Yeah, so I was a bit quicker off the mark going to see Civil War than Batman v Superman. No innate prejudice behind it. These days, I read as much DC as Marvel (probably more, in fact), but the timings fell better on this one.
Short version? It’s good. It’s very, very good. Long version? That’ll come after the obligatory ‘here be spoilers’ break below. I’ll try to keep this spoiler free – the movie’s not out everywhere yet – but it’s always nice to keep a bit of separation. One man’s spoiler is another man’s trailer, after all. And vice versa.
Red vs Blue
Let’s get down to business. When an Avengers mission goes wrong, the governments of the world seek to bring the team under direct control. Iron Man’s all for it, Cap’s against it. Meanwhile, a shadowy third party manipulates events, and Cap’s former partner-turned-Winter Soldier, to turn disagreement into outright war.
As you may know, Civil War is a (very) loose adaptation of the comics storyline of the same name. I’ll be completely honest – the comics are… okay. Aside from the elephant in the room (which I’ll discuss later) they have one simple, glaring issue: nobody on the writing team believes Iron Man’s really in the right. Seriously, go back and read them. Poor old Tony gets a kicking in pretty much every tie-in series of Civil War. He comes across as blind government stooge. It’s a bit embarrassing. His collaborators fare better. Hank Pym’s really a skrull infiltrator, so he’s just doing his job by being a backstabber, and Reed Richards has done the maths, and deduced that inaction will doom everyone. Tony? Tony’s the bad guy, and not a particularly deep one, at that. It’s only when the Civil War is over, and Cap’s on a slab (long story, for another time) that Stark actually behaves like Stark again.
Why do I bring this up? Well, my biggest fear about the Civil War movie was that it’d fall into the same trap as its inspiration: Cap=Good, Stark=Bad. As another recent release has proven, superhero conflict makes for great action scenes, but needs emotional context to truly sing. Otherwise it’s just a kid playing with his toy in the back garden. Fortunately, the Russo Brothers deliver.
From Page to Screen
While the basic setup’s the same as the comics (the film even quotes one of my favourite lines) Stark’s position is a lot more nuanced. The film makes it clear that he’s trying to save his friends, not only from the government, but from making some of his mistakes. Don’t misread me, I was #TeamCap going into this, and still am having seen it (I trust individuals, not people), but I get Tony’s position here more than I ever did reading the comics.
Hell, I still hated Tony for a good chunk of the film, but this time it wasn’t because his behaviour was that of a government stooge. You see, for all I want to believe that I’d take Cap’s path were I in his place, even in the similar micro-dramas of ordinary life, I realised that Stark was doing exactly what I’d probably end up doing. Compromise. Bargain. Make decisions based on a bigger picture I was convinced no one else understood. And then… Well, I won’t give away the end, but Stark’s last words to Cap following their final showdown. Yeah, I’d probably say them too. And the look on Tony’s face after he says it? Yep, that’s how I’d feel right afterwards. All in all, Civil War does a far better job of portraying Stark as human than the weird tangle of better films that was Iron Man 3.
Cap’s side (unsurprisingly, as it’s ‘his’ film) is much less conflicted, but even he makes a few mistakes – though sadly, the only one which really has emotional weight is kept hidden from the audience until the very end of the film. But that’s okay. Cap’s single-minded approach is also his position on the issues, so it fits.
So yes, the Cap/Stark conflict works, and works well. For the most part, anyway. For me, the elephant in the room revolves around the core premise, namely that because the Avengers don’t save everyone, they should get permission before they save anyone. Yep, ultimately the core conceit of Civil War is that the Avengers are being blamed for the existence of the likes of Loki, Hydra and Ultron. That last one has a bit of credibility, I must admit, but the rest? It’s essentially the same argument used by Holly Hunter’s senator in Batman v Superman, and it still rings hollow here. And that’s before you get onto the suggestion any kind of governmental body should be responsible for the Avengers. After all, it’s not like SHIELD was infiltrated and corrupted by its greatest enemy without anyone knowing, is it? Oh, wait, that’s totally what happened. I’m sure it’ll be different with the UN.
Though it’s overused of late, the phrase ‘With great power comes great responsibility’ applies here. Inaction all to often becomes complicity, or appeasement. That said, recent history teaches us the danger of intervention, which I guess is meant to be the flip side. Problem is, Cap is… well, he’s Cap. He doesn’t make selfish or ill-considered decisions. He stands up for whoever needs standing up for, and to hell with consequences. Comparing him to real world events doesn’t really work. Cap always finds a way. He always does the right thing. Can’t think of a government or a politician who fits that bill, but maybe that’s my ideology talking. Again, I trust individuals, not people.
Light in the Darkness
Sound like a serious business, this Civil War. Well, would you believe it’s genuinely funny? Because it is. The joy of having a cast of this scale is that for every dour Black Panther or Winter Soldier, you have a wise-cracking Spider-man, or Ant-man. (Invertebrates are funny. Who knew?) Some of the best scenes cover the weird sidekick-rivalry between Falcon and Winter Soldier, but there’s also great visual humour and little wry touches that had the audience in my screening laughing out loud (and with the film, which is important).
After some of the dour slugfests I’ve seen on screen over the years, it’s nice to see a film that understands humour increases drama, rather than detracts from it. When the consequences of the middle-act set piece brawl finally hit, they’re all the more powerful for the banter and not-quite slapstick present during the fight.
Enough already. This is a superhero film. Where superheroes fight. Does it deliver?
A big ‘yes’ to that one.
There are a lot of heroes floating around in this one – more than in any Marvel movie to date (though I think some of the X-men films have the total beat). It’d surprise no one if I sat here and said that some of the characters are short-changed as a result. Happily, that’s not the case. Everyone gets a moment to shine. Everyone. Even the ones who only have a dozen lines of dialogue.
Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye? Steals every scene he’s in. I’m not ready for a solo Hawkeye film/series, but it’ll be a sad day when Renner hangs up the bow and arrow. Anthony Mackie’s Falcon? Awesome. Paul Rudd’s Ant-man? Even better – and he has the best action scenes in the film. Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch? Fast becoming a more credible version of Wanda Maximoff than the one in the comics, and I like the Scarlet Witch of the comics (even if I hate most of the stories that focus on her). The only real weak spot is Sebastian Stan’s Bucky. He’s a bit, well, robotic – even when he’s not supposed to be. That said there’s a great back and forth between him and Cap in the run up to the finale. It’s just a shame that his chemistry with Chris Evans’ Cap isn’t as good as Mackie’s/Falcon’s.
And Cap himself? Once again, Chris Evans turns in a performance that entrenches him as the real success of the franchise. From the very first, Captain America was a character who could have gone so very badly wrong. With each successive film, Evans gets better and better. It’s sad to think that he’s only got one movie left on his contract. I can’t imagine anyone filling his shoes.
Scarlet Johansson’s Black Widow? So much better here than in the Avengers movies. She’s smart, snarky and has (for my money, at least) a much more interesting fighting style. She’s not in this as much as she was in Winter Soldier, but she has agency and purpose in all of her scenes. We can have a Black Widow film, if it’s a Russo film. Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther? Got me more interested in a Black Panther movie than the comics ever have. Sounds like a left-handed compliment, I guess. I just wish he was in more of the film. He starts out strong, then fades into the background. Probably to make way for… Tom Holland’s Spider-man. Yes, Spidey’s great. Didn’t make me want (yet) another Spider-man film, but I liked him in this. Vision? He’s quirky, uncertain and oddly shy. Though Paul Bettany probably gets the least screen time, it’s enough to make his mark. Only War Machine feels a bit underwhelming. Once again, Don Cheadle gets pushed into the background when he should probably be to Iron Man what Falcon is to Cap. Another wasted opportunity. Still, can’t argue that doesn’t constantly happen in the comics…
As for Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man. He’s back to form, after a couple of (in my opinion) lackluster showings. I think it helps that he’s not top billing in this one – it gives actor and character room to breathe, instead of always being the source of entertainment. Even though I was never on Stark’s side, I was never sorry to see him on screen, and he had plenty of moments that reminded me why I fell in love with the character back in 2008.
And the Rest…
Emily VanCamp gets a lot more to do this time around as Agent 13, becoming a solid member of the supporting cast. William Hurt’s Thunderbolt Ross is obnoxious, but he’s supposed to be, I guess. Frank Grillo’s Crossbones, brief though his appearance is, proves himself a lot more memorable than some villains who stick around for a whole movie (I’m looking at you, the-man-whose-name-I-can’t-remember from Iron Man 3. That’s right, you with the boy band hair and unconvincing master plan).
Case in point, Daniel Bruhl’s Zemo. Competently acted, ultimately unnecessary. Not the actor’s fault. Zemo’s just another in a long line of underwhelming Marvel villains, called into being because the script needs someone to set the wheels in motion. Worse than that, he’s up on the podium with Ronan the Accuser in the awards for ‘character so unlike the source material, you have to wonder why they bothered’. It’s a long title for an award, but villains like long titles.
I’m starting to get seriously worried for Thanos. I hope he’s going to be a nuanced villain like Loki. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.
Civil War’s not without its flaws, but its handling of the central issue – and the sprawling cast – rarely falters. Not a minute of its nearly two and half hour running time outstays its welcome. Unless you have a profound aversion to superhero films, give this one a look-see. If you love superhero movies, this is one done right. Don’t miss it.