Having been picking up speed for the better part of a decade, Captain America: Civil War sees the Marvel Cinematic Universe break from a steady, accelerating jog into an outright sprint. This is the point at which the series assumes you’ve either been keeping up or you’re going home. And it’s certainly not going to wait for you. Previous films have, more or less, tried to cushion newcomers, or they at least worked as standalone installments in their own right. With it’s ridiculously large cast and weighty story line, Civil War simply doesn’t have time to hold anybody’s hand. It’s perhaps the purest example of a franchise in its mid-phase; if you haven’t done the work it’s simply going to run laps around you. It’ll be on your left.
Ostensibly the third Avengers movie but without Hulk or Thor, Civil War continues to pull the thread snagged loose by Zack Snyder’s Man Of Steel regarding collateral damage. While this was something Joss Whedon shaded into the action of Age Of Ultron, Civil War makes it a focal concern. Humanity’s guardian angels have, by this point, racked up a number of successes, but not without cost. Following another accidental blunder that places Wanda Maximoff’s Scarlet Witch (Elisabeth Olsen) in the doghouse, the team are called to heel by the UN; asked to sign a treaty to exhibit their talents only when agreed upon. Spearheaded by Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr; more world-weary than previously), a majority of the heroes fall in line with the idea. Good ol’ Captain America Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) does not.
Civil War spends much of its first hour bedding in an admirably involved plot that establishes where each character lands on the debate while a political thriller on terrorism rises to the boil. Every character has their place and the movie needs to get them ready for the machinations to come. Granted there are a ridiculous number of pieces to place on the board, some of them appearing for the first time, but it’s work that’s layered in well, the story staying afloat throughout. Anthony and Joe Russo return to the series following The Winter Soldier, and continue sprucing up their resume. Where that film was an agreeably durable throwback to 70’s paranoiac thrillers, Civil War is an all-out blockbuster. But not a brainless one. They should be able to write their own ticket from here on out.
For when the action comes here, it’s extremely satisfying, be that the film’s centrepiece which ultimately pits 10 superheroes against one another at a (fortunately) abandoned airport, or the earlier earthier sequences which recall the tough practical strengths of The Winter Soldier. Some early chase scenes have the kinetic breathlessness of Paul Greengrass, for instance, while a stairwell ruckus recalls the cramped elevator punch-up from The Winter Soldier, but with the dialed up ambition of, say, The Raid. That the stairwell scene smoothly evolves into not one but two further sequences – and makes their breakneck pace seem effortless – marks it out further as one of Civil War‘s real action highlights.
Moreso than before, Civil War sees the MCU getting political, what’s more on a global scale. If Steve Rogers embodies America (and his superhero title certainly suggests so), and Tony Stark the UN, then what unfolds here paints Rogers as both protagonist and antagonist. His stubborn assertion that his way is the right way and that it is his duty to be the world’s policeman resonates quite clearly with the US’s recent foreign policy. There’s a degree of arrogance to Rogers’ position here that pushes him out of the perfect good-guy mold that previous adventures have kept him in.
That’s welcome. Because this is also a personal story. No one individual or side is ‘right’, as everything has satisfying emotional context. A large part of Rogers’ decision making is swayed by the involvement of his former squad member Bucky Barnes, now the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). Barnes is framed for a terrorist attack and marked for death. Rogers’ protection of him is the rift that divides the Avengers, creating a dynamic of conflict far more interesting than any seen in the MCU before. These characters are at each other’s throats over their principles. Yet they still care about one another. There’s a level of respect and tragedy in that; it almost makes Civil War feel Shakespearian at times. Talk about hyperbole.
With so many people on screen to service, this does slightly get away from Cap’. It’s almost his film in name only. The screenplay from Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely does it’s best to give everyone a fair shake and disguise moments of pure fan service as best it can. The film sensibly doubles as cliffnote origin story for both Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland), so that their respective features can focus on other matters.
For their part it’s a mildly mixed report. Boseman seems a little stiff so far, but hopefully he’ll settle in, while Holland allows Civil War most of it’s much-needed comic relief (see also Paul Rudd returning as Ant-Man, in a surprisingly large role). Vision (Paul Bettany) gets a pleasing amount of development, as does Scarlet Witch. Less successful in the mix are Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner (why is he even in this?) and Anthony Mackie. But, Renner aside, this isn’t really their fault. Simply a case of too many cooks.
Yet Civil War is still excellently paced, and doesn’t feel nearly as baggy as Age Of Ultron for instance. It’s story is rewarding and plays out in a manner that is both knotty and natural. And the film thankfully breaks ranks with the MCU tradition, going for emotional payoff over CG disaster porn. If anything falls out of the sky at the end of this movie, it’s the established patterns that the Avengers lived by previously. It makes whatever comes next seem extremely interesting. Whether all this marks Civil War out as the best Marvel movie will be debated regardless of this review. For charm and personality I’d still say Guardians tops it. But this is easily in the series’ highest tier and, in terms or self-serious superhero films, probably the best example this side of The Dark Knight.
Time to catch up if you haven’t, no?