Captain America: Civil War, 2016.
Directed by Joe Russo & Anthony Russo.
Starring Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Rudd, Jeremy Renner, William Hurt, Emily VanCamp, Tom Holland, Martin Freeman, Chadwick Boseman, Daniel Brühl, Paul Bettany and Frank Grillo.
The Avengers become divided over the issue of whether there should be a set of rules allowing the governments of the world to police them.
So, is Civil War really Marvel’s best film to date, as some publications (including Empire magazine) have claimed? Well, in my opinion Avengers Assemble still holds that crown, but Civil War is definitely amongst their top five. It’s loosely based on the Mark Millar comic of the same name, but only shares basic elements of the plot; the Avengers (apart from Hulk and Thor; both AWOL) are told that due to the enormous collateral damage their ‘avenging’ has caused around the globe, their actions need to be sanctioned and governed by the UN if they are to be allowed to continue. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) believes that they need to be self-governing in order to be effective, whereas Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) thinks it’s time for them to be kept in check, especially after his sinister robotic creations nearly destroyed the world. The team splits right down the middle, half supporting Cap and half supporting Iron Man, which leads to the titular conflict.
As one of Marvel’s longest films to date, it’s incredibly well-paced, a good chunk of the first hour is spent on the Avengers discussing the ethics and effects of what they do, all of which is great character-building (the fact that no one is completely right or wrong is a reflection on how the layered the writing and the characterisation has been in the MCU so far). We’re also introduced to Helmut Zemo, played with effective restraint by Daniel Brühl; like Lex Luthor in last month’s Batman v Superman, he’s a villain who spends most of the film skilfully manipulating the heroes into fighting each other (the only difference is that rather than power, Zemo’s goal is revenge for his dead family). All the returning cast give good, reliable performances, whether they’re playing conflicted (like Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow) or just there for comic relief (like Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man). However, for me, Robert Downey Jr. was the stand-out; even though Tony had flashes of PTSD in Iron Man 3, you really feel like he’s at the end of his tether in this film. He and Pepper Potts are ‘taking a break’, and after being confronted by the mother of a kid who died in the Sokovia attack, he has his long-overdue (and believable) crisis of conscience, which drives him to plead with Steve for a peaceful resolution to their disagreement. Chris Evans is great too, but Captain America’s unwavering moral centre means his character is less interesting for his lack of evolution.
As if there weren’t enough returning characters (William Hurt pops up for the first time since 2008’s The Incredible Hulk, and Emily VanCamp’s character Sharon becomes more layered as it’s revealed that she’s Peggy Carter’s niece), several more get added to the mix this time. The most anticipated new arrivals are Black Panther (played with warmth and sincerity by Chadwick Boseman) and the newest incarnation of Spider-Man, played by Tom Holland. Holland deserves special praise for making the character of Spider-Man/Peter Parker fun and endearing again, greatly helped by the fact that this time he’s played by an actual teenager, rather than a youthful-looking actor who’s actually knocking on 30. In his introductory scene, Tony Stark visits Peter and his ‘surprisingly hot’ aunt May (Marisa Tomei), having seen his potential in his some amateur crime-fighting videos on YouTube (mercifully, there’s no origin story this time; all we get is a throwaway reference to “the thing that happened to me six months ago”). Tony offers to provide a suit upgrade for him in exchange for fighting on his side, so for Peter his incentive isn’t so much the politics of the situation as it is the joy of being invited to party with the big boys!
Ah yes, the main fight! The first two major action scenes in the film (the Avengers stopping Crossbones from selling a bomb in Africa, and a chase involving Black Panther and Bucky Barnes) are filmed in a generic, quick-cut, action-movie way (like Paul Greengrass’ Bourne movies, or the fights in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the Russo brothers’ first film for Marvel) which made me worry that the big superhero smack-down would be similarly messy. Fortunately, in that oh-so-glorious battle, writing, acting, stunt-work and effects come together for ten minutes of pure fan-boy bliss. Every character gets several moments to shine, whether it’s Hawkeye and Black Widow fighting even though they’re still friends, or Spider-Man tackling (gi)Ant-Man by “pulling an Empire Strikes Back on him” – if there’s a more purely enjoyable ten minutes of cinema this year, we’ll all be very lucky indeed!
At the end of the battle, Rhodey/War Machine (Don Cheadle) is injured, allowing Cap to escape with the brainwashed Bucky (Sebastian Stan), who he believes can still be redeemed. It’s such a shame that the trailer showed Rhodey being injured, because it would have been a good shock; sadly this film is short on surprises. From watching the trailers you’ll pretty much be able to predict the entire story arc, and from looking at Marvel’s upcoming production slate you’ll know that no one important is going to die (at least, no-one who hasn’t got their own 40’s-set spin-off show). By contrast, what makes drama series’ like Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead so compelling is the fact that (nearly) any character could be killed off at any time; by the end of Civil War, everyone is pretty much safe and on reasonably good terms again, which makes the whole thing feel a bit anti-climactic.
What this film is lacking is some sort of big event that reverberates throughout the whole MCU (like the fall of S.H.I.EL.D. at the end of The Winter Soldier). The biggest revelation in the film is that Bucky killed Tony Stark’s parents when he was still under Hydra’s control; however, on reflection this revelation isn’t so surprising (given Howard Stark’s ties to S.H.I.E.L.D., doesn’t Hydra assassinating him make sense?) and since Tony is already aware of the bad things Bucky has done whilst under their influence, it makes the final fight more of a ‘he killed my mum’ thing, rather than a confrontation motivated by the politics that have fuelled the story up until that point. Still, it’s fun to watch Cap and Iron Man duke it out, and having Black Panther there to watch it gives him a chance to sneak in a nice, mature character beat.
Like every Marvel film, Civil War has its flaws (the Looper-esque title cards were pretty in-your-face, and Martin Freeman doesn’t have enough screen-time for us to get over the weirdness of hearing him talk in an American accent), but it’s still a well-acted, well-written and incredibly entertaining 147 minutes; Stan Lee has an amusing (sadly final) cameo, and the end credits sequences nicely set the scene for Black Panther (2018) and Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017). Bring on Doctor Strange!
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★