If the first half of 2016 in cinema is to be defined by a clash between films about, well, clashes between superheroes, then we finally have what no one film actually gave us: a clear winner. Where Batman v. Superman: Dawn Of Justice toiled through a messy script and drowned in its own presumed grandeur, Captain America: Civil War was yet another triumph of storytelling by the folks in charge at Marvel. So vast is the gap between DC and Marvel after these two films that one can actually begin to imagine audiences abandoning future efforts from DC altogether.
But let’s focus on this film rather than how it compares to its obvious counterpart. Civil War, while technically a Captain America film, concerns a very direct and logical progression following the events of Avengers: Age Of Ultron, during which the Avengers shredded the fictional country of Sokovia while saving the world from the titular villain. While the world was saved, countless innocent bystanders were killed in the effort, and now the world can “no longer tolerate” the Avengers’ operation without restriction or guidance, as it’s put by Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt).
This leads to a schism that, to the film’s credit, feels entirely natural. Steve Rogers, aka Captain America (Chris Evans), is hesitant to sign the Sokovia Accords granting the U.N. supervision over Avengers activities; he’s seen governments and organisations corrupted before, and simply doesn’t trust authority. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), however, is rattled by the number of dead innocent bystanders in the Avengers’ wake and eagerly surrenders autonomy. All the while, Rogers continues his quest to free his old friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), who’s become the brainwashed and dangerous Winter Soldier. It’s through that effort that Rogers and Stark come to realise their differences may be irreconcilable.
Specifically, Barnes is suspected of bombing the building at which the signing of the Sokovia Accords takes place. Rogers uncovers proof that Barnes isn’t behind the bombing and that there are far greater dangers at play, but under the Accords, the Avengers would never be permitted to follow his leads. Stark and the Avengers who follow him, however, remain steadfast in their belief that they’ve simply caused too much collateral damage when left unchecked.
So begins the war, and I suspect most fans of the genre will be pleased to know that it’s not one that’s played out purely via the smashing of buildings. Nor does the film devolve into an effort by the Russo brothers (who directed the film) to put together the most high-octane chase sequences we’ve ever seen. There’s plenty of action, sure, but the “Civil War” is largely psychological, and it’s because of this that the concept really thrives. We know these characters, and we know what’s happened to them, and it all comes back to the surface in a decidedly human manner as they all work out which side feels right to them.
Evans and Downey, Jr. star, and they may both be at their best. Evans has never matched (and will never match) the raw appeal or charisma of his foil, but this is probably his deepest and best performance yet. As expect, Downey, Jr. is wonderful in every way. But the supporting characters—both brand-new and those we’ve seen but are now coming into their own—are going to command a lot of the attention of viewers. And for the most part, they’re terrific.
You want to know about Tom Holland, the latest Peter Parker to grace the big screen, so I’ll start there. If the goal was indeed to focus on a more adolescent Parker, Marvel nailed it. Holland is a very capable young actor (go watch The Impossible for proof) and looks comfortable already in his new, Spidery skin. The character is a needed injection of lightheartedness in a film that’s otherwise more serious than most previous Marvel efforts.
There are also highlights in characters we’ve only met briefly before. Paul Bettany’s Vision is a scene-stealer and Elizabeth Olsen is a compelling Scarlet Witch; the only problem is that both characters seem capable of wiping out the rest of the Avengers with a flick of the wrist, and that does provide a bit of imbalance in the war. On top of these two, Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) provides some additional comic relief, and Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie) has a real coming out party, in that he finally feels both useful and necessary.
But of the newcomers and returning characters with larger roles, the actor who steals the show is Chadwick Boseman in the role of T’Challa/Black Panther. Boseman is simply a perfect fit for the role, portraying a concerned politician conveying the necessity of the Sokovia Accords and then darting around the screen very much like Marvel’s version of Batman in his Black Panther suit. Expect to begin eagerly anticipating this character’s solo film.
The film’s letdowns (fittingly enough given that it’s really about in-fighting) are its villains. Crossbones (Frank Grillo), who’s been framed as something of a nemesis for Captain America, may as well be an anonymous extra. And Zemo (Daniel Bruhl), the only new bad guy in play, comes across a little weak. While he successfully widens the rift between the Avengers by revealing a brilliant twist, he doesn’t ever seem particularly threatening or powerful. It’s nice to see a villain who looks to win by manipulation and cleverness rather than supernatural power, but it’s a shame he wasn’t a little more compelling.
But for the most part, Civil War is immensely satisfying. Those suffering from superhero fatigue will certainly find some aspects tiresome, but it’s hard not to admire the Russo brothers’ achievement given the scope of the idea. It’ll definitely go down as one of the best of the Marvel films.
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