SPOILERS INSIDE, TRUE BELIEVERS!
Irrespective of what the marketing bods say, this is effectively the third Avengers movie. Indeed, it's a better Avengers movie than Age of Ultron, which, while highly enjoyable, was a rather flabby and undisciplined feature. Civil War is a tighter, more structured film, maintaining an energetic pace with plenty of humour and drama in equal measure. This is pure popcorn; in spite of the somewhat weightier central issue, we're here to see Captain America and Iron Man bash each other while superheroes zip about all over the place. There are fan-pleasing moments a-plenty here, from the simple pleasure of recognising a character when they first appear on screen to the over-the-top set pieces that illicit a childish cheer (Giant Man! Just joyful). There is more to it than that, though. There's a quite serious point being made about how far individuals in power should go when it comes to peacekeeping and intervention, albeit one that rapidly disappears into the personal vendetta that dominates the plot.
In one of those movie synergies that occasionally happens, both the basic set-up and the underlying theme of Civil War are essentially the same as the other mega-blockbuster of the year. Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice also had two popular heroes squaring up for maximum excitement and drama, and was similarly concerned with the issue of collateral damage. Like Superman, various characters - Scarlet Witch, the Vision, the absent Hulk and Thor - are likened to weapons of mass destruction. And while the trigger event - a botched attempt to remove a bomb by Wanda - is entirely understandable, so too is the attitude of those who think such beings need to be regulated. For Stark, of course, it's the reckless experimentation that created Ultron and led to the deaths in the (fictional) nation of Sokovia that spur him to back the Accords. It's good to see him finally achieve some character development beyond the continual loop of irresponsibility, humility and back again in previous films.
Rogers, on the other hand, believes the Avengers should remain free of political influence. It's also an understandable position, but harder to accept when the bulk of the United Nations are signing the Accords together. He's supposedly proven right when his fellows are locked in solitary confinement in an ocean prison, and this treatment isn't surprising - it's General Ross in charge, for god's sake - but his renegade actions lead to enormous collateral damage, at least of property, and surely prove the opposition's point.
What's really driving Cap is his need to rescue his old friend Bucky, to provide him with the path to redemption for his actions as the Winter Soldier. Their friendship is sold better here than the previous Cap film, The Winter Soldier itself, in which we saw precious little of Bucky's true character. Sebastian Stan and Chris Evans have an easy chemistry, which helps sell the lengths to which Cap will go for Bucky. There's also some fun to be had from the best bud rivalry between Bucky and Sam Wilson, as well as the sheer wide-eyed hero worship of Scott Lang (Paul Rudd, a highlight in the cast). In fact, it's frequently the less celebrated members of the cast who are the ones to watch. Paul Bettany is perfect as the naive but powerful android Vision (and it's excellent to see his remarkable powers explored a little more), and he shares wonderful chemistry with Elizabeth Olson as the vulnerable, but potentially equally powerful, Scarlet Witch. There are also brief but memorable appearances by Alfre Woodard and Martin Freeman, while Jeremy Renner is sympathetic as the disenchanted Hawkeye. Scarlet Johannson is as watchable as ever as Black Widow, although her character, in spite of her torn loyalty between Stark and Rogers, isn't allowed to be terribly interesting. Don Cheadle, who's Rhodey Rhodes remains Stark's staunchest ally, gets to make more of his character than in recent years, although events will presumably lead to his character taking a back seat in future.
The big news, of course, is the addition of two new heroes, one new to Marvel movies and one new to movies as a whole. In spite of the sighs and raised eyes at the prospect of yet another recasting, it's Spider-Man that everyone's looking out for. While the introduction of the character is a little artificial, it's hard to mind. Tom Holland is spot-on as a younger, more gauche version of Peter Parker, gobsmacked at being involved in the Avengers even when they're divided. It's a dynamic we haven't seen for the character on the big screen, which has always been keen to grow him up quickly. This is a Spidey who's barely cut his teeth as a superhero, suddenly finding himself sponsored by Stark Industries. I'm looking forward to the upcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming, which should hopefully build on the chemistry between Holland and RDJ.
On the other hand, we have the Black Panther, a lesser known but equally fascinating character, to whose cinematic debut I've been very much looking forward to. Chadwick Boseman is very impressive in the role, displaying the dignity of a man placed unsuspectingly on the throne, and a believable need for vengeance for his father's death. While there's little explanation for his powers here, there is at least enough to accept this man's strange double life, and Boseman's strong performance is key to that success. Again, he's a character whose future solo film I look forward to with great anticipation. There's a real global feel to this story, more so than Age of Ultron which tried hard, and although the gigantic, screen swallowing captions (LONDON! LAGOS! NEW YORK!) are bit much, hopping from nation to nation lends the film scope. Involving the (also fictional) nation of Wakanda is essential for the introduction of Black Panther, but rooting the actual events in real world locations is a wise choice.
As with Batman vs Superman, there's a villain pulling the strings and putting our heroes at each other's throats. Daniel Bruhl is perfectly fine as Helmut Zemo, a softly-spoken maniac driven by a believable tale of vengeance on his contrived quest. Sharing little more than his name with the comicbook Zemo, he's an effective antagonist for a picture that focuses primarily on the heroic characters, acting as he does quietly from the shadows. It's unlikely that he'll be too well-remembered among the plethora of supervillains that Marvel have served up so far, however. The same goes for the swiftly dispatched Crossbones (Frank Grillo). While the film's main focus is on Rogers, it's still feels more like an ensemble piece than a genuine Captain America movie, in the same way the most memorable character development in the first Avengers film belonged to Bruce Banner. Indeed, it's only the absence of the Hulk and Thor - soon to be teaming up themselves - that stops this from truly being the full-on Avengers shebang. As it is, the film is packed, but manages to remain engaging and fun throughout; something DC failed to achieve with their outing.
- Two-and-a-half hours is perhaps a bit too long for a film of this type. Not that this is an unusual length for a fantasy movie these days, but kids are going to start fidgeting well before it's over. Although in the event, the children in the cinema were better behaved than I was. On a related note, the movie is rated 12A/PG13, and it's mostly suitable for younger kids, although a couple of scenes were a little too much for little ones in my opinion, so take that as advice if you will.
- I've started looking forward to a Marvel movie in which Stan Lee doesn't appear, just to annoy fans looking out for him.
- There's a mid-credits and a post-credits scene in this one. They're both worth hanging on for if you're a true geek like me, but neither one adds anything essential to the film (or that won't be followed up in more depth in later releases).
- Comics characters featured in this film include Captain America, Iron Man, War Machine, Falcon, Scarlet Witch, the Vision, Hawkeye, Black Panther, Spider-Man, the Winter Soldier, Agent 13, General Ross, Everett Ross, King T'Chaka, May Parker, Howard and Maria Stark, Crossbones and Helmut Zemo. That's quite a few characters in any case, and an awful lot of superheroes and supporting characters imported from the comics. The two-part Infinity War movie is expected to involve over sixty "main characters," and while the crowd is handled here, it's hard to see how much more crowded it can be made before becoming unworkable.
- Even Tony Stark is taken aback by how much younger and hotter Aunt May is getting in every reboot.
- Odd that Black Panther's story didn't involve Ulysses Klaw, after he was forced into the story of Age of Ultron. Presumably he'll be back for Black Panther itself. The only truly essential character to his story is Storm, who unfortunately lies outside Marvel's cinematic rights.
- Looks like Gwyneth Paltrow got cut. Ah well, I'm sure there'll be Iron Man 4 someday.
- The bit where the two teams of heroes charge at each other makes me think fondly of the 90s X-Men cartoon.