While opinions are varied on most of the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the one film of those first twelve that everyone agrees got it right is ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ (2014). It centred the erratic styles and ideas of the series, and gave some of its most intriguing characters the time and space to actually develop, all the while still managing to be preposterously entertaining. When its follow-up ‘Captain America: Civil War’ was announced, boasting a robust collection of superheroes in its cast, the fear was that this focus and energy would dissipate, much like it has in both dreadful 'Avengers' film. However, with ‘Winter Soldier’ directors Anthony and Joe Russo not only back for the follow-up, but now holding the reigns of the franchise as a whole, what could have been a massive misstep might be the smartest move Marvel has ever made.
In the aftermath of the events of ‘Age of Ultron’, the Avengers have been called to account for the civilian cost of their actions. A series of regulations and security checks are proposed, and while Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) leads a contingent of the team happy to comply, Captain America (Chris Evans) refuses, driven by both his ideals and his determination to track down his childhood friend Bucky (Sebastian Stan), still trapped as the Winter Soldier. Sitting on opposite sides of an ideological rift, the Avengers begin to crumble from the inside, and the team created to protect us threatens to tear itself apart from the inside.
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‘Civil War’ not only takes on ten existing superheroes, but throws two brand new ones into the mix. If previous attempts to pack a film with this many superhero characters have proved anything, it’s that this "more is more" approach never works, often leading to muddy narratives and unsatisfying character arcs. It’s therefore one hell of an achievement that ‘Civil War’ not only manages to remain coherent and serve all its characters beautifully, but also never once buckles under its own weight. The Russos juggle their enormous cast with tremendous dexterity, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s screenplay finding genuine justification for why every single one of them is there. However, ‘Civil War’ is far from an unofficial third Avengers film, carrying over the tone and kinetics of ‘Winter Soldier’ and continuing to develop the relationship between Steve and Bucky, easily the most fascinating in the Marvel universe. Instead of the Civil War narrative railroading Captain America’s arc, it adds to and amplifies it, all of the Avengers forced to consider the repercussions of their actions and whether they are really worth it. Rather than stealing the limelight from Captain America, the other Avengers serve it instead, even adding surprising emotional weight to the film. ‘Civil War’ could easily have been a far heavier film, but the Russos use wonderful moments of lightness in order to make the darker moments land with far more impact.
This is the most mature film the Marvel franchise has offered so far, not just in terms of themes and ideas, but in its execution. It’s both enormous and intimate, epic and personal, wonderfully witty and genuinely moving. It’s their longest film so far - sitting at just under two and a half hours - but it moves like a freight train, the action sequences complex and breathtaking while the dialogue scenes are just as energised and vital. The central battle between the warring Avengers is a master class in action storytelling, full of terrific character beats and tremendous fight choreography. It also helps that it’s just so damn entertaining. The jokes and banter are far more genuine and electric than anything Joss Whedon ever wrote, the relationships between the characters finally feel natural, and even the new members of the team quickly feel like they’ve always been there.
This is the most mature film the Marvel franchise has offered so far, not just in terms of themes and ideas, but in its execution.
The returning cast are all at their absolute best, Downey Jr in particular finding a gravitas to Iron Man that we’ve really never seen. Chris Evans continues to make Captain America’s idealism palpable and complex, and his moments with Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow still sparkle as much they did in the last film. We get a clean, crisp entrance for Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther, but expect that character to really kick into gear with Ryan Coogler’s upcoming solo film. However, if anyone steals this film, it’s Tom Holland making his stunning entrance as Spider-Man. Any doubts that this third reboot of the character was necessary are swept away in seconds, Holland nailing it practically the moment he walks on screen. What’s really great about ‘Civil War’ though is that it feels like a genuine ensemble piece in a way neither Avengers film ever did. They feel like a genuine team now that they don’t spend every second throwing witty banter at one another and exchange disingenuous emotions. You now see that they mean something to one another, and while they hold to the ideals that tearing them apart, it comes with great emotional cost.
I’ve never been in Marvel’s corner, endlessly disappointed by the lacklustre, lazy films that started the franchise off. Yet with ‘Captain America: Civil War’, that’s completely changed. This is a genuinely great superhero film, probably one of the finest yet. It has everything - big action, great characters, high stakes and enormous dollops of entertainment, and all executed with tremendous focus and clarity, something we very rarely see in blockbuster entertainment anymore. The Marvel Cinematic Universe hasn’t just found its feet. I’d go so far to say that, with ‘Civil War’, it’s finally properly arrived. I can't believe I'm saying this, but I cannot wait to see where they take us next!