When you take a step back, it’s clear that the Captain America franchise is what holds the MCU together. Not because of key plot points or character overlap, although those are important, but because it provides the beating heart of the whole: the moral compass and the conflicted human core. In Civil War, the Russos have built on a strong foundation to produce what is unquestionably one of the finer examples of a superhero ensemble movie that we’ve seen yet.
One of the ways in which they do this is in not shying away from telling a story: thoroughly, engagingly – above all, emotionally. Joe Johnston set the scene: The First Avenger stretched the origin story out in a way that no other MCU film has – contrast this with Tony whose suit building is done in the first 35 minutes with such alacrity that it feels like a pre-credit sequence, the emotional arc flattened by the force of his impulsive personality. For Cap, almost half the story takes place before the (physical) hero has been created. The thrills deliver when they come, but their goal is to show the building of a man – the polar opposite of Stark, holding the attention with simple, quiet determination – not a machine. So the Russos ran with it once they had their turn at the helm: The Winter Soldier has the pace of a Cold War thriller, but is at heart an exploration of friendship and trust. In Civil War we’re treated to the evolution of that: a rich examination of the nature of family.
In the aftermath of the events of Age of Ulton and following a catastrophic intervention in Nigeria, the question of quis custodiet ipsos custodes raises its head: should the Avengers be controlled by the United Nations and deployed by committee – political weapons, if you will? Horrified by the human cost of his Ultron experiment, Tony Stark believes so; Steve Rogers, battle-scarred Boy Scout, disagrees. When one James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes resurfaces accused of a shocking atrocity, confrontation becomes inevitable and the rest of the team are forced to choose a side.
The emotional heft here is undeniable, but punctured with outrageously fluid set pieces – including a Greengrass calibre car chase – and a solid sense of humour, it works beautifully. With the freedom to choose how much to involve anyone beyond the main protagonists, rather than the obligation to balance them, Civil War feels very much like the film Ultron could, perhaps should, have been – and Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s script has at least a handful of Whedonesque moments to prove it.
Still, the focus is remarkably broad; alongside the ideological battles between Steve (an eternally straight-faced Evans bringing his usual quiet likeability) and Tony (the best we’ve seen from RDJ in the role yet), is generous screen time for Black Panther in advance of his upcoming solo outing. Despite their shared litheness, steely Chadwick Boseman contrasts beautifully against a high-energy first appearance from Tom Holland that should make us all thoroughly excited for the upcoming Sony Spider-Man reboot. A pleasantly quirky fan-pleasing chemistry is explored between Vision and Scarlett Witch, though both feel a fraction underused, and if we’re not entirely sold on Natasha Romanov’s new-found maternal instincts, her long-honed propensity to play both sides renders her the most intriguingly unpredictable “enhanced individual” in the line-up. Though the seeds of the conflict are sewn long before his appearance on the scene to stir up trouble, the endlessly watchable Daniel Bruhl isn’t wasted as Zemo either, in a carefully judged and admirably restrained villainous turn. Finally, somehow, there’s enough latitude given to make the appearances of Ant-Man, Hawkeye and War Machine worthwhile while still at least attempting to make clear that this is not an Avengers movie (honest guv).
We engage when Stark and Rogers square up against each other because we care about them – and in the choices that those around them make (Hawkeye and Black Widow hurling punches while discussing whether they’re still friends is both absurdly funny and poignant). With yet another Bruce Wayne to familiarise ourselves with and a Clark Kent who barely considers changing his world view, Batman v Superman, leached of all tension, never stood a chance by comparison. Admittedly, Civil War might have benefited from a tighter approach to the action sequences – there’s a danger some of the more dramatic clashes are undermined by the volume and length of the fight scenes. But it seems a worthwhile trade-off to allow the Russos a little bit of indulgence in the fireworks since they’re willing to invest the same effort in the more discursive scenes.
If Iron Man deals in flashy theatrics, Thor brings the Shakespearean space opera and Guardians of the Galaxy is an adult’s adventure story, Civil War places Cap firmly at the emotional centre, dragging everyone in its orbit in to examine their own place in the MCU – but crucially with wit and warmth rather than an excess of ponderous brooding. With more of Ant-Man‘s humour and Doctor Strange’s mysticism on the way to keep it balanced, there’s no sign of this juggernaut losing momentum. And thank goodness for that.
Captain America: Civil War is released in the UK cinemas on the 29th April.
Disclosure: Press tickets were provided by the Disney UK team. Opinions are my own.