If you’re a fan of comic book movies in general and superhero showdowns in particular, 2016 is clearly your year.
We’ve really been spoilt for choice if not exactly for quality. The rudely infectious and joyful Deadpool was followed by the near disastrous Batman V Superman, to say nothing of the upcoming X-Men: Apocalypse and Dr Strange.
None of this matters though, as Captain America: Civil War clearly wins this round, setting the bar ridiculously high for future ensemble epics. DC Comics, take note.
Juggling a dozen superheros? No problem
The Marvel Cinematic Universe (or MCU) is now a 13 film deep, $10 billion earning behemoth, which makes the scale of Civil War’s achievement all the more surprising. Picking up a year after Avengers: Age of Ultron, our heroes find themselves facing calls for increased scrutiny and regulation after a disastrous mission in the African country of Wakanda causes serious collateral damage. As a consequence, the United Nations proposes an accord that puts the Avenger’s under their command and control.
Note: minor spoilers ahead
The proposal garners the surprising support of Tony Stark/Iron Man who is plagued by guilt from the Avenger’s last outing (along with mommy issues, which seem to be this year’s neuroses of choice for the superhero set).
This puts him at odds with Captain America, whose suspicion of authority has only deepened following his experiences in his last solo outing. When the signing of the UN Accord is seemingly attacked by Captain America’s ex sidekick and recent adversary, Bucky Barnes aka The Winter Soldier, the Avengers are forced to choose sides in a hurry, setting up the film’s titular conflict. What follows is a truly exhilarating, surprisingly deep adventure, part smart spy thriller, part giddy popcorn confection.
This being a Marvel movie, it assumes our familiarity with the universe and these characters, having established them over the years. It also deftly employs our fondness for them while challenging our assumptions, showing us how conflict and loss has changed them, particularly in Captain America and Iron Man’s case.
One question comes to mind: why doesn't Black Widow have her own solo movie? Given her consistently important role and influence in the Avengers, it’s frankly shocking and kind of blatant at this point.
Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans form the movie's magnetic centre and do an admirable job as such. They’re clearly frayed by their experiences, their battle scars shaping their psyche in ways that put them at odds, with Black Widow (the returning Scarlett Johansson) often caught in the middle.
The film also manages to delicately balance giving less familiar characters much needed screen time. Scarlet Witch and Vision, the MCU’s more magically inclined residents get their due, hinting at a budding romance while letting them establish their own rapport with the audience, before setting them at odds. Ant Man (Paul Rudd) is there too, making his major league debut by providing goofy fun and some truly big moments.
It’s the new kids however, who very nearly steal the show. Chadwick Boseman exudes a quiet, regal intensity as Black Panther, on the quest to avenge his father after the aforementioned attack at the UN event. The real diamond in the rough though, is definitely Tom Holland as the new Peter Parker/Spider-Man.
Considering this new iteration of the character comes hot on the heels of his last reboot, you would be forgiven for not expecting much. Instead what you do get is a wise cracking ball of nervous, awkward teenage energy, teeming with charm and a fair bit of refined ability; in other words the perfect Spider-Man. I could honestly watch a movie with just this kid and Robert Downey Jr. bantering.
Spider-Man’s appearance also reinforces a hallmark of the Marvel movies: Their abiding sense of humour. Even amid the fast paced and lovingly crafted action scenes (comparable to the best in the Bourne Franchise) the various quippy exchanges lend themselves well to character development while keeping you engaged.
Civil War proves Marvel's superiority to DC Comics' film franchises
This highlights a vital difference between Marvel and DC’s approach to their respective tent pole franchises. DC’s vision is singularly serious, perhaps mistaking that for gravitas, whereas Marvel, even with arguably its thematically heaviest film to date, still considers their movies vehicles of fun.
In that sense, the film’s directors Joe and Anthony Russo do a generally stunning job. Having cut their teeth on ensemble sitcoms like Arrested Development and Community undoubtedly helps them keeping track of all those characters in what could have been an unwieldy enterprise.
Having proved their action credentials helming the last Captain America movie, they take things up a few notches in terms of both speed and intensity, while keeping things tight and visually coherent. The editing goes a long way to keep the action both easy to comprehend and thrilling, whether it’s something as simple as a long shot of Captain America jumping down to a rooftop or a massive airport battle.
Civil War packs a surprising amount of emotional and political punch, raising interesting questions about the nature and need of unilateral action vs. political expediency, and the true human cost of those massive battles.
The quality of the writing shines here too, walking the tight rope between the usual franchise-building exercises, introducing new characters, balancing time for older ones while ensuring the whole thing remains watchable and entertaining.
It also packs a surprising amount of emotional and political punch, raising interesting questions about the nature and need of unilateral action vs. political expediency, and the true human cost of those massive battles.
Once again Marvel outplays DC, which tends to treat the little (read normal) people in its movies as little more than cannon fodder. Civil War manages to use this lens to help you see things from both Iron Man and Captain America’s perspectives before turning it all on its head in an intelligent way. All in all, the combination makes an entertaining movie all the more compelling.
Finally, here's what didn't work (it's not much, though)
Which is not to say that things are perfect; Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) makes an unwelcome return as the MCU’s most disposable and mismatched character. Another thing that bears questioning is why Black Widow still doesn’t have her own solo movie. Given her consistently important role and influence in the Avengers, it’s frankly shocking and kind of blatant at this point.
The movie also continues the MCU’s long standing lack of compelling villains (excepting Loki of course). Daniel Bruhl does what he can with the films mysterious and tragic Helmut Zimo but he’s more a device than a character, and hardly a worthy big bad. Thankfully the infighting between the Avenger’s take centre stage here, meaning one is hardly needed. It would be nice to see it happen at some point, though. The Hulk and Thor are also MIA, though their absence is clearly purposeful, if not well explained.
Another, albeit minor issue, is the movie’s length. At just under 2 and a half hours though it never becomes mired in things the way Batman V Superman does.
Marvel has built painstakingly built its universe film by film, while DC expected to do all that in 2 joyless, monochromatic movies. One of them is soaring to new heights. The other is caught with its underwear outside its tights.
As you may have noticed, Batman V Superman hangs heavy over this review, like the stench of dead bat in a chimney.
This is mainly because of the contrast between the two films couldn’t be more glaring or all encompassing. It once again comes down to the stark difference in choices that Marvel and DC have made for their banner franchises.
Marvel has built painstakingly built its universe film by film, with admittedly mixed results (I’m looking at you Thor 2), patiently cultivating its characters, while keeping the balance between lighthearted and impactful. DC expected to do all that in 2 joyless, monochromatic movies. One of them is soaring to new heights. The other is caught with its underwear outside its tights.