The critical response to Captain America: Civil War has fallen into roughly two camps: the “it’s an impressive juggling act/thrill ride” thumb’s up and the “ho-hum, here we go with another overstuffed superhero epic” thumb’s down (or, more accurately, thumb’s sidewise). What has not been widely noted—or, at least, not widely enough—is the radical way in which Civil War not only diverges from recent superhero films, including the previous Captain America movies, but from the conventional wisdom about modern blockbusters. (Fair warning to the spoiler-averse: We must now necessarily veer into discussions of what happens in the movie.) In Civil War, the world is not at stake. Humanity is not endangered. There isn’t an enormous, planet-hopping, extinction-level villain. (Or, in the parlance of these films, a “big bad.”) In fact, for much of the movie, there is no real villain at all—which is as impressive and audacious an innovation in this genre as we’ve seen in quite awhile.
It’s become gospel in Hollywood that when it comes to action tentpoles, it’s no longer enough for the hero to save the girl, or even to save his own soul—he has to save the world. The lady-tied-to-the-railroad-tracks stakes of yesteryear just don’t cut it anymore—now the train has to be packed with zombies and/or carrying a mysterious space-cube with unimaginable powers. Dirty Harry? Let’s rewrite the ending so Harry clips the wire on a nuclear bomb. Die Hard? Call me back when Hans Gruber has his hands on a virus that might start a global pandemic. In 2013, Damon Lindelof, who’s written (and rewritten) several franchise blockbusters, described this phenomenon, somewhat wearily, as “Story Gravity.” “Once you spend more than $100 million on a movie, you have to save the world,” Lindelof explained, articulating the primary maxim of the new rules of blockbuster filmmaking.
Sure enough, the first Avengers film, for all its nimble character work and quippy dialogue, featured a hole in the sky and a bunch of faceless aliens on supersleds swooping down to blow up New York. The sequel Age of Ultron featured an entire (fictional) city hoisted miles into the air by an evil robot, in order to drop it on the Earth and extinguish humanity. Captain America: The Winter Soldier—a comparatively somber, intimate affair that recalls ’70s-era paranoia thrillers—nevertheless ends with several battleship-sized helicarriers crashing to earth just moments before they exterminate millions of unsuspecting civilians all over the globe. Even the otherwise light-footed and enjoyable Guardians of the Galaxy involved a climax in which some sort of stone or gem of immeasurable power was wrested from the grip of a big bad, who, as I recall, looked quite a bit like Loki. For further evidence, just consider that the new, largely buzz-free X-Men movie features an apparently immortal big bad literally named Apocalypse.
Anyone who’s seen the poster and even half a trailer for Civil War knows that the main draw is the prospect of superheroes punching each other, a lot. (Which they do. A lot.) Yet contrast Civil War with that other superbrawl cage-match of the summer, Batman v Superman, in which the titular knockdown is quickly dispatched in favor of a more rote battle royale between superheroes and a blindly malevolent zombie sludge-beast named Doomsday. If the arrival of a creature literally named Doomsday isn’t high-stakes-y enough for you, the movie also shoehorns in a clumsy vision-dream in which Batman glimpses a future where the entire planet has been torched by a galactic bad apple named Darkseid. (Pronounced “Darkside,” in case you were worried there was any ambiguity in his nature.) Doomsday, “Darkside,” Apocalypse—are you quaking yet? One of the (many) disheartening aspects of Batman v Superman was witnessing the DC universe untether itself from gritty, visceral, street-level villains like the Joker and drift gravitationally toward the type of galactically threatening supergods that populate the Marvel universe. A persistent criticism of the Marvel films is that, for all their light-hearted action, they rely so heavily on plots that turn on a bunch of intergalactic MacGuffins like Tesseracts and Infinity Stones—what Bilge Ebiri memorably termed the “All-Powerful Object That Can Be Used to Destroy the Universe or Something.”™
All of which is what makes Civil War so revelatory, and even revolutionary, at least within the superhero genre: It’s absent an actual bad guy. No Thanos, no Loki, not even good old Doctor Doom. A traditional-seeming villain appears, briefly, at the beginning, in the form of former SHIELD turncoat Crossbones, but he is quickly blown to smithereens. From that point, the tension of the film centers on the world’s belief that Bucky Barnes, aka the Winter Soldier, is a terrorist and Captain America’s belief that he is not. (Or, at least, not willingly so.) Moral ambiguity! Meanwhile, we are fleetingly shown glimpses of an unassuming man who is apparently working to sow discontent among the Avengers, but who is not, thankfully, seated on a rock-throne in a distant galaxy. There’s a red-herring plot thread about a cadre of supersoldiers being groomed for evil in a far-off fortress, but that turns out to be clever misdirection—which relies, in part, on our assumption that eventually some hefty bad guys must show up. Instead, the climactic battle of the film features Iron Man and Captain America slugging it out over a long-buried secret revealed in a video. If you’ve seen the film, you know the secret, and it’s one that carries a real emotional wallop. (Oddly, one critic dismissed this revelation as “so weakly motivated that a letter of apology is all that’s needed for all to be forgotten,” which makes you wonder what sort of letters of apology he’s received in his lifetime.) All of this happens thanks to the ministrations not of Darkseid, or Thanos, or the High Lord Planet-Gobbler, but of a human named Helmut Zemo (the aforementioned unassuming man, who turns out to be a rogue intelligence agent from the previously destroyed Sokovia) who himself is motivated by the loss of his family. Zemo has no powers. He’s not, by any stretch, a big bad. He’s definitely not big and, in the end, he’s not even really that bad—at least not within the context of movies that typically end with people fighting giant piles of reanimated sludge.
This is a quiet innovation but a necessary revolution in the genre. “We fought very hard for the third act not to be the same thing,” screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely told Indiewire. “It was going to be smaller and more intimate and more about character—if it destroys you, it’s going to be because of how you feel about the characters, not because a building fell down.” It’s a smart instinct—after all, when’s the last time a movie destroyed you emotionally because of an excess of falling-down buildings? We’ve seen the world endangered so many times, and in so many ways, that, ironically, the end of the world now carries no stakes at all. We’ve survived Doomsday, shrugged at Darkseid, yawned at the coming Apocalypse. Now, just in time, Civil War remind us it’s still possible to make an exciting blockbuster in which all that is at stake is a friendship. Of course, by the time Avengers: Infinity Wars arrives, we’ll be back to battling over cosmic stones. But if a few more blockbusters follow Civil War’s example, that wouldn’t be the end of the world.