If a history of modern movies has shown us anything, it’s that sometimes things happen in twos; 1998’s asteroid double of Deep Impact and Armageddon; 1991’s dual portrayals of Kevin Costner and Patrick Bergin as Robin Hood; or 1996’s volcanic eruption that saw Dante’s Peak and the imaginatively titled Volcano.
2016 will go down as the year that Marvel Studios and Warner Bros. each brought out a superhero movie that saw a big blue boy scout go up against a multi-billionaire superhero in a cool costume. Suffice to say, the fans had a field day, while the DC vs Marvel debate became very heated, not least when Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice met with a mixed reception, and a box office gross that was respectable if not quite a billion dollar gross expected of it, and everyone on the planet loved Captain America: Civil War.
The best thing about Civil War, however, is how natural and brilliant it flows. Where Dawn of Justice had so much work to do in cementing a lot of the elements of the DC universe in the space of a single two and a half hour running time (the three hour extended version is so much better and deserves some sort of reappraisal), Civil War was Marvel’s thirteenth production, and by 2016, the franchise was on a roll, with films that had many balls to juggle, but were brilliantly able to do so without breaking a sweat.
While Avengers: Age of Ultron was somewhat of a mess, there was a feeling going in to Civil War that the latest Captain America movie would not feel as tired as the previous Avengers movie, but there was still a level of apprehension as the prospect that the next instalment of the Captain’s solo adventures would have to shoehorn an Avengers movie into its narrative.
There was nothing to be concerned about; Captain America: Civil War would be tight, funny, fast paced, fluid, with a levity that would bring in much humour and charm, but also consequences and dramatic heft. It would be a movie that would introduce T’Challa/Black Panther to mainstream movie audiences, complete with an instant star making turn from Chadwick Boseman; a new screen Spider-Man via a charming and instantly popular performance from Tom Holland; a complex, layered and somewhat more serious turn from Robert Downey Jr; one of superhero cinema’s greatest ever set pieces, and in the middle of it all Chris Evans’ increasingly iconic and wonderful portrayal of Steve Rogers, an actor and character that will no doubt go hand in hand for years to come in much the same way as Christopher Reeve and Superman.
The other thing to take note with in regards to the Captain’s solo movies is that they have always gone hand in hand with The Avengers movies; 2011’s The First Avenger effectively sets up The Avengers; The Winter Soldier follows up on the SHIELD elements from the first Avengers movie, while Civil War carries through on certain themes and tensions established in Age of Ultron, most notably through the plot device of The Sokovia Accords, a political document established in light of the collateral damage brought about due to the action of the Avengers, named so after the events at the end of Age of Ultron.
While movies starring Steve Rogers have always carried elements related to SHIELD throughout, here we were going to get a movie that was going to carry on the cliffhanger established in The Winter Soldier whereby Steve’s former friend Bucky and now infamous assassin was still on the run, but also the tensions established throughout Age of Ultron, coupled with Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr) continuing development into a more rounded but troubled character based on his past decisions.
If Civil War had been a mess, it might not have been a surprise, but it’s such an unmitigated blast of fun, but one ripe with consequences and dramatic heft, even if it doesn’t dare go as dark or as troubling as the source material it’s based on.
A loose adaptation of Mark Millar’s 2006-2007 comic book run of the same name, Civil War was a dark tale from Marvel Comics that falls very much into the realms of post-9/11 concerns and paranoia and which featured dramatic twists and turns, some of which were controversial and criticised by critics, while the series itself was a massive commercial success and recently gained a sequel.
The Russo Brothers’ movie is not a strict adaptation, taking the aesthetic basis of the story (Captain and Iron Man against each other due to their differing philosophies and political ideologies, with the Avengers themselves split down the middle due to who they support), but the story is applied to the tone and attitude of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
As a result, the film does have a touch more humour than the comic series, as per usual with the MCU, but like The Winter Soldier, there’s a wonderfully gritty spike to the action and story telling, which continues the previous Captain America movies ability to mix politics, thriller and large-scale action, with a charmingly layered and emotionally complex turn from Chris Evans in the middle of it, but only this time really opening itself up with a larger cast, with appearances from the majority of characters from the MCU to date, with Thor and The Hulk missing in action, although it is a surprise that Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is nowhere to be seen.
The film manages to embrace and include a large cast of familiar and new faces, but never forgets that the name above the title is Captain America, thus filtering the film through him. The film never forgets about Stark (how can you, it’s Robert Downey, Jr after all), and while it has a knack of being able to split audience sympathies, the film has the brilliant ability to not forget whose film it is and whose story it’s supposed to be filtered through.
It all builds up to a wonderful set piece that sees both sides of the film’s political arguments come together for one of the most epic comic book battles ever put to film and which has more characters than you’d think possible. Just when you think the film is at a dangerous level of peaking too soon, it then goes on for another twenty minutes or so and ends with Steve and Tony fighting over Bucky effectively, because the film, in a not very surprising twist it has to be said, reveals Bucky to have been responsible for the death of Tony’s parents, and whose murder we witness in the film’s prologue.
It’s admirable in some respect that the film doesn’t need to level entire city blocks for its final set piece, instead opting to enclose the action in one set and just letting the key characters have it out, all the while T’Challa quietly confronts the real villain of the piece, Baron Zemo (Daniel Bruhl). For a series that is frequently criticised for how non-memorable the majority of its villains are, Zemo and Bruhl’s performance are incredibly complex, and, in a daring move, puts a face to the emotional collateral damage that comes in the wake of being a superhero, with the character having lost his family in the battle that raged in Sokovia at the end of Age of Ultron.
His actions throughout may be brutal, but the film constantly reminds you of what is he has lost, a lost brought about because we cheered our heroes on last time as a city fell out of the sky. It says something about how well executed the movie is that it can have an idea as big and mature as this at the centre of it, and yet still have you giddy as a child at seeing Ant-Man make himself into a giant, all the while Spider-Man cracks jokes about The Empire Strikes Back.
By the time the end credits roll, Tony Stark and Steve Rogers have effectively swapped places, with Tony back in charge at the Avengers compound and Steve now the absent centre, albeit on the run due to his actions here, and possibly alongside everyone else who took his side on the Sokovia Accords. It’s an interesting place to leave it, left to be picked up in Avengers: Infinity War (directed by the returning Russo Brothers). Admittedly it never feels as brilliantly incendiary or as legitimately game changing as the twists and turns packed into The Winter Soldier, but at least it never feels as deflated or as disappointing as Age of Ultron.
The film is an unmitigated blast, giving us our first glimpse of the amazing Black Panther, and a definitive on-screen Spider-Man, who is closer in age and spirit to the comics than previously seen, and while some may criticise the film for still having that light, fun touch that Marvel Studios bring to all their films, like The Winter Soldier, there is still a feeling of consequences to the action here, even if it doesn’t go quite as far as the 2014 thriller, while Steve’s letter to Tony at the end of the movie can’t help but bring a small lump to your throat.
It also gives us the Only You reunion you never knew you wanted.
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