The collateral damage caused by Earth’s Mightiest Heroes and other sins of the past weigh heavily on “Captain America: Civil War”, the thirteenth – thirteenth! – film of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Threads from “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”, “Avengers: Age Of Ultron” and “Ant-Man” are woven together into the ever-richer tapestry; there are even strands which go back all the way to “The Incredible Hulk” and “Iron Man”. Oh, what a tangled web they weave. Good job, then, that one of the new Marvel recruits just might be able to help them with that.
In the wake of the destruction in Sokovia and a pitched battle against Crossbones in Nigeria, the governments of the world come together in an attempt to curtail and control the Avengers’ activities under a UN council. As the prospect of political control splits the Avengers down the middle, the sudden re-emergence of The Winter Soldier escalates the conflict, pitting hero against hero and threatening to destroy the Avengers from within.
Along with Iron Man, Captain America has had the most cohesive character arc of any Marvel character on the big screen with his journey from true-blue star-spangled loyal soldier to a man who finds the ideals he fought and froze for in increasingly short supply in the world he finds himself in carrying through to its ultimate end game in “Civil War”. Having seen the institutions and authorities he believed in revealed one after another to be flawed or corrupt, his reluctance to accept the oversight of an organisation driven by a political agenda which could change over time makes sense. When you hear Rogers spell it out, you’ll be ready to declare for #TeamCap.
Although it seems counter-intuitive that Tony Stark would somehow be in favour of being subservient to ‘the man’, his position has its roots all the way back in his Tora Bora-piphany in “Iron Man”, realising that he had ‘become part of a system that is comfortable with zero accountability. Accountability weighs heavily on Stark’s mind as his every attempt to make things better seems somehow to make things worse. Despite his best efforts, he finds himself back in that position and the Accords offer him a way out, effectively take the burden of responsibility off his shoulders so he can get back to doing what he likes best: building suits and being Iron Man (it’s a welcome – and long overdue – change to MCU convention that Stark does not sign off this movie by quitting again). Perhaps I’m #TeamIronMan after all.
That’s the triumph of “Captain America: Civil War”: the conflict feels authentic. The motivations make sense in terms of the characters’ journeys to this point. Not only that but the film manages to move every character’s journey along, shake up the status quo and introduce big new characters.
Directors Anthony and Joe Russo have delivered a thrilling, spectacular and even thought-provoking summer blockbuster that delivers some of the best superhero action seen on screen yet. Along with this, there are some wonderful character moments, both quiet and in combat, scenes from iconic comics spring to new life on screen and the dialogue snaps, crackles and pops like Whedon never put down his pen and walked off into the sunset. The lucrative merchandising opportunities aren’t overlooked either and I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before the kids start clamouring for Vision’s new range of business casual menswear.
In amongst all the hurly-burly and servicing of existing characters (without making any of them feel short-changed save perhaps Hawkeye who makes a disappointing return to being the dullest Avenger after his show-stealing turn in “Age Of Ultron”) it manages to successfully introduce two new heroes to the MCU: Black Panther and Spider-Man without getting bogged down in exploring their origin stories.
Thematically, the film shares a great deal in common with its would-be rival movie, dominated by the consequences of past deeds and the destructive power of all-consuming vengeance. It also depends on heroes being manipulated by a third party agenda however the manipulation is cleverer here and has a clearer objective in mind. In Daniel Brühl’s Zemo, “Civil War” risks being accused of exacerbating the Marvel Villain ‘problem’ and while his comic namesake is more grandiose and perhaps formidable, there’s a quiet intensity and intimacy to his motivation that actually provides an acutely human counterpoint to the clash of the Titans playing out as a result of his machinations.
Effects-wise, the film is faultless. Superpowered combat has never looked this good on screen and while the show-stopping Airport fight scene sets the bar for every comic book movie to come, every other skirmish is worthy of praise in its own right. Perhaps the single most impressive moment, though, is a flashback to the early nineties where we get to see a very young Tony Stark say an unknowingly final goodbye to his parents. The digital de-ageing is phenomenal, even more so than Michael Douglas’ brief return to his eighties heyday in “Ant-Man”. It’s so perfectly done that it’s tempting to suspect that given Marvel’s demonstrable ability to plan for the long-term that they actually filmed a scene back in the 1990s ‘just in case’.
While Marvel’s in-movie villain problem may not be causing them too many issues yet, there are a couple of real-world adversaries who may begin to pose more of a threat. There’s a tangential threat from the recent lacklustre reception to other Superhero franchises – a healthy, vibrant and successful rival provokes ambition, risk-taking and a creative ‘arms race’ but financial and critical failures within the genre, even at other studios, will create a climate of caution and playing it safe. It’s a small threat right now, but things can quickly change.
The other nemesis is – as is the current convention in comic book movies – one of Marvel’s own making. They’ve produced a run of consistently entertaining, fun and spectacular movies (you can quibble about which order they go in but even the least admired – usually a toss-up between “Iron Man 2” and “Thor: The Dark World” – are still quite a bit better than most other genre fare) and they’re starting to face a problem which would be very familiar to Professor Noriaki Kano. Put simply, Marvel’s ‘wow factor’ is quickly becoming the audience’s base expectation. It’s harder for them to impress because of the level of quality and spectacle the audience has come to expect. This was particularly evident in the reactions to “Avengers: Age Of Ultron” and, in “Civil War”, were it not for Spider-Man and Black Panther I think we’d see the same kind of vague sense of being ever so slightly underwhelmed. Again, it’s not a huge issue just now but it needs attention otherwise the grumbles about being ‘formulaic’ will only grow louder.
At this stage, it’s impressive that the Marvel Cinematic Universe holds together as well as it does but there are cracks showing here and there. Odd character absences beg an explanation but none is given. The absence of Tony Stark or Clint Barton’s during “The Winter Soldier” was problematic but not insurmountably so given the relatively tight timeframe of the movie’s story, whereas Nick Fury’s absence from “Civil War” is as awkward as it is narratively essential (after all, does anybody really believe he would have let the situation spiral out of control to the point of internecine conflict between the Avengers?). Other ancillary characters such as Maria Hill simply don’t turn up and bigger figures such as Thor and Hulk are merely name-checked in passing but the biggest miss of the whole thing is the failure to even acknowledge the TV side of the MCU. There’s no need for complicated and gimmicky cameos but surely the drawing up of the Sokovia accords merits a mention of the many ‘enhanced’ individuals popping up across the globe thanks to the release of the Terrigen crystals in “Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.”? Or a passing reference to persons of interest in New York? Surely Tony Stark took a quick look at Hell’s Kitchen while he was stalking Spidey in Queens?
These are the kind of minor gripes that will only continue to get louder as the MCU goes on unless they continue to find new ways to impress and amaze. For the moment, though, “Captain America: Civil War” is easily amongst the best of the Marvel movies, if not the best; an action-packed blockbuster not afraid to show its heroes in both joy and sorrow and even broad daylight. Whether you’re #TeamCap or #TeamIronMan, there’s plenty for you in this well balanced movie. Of course, if you simply don’t buy into the central conflict the whole thing will ring hollow for you, as it did for Mrs Craggus, prompting a brief domestic civil war as Mertmas (who went bananas for Spider-Man) and I rallied to its cause. Heroes fighting heroes has always been a mainstay of comics and it’s only natural that it would come to the big screen too, even though I get her preference for team-ups rather than face-offs. She also thought it was a little too long. On that front, I concede she may have a point.
“Captain America: Civil War” leaves things nicely poised for the forthcoming Infinity Wars (whatever they end up being called) and offers us not one but two credits scenes, although there’s nothing Strange about either of them if you catch my drift. “Civil War” succeeds both as a Marvel movie in its own right and not just as a riposte to a rival studio’s pretender to the throne, which is why I’ve managed to make it through this entire review without mentioning “Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice”.