Sunday, 8 May 2016


[I get very SPOILERY in this. Because fuck it, there's loads of non-spoiler reviews out there and they're getting boring.]

Back in 2014, I was surprised by how much I liked Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which turned the annoyingly patriotic origin of the title character on its head to create a tense political conspiracy thriller. The third Cap movie, though directed by the Russo brothers again, takes another shift in tone, bringing in a myriad of Marvel characters and being in many ways more of a third Avengers movie, as well as an adaptation of Mark Millar’s landmark comic series Civil War.

The first half of the film is very strong, with a Bond-esque opening action sequence in an exotic locale, which also acts as a springboard for the main plot – the Lagos mission is the latest in a line of collateral damage-rich screw-ups for the Avengers, and so Tony Stark has a plan for them to become answerable to the UN. This conflict builds up at a steady pace, escalating the divide between Steve Rogers and Stark in a way that feels entirely natural and not like it's crowbarring its way towards the bit where they fight each other. It’s a particularly bold move to have Stark – previously a very unsympathetic ego-driven capitalist – be the one on the side of regulation, and to have Cap – previously the poster boy for governments of both the ‘40s and modern day – be the one who ends up the criminal. This could have worked out shambolically, but Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s script handles these developments in their characters deftly, adding layers to both of them – the scenes of Tony confronted by his guilt in the form of a grieving mother highlight strong progression in his arc over the past few films – and the Russos are on solid ground with the political thriller style, this first half tonally similar to The Winter Soldier. I do expect someone more politically astute than me to write a thesis on what it all means in terms of today’s politics (Does presenting the film’s main hero as the one fighting against regulation of superpowers have a worrying parallel with America’s gun lobby? Or does having Stark side with the government act as criticism of America’s capitalist establishment?), but it’s important to note that Civil War takes care to show both sides, and focuses on individual character stories rather than deliberate political comment. Plus, frankly, once it gets past the half way point, this isn’t what the film cares about any more.

Because, once Cap and his team are on the run and the battle lines have been drawn, Civil War does very much become a film about chucking two teams of superheroes at each other, and this is where its flaws start to show. There’s an extended team-building montage, in which both Cap and Tony bring other heroes on board, not because these characters have any relevance to the story, but because they’re all planning to get into a big fight.

The bit that grated with me most was – and I know many other people really loved this appearance – Spider-Man. Yes, Tom Holland seems to be a lot of fun in the role, and yes, the idea of Tony wanting to be a father figure to him is kind of sweet, but… why is he there? Tony’s in Germany. He wants to track down some criminalised Avengers who are also in Germany. So he goes to New York to recruit a school kid based on a hunch that he’s been helping the police arrest some street criminals. It just stinks so bad of “We have the licence to use Spider-Man! Quick - add him into that film that we’ve already written” that it spoiled the fun of his appearance for me.

The same applies to Ant-Man, who’s shuttled all the way from America to Germany just so they can all get in a fight at a German airport whilst trying to escape Germany. Perhaps it would have all seemed a bit less pointless if Cap and co. had actually managed to escape to somewhere and that fight had taken place in a different country? (Also, while all these characters were being brought in, the absence of Nick Fury, who would actually have something to say about all this, felt notable. I guess Sam Jackson was busy.)

Part of the problem is that the Sokovia Accords, which put the Avengers under UN supervision, don’t have the same scale as their equivalent from the comics’ story, the Superhero Registration Act, which required all superpowered individuals to make themselves officially known. Hence in this scaled down version, additional characters have to be brought into the story via the most tenuous of links. Presumably going full-on Superhero Registration was decided against because it would take time away from the Cap/Bucky story, and because the Marvel Universe films haven't really done anything with the idea of secret identities, but it does strip the film of a level of depth and allegory that could have really elevated the second half.

Still, that big fight is what people are coming to see, right? That’s where the money shots are. There are indeed a lot of great moments in the punch-up, and it’s impressive how every character is given stuff to do. Personally, I found it went on too long, but hey, at least they didn’t blow up another city. (Why was the airport empty, though? It seems odd, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was an explanation that I totally missed.)

While I’ve mainly been talking about the two main ‘teams’, however, I haven’t yet mentioned either Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther or Daniel Brühl’s Zemo, two characters who don’t really have affiliation to any of the established leads and yet have their own plots which stand out among all the other chaos going on. Both of them initially seem dislikable (and yet thoroughly watchable, due to charismatic performances), and when their motivations are revealed, both turn out to be more sympathetic than they initially appear – if you can call anyone the villain of this film, it’s Zemo, and it’s nice to have an antagonist in a Marvel movie who has a personal, believable motivation for what he’s doing, cleverly paralleled with the ‘collateral damage’ theme of the main plot and with Black Panther’s own motives.

So, while I have my reservations about the second half of Civil War, it’s a film that I do look forward to revisiting. It tries to do a hell of a lot of things - more even than either of the Avengers films so far - and does most of them rather well. It convincingly and dramatically develops the characters of Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, while bringing in many other characters, to varying levels of success. And lots of superheroes punch each other.


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