It’s all been building to this. From the three-way forest throw-downs and Hulk-shaped sucker punches of Avengers Assemble to Civil War’s savvy, hashtag-powered marketing campaign prompting True Believers to pick a side, the prospect of Marvel's mightiest going toe to toe in a superhuman dust-up has been irresistibly enticing. That it arrives in cinemas little more than a month after DC’s own clash of the titans failed to land a knockout blow feels all the sweeter because, rest assured, Civil War delivers on the promise of that title in a major way.
Part Captain America threequel, part Avengers 2.5, part cinematic intro to two of the MCU’s most intriguing new faces (more on those later), Civil War is a miraculous juggling act. The globetrotting plot kicks off in Lagos, where Cap and the new-look Avengers are on a mission to take down Winter Soldier survivor Crossbones. If 2011’s The First Avenger was a war movie, and its 2014 sequel a paranoia-fuelled thriller, Civil War starts as a muscular crime movie in the mould of Michael Mann's Heat, the Russo brothers significantly upping their game in terms of high-impact, shield-slinging action.
The mission is a bust – the latest in a laundry list of collateral-damage catastrophes from the battle of New York to the near-apocalypse in Sokovia. “Compromise, reassurance, that's how the world works,” says secretary of state Thaddeus ‘Thunderbolt’ Ross (William Hurt, reprising his 2008 Incredible Hulk role) leading to the creation of the Sokovia Accords, a decree to put the super crew on ice (metaphorically) unless an international governing body gives the green light. Having lived through oppressive times, Cap takes a stance against the agreement; Tony Stark, wracked with guilt over the creation of Ultron, sides with Ross and the Accords. Battle lines drawn, matters are further complicated by Bucky Barnes, who’s implicated in a terrorist attack that puts both sides, and a certain Wakandan prince, on the Winter Soldier’s tail.
In many ways, Civil War is the Marvel team-up sequel Age of Ultron should have been. If The Winter Soldier was about SHIELD being ripped apart from the inside, Civil War pulls the same trick with the Avengers themselves, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely carving out satisfying character arcs, or at the very least moments, for every major player (minus the MIA Thor and Hulk). Crucially, despite the colossal cast of characters and sprawling runtime, the oft-repeated assertion that this isn't just Avengers 2.5 holds true – it's also a Captain America movie through and through, further exploring The Winter Soldier’s major theme – the cost of freedom – while Bucky is even more integral to the plot than he was in the film that bore his own name.
As you might expect, it's one of the MCU’s more serious entries, tonally a world away from the party-time antics of Age of Ultron. But that doesn’t mean it’s humourless; far from it. Anthony Mackie’s Sam Wilson can be relied upon for laugh-out-loud one-liners whenever he’s on screen, the Vision’s stylish new wardrobe is comedy gold and Paul Rudd’s Scott Lang is huge fun in a relatively brief appearance – utterly enamoured by Steve Rogers and overjoyed just to have been invited along.
As a piece of superhero storytelling, it doesn’t bring anything particularly innovative to the table either – the idea of a thin line between heroes and vigilantes is invoked again, for example. But importantly, given the callous loss of life going on in other comic-book movies, the human cost of the Avengers’ actions is keenly felt and addressed in a meaningful way. It makes DC’s efforts to tackle the same idea with Batman v Superman seem thunderously dunderheaded in comparison.
“It always ends in a fight,” says Bucky. Of course it does. And Civil War builds to an unforgettable main event. After waiting a good 90 minutes for each side to suit up you can’t help but brace for a mammoth letdown, but the airport-set Battle Royale ranks among the most inventive and fun scraps ever committed to superhero celluloid. Everyone gets a moment to shine, not least of which Tom Holland’s friendly neighbourhood wall-crawler and Rudd’s amazing miniature man who run away with the lion’s share of the battle’s memorable moments, the super-barney consistently surprising with deliriously gleeful beats. The characters may be pulling their punches – after all they’re the good guys, and with one key exception they don’t want to see each other dead – but a later, three-way fight massively raises the emotional stakes, because after eight years and 12 films you can’t help but care about the people on each side of the divide.
Chris Evans is dependably superb as Steve Rogers – the stoic heart and soul of the MCU. And though he doesn’t have as much to chew on here as he did in The Winter Soldier, there's little doubt why anyone would risk being branded a fugitive to follow him into battle. Even better is Robert Downey Jr, who shows a different side to Tony Stark. “You're being surprisingly non-hyper-verbal,” Black widow quips. It's a wittier riposte than anything Tony musters in the entire film. He’s less the swaggering snark merchant of movies past here and more the elder statesman, reflecting on the consequences of his actions and looking to make amends. “I’m trying to keep you from tearing the Avengers apart,” he pleads. The brilliance of Downey Jr’s sympathetic performance is that even if you’re staunchly Team Cap you still feel for him.
As for the other players: Bucky is more tortured soul than Terminator this time round, and though he can still feel more MaGuffin than character at times, you buy why he’s worth saving because Sebastian Stan and Chris Evans sell their life-long friendship so well. Daniel Bruhl’s shadowy Zemo is the film's Lex Luthor – the master manipulator pulling the strings from behind the scenes – but unlike Jesse Eisenberg’s aggressively annoying braniac, Bruhl gives Zemo gravitas and pathos. Scarlet Witch struggles to deal with the implications of her immense power; Hawkeye comes out of retirement in a satisfying continuation of his Age Of Ultron arc; Black Widow has fun playing both sides, even if there's none of the joyful frisson with Cap this time around; Falcon gets to show off what those wings can really do; and War Machine takes the hardest line for the Accords, ever the iron patriot.
More importantly: how do the MCU’s new supers stack up? Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther has a bigger role than you might expect. Arriving fully formed, Boseman plays the prince of Wakanda with regal airs, charm and forceful determination. For Very Important Story Reasons he's quite sullen in Civil War (hopefully he’ll lighten up for the standalone Panther flick) but in his vibranium suit T'Challa is just as capable and acrobatically dazzling as any of the MCU's super-folk, with a set of razor-sharp claws that even Cap's shield can’t withstand. “Dude shows up dressed like a cat and you don’t want to know more?” exclaims Falcon after their first run-in. On the basis of Civil War, we’re champing at the bit.
Better yet is Marvel’s all-new Spider-Man. In a surprisingly substantial appearance, 19-year-old Tom Holland not only makes a case for being the best screen Spidey so far, but also threatens to steal the entire film. His Peter Parker is perfect – nervy, goofy and instantly endearing. In the airport fight however he's truly spectacular, holding his own against the best the MCU has to offer, using his webs in entertaining and creative ways, while his motor-mouthed (and charmingly naive) wisecracking couldn’t be better. “There’s usually not this much talk,” says Falcon. You’ll be grateful there is, and desperate to see more of Holland’s sensational web-slinger the moment you leave the cinema.
That epic runtime is the only problem. It's generally well-paced, but there's one too many plot swerves as you wait for the gang to suit up and throw down. There’s also a slightly icky and completely unnecessary romantic beat that torpedoes the MCU’s best love story, and it’s a shame that the trailers (and LEGO) gave away quite so many of the film's surprises.
If there’s a risk of the Marvel ‘formula’ becoming stale, there isn’t any evidence of that here. Civil War isn’t just a damn-near-perfect popcorn crowd-pleaser; it doesn’t offer any easy answers for its combatants, or the world going forward. Team Cap or Team Iron Man? The real winner here is Team Marvel.