Principal Cast : Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Paul Bettany, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Chadwick Boseman, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Rudd, Emily VanCamp, Tom Holland, Frank Grillo, William Hurt, Daniel Bruhl, John Slattery, Martin Freeman, Alfre Woodard, Marisa Tomei, Hope Davis, Jim Rash.
Synopsis: Political interference in the Avengers’ activities causes a rift between former allies Captain America and Iron Man.
For the purposes of discussion, this review contains some spoilers for Civil War. There will be no further warning…
Or rather, Avengers 2.5?
It’s a consensus among film critics and casual viewers alike that Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the benchmark of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films to-date. At the very least, it stands with Guardians Of The Galaxy as one of the studio’s top efforts. Although their projects have rumbled the fanboy community of late as being somewhat risk averse, almost production-line, cookie-cutter stuff that’s entertaining but hardly revolutionary, The Winter Soldier’s game-changing twists and turns continue to be a callback by fans as what Marvel could achieve if they were willing to take a gamble. Winter Soldier co-directors, siblings Anthony and Joe Russo, were subsequently handed the keys to Marvel’s kingdom as a result, given the task of cobbling the comic-book story Civil War into a film version that would deliver similar acclaim and box-office, propel the Avengers story into a different direction (hinted at by the simmering tensions of Age of Ultron) and prepare us for the eventual Infinity War event – a dual-film project the Russo Brothers take on now that Civil War has arrived in cinemas.
Plot synopsis courtesy Wikipedia: One year after the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron, another international incident involving the Avengers resulting in collateral damage occurs, prompting politicians to form a system of accountability – the Sokovian Accords – and a governing body to determine when to call in the team. When Steve Rogers attempts to protect his friend Bucky Barnes from this act, he is brought into conflict with Tony Stark. This results in the fracturing of the Avengers into two opposing factions—one led by Rogers, who wishes to operate without regulation, and the other by Stark, who supports government oversight—while the world is threatened by a new enemy in the form of Colonel Zemo, who seeks revenge for the events in Sokovia.
Considering the disparate elements of Civil War’s monumental expectation, it’s something of a minor miracle that a film with this many moving parts would be in any way comprehensible, let alone any good. And Civil War is very, very good. The list of things Civil War needed to accomplish was enormous, not only in introducing a new character in Black Panther (a fantastic Chadwick Boseman – more on this later) and rebooting a familiar face in Spider-Man, now Garfield-free in the form of a young Tom Holland, but also in bringing to a head the conflict between Rogers’ and Stark’s competing ideologies. As the title implies, heroes must choose sides in this conflict, although as he’s done throughout, Captain America simply gets on with getting the job done.
While it may appear that Civil War is a full-blown Avengers film, it remains a tightly coiled spring of political tension and personality clashes of the kind we saw in Winter Soldier, only this time on a much wider canvas. The film keeps its focus on Cap, for the most part (although a scene between Stark and a new Peter Parker, backdooring the character’s in-MCU continuity “origins”, does step outside this and actually brings the film to a complete halt!) and through this the breakneck pace and simmering anger around the Sokovia Accords, which are designed to sanction the Avengers’ actions, the Russo Brothers manage to juggle all the various balls they have in the air at once. The various Avengers who guest-star or cameo in Civil War never overshadow the overall plot, but rather accentuate it and bring their own flavours to the mix. Often, these kinds of films trip over themselves trying to handle such a massive cast of competing egos, usually to the detriment of the film and the audience, but Civil War manages to achieve the daunting task of keeping the focus solely on the task at hand.
The film is led primarily by the conflict between Rogers and Stark, the latter of whom becomes the very character I loathed in the comic version of this story – Stark’s insistence at the premise’s intent, to effectively neuter the neutralness of the Avengers, brings with it all kinds of possible explorations of free will, servitude, right-and-wrong, politicised actions inside sovereign borders, etc etc, and although unable to truly dissect these aspects in a 2-hour film, at least opines several outcomes before the much hyped battle between #TeamCap and #TeamIronMan. Cap’s team, including Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Ant Man (Paul Rudd), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and James “Bucky” Barnes – aka the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), take on the forces of Stark’s recruits, including War Machine (Don Cheadle), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), VISION (Paul Bettany), and newcomers Black Panther and Spider-Man, the former of whom seeks revenge on Bucky for the crime of murdering his father, the King of Wakanda.
Evans, as Rogers, and Downey Jr as Stark have become accustomed to their roles they fit into them like a glove. Both actors enjoy the verbal sparring as well as the physical (the slap-down, stand-up brawl that serves as the film’s final heartbreaking conclusion is easily one of the best in the MCU to-date, eclipsing not only the many fights in Netflix’ Daredevil series but also Civil War’s own high-impact sequences, particularly a staircase-rooftop-street three-way fight between Cap, Bucky and Panther, which raises the bar early on before being topped at the end. Thankfully the core conflict between Rogers and Stark is strong enough to support the darker tangent the film takes; it’s a “same outcome, different methods” motif prevalent in comic books throughout their history. Both Rogers and Downey Jr sell their anger, their sadness and moral wavering well, with Downey Jr in particular bringing to Stark a seriousness and sense of capitulatory resignation that the wrongs he’s wrought need to be atoned.
Both Evans and Downey Jr are supported by a terrific cast of performers – Sebastian Stan’s Bucky forms the catalyst for Rogers’ refusal to sign the Accords, for like Luke Skywalker before him, Steve sees good in the supposedly evil Winter Soldier and will stop at nothing to uncover the truth of Zemo’s plan for the world. Sebastian Stan’s role is still largely physical more than dramatic, since the focus is on Rogers, but glimmers of their friendship provide a ray of hope that Bucky’s Hydra-imposed mental damage can be reversed. Cheadle, Mackie, Johansson, Renner, Olsen and Bettany all continue to expand their various characters’ arcs continued from Age Of Ultron, even though each only has moments of time to do so, but such is the caliber of their work, and the deft way the Russo’s surround the central story with the secondary ones, it just feels organic in a way that previous films may not have. Spotting Thunderbolt Ross again, played by a returning William Hurt, who essayed the role in The Incredible Hulk, adds conviction and legitimacy to the Sokovian Accord subplot. Rush star Daniel Bruhl, as Zemo, is both tragic and underhandedly terrifying in his mission to bring down the Avengers, not using force but pitting them one against the other – the film’s final pre-close revelatory act is a game changer for Tony and Rogers’ relationship, and it’s all thanks to Zemo’s careful machinations.
Reprising previous roles from the MCU are John Slattery and Hope Davis, as Tony’s late parents (their deaths directly tie into both Captain America and Bucky Barnes in a way that had my jaw on da floor!), Frank Grillo as hideously disfigured Crossbones, and Emily Van Camp, as a former SHIELD operative with a secret that will make long-time MCU fans grin from ear to ear. Newcomer Martin Freeman is criminally underused as some nameless counter terrorism group dude, sporting a thinly disguised American accent, while Stan Lee appears in his ubiquitous cameo drawing the biggest of laughs from the audience. Alfre Woodard has a small but powerful moment in the film as well – one that summarises much of Civil War’s raison d’être in a way that simplifies it even for the stupidest viewer.
For me, however, the stand-out performer in Civil War is newcomer T’Challa, aka Black Panther. In a few short sequences, the Russo’s introduce an entirely new character (one hinted at briefly in Age Of Ultron), give him a motive for joining the Avengers and a reason to go into battle against Rogers, and ground him well within the MCU’s already whopping roster of talent. Boseman carries himself exceptionally well as the uncostumed T’Challa, while as the Panther, with that uber-cool costume and fighting style, he outshines many of his established co-stars. He just looks so cool. If the babble of female conversation I overheard on my way out of the cinema is any indication, methinks Marvel have stumbled upon a brand new sex symbol…
But what of Spider-Man, you ask, belatedly. After all, the arrival of Spider-Man into the MCU was perhaps the single biggest event to happen since.. well, since Nick Fury appeared at the very end of Iron Man. Thankfully, Tom Holland makes a terrific Spidey, bringing that exuberance, cheekiness and immaturity sadly missing from the Andrew Garfield version, and avoided utterly in the Raimi films. Although his introductory scene – a lengthy, pregnant-pause moment between Stark, Holland, and new Aunt May, Marisa Tomei – feels a lot like the unnecessary “introduce the Justice League” scene in Batman V Superman (you know the one), for while it’s needed narratively, doesn’t feel a part of this movie, and crunches the til-then fast pace of the film to a slow crawl. Spidey appears in the film’s airport-based battle sequence between Stark’s mob and Cap’s renegades, and contributes a lot to the outcome – moreso than the trailers might indicate, and more than much of the audience I was with was expecting. Although, having said that, you do get the sense that Spidey’s inclusion was almost an afterthought, with a quick introduction and even faster “you’re out of the film now, kid” moment that felt like parenthesis amid the rest of the film’s organic storytelling.
As far as action goes, Civil War delivers in both small and large scale. Breathless chase sequences abound as Bucky becomes a hunted man, and is pursued by (at one point) everyone in the film; the film’s opening “mission gone wrong” sequence is as brutal and frantic as anything in The Winter Soldier, while an aforementioned intra-building sequence involving special forces operatives, Panther, Cap and Bucky evolving into a massive car chase is one of the genuine highlights of the film. The fight between heroes mid-film contains enough surprises and cool “powers” usage to fill a film all on its own, while the concluding title fight between Rogers and Stark (with help from Bucky too) is as cathartic as you’d expect with these former allies suddenly becoming combatants. The thing about this – a key difference between Civil War and 2016’s other Big Brawl Flick, Batman V Superman – is that this film earns its solemnity and aggrieved emotional state at the end. Through several films’ worth of attention these characters have become – dare I say it – beloved by all, and having them take different pathways such as those depicted here is solidly rewarding for its emotive impact. The Russo Brothers have crafted a socio-political thriller betwixt an action flick and a comic-book slobberknocker, delivering wonderful action and many twists and surprises.
If there’s a single caveat to Civil War’s complex narrative abundance and spandex-clad superheroic superlatives, it’s the at-times clumsy, all-too-often below-par visual effects. Specifically, the CG body-double effects employed by the film to provide the character with in-camera physical attributes an ordinary person could never accomplish. Physical agility for the heroes in the MCU requires some deft visual tricks to pull off well, and to this point the CG in the Earth-bound films thus far have been pretty good to the point they’re largely seamless, but Civil War’s use of CG body doubles to leap, fly, smash-n-crash, dodge, weave and bound across the screen range from seamless to awkwardly noticeable.
And if a “hidden” CG effect is noticeable, then it’s no good. I’m here to say, there were a couple of moments the cinema audience I was with actually chuckled at how bad some of them were – the Panther/Cap/Bucky chase through the tunnel, with our trio of character running between fast moving vehicles, is perhaps the most obvious, but they weren’t the only times.
So where does Civil War rank among the rest of its MCU brethren? Easily in the Top 3, for my money – it’s a compelling, brave, occasionally God-tier piece of comic book movie film-making, earning its stripes through a delicate balance of character, action and motive. I can’t say it’s as good as The Winter Soldier, which remains the most complete film in MCU canon over and above its superhero foundation, but Civil War makes a good case for arguing against that statement. What brings Civil War down is the cleverly wallpapered-over inclusion of Spider-Man (that introductory scene won’t hold up under repeated viewings, IMO, since it’s so far out of the rest of the film’s journey – it’s a sidebar, at best) and some wonky visual effects at key moments; I guess if that’s the worst one could say about Civil War it remains a magnificent film indeed. And it is.