Despite the ongoing success of the box office juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), the series has had one major problem: the bad guys. Malekith, Whiplash, Strucker, Ronan — many casual fans of Marvel would have a problem matching them to the film they featured in let alone being able to explain their nefarious schemes. Tom Hiddleston’s magnificent Loki is the only real exception, although at a stretch you could include the Liverpool FC loving Trevor Slattery (aka The Mandarin).
It turns out the solution to this problem was to pretty much dispense with the villains. The friction existing within The Avengers themselves was already mined to great effect in portions of their titular feature and also in their second group outing Age of Ultron. Civil War takes that friction up to 11, delivering a film with epic scale and even bigger emotional heft, all thanks to how it builds on the films that preceded it. A spectacular payoff from Marvel’s long-form storytelling
Civil War finally sees the collateral damage from the Avenger’s exploits finally catching up with them. A mission, which opens the film, leading to the loss of 11 civilian lives finally forcing the international community to take action to curb their unregulated intervention across the globe. US Secretary Of State (William Hurt) delivers the news that the Avengers will soon have to answer to the United Nations, the Sokovia Accords agreed upon by 117 nations requiring each of their signatures for them to remain part of the team and become subject to an oversight panel.
Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), still engulfed by guilt for his part in the Ultron/Sokovia tragedy, signs with little hesitation, but Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), still stinging from the corruption and downfall of SHIELD is resistant to the idea of politicians and bureaucrats dictating who they can help. Matters are further complicated when the signing of the accords is bombed with evidence suggesting the Winter Soldier, aka Cap’s brainwashed bestie Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) is responsible. Loyalty to his friend and a determination to uncover the truth behind the bombing further polarizes an already split team, leading to two camps that form, for and against government oversight.
The Winter Soldier rooted itself in current affairs with its plot linked to drone warfare and pre-emptive action. Civil War continues the political thriller vibe, exploring the merits of unilateral force. So often, films of this nature have the heroes swooping in to save the day, collateral damage is expected, even cheered by the audience. But with the MCU being a ongoing entity, developing and expanding with each new entry, the fallout from the “adventures” had to hit home eventually. Wanton destruction in the name of entertainment no more, now there are consequences, these are characters with a conscience. The most commendable aspect of the film is how it crafts the escalation and the opposing ideologies. There’s no right, no wrong, just two views and you’ll feel your allegiance to one side shift to the other as the film explores aspects of heroism, loyalty and duty.
You know these characters by now and feel invested in them. Some of their responses are predictable, some surprising, but it never feels forced or compromised in any way, another payoff or buildup. The uptight Captain America is given shades of grey, compromised loyalties will do that. Equally intriguing is the arc for Tony Stark, wracked with the guilt and taking a serious tone. Both Downey Jr and Evans take advantage of these emerging layers and turn in their best work within the MCU. With such a cast, it’s impossible to run through everybody but the film gives each character their own arc, emotional development as well as matching action to show off their talents. Special mention must go to MVP Paul Rudd who is absolute gold here. Quips aplenty providing the film with much needed levity as well as taking the spotlight in one particular scene that left the theater absolutely giddy with excitement.
Not only impressive in servicing existing characters, the film also effectively brings new characters into the fold. Chadwick Boseman as African Prince T’Challa — aka. Black Panther — is excellent, played with a fierce dignity and providing a more serious approach to circumstances. At the opposite end of the spectrum we have Tom Holland’s Peter Parker/Spider-Man. Excelling as both, he does enough in 30 minutes to utterly wash away the foul taste of the last 3 Spider-Man films, adding a frivolity and energy to the film. These characters transformed scenes and to be frank had me even more excited for their upcoming solo films than what unraveled before me. As Baron Zemo, Daniel Brühl has an interesting role in deepening the conflict between the Cap and Tony but his part feels like it exists more for plot advancement than anything else.
While this long-form storytelling is a rich resource for Marvel to draw on, some may find it a stumbling block. It really throws you into the mix; little time is afforded to catch viewers up. The opening 40 minutes are particularly heavy with plot setup and threaten to derail the film before things snap into place. Also, for those who disliked the political thriller slant of The Winter Soldier, another return to this genre may do little to convince you further of its merit. For the rest of us, directors Anthony and Joe Russo, together with writers Chris Markus and Stephen McFeely, have crafted a film that is a resounding triumph. It doesn’t feel like a string of set-pieces, the actions scenes work in service of both the plot and the characters. Each getting their own arc, new characters brought into the fold effortlessly all the while telling a intricate, engaging story that entertains and also pushes the MCU forward. It’s densely packed and impressively doesn’t collapse under the weight of it all.
Much of the buzz around the film stems from the airport sequence. A battle royale of #TeamCap Vs. #TeamIronMan (#hashtag). The hype is real. It’s one of the most smart and visually stunning set-pieces to grace our screens. Overall it demonstrates how considered the Russo brothers have been when integrating all these characters into one movie. Characters play off each other, powers and personalities collide. Solo efforts and teamwork. Precise attacks and emotionally charged blows. Experience and tactics of old hands countered by the exuberance and naivety of new players such as Ant-Man and Spider-man. It’s a spectacularly well choreographed and extraordinarily considered sequence.
As impressive as these set pieces are, the film truly shines in the quieter and more character driven scenes. Again, something that would fail to resonate as well without the buildup from previous films. Playful moments between characters such as the ongoing bickering between Falcon and Bucky or my favorite, a scene where Tony Stark and Peter Parker meet for the first time which has something of a magical quality to it. Civil War truly draws on the expanded universe they have built up, no other film could cram in so much without it. Backstory, friendships and history between these characters are used to add emotional heft, meaning while the action remains impressive, it packs a bigger punch than ever before. Marvel is reaping the rewards of having an audience that is already invested in and bonded to these characters. It’s a massive payoff, a culmination of what’s come before, a fine stand-alone tale, and also strongly informative of future installments.
Whilst Civil War gets a little bogged down by the plot and sheer number of characters at times, once it builds up some steam, it’s an absolute joy to watch. The Russo Brothers have delivered a film that is big in scale but manage to imbue it with a level of intimacy, keeping the stakes very personal. This is largely a result of the long game Marvel has played in approaching their cinematic universe: efforts to develop these characters in their impressive solo and group features build to the payoff you see on screen here. Civil War is truly standing on the shoulders of giants and in doing so sets a new bar for Marvel.
Captain America: Civil War opens in U.S. theaters on May 6, 2016.