Marvel Studios’ thirteenth film, and the one that kicks off their third official “phase”, finds them embracing their original concept of a shared cinematic universe like never before. Their success has been so great that they now appear to be operating on the same assumption the Harry Potter series did from its third entry onward; that audiences are all now totally familiar with the characters and this world, and know the previous stories. There’s no entry point for new viewers now. Marvel are using this film to draw from previous events, and explore new ones that affect multiple characters throughout their universe, and introduce a couple of new names to boot.
Considering that, the title of this movie feels a little inappropriate. This is far more of an Avengers movie than a Captain America one, and indeed I wouldn’t be surprised if Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr., still totally committed in his umpteenth portrayal) has the most screen time and dialogue here. They could just have easily called this Iron Man: Civil War or Avengers: Civil War. It’s a bit of a double edged sword, it does give Marvel a chance to try and create another great Avengers movie after last year’s immensely disappointing Age of Ultron, but it also suggests that they’re no longer particularly interested in exploring Steve Rogers’ (Chris Evans) character and place within this world.
The Captain America-related plot thread it picks up on most is in fact that of The Winter Soldier himself – Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), who is still brainwashed to a degree, on the run and seen in the opening flashback being tortuously experimented upon. The film moves back to the present with an action sequence featuring all members of the new Avengers team formed at the end of Age of Ultron. Their attempts to take down Hydra agent Crossbones (Frank Grillo) in Lagos end badly for one member of the team, leaving the status of the Avengers, and the public’s perception of them, less certain. The film’s cast is expansive, considerably larger than the first Avengers, but screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely admirably manage to juggle them all without the film feeling overcrowded.
Civil War keeps the notion of two duelling Avenger factions headed up by Captain America and Iron Man, but otherwise departs heavily from the comic book upon which it’s based. It still does attempt to create a plausible and interesting scenario in which these superheroes might turn on one another. It also commendably, if with only modest success, tries to address the fall-out from the many gigantic aerial battle sequences that tiresomely closed out almost every film from the first Avengers onward. The heroes are forced to confront the fact that their actions have resulted in multiple civilian casualties, and that some people hold them responsible for this.
Considering that, it’s a good thing that this movie itself also doesn’t succumb to the giant aerial battle finale, instead having its central set piece occur earlier on in the film. It’s approach to taking on the issue of civilian casualties basically comes to sum-up my opinion of this entire movie; I appreciate that it’s trying to do something a bit different and avoid some of what have become the more clichéd elements of superhero cinema – said massive battles, origin stories and more – but I don’t feel that it hits this out of the park.
The sides that Stark and Rogers take on the central issue do make sense, and the scenes in which they justify this contain some of the film’s more interesting dialogue. However the other team members seem to more arbitrarily pick sides based on previous friendships/loyalties, aside from a flip-flopping Black Widow (Scarlett Johannsson). It leaves me wondering how much Marvel truly wanted to take on this notion, or whether it was just an excuse to set up the film’s key set-piece in which two teams of Avengers fight one-another.
Another thing separating Civil War from the general Marvel template is, for its first half at least, that it’s relatively humourless. A lot of the film feels far more dour and serious than the fun Marvel we’ve come to expect. Fortunately, it gets a much-needed injection of humour around the halfway point thanks to the appearances of Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man and a certain young web-slinger. In sharp but welcome contrast to the other superheroes, they both just seem really happy to have been invited to join in. Paul Rudd lands a lot of the film’s funniest moments in his brief appearances, and actually is involved with what’s probably the absolute highlight of the film’s big battle scene. Ant-Man’s a show-stealer here in a similar manner to how the Hulk was in The Avengers.
This big fight you know this is all leading to takes place in an airport, it’s preceded by one of the weaker moments, in which Tony and Steve almost immediately reach the same conclusion that they’re not going to try and sort out their differences, just attack one another. However, as massive superhero movie fight scenes go, this one has a different edge to it because there aren’t good guys and bad guys here. I suppose an audience member could theoretically strongly side with one team, either because you agree with their arguments or just because you like that character more, but essentially this is a superhero battle that isn’t about winning or losing. Marvel, and directors Anthony and Joe Russo know this, which enables them to fashion the sequence as a spectacle of pure entertainment. We get to see how these character’s respective abilities face up against one another, and even see a few new ones. It’s great fun, and is undoubtedly going to go down as one of the top scenes the MCU has delivered so far. It only stumbles when they try to add an element of actual danger to it, which comes across as a bit of a misstep considering the tone of the overall scene, which has lightened up the movie no-end.
So let’s talk about a couple of the new additions to the MCU that Civil War has been tasked with introducing. Chadwick Boseman proves to be an excellent choice for T’Challa / Black Panther. He’s introduced already active, an unusual take for a less well-known hero but his introductory scenes establish him easily. This is no cameo either; he’s a key part of the entire film. We already know he’s getting a solo film, and what we see of him here, both in his personality and base of operation suggest that he could be a hero to really stand out from the crowd.
And then there’s the new Spider-Man, played by Tom Holland who comes into the film around the midway point. He’s still a high school teenager in Queens, and has been active for about 6 months. It makes sense to not waste anyone’s time with another origin re-telling, and as I mentioned already, this is a take on the character that leans heavily on the comedic. While I’m still a little uncertain on the pubescent voice Holland is using, he otherwise gives us a highly entertaining new version of Peter Parker; the gawky teen who doesn’t quite know what to do with the abilities he now has. He has excellent chemistry with Robert Downey Jr. in his opening scene, and keeps up the awkward wise-cracks throughout his action beats, which will likely delight long-time fans of the character.
After lightening up for its second act, the movie heads in another darker direction for its actual finale, which drops the fun for a well-choreographed, if surprisingly brutal fight in which it appears that Steve and Tony might actually be trying to kill each other. Again, I’m glad it’s a different kind of ending for a Marvel movie, but overall it was a bit more of a mixed bag for me. Similarly the nominal villain here Helmut Zemo, played by Daniel Brühl is by no means a carbon-copy supervillain, but only gets a truly interesting moment at the very end. The showdown is left feeling a bit open-ended, but I’m really not sure what the MCU is expecting to do with these characters, and I’m not convinced they do either.
Civil War represents a new step in the evolution of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It demonstrates that they can handle ongoing plotlines and an ever expanding cast of characters without succumbing to too much bloat. It bodes well for the Russo’s upcoming 2 part Infinity War movie, but at the same time does not feel like the stand-out Marvel movie I’d hoped for, and lacks the depth it maybe could have had. At the moment this is upper-mid level MCU for me. I’ve found their films varyas to whether they improve with a re-watch or not, but considering the density and expanse of Civil War, I can easily imagine that it might.
A few more random thoughts on this movie I couldn’t quite fit into my main review:
– Digital de-aging is approaching nightmare-inducing levels of realism. I wonder how it’s going to be implemented in the future.
– If you’re going to get Martin Freeman in your superhero movie, why give him such a trivial and forgettable role?
– I was determined not to mention this film in my review, but it’s fascinating how similar Civil War is in structure to Batman v Superman. Both deal with the collateral damage of a large battle and how two superheroes differing attitudes lead to them fighting it out at around the mid-way point. They then differ considerably but still. This is without question the better movie.
– One of Marvel’s continual failures is to have a decent score; Civil War only continues that with Henry Jackman’s work here proving totally forgettable. I still can’t recall a single decent Marvel music cue.
– Marisa Tomei playing the previously grand-maternal figure of Aunt May leaves me with rather confused feelings. That is all.