Director: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Screenplay: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Starring: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Rudd, Emily VanCamp, Tom Holland, Frank Grillo, William Hurt, Daniel Brühl
Runtime: 147 Minutes
Original UK Release: 2016
The existence of Captain America: Civil War both within the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and the space it occupies within the pop culture zeitgeist feels thoroughly significant to its position and identity. Coming not only a single month after the similarly pitched Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which itself followed a storyline concerning the collision of heroes in response to the effects of the collateral damage caused by their heroic endeavours, it heralds the third phase of the MCU’s grand scheme in the run-up to Infinity War as something of a placeholder in the lead up to the real finale despite the gravity of the story that it is choosing to tell – loosely adapted from the famous Mark Millar storyline of the same name.
Then there’s also the question to be raised of whether or not its narrative position as what is effectively the final instalment of the Captain America trilogy will be compromised by the presence of the wider cast of Avengers present, and if it will feel more like an Avengers 2.5 while sacrificing the narrative arc that has carefully sustained Steve Rogers’ (Chris Evans) own solo stories up until this point.
The good news is that the there is no compromise of elements at play in the final product, and rather what the film chooses to do is continue the narratives set-up with the previous instalment, The Winter Soldier, but since Rogers’ life is now so intertwined with the inner workings of the Avengers unite and the world they occupy, it can’t really avoid them as presences.
But great news is that allowing the character drama and conflict to drive the momentum behind the narrative and progression of events, and allowing this to feel like one of the most self-assured features in the MCU to date, the film being delivered looks and feels on a cinematic and dramatic level like the film that Age of Ultron never quite managed to be, and as such its possibly the best and most satisfying film that the MCU has produced since Avengers Assemble.
Although the setup of the storyline picks up immediately following the events of Age of Ultron, an inciting incident in Siberia involving a routine Avengers mission gone wrong quickly brings the retrospective wrath of real-world consequences to the series’ forefront in a brilliantly realised way that reconceptualises their positions as kick-ass heroic figures saving the world. The Sokovia Accords are brought forward as a registration act to keep them in check, and the unexpected divisions that this causes within the close-knit group manifest in interesting and thoroughly believable ways.
Steve Rogers has grown from his experiences in the previous film, having his idealism of WWII beaten out of him in a world of murky truths and a questioning of the authorities ruling above them. As such, he is in no place to sign away what little freedom he feels the team have left. Especially not with the re-emergence of James "Bucky" Barnes (Sebastian Stan), who is still on the run with a hazy memory and has apparently been framed for crimes he has not committed.
The friendship that has been strained between them feels like the primary drive that it should, with so many of the developments occurring because of their mistrust in Barnes as a potentially still brainwashed and susceptible implement of the Cold War. Regardless of the context of the ongoing drama in the rest of the film, this feels like a continuation of their storyline and the film doesn’t skimp on the emotional resonance and slow deconstruction of Captain America as a figure as some of the film’s most poetically repeated lines and reveals make clear.
The relief can also be felt that despite Robert Downey Jr.’s prominence in the marketing material and his position as the series’ most bankable star placing him closer to the centre than usual in a film that isn’t his own, Tony Stark proves to be a perfect foil to Steve’s own challenged idealism. Terrified of the ramifications of his past actions and allowing his demons to slowly consume him following the failure of Ultron, Stark’s position on the Accords feels perfectly justified from his perspective as he desperately tries to keep together a team he fears is coming apart at the seams.
Although the collision between these two obtainable leaders carries the burden of the core conflict, they both feel like different sides of the same coin. But there is a more directly antagonistic figure at work behind the scenes from the start in the form of Daniel Brühl’s mysterious Helmut Zemo, and without divulging too much more information his incorporation into events and his exact reasoning for doing so is one of the film’s most insidiously clever tricks. One that harbours dire consequences for more than one of the Avengers in the film’s surprisingly small-scale third act that feels genuinely involving and emotionally distressing.
Even with the tactile and balanced discussion going on regarding the red tape of a contemporary world, geopolitical stirrings and the nature of right and wrong in a noisy world, all of the main cast get their moments to shine and chime in with their own reasons for stepping into the conflict.
Paul Bettany’s Vision and Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlett Witch carry their own burdens of power while their relationship begins to blossom. Anthony Mackie and Don Cheadle’s Falcon and War Machine have their say on how their more prominent teammates operate, and Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow gets significantly more to do and say than she has previously in a less extraneous way.
Then there are the newcomers and cameos, and even for a film already this large the film still puts the likes of Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man to good use as a form of comic relief. Chadwick Boseman’s introduction as T'Challa, the prince of the African nation of Wakanda, sees him fulfil an entire origin story in the background so lean and focused that it’s going to be interesting seeing his character evolve in his own movie further down the line. He’s a compelling and exciting new presence and addition to the universe.
But the one everyone will be waiting for is the introduction of Spider-Man into the MCU in the form of the young Tom Holland. While no actor or interpretation could ever quite match the perfection of Tobey Maguire, Holland is excellent at selling this new version of a faithfully recreated Peter Parker without the baggage of retelling the origin story over again. He’s a punchy blast of air into proceedings who doesn’t outstay his welcome, but every scene he’s in is an unparalleled joy even if he does feel like an afterwards inclusion to the screenplay.
The integration of all of these characters, storylines and elements into the film’s structure is akin to watching the gears of a clock slot perfectly together in satisfying cohesion. This is stimulating dramatic storytelling the likes of which the cinematic universe was created to see follow through in such fashion.
Returning directors Anthony and Joe Russo acquit themselves even better than before with action cinema, carrying two or three of the most spectacularly staged and physically intense sequences the superhero genre has ever produced. From car chases, foot chases and brutally choreographed fistfights and practical effects, they hit every mark beautifully thanks to the terrific work of the second unit. All of which culminates in the act two action sequence teased in the marketing in which the heroes collide on an airport runway, and while the tonal shift might come across as too sharp for some, it delivers what is undoubtedly one of the MCU’s most incredible sequences of imagination and construction that feels like the stuff of dreams.
Civil War shouldn’t work as well as it does considering the number of plates it has spinning at once, but this might be the MCU’s proudest moment; a towering testament to the power of its storytelling, its performers, its characters and the investment and faith that audiences have placed within them. It’s as dense and mature as it is dizzyingly enjoyable and fun – a richly layered, impeccably managed piece of genre cinema that stands as one of its greatest ever accomplishments.