Acting as a direct sequel to both Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Avengers: Age of Ultron, Marvel Studio’s thirteenth film finds the characters in an intriguing position. It’s been impossible for the world not to notice the massive and terrible destruction which follows in the wake of their epic efforts to battle the forces of evil, and now a United Nations-dictated act is to be put into place which will regulate the actions of the heroes. Two factions form, each divided by strongly held beliefs over the ramifications of this act and battle lines are quickly drawn.
To say more would take away from the delicious pleasures of the film’s twisting narrative, but it’s enough to say that engaged viewers will be surprised and shocked at the way events unfold, in a sometimes brutal manner.
When this film was announced there were many who feared it would lose its identity as the third Captain America film and would instead act as a de facto Avengers 2.5, since it features not only many of the regular Marvel characters but also sees the introduction of two major new players to the Marvel Cinematic Universe – the Black Panther and of course, the Amazing Spider-Man.
I’m happy to report this is most definitely not the case. Remarkably, Marvel (headed up here by the increasingly effective team of Anthony and Joe Russo) have instead given us what could just be seen as their crowning achievement to date. Civil War is most definitely a Captain America film, but it’s also an Iron Man film and it’s also a film that’s very much part of Marvel’s incredible long-form narrative that’s been unfolding since 2008.
The regular Marvel actors seem to have simply glided into their roles here, everyone is just effortlessly great (though special mention must be made to Downey Jr, who brings a sharper edge to Tony Stark’s usual surface glib) and they are now joined by two characters set to be major players in Marvel’s future story arcs. Chadwick Boseman, as Black Panther, and Tom Holland as Spider-Man are completely kick-ass. Both hit the ground running and while some might fear that this film would be overcrowded with the introduction of two such important roles, instead they not only compliment the action but leave you wanting more.
As a major Spider-Man geek from an early age, I’ve been particularly on edge to see how Marvel will handle the character, having finally secured the rights for the first time in decades (which is a whole, twisting narrative of its own). Happily, every scene with both Spidey and Peter Parker (and there are a surprising amount of them) left me grinning from ear to ear, this is the wisecracking teenage hero I’ve been waiting to see for a long time. It’s a joy to see my beloved character back where he belongs, most definitely in good hands.
It’s impossible not to bring in Marvel’s Distinguished Competition at this point, since we’re still reeling from the recent cinematic onslaught from the rival comic company, DC (and Warner’s) Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
While it might seem somewhat odd to compare and contrast between two films in a review, there are inevitable comparisons to be made here. In fact, since the two companies elected to open their films so closely to each other, practically taking part in their own cross-company head to head battle, it might be fair to say the comparisons are invited.
Batman v Superman is almost laughably dark, every second heaps on Sturm und Drang to a point where we become numb to it as viewers. The film struggles to tell even one coherent, human story over its bloated 151 minutes, neither Clark Kent nor Bruce Wayne receive any kind of identifiable arc, and the defining, climatic moment of the titular clash of their superheroic alter egos comes about because their mothers share the same name! The rest of the many characters fight to find their place in the narrative, and often seem dropped in purely to service plot mechanics (particularly in regards to the newer Justice League members, who felt embarrassingly like corporate product placement, no more intrinsic to the story than an appearance by a Samsung phone).
Civil War, both by comparison and in its own right, feels nuanced and balanced, an even more impressive feat when you realise how effortlessly it looks after so many characters and so many story threads. Improving over the somewhat top heavy Age of Ultron, the Russos (along with screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and, one imagines, the Marvel Studios brain trust) find a place and purpose for all of the characters on their chessboard, and do so with drama, humour and focus, never losing sight of what makes these characters work.
This really is first class storytelling and filmmaking that won’t alienate newcomers to the series but will massively reward regular followers of the ongoing Marvel narrative. It’s a remarkable feat of engineering, servicing the needs of the franchise in a way that feels mature and thoughtful, raising questions of heroism against vigilantism, and of the consequences of their actions.
In short, Civil War is a film that’s about something. Even a month or so later, I’m still not certain what the hell Zack Snyder and his crew were trying to say with their film, apart from announcing that we’re in for a slew of DC films. Where the DC film felt utterly mechanical, Marvel’s latest feels perfectly organic.
That the Russos achieve all this and still manage to tell a compelling human drama as the latest chapter of a story that has been unfolding for eight years not only delights but also bodes well for the filmmaking brothers handling the massive two-part Avengers – Infinity War which this latest phase of Marvel films is heading towards.
Captain America: Civil War is a lot of fun, it’s exciting, thoughtful and ambitious filmmaking, and further proof that Marvel’s careful landscaping is a bold adventure in brave, long-form narrative storytelling in a way we’ve never seen before. Civil War’s multiple threads work because we’ve been given time to come to know and care about the characters. From its pulse quickening opening to its heart-breaking denouement, Civil War is a triumph for the company.
Strap in and hold on tight, Marvel scores again!
*And in the spirit of Marvel’s post-credit scenes, I should warn you that you might want to stay until the very end…