What happens when those who are supposed to protect you cause death and destruction? Who keeps them in check? Should the decisions on wielding great power be controlled by governments or the individual? The Avengers work outside of oversight and regulation. They enter sovereign territory without any regard for borders, doing what they believe to be right. What happens when things go wrong? When civilians die in the course of a mission, who is accountable? Who is in charge?
Taking its lead from the Marvel Comics Civil War event series by Mark Millar and Steve McNiven, these are the questions addressed in Captain America: Civil War. Opening Phase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this brings numerous heroes facing off against each other in an event which has been coming for some time, but unlike other recent superhero conflicts is built on years of work and solid foundations.
With a strong opening reminiscent of a Bond sequence the Avengers are tracking down a group of mercenaries led by an old enemy, but after the spying stops the action starts, thrust into the middle of a battle through the streets of Wakanda. In the ensuing chase and conflict, something goes horribly wrong, Wakanda becoming the latest in a list of places such as Sokovia where the Avengers have fought and left the bodies of innocents in their wake, the civilian deaths blamed on the reckless actions.
Should this private entity of super-powered vigilantes be put on a leash? Many in power agree with the voices of the outraged civilians, and so the Sokovia Accords are drawn up, a military framework signed by one hundred and seventeen nations with the aim of controlling “enhanced individuals.” Having already seen how arbitrarily governments can decide who is or who is not “the enemy” and how easily institutions can become infiltrated and corrupted, Captain America finds himself placed against the law and his friends.
The last in what could be considered the Captain America trilogy, the character of Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) has grown on his journey through those films. In The First Avenger the young soldier had an almost naive desire to fight the good fight in order to make the world a safer place. His encounter with The Winter Soldier saw a battle weary man realise how deeply, swiftly and silently corruption can spread. Now he is a soldier without an army, believing the best hands to decide on using power should be that of the individual.
On the other side is Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr in his sixth time in the suit), whose own journey from selfish billionaire playboy philanthropist to less selfish billionaire playboy philanthropist, desperately trying to do the right thing time after time and all too often stumbling along the way. Stark has always been impulsive, as can be the nature of genius, leaping forward on his intuition and passion without considering implications.
Though the Avengers did not initiate the events which devastated New York, it was his misjudgement which created Ultron. Guilt ridden by the death of those innocents caught in the crossfire, Stark is driven to conclude that “We need to be put in check.” Unaccustomed to being fettered, it is a humbling experience for the anti-establishment technocrat to agree to play nice with the governments of the world to make himself and the other Avengers accountable for their actions.
Rogers’ reaction is different; too often seen as the clean-cut goody-two shoes of the outfit, his personal honour is too easily mistaken for obedience, subservience, but in fact he has a history of breaking rules, his unauthorised mission behind enemy lines to rescue an entire squadron held by Hydra, his uncovering of the conspiracy behind the attempted assassination of Nick Fury. He does what he believes the right thing to be, always, even if it is not the easy thing. Had he not done so, S.H.I.E.L.D. would already be lost, and here again his judgement tells him that his own conscience is a better guide than a pair of political handcuffs shaped by committee.
The best conflicts in drama are those where both sides of the arguments are equally strong, the proponents matched in their articulate defences of their opinions, and Civil War does a sterling job of playing out that conflict, not through the action sequences, though they are excellent, but through the dialogue between the characters the audience have come to know and care about.
It takes a strong team to create a verbal conflict which is as gripping as the previous conflicts of superheroes fighting against demigods, aliens and the physical embodiments of rogue artificial intelligences, but the direction of the Russo Brothers, Anthony and Joe, continues the thriller style of their debut for the Marvel Cinematic Universe The Winter Soldier with numerous threads running through the movie enriching the overall narrative.
Flowing with ease and superb pacing from action sequences to spy thriller intrigue to character scenes, the many fights each have distinct styles, and while the early scenes have the unfortunate close perspective feel of Bond or Bourne, the distracting shaky-cam making it easy to lose track of events, the later altercations are on a larger scale, more open to fully comprehend and appreciate the astonishing action. In what could easily have turned into an endless poor quality superhero knockabout, instead the action is creatively blended with different characters and witty dialogue making it engaging and entertaining throughout.
In a unique opportunity, Marvel have been able to patiently grow their characters with the timeframe of a long-running television show. Rather than rushing to introduce characters, give them an arc and finish their story in a two hour window, Marvel through its own well-constructed path has let the characters and their relationships grow over several movies meaning the portrayals are rich and nuanced. Civil War feels like the culmination of years of work, the actors comfortable and invested as they face events which have been a long time coming, reaping a bitter harvest sown by their own hands.
In a small moment amidst the larger events, time is taken to allow Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) to comfort Steve on the loss of a friend; when asked why she is there, she replies she does not want him to be alone, a reminder that though they may find themselves on opposite sides of this battle, they are friends who have been through much together. Throughout their movie, Marvel allows their characters to breathe, moments which may not be vital to the plot but which enrich it by investing life and depth in those to whom it is happening.
Already boasting a packed roster inherited from earlier adventures in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Civil War introduces two new superheroes. Black Panther (Gods of Egypt’s Chadwick Boseman) has a role which feels natural and intrinsic rather than a forced introduction, and while his first solo film will not be released until 2018 his adventures look to be worth waiting for.
The other much anticipated newcomer is Spider-Man, Tom Holland (Wolf Hall) following on from Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield in the role of the web slinger. A younger incarnation of the character than any previous screen interpretation, Holland is the quick-talking and slightly nervous geek that instantly feels like the Peter Parker of comics and cartoon, feeling less like an introduction and more like seeing an old friend again, his own Homecoming is predicted for 2017.
The impressive supporting cast includes Paul Rudd’s second appearance as Ant-Man, The Hobbit’s Martin Freeman with a slightly jarring American accent as Everett Ross, The Host’s William Hurt as Thaddeus Ross, not seen since The Incredible Hulk in 2008 and Emily VanCamp’s Agent 13, returning with a full name this time, alongside cameos from John Slattery as Howard Stark, Marisa Tomei as Aunt May, and Star Trek First Contact’s Alfre Woodard, soon to be see in a different Marvellous role in the Luke Cage television series.
Written by The Winter Soldier‘s Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, now working on Avengers: Infinity War for the Russo Brothers, the thirteenth offering of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is possibly the strongest to date, but not because of the sheer volume of superheroics, the special effects or even the story itself. Rather it is because it has grown out of everything which has come before it, the characters having grown to reach this point, the world having been changed by the events which have led to this point.
This is not one good film, this is the crucial thirteenth chapter of a saga we started watching in 2008 with Iron Man. It is the best because millions of fans have come to know and love these characters, and if they are in danger of becoming divided and falling, so are we.
Captain America: Civil War is released on April 29th in the UK and on May 6th in north America, and is also screening in 3D and IMAX