While I’m pretty sure Guardians of the Galaxy is still my favourite Marvel movie, I feel confident saying the studio’s latest could very well be their best. Some people will no doubt still have a problem with Marvel’s serialised story-telling (which I’ll never really understand), but Captain America: Civil War gives fans everything they could hope for from Marvel Studios. It brings together a huge roster of disparate superheroes, it’s brimming with tight and tense action to get your blood pumping (not to mention boasting what is hands-down the biggest superhero battle ever captured on screen), and perfectly balances being its own story as well as a continuation of Marvel’s grand cinematic plan. Most importantly though, Civil War never forgets it’s the characters that drive the narrative, and manages to frame all that good stuff into a surprisingly personal story about two brothers in arms falling out of grace.
With the collateral damage piling up and one too many doomsday plans only narrowly averted, the world has become understandably uneasy with the growing number of “enhanced” individuals running around the planet. While no one disputes the Avengers are trying to fight the good fight, more and more their presence is a sign you need to make yourself scarce less you get caught in the crossfire. Wracked with guilt over his role in the events in Age of Ultron, Tony Stark, aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), comes out in favour of a system to put the Avengers under the oversight of the United Nations. Current Avengers leader Steve Rogers, aka Captain America (Chris Evans), believes this is too dangerous a proposition and that they must remain free to defend humanity without government interference or political motivation.
On face value it sounds like this is a story that should really be left to an Avengers movie, but despite all the heroes that have a horse in this race, I’m happy to say this is absolutely a Captain America story. Civil War is very much a follow-up to The Winter Soldier, with Cap trying to bring his former teammate Bucky (Sebastian Stan) back into the light. With political pressure mounting for Bucky’s arrest, Rogers is forced to choose between his oldest friend and his current avenging ones. There are lots of moving parts in this movie, and plenty to get through to reach the massive Avengers vs Avengers brawl teased in all the trailers (more on that in a bit), but screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely do an impossibly great job of making Civil War feel as organic as possible. They take their time, setting all the pieces into motion and let things escalate until Stark and Rogers finally reach their impasse, dragging their fellow heroes into the fight.
While the tight plotting, great character work and frantic action throughout the movie’s first half would make for a fantastic Marvel movie easily on par with Winter Soldier, once things start ratcheting up for the big standoff, Civil War takes it to another echelon. Just watching both sides form their teams is a total blast, especially with the introduction of a certain wall-crawling hero into the MCU. But then, when anticipation is at its zenith, directors Anthony and Joe Russo treat you to a colossal six-on-six super-powered battle royal, and I’ll be damned if it isn’t the finest superhero set piece I’ve ever seen. The Russos have already demonstrated their ability to craft intricate fight scenes, ensuring each combatant feels unique and the audience follows the impact of every punch thrown. Given free reign to play with many of the MCU’s biggest icons, the Russos employ that same care on a ridiculous scale to effortlessly create something I have no doubt we are about to see a thousand other directors kill themselves trying to replicate.
As massive as it gets, the characters still shine through, enjoying at least one or two great beats each (especially my boy, Ant-Man) and enjoy plenty of brilliant, Whedon-esque exchanges sprinkled throughout (special mentions going to Winter Soldier with Falcon, Ant-Man with War Machine, and Spider-Man with… pretty much everyone). Even more impressive, is how painstakingly careful the writers were to make sure every single character had a motivation, and one that you could believe in. I was worried I wasn’t going to be convinced of the Cap/Iron Man conflict, but after seeing how patient and gradual it was getting there, and then how far they do finally take it, I’m now wondering if I can buy them ever wanting to work together again. Especially given one very brave choice the writers made to put a chink in Cap’s seemingly impenetrable morality.
I also have to make a note of how thankful I was that all the resentment they managed to build up between Rogers and Stark wasn’t thrown out the window in the third act so they could team up to fight some forgettable villain. Civil War gives the Avengers a threat from within, not from some somber robot or Norse demi-god, and that’s why it manages to not just be spectacle, but also a total punch to the gut. To be fair, there is a bad guy pulling strings in Daniel Brühl’s Zemo, but in reality he is just another cog in a very complicated machine. It’s tempting to file him as another example of Marvel not realising their villains as well as their heroes, but there is a clear distinction between an antagonist that got your attention with a small dose of screen time, than one fully explored but totally disposable. That said, even in his limited role, Zemo does stir up a bit of intrigue, so hopefully he’s someone we get to revisit in a future movie.
Evans is as charming as ever as Cap; cool and collected no matter how crazy things get. If you’re someone who finds him to be a little too apple pie this movie probably isn’t going to change your mind, but his humble demeanor and ability to keep things in perspective are core to what makes him such a lovable creation. Downey Jr. is given a bit more emotional range as the sort-of antagonist of the film. Stark’s insatiable need to fix and tinker with what he sees as broken was always going to make him philosophically incompatible with Cap’s all-American outlook, but the writers give him far more personal stakes to the fight than he ever did in the comic. Iron Man has evolved more than any other character throughout the course of the franchise, with Civil War bringing him to the most vulnerable and desperate point he’s ever reached and giving Downey some of the most emotionally charged material we’ve yet seen in the MCU.
The supporting cast, while characteristically excellent, is far too big for me to discuss in too much detail, but to not praise Tom Holland’s Spider-Man would be a travesty. Holland bursts with charisma and energy, giving us what could be the best version of Peter Parker to date and proving what a difference it makes finally seeing him under the Marvel Studios banner. Every frame with the web-head is a delight, and immediately makes an impact on all the other heroes we’ve spent a dozen movies getting to know.
While seeing a rebooted Spider-Man so soon should be a point of contention, Captain America: Civil War is filled with material that threatens to overwhelm the plot like so many superhero movies before. But McFeely, Marcus and the Russos make it seem easy, with every disparate element introduced organically and coming together into a dumbfoundingly tight plot. Some viewers will no doubt wish Marvel was willing to push the boundaries and go a little darker (though there is one scene that will certainly shock viewers) and personal preference will determine if you like some of the late-stage decisions the movie makes, but for what Marvel sets out to accomplish they do so with flying colors. Delivering one of the most maturely written chapters in the franchise, a monster cast with astounding attention to character detail, and some of the most fun you’re likely to have at the movies this year, Captain America: Civil War is Marvel Studios at their absolute finest.
It doesn’t get any better than this.
THE REEL SCORE: 10/10