with each of them. This is the miracle of the Russo brothers. Small moments make significant impact and are weighty with meaning and consequence – not unlike, actually, a couple frames in a well-drawn comic.

Justin’s Rating: 3.75/5

Civil War isn’t perfect, but it is a return to form for the MCU after some serious wobbles in the troubled Ultron and Ant-Man films. The Russo brothers’ reliable method of meaningful, visceral action sequences is on immediate display in the opening sequence, and it feels like we’re back home. Sure, there are some shaky cam quick cuts and a skosh more CGI abuse than I’d like, but that stuff is deftly sprinkled between strong fight choreography and the micro narrative at play in each stage of the action. And this one is about some action, so I’m glad they got that right.

Plentiful as the battle scenes are, they are rarely gratuitous because by now, we’re invested in the characters at the heart of the titular conflict. We know that Tony is deeply troubled by the global collateral damage The Avengers have caused by their very existence. It has destroyed his relationship with Pepper, a fact clearly read in the worry lines on his face. Finally! This is the Tony Stark I’ve been waiting for. I don’t hate him! It’s affecting to see Stark in such a vulnerable place that he’s willing to alienate his closest friends to assuage his conscience. Similarly, watching Cap resolve to plant himself in opposition to regulating The Avengers, a stance he knows will cost him many of his closest relationships, is harrowing. Remember, everyone besides Bucky and Agent Carter are like 70 years his junior, and he keeps running away from Cap and she up and dies on him. This film frames up what’s great about Captain America because it demonstrates his willingness to disrupt the status quo if it’s the right thing to do, and he’ll look you in the eye while he does it. If that means he’s not invited to Avengers Xmas next year, he’ll deal, but so will you, cuz you know you acted like a dick.

It’s easy to forget that this is a Captain America film while watching it because almost all the Avengers feature heavily in it. Bucky Barnes gets as much attention in this film as he does in the one bearing his Hydra namesake, and Sam Wilson gets some much needed screen time as well. The rivalry between the two of them plays out in some of the funniest moments in the film. With almost the whole team minus Hulk and Thor weighing in here, it’s a little bit insane that both Black Panther and Spider-Man are introduced here as well. Indeed, Civil War’s cup doth begin to runneth over with all the conflict and character building balancing precariously atop Zemo’s Rube Goldberg-inspired revenge scheme.

I get that Zemo is a master spy and everything, but he’s just showing off with that plan. I think he’s a dadaist. There’s no other feasible explanation for going through this much nonsense to show a guy a video tape. I guess you have to find ways to fill the time when all your people are dead?


Captain America: Civil War is available to rent online through Vudu or the Google Play/iTunes app stores. Like the Avengers films and Winter Soldier, Civil War includes lots of key MCU plot points. Highly recommend as pre-Endgame refresher material.

And with that, we have exactly 6 movies and 13 days to go before it’s Endgame time. Will we make it? (Obviously.) Stay tuned!


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