The Marvel movie template, no matter how successful, has proven its limits of late, comfortable familiarity sinking towards stale repetition. There’ll be a bad guy, with a plan to destroy the city/world/galaxy. There’ll be quips aplenty, and action scenes slowly ramping up to end, when someone will probably try and drop something on a city – or drop a city on something else, which was Avengers: Age of Ultron’s sole attempt to shake up the formula.
If last summer’s Ant-Man seemed an anomalous exception to the norm, Captain America: Civil War is here to let us know that the old rules no longer apply. Marvel is finally willing to play around and stretch its wings again – at least within certain boundaries.
This is still a Marvel film, after all. The creative team behind the excellent Captain America: Winter Soldier are back to usher in Phase 3 of the Marvel-verse. After a seemingly routine Avengers mission in Lagos goes wrong, civilians are left dead, and the world’s governments want answers. They insist on the U.N. taking control of the Avengers, as some sort of Peacekeepers extraordinaire. Iron Man’s (Robert Downey Jr.) on board, but Captain America (Chris Evans) can’t stomach leaving the fate of the world in the hands of bureaucrats – and the team conveniently splits 50/50 behind the two of them.
Cap’s old war-buddy/brainwashed Soviet assassin the Winter Soldier then gets dragged into the mix, and through some plot wrangling the divided Avengers find themselves facing off against one another. This all reaches its peak not at the film’s finale but at its midpoint, in an exquisitely choreographed battle royale at Leipzig airport, as twelve superheroes are thrown at each other in just about every possible combination to see who comes out on top. It’s the best superhero action setpiece ever shot, and it’s hard to imagine it being beaten.
This sequence is livened up immeasurably by the inclusion of Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and the first appearance of a certain teenaged webslinger (Tom Holland), each of whom serve triple duty as comic relief, audience surrogates, and perhaps the most spectacularly superpowered combatants of all. Spider-Man’s introduction is one of the film’s high points, and Holland’s appearance here promises great things from his upcoming solo outing. The only other major newcomer here is Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), whose African warrior brings a touch of gravitas to proceedings, even if – as one character points out – he’s basically just dressed as a cat.
There are complex political questions at play here, from the delicate balance of security and liberty to the nature and necessity of government intervention. Perhaps smartly, Civil War never tries to engage too thoroughly with them – it sets up its characters’ positions, quite plausibly, and leaves the audience to ruminate, without ever firmly committing its hand to one side or the other.
That’s because the political quagmire is really there to set up something else (well, besides the all-out superheroic warfare). This isn’t really about the philosophical points at play, but about the people caught on each side, and the challenges the divide places on their relationships: Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen); Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner); and, of course, Cap and Iron Man. As the film veers into its finale, it’s the weight of broken friendships that drives it towards the most powerful ending Marvel has managed yet.
In Civil War, Marvel have finally mastered juggling their motley assortment of heroic types, layering character arts and emotional beats into the action alongside the quips. This might just be their best yet – but either way it’s not to be missed.
Words by Dominic Preston