For a while, Captain America: Civil War and Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice were scheduled to release on the same day. In the end, DC blinked first and moved Zack Snyder’s film to March, where it opened to lavish box office figures and mostly poor reviews. 2016′s second superhero smackdown comes courtesy of Marvel Studios, and is the third film in the Captain America series, although in reality it also functions as a sequel to Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Anthony and Joe Russo, the sibling directors of the second Captain America film, Winter Soldier, return here after being rewarded for their work by being handed the reins to Marvel’s ultimate, two-part cinematic showdown, Avengers: Infinity War, which begins next year. This project feels like a rehearsal for that one, in that it gathers together a huge amount of larger-than-life characters, most of whom we’ve seen on screen already. The Russo’s job – as it was Joss Whedon’s before them – is to cram a whole load of stuff into a cohesive, entertaining film. On this evidence, Marvel may have put their gargantuan series in two pairs of safe hands.
This film adapts a much-liked storyline from the comics, updating it for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in which Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) are pitted against each other by a moral quandary. In this version, the divisive factor is the Sokovia Accords, a document signed by 117 countries which calls for the Avengers to be brought under the stewardship of the United Nations. Various elements of plot are introduced or resurrected in order to establish the basic setup: Iron Man wants to sign, and Captain America does not. After the scene is set, following on from an action-packed introduction, the film enters a protracted period of calm, taking its time to establish the plot strands that will come together in the final third. And, of course, a massive punch-up between two teams of five superheroes.
The problem all directors and screenwriters must get around with Marvel films is how to fit all the constituent elements together in a way that not only makes sense, but is entertaining and feels like it’s going somewhere. Inevitably, some of the pieces are served better than others, but what the Russo brothers have done – and indeed the screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely – is carefully pick and choose their moments. As directors, the Russos clearly have a flair for action – that much was clear in the previous Cap film – and that flair is ramped up here, but the action is not the only positive. They also seem able to tap into that now-familiar Marvel tone – one of complete seriousness interspersed with tongue-in-cheek silliness. It’s that lightness of touch that many feel separates these films from their murkier DC equivalents. Civil War’s tone lies somewhere between the more considered parts of Winter Soldier and the free-wheeling fun of the Avengers films. When the main players are on screen, the film tends to be more serious (Tony Stark’s quick wit is mostly reined in here) but it allows itself a sense of fun, too, primarily when the supporting cast are assembled. The central showdown, for instance, comes after that rather long establishing section. Just as the film is beginning to feel too heavy for its own good, along come Paul Rudd (as Ant Man) and Tom Holland as the new Spiderman (both great), and their presence acts as a catalyst for the film to throw off its shackles and become deliriously entertaining. Just don’t think too hard about the mechanics of what’s going on – the film even makes a joke (through Spiderman) about how silly it all is.
Where the film struggles a little is in defining the allegiances and enmities running through its massive cast of characters. It does a fairly decent, if not entirely convincing, job of building a conflict between its two central players, and actually there is some depth in the film’s discussion of responsibility and guilt. The rest of the cast are competing for screen time and, when the fighting starts, the motivations of some of the minor players are thinly sketched at best. Tom Holland is great as the new Spiderman (something I really didn’t expect to be saying, given how well covered the character has been) but his introduction is a weak structural element. The other main new addition to the cast is Chadwick Boseman as Blank Panther, whose storyline is central to the setup of the film, and who handles his role well. The rest of supporting cast are all on good form, even if most of them are reduced to action sidekicks in this narrative. Sebastian Stan has a difficult role as the Winter Soldier, aka Steve Rogers’ old war buddy, but makes it work – particularly through one great line of dialogue. The development of characters such as Scarlett Witch and Vision, for instance, will have to wait until the next Avengers film.
As a whole, Civil War is a success. Though it has flaws in its structure and struggles to make all of its characters feel vital, it nevertheless provides a romping action adventure with enough depth and heart to make it feel like an essential part of this ongoing mythology. Thankfully, Marvel has thought about how to vary its action sequences up – nothing falls from the sky and no cities explode in the final third – and the drama in Civil War comes not just from clashing fists, but from an interesting conflict of opinions. It even manages to introduce two new heroes, one of whom the cinema-going audience probably thought it was sick of, and as a bonus has Daniel Bruhl as an underdeveloped but effective third-party villain. In the 2016 battle for superhero supremacy, Marvel has unquestionably delivered the knock-out blow.