Before Anthony and Joe Russo were directing superhero movies, they worked on a little show called Community about a group of misfits at a community college. The series, oddly enough, had a surprising amount in common with The Avengers. Both were about seven people from different backgrounds who bounced off one another in interesting ways, carried their own unique psychological baggage, and who would still, now and then, come together and do amazing things.
One of the most remarkable things about Community was its mastery of tone. The series was pitched as a comedy, and true to that billing, it was a funny, creative, and occasionally off-the-wall show. And yet it could just as easily shift into something quiet and personal, something unremittingly dark, or even something difficult and complex that lacked the sorts of easy answers seemingly required of all network sitcoms. The Russo brothers brought the same incredible ability to mesh different tones and characters to Captain America: Civil War and translated it onto a much bigger stage without missing a beat.
Because Civil War is hilarious, action-packed, and all kinds of fun. It’s has tons of inventive sequences and fights big and small that are filled with humor and imagination. But at the same time, Civil War is, in its own way, a very dark film about fear, regret, anger, a deep divide and a personal loss. It touches on big ideas like moral responsibility, individual guilt for broader actions, and the dangers of power without boundaries. The film, however, grounds these ideas in its well-developed characters, intimate individual moments, and personal relationships. It’s a smorgasbord of different scenes and settings and moods that can make you laugh, gasp, and feel the tragedy of a given moment, without letting these varying tones clash. And that is one hell of an achievement.
The achievement is all the more impressive given how many moving parts there were to this clockwork behemoth of a film. Civil War features no fewer than twelve heroes, three villains, and a bevy of other supporting characters, nearly all of whom enjoy at least a brief moment in the sun. What’s more, the film had to work as a sequel to last Captain America movie, as a follow-up to ideas set in motion in Age of Ultron, and as the culmination of the various clashes between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers that have been bubbling up since the very first Avengers film. Never mind the fact that in addition to all of this, Civil War also had to introduce two new characters who were each slated to get their own films — one who was under the radar for most non-comic book fans, and another who was laden with the expectations that come from being arguably the biggest name on the Marvel roster and standing at the center of two separate, uneven cinematic franchises in the last fifteen years.
Somehow the film manages to do all of these things in a way that not only feels satisfying, but also with humor and grace. The conflict between Cap and Iron Man feels like a natural outgrowth of their prior issues and experiences. Black Panther was far more than a third wheel amid the super-powered clash at the top of the card, and his motivations and outsider status with The Avengers gave him a unique role to play in the narrative. Spider-Man, for his part, had the kind of chummy-if-awestruck vibe with Tony Stark that you’d always imagined and brought his “kid in a candy store” exuberance to the big battle. And nearly everyone else in the film had an important role to play, from Ant-Man’s show-stealing comedic moments, to Vision and Scarlet Witch’s endearing connection, to Rhodey’s loss coupled with the bulwark of his optimism, without anyone getting lost in the shuffle.
That type of balance was all the more difficult given how much oxygen Captain America and Iron Man necessarily took up at the top of the film. There’s a history between the two characters that Civil War embraced. They have never seen eye-to-eye, and the MCU has never shied away from that fact, even as the two have found common ground in their shared struggles. In the hands of a lesser creative team, their long-standing disagreements coming to a head might easily have overwhelmed the rest of the film. But Civil War uses these disputes and differences between two individuals as symbolic of a larger debate that everyone is participating in, while never taking away from the personal side of bigger issues between them.
To be frank, it took some work to convince me that Tony Stark would be in favor of the Sokovia Accords, an international agreement to put The Avengers under the supervision of a U.N. committee. He’s always been independent and resistant to listening to anyone else. And yet, the film takes time to show how Tony’s perspective changed, and has been changing, in a way that makes his new stance plausible. When Stark meets a woman whose son perished in the rubble of Sokovia, who places the blame squarely on Tony and his compatriots for her son’s death, it understandably has an effect on him. The erstwhile Iron Man is already emotionally vulnerable, and he feels the guilt of the collateral damage he and his fellow heroes have caused.
It’s a guilt informed by the different versions of Tony Stark we’ve seen in recent years. Far from the cocksure-if-noble hero we met in Iron Man, Tony is a man who’s been scarred by the Battle of New York where he nearly lost his life; he’s been obsessed with protecting the world and the people he cares about from threats they can barely imagine, and he’s been deathly afraid of his choices being the cause of their demise.
Civil War is keenly aware of the character’s past, and does well to couch Tony’s position on the accords within the reasons he became a hero in the first place. Stark once made his living in an industry where his seemingly harmless actions were leading to innocent people suffering and dying, and when he realized the harm he was causing, he shut down his weapons division and decided he had to do something to rectify his mistakes. For Tony, the decision about the Sokovia Accords is no different, for him or the team. He’s worried about the unintended consequences of their actions.
Steve Rogers, for his part, is understandably much less trusting of government oversight. He’s the one who discovered that Shield was using Red Skull’s research to create superweapons. He’s the one who watched Hydra use good people for bad ends and take over an organization that he fought for from the inside. And he’s also the one who saw his best friend brainwashed and used as a weapon for geopolitical conflict when the higher ups decided it was necessary.
At the same time, he’s also concerned about what happens when a need arises that the Avengers cannot respond to in time because they’re tied up in red tape. He’s worried that innocent people will suffer, that those who need saving won’t be saved, because the select few with the power to help and the aim to do right will be too hamstrung by following the proper procedures and gaining official approval. He’s worried about the unintended consequences of their inaction.
But these are not simply grand philosophical differences between Captain America and Iron Man. Civil War ties these sentiments into the two characters’ conflicting emotional standpoints as well, which come to the fore during their confrontation in the middle the film.
In that scene, Tony admits to Steve that he has lost the people in his life closest to him–Pepper and his parents–and their absence casts a significant shadow on his psyche over the course of the film. This fight, this struggle, has kept him from the parts of his life that gave him a reason to stay in the fray, that gave him the Batman-like need to protect everyone, to create a world where no one, least of all him, has to suffer the kinds of losses he fears. He’s already lost a great deal, and Tony hopes the accords are a way for him to get it all back.
But Steve, despite the difficulties that come from being a man out of time, has his family right there. The Avengers, new and old, gave him a place where he felt like he belonged, in the company of the people who would fight alongside him as the Howling Commandos once did, who became his brothers and sisters in arms. Tony sees something on the verge of breaking that needs to be fixed, while Steve sees something vital that he wants to hold onto. The Avengers are his family, and he wants to protect them.
Rogers is this close to signing the accords until he hears from Tony that Scarlet Witch is effectively under house arrest because of them, and that’s a bridge too far for Steve. He isn’t worried about getting people back; he’s worried about outside forces taking them away.
All of this results in a deep schism between them, driven by Secretary (née General) Ross from above, and exacerbated by Helmut Zemo from below. The former is the liaison and advocate for the Sokovia accords who, after his run-ins with The Hulk, is more than happy to try to corral a group of unruly superheroes. The latter is a man who lost his family in the battle of Sokovia, who blames The Avengers for it, and is determined to set them against each other by any means necessary, so as to make their empire “crumble from within.”
While that schism forces most of The Avengers to pick sides, two characters in particular stand in the middle of it. The first is Black Widow, who’s pragmatic enough to know that Tony’s right when it comes to the practical realities of the accords–that they’ll get a better deal by agreeing to certain conditions than by having them forced on the team–but also sympathetic enough to know why Steve can’t get on board with that idea. She understands what Rogers’s connection to the group, to people like her, means to him and why he cannot abide anything that might forcibly sever that. She is the only character who genuinely changes allegiances in the film, (Tony offers the pointed barb that it comes naturally to her) and she is the bridge between Captain America and Iron Man.
But the other character stuck in the middle is James Buchanan Barnes. While Black Widow is a tie that brings Captain America and Iron Man together, Barnes is a wedge that drives them apart. When Cap looks at him, he sees Bucky, his childhood friend, the one who knows his mother’s name and, with the death of Peggy Carter, is his last living tie to the life he used to live and the man he used to be. Steve sees family, and history, and a connection he’s loathe to lose.
When Stark looks at him, he only sees The Winter Soldier. By dint of Zemo’s machinations, he sees the man who killed his parents, who took away his last chance to tell his father that he loved him, who–mind control or no mind control–snuffed out a light that Tony desperately needed in times like these. He sees the end of family, the pain of lost opportunity, and the severing of a connection he will never be able to get back.
That’s what ultimately makes Civil War so powerful. In a genre of escalating bombast, it brings the conflict back to the small and personal. The film’s opening action scene gives a moment in the spotlight to each of the new Avengers; the subsequent chases and rumbles featuring Cap, Iron Man, Winter Soldier, and Black Panther are a visual treat, and it all culminates in an impossibly entertaining, internecine conflict between scores of heroes that stands out as one of the most creative, enjoyable, and thrilling action set pieces in years.
But instead of that continued escalation, the film narrows its focus in its final act. The climax of the film doesn’t come from a grand explosion or an extraterrestrial invasion or a globe-spanning threat. Instead it comes from a personal reveal. Tony discovers not only that Bucky was the man who killed his parents, but that Steve knew about it (the gist, if not the specifics) and never told him. A film with so many characters and themes and narratives comes down to a conflict centered around three people. It offers a dispute as rooted in the personal as it is in the philosophical, that is as meaningful because of how we’ve seen these characters grow and develop and clash as it is owing to the surface-level excitement of seeing two icons locked in combat.
And that too, was one of Community’s strengths. For as outrageous and absurd and cartoony as the show could get, at its best, it drew all that weirdness and humor and conflict back down to the simple, emotional, and human. Tony Stark is still quick with a witty offhand remark and sharp with a pulse blast. Steve Rogers can still take a beating and deliver one in return. But their conflict is the culmination of more than that — it comes from differences of opinion, of demeanor, of where they are in their lives, of their place in relation to one another, to their team, and to their families.
As ambitious and grandiose and multi-faceted as this collection of themes and narratives in Civil War is, at its core, the film is a story about two people who care about one another finding themselves at odds. It’s about the elements of their relationships and their histories and their psyches that drove them to that point, and the extraordinarily human reasons that they are both pulled back together and then torn apart once more.
These are the kinds of ideas that the Russos brought with them from their old gig. And it allowed them, and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, to make Civil War into something more than just the flash and excitement of the good guys coming to blows. It’s a film that emerges from the connections between its characters, between the emotions and experiences that drive them, between the humanity, humor, and heart that power the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and which have produced what may very well be the studio’s greatest film to date.