Though it’s called Captain America: Civil War, Marvel’s latest in their ever-expanding cinematic universe is just a Hulk and a Norse God shy of being a third Avengers movie. The thirteenth film in Marvel’s multi-billion-dollar franchise, Civil War feels like peak Marvel, pulling together a phenomenal roster of stars and their superhero alter-egos, and drawing on almost a decade’s worth of build-up to create a finely tuned, perfectly crafted piece of modern blockbuster entertainment.
The civil war of the title refers to an internal bust-up among the Avengers, stemming from a UN initiative to more tightly regulate superheroes after a number of high-profile battles in populated areas have led to untold amounts of civilian casualties. Feeling guilt from his part in creating Ultron – the sinister AI who destroyed the fictional nation of Sokovia – Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) is all in favour of this and is backed up by a few fellow Avengers: Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), War Machine (Don Cheadle) and Vision (Paul Bettany).
Opposed to the idea is Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), who isn’t too keen on government regulations and believes the Avengers need to have freedom if they are to protect people. He is joined by Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and former soldier turned brainwashed spy and back again Bucky Barnes aka The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan).
Juggling a cast of heroes this expansive is no mean feat but with the aid of numerous films worth of backstory, returning directors Joe and Anthony Russo and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley manage to pull it off. Naturally, Iron Man eats up a pretty significant chunk of screentime – possibly more than Cap himself – but the other characters are able to easily dip in and out of the story without the need for clunky introductions slowing things down. The screenplay does an effective job of building up the conflict between these characters and the motivations of each of them largely make sense throughout. The bond between them is clear in the beginning but the tensions that arise – which have always been bubbling away in this dysfunctional family – are plausible and feel organic.
The film is equally economical when introducing new characters, chiefly the new heroes on the block: T’Chala aka Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and the latest screen incarnation of Peter Parker aka Spider-Man (Tom Holland). We meet T’Chala, Prince of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, at a UN summit where a terrorist attack gives him very personal reasons for fighting alongside Iron Man and co. Peter Parker, an actual teenager this time around, is mercifully already Spider-Man. There’s no spider bite, no Uncle Ben and no great power equalling great responsibility. Stark visits Spidey at his home in Queens and recruits him to join the frey.
Both characters are a welcome addition to the gang and Spider-Man all but steals the show during the centrepiece action scene, a mass superhero brawl at Leipzig airport involving all of the heroes on either side of the divide. While the reasons behind this spectacular falling out are clearly defined, the purpose behind this giant battle scene are less so and what each hero is hoping to do is bizarrely muddled. No-one appears to be trying to kill each other yet they smash each other into the ground, drop piles of cars on each other, attempt to blow each other up. They could in theory just keep hitting each other like this forever and never go anywhere.
And yet, it’s preposterously entertaining. These characters are all so massively entertaining – well, mostly (sorry Hawkeye) – that getting them all in the same space and letting them do their thing is a joy to watch. The Russos aren’t expert action directors by any means and the overuse of shaky cam coupled with the bland industrial location don’t add up to particularly exciting visuals but the action is realised with wit and energy, leaning in to its comic book origins and revelling in the “who would win in a fight?” thrills of this enormous scrap. The character beats throughout are perfectly pitched, from Bucky and Falcon bickering while Spider-Man kicks both their asses or Ant-Man’s shear enjoyment at just being involved at all. His excitement is infectious.
Watching these characters interact is always the high point of this series but watching them collide in this way – particularly Iron Man and Captain America – initially over clashing ideologies but eventually over something much more personal, manages to stir up some genuine emotion. The alliance between Stark and Rogers has always been a slightly shaky one, though there is clearly a mutual affection there. The two stars here, Evans and Downey Jr, do a fantastic job of selling this, particularly Downey Jr who is back on form after coasting through Age of Ultron. To see them knocking lumps out of each other, as they do in a surprisingly brutal climactic dust-up, is powerful enough to bring a lump to the throat.
It’s difficult to consider Captain America: Civil War without comparing it to that other big superhero beat ‘em up this year, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. It’s almost an unfair comparison given how much time Marvel have spent building to this point but it’s striking how similar these films are in terms of premise and plot, yet how vastly different they are in tone and execution. Where that film was a gloomy and self-serious slice of misguided auteurism, Civil War is an expertly calibrated blockbuster that makes up for what it lacks in style with wit, charm and wonderfully realised characters.