This feels like a franchise installment. That is to say that this feels like what franchise installments seem to have become: focussed on the future instead of the present. Civil War is nowhere near as much of a cluttered mess as Batman Vs Superman because the story and characters are compelling. However, the universe becomes heavy-handed in a way that it never has before within the MCU. This isn’t a case of there being too many characters—Avengers: Infinity War proves that there’s no such thing—but rather that there are too many introductions. New characters, new locations, returning characters, and returning plot threads all collide through an otherwise good, character-driven story.
On another mission to a foreign country, Wanda Maximoff accidentally destroys a portion of a building containing innocent civilians. As the latest in a long line of damage left behind by The Avengers, the US Government decides to step in, asking that they sign a document compiled by the United Nations. The Sokovia Accords (named after the city that The Avengers dropped from the sky in Avengers: Age of Ultron) would switch control of the team from themselves to the UN and, primarily, the US. This prompts a moral battle between Earth’s Mightiest Heroes which culminates in a straight-up fight, when Steve Rogers/Captain America commits an unsanctioned act. As this is happening, Sokovian Helmut Zemo is framing Bucky Barnes/The Winter Soldier for the murder of Wakanda’s King T’Chaka and unveiling a dark secret to destroy The Avengers’ friendship.
This is a lot to pack into two and a half hours, but it works because the characters are previously established and grounded in this universe. It is the members of The Avengers and the emotional conflict between them that is at the heart of this story. At the time, the advertising was very similar to Twilight, dividing people into “Team Cap” or “Team Iron Man”. How righteous are The Accords, and should they be signed? The film never gives an explicit answer, treating both sides as equally valid opinions. Cap’s argument is that the Government would use The Avengers for their own means and not in the best interest of the American people. He has lived experience in the area of ‘organisations doing what they think is best’ and has seen how poorly it can end. Meanwhile, Tony’s argument is that The Avengers have inadvertently killed too many people during their battles and that they should be held to account. His decision is fueled by pure guilt, and ignores that civilians would still be hurt if the team was under Government control. The film sits on the fence, trusting the audience to make up their own minds, but there is a correct answer… and it’s not signing The Accords.
This confrontation between Cap and Tony almost reaches an amenable end before Zemo strikes the final blow. Having lured them and Bucky to a secret base in the mountains where Winter Soldiers were trained, he reveals that Bucky murdered Tony’s parents. Their deaths had been unveiled as suspicious to the audience in Captain America: The Winter Soldier but now it is finally revealed to the characters along with the tragic truth. It’s a brilliant plan on Zemo’s part. He is, to date, the only person to defeat The Avengers, who will continue feeling ramifications until Avengers: Infinity War. He knew that emotional scars often cut as deep, if not deeper, than physical ones because he too has suffered. His family was killed when Sokovia fell and it drove him to revenge. When this mission is complete and he is at peace, he feels like his story can come to an end. Peace like this won’t be seen again until the ending moments of Infinity War, but this resonates more emotionally.
Whilst Civil War is telling its story, it is also setting up several others. The fictional African country of Wakanda has been mentioned before, but this is the first time that its people are present with the introduction of Prince T’Challa – The Black Panther. He’s cool and calculating but is overcome with vengeance when Bucky is framed for his father’s murder. This is an interesting element that deserves more time, but there simply isn’t enough to give to it. On top of this is the introduction of Peter Parker/Spider-Man and Aunt May to the MCU. This is the third iteration of these characters in 20 years, so the film assumes that the audience is familiar enough with them to drop them in here. While it’s true that Spider-Man is a popular character, nobody is familiar with this iteration. Audience awareness does not a character make.
This isn’t to say nothing of returning characters who are crossing over for the first time. Scott Lang/Ant-Man has been fleshed out by his own origin movie, but this is his first time with big players like Captain America. It’s clear that he is excited, but there’s barely any time spent on this. Then there is General Everett Ross, whose return here is a significant moment. Until this point, the MCU has felt like it is ignoring the existence of The Incredible Hulk, but including Ross puts that to an end. He is the first character from that film to make his way into the wider MCU, discounting The Hulk himself because he was re-cast. Finally, there is the return of Sharon Carter/Agent 13 from The Winter Soldier who is here to act as a love interest for Cap. She also provides information from SHIELD but her primary existence is as a love interest, which is gross considering she is the niece of Peggy Carter… who was Cap’s last love interest.
Captain America: Civil War is an enjoyable action-adventure with impactful character moments but it is prevented from being great by setting up too many future stories. It’s an acceptable aspect when done generically and in smaller doses, but there is a limit to how much can be crammed into 2 and a half hours. It leaves this Captain America story feeling more like an Avengers one.