I ain’t gonna lie: despite suffering some superhero fatigue as of late, especially after the bitterly disappointing Batman v Superman, the latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), Captain America: Civil War, was still probably my most anticipated film of 2016.
In my view, the MCU has not put a foot wrong with any of its movies (I’m counting from the first Iron Man film back in 2008), with each entry ranging between “fantastic” and “pretty good”. Though Avengers: Age of Ultron may have disappointed some fans, Civil War has been promising to impress for months. Apart from pitting the franchise’s two biggest leads (Captain America and Iron Man) against each other, the film was bringing back most of the characters from the Avengers while also introducing us to the likes of Black Panther and villain Crossbones. And when Disney reached a deal with Sony to finally bring Spider-Man to the MCU, the internet lost its mind.
It’s no wonder that Civil War has been dubbed Avengers 2.5, which could have been a cause for concern but for two pertinent reasons. First of all, the film was being framed as the third entry in the Captain America standalone franchise (hence the title), and as such there was going to be a definitive focal point rather than simply an orgy of evenly distributed superhero action. Secondly, the film was being directed by the Russo Brothers, the huge comic book nerds who gave us the brilliant Captain America: The Winter Soldier. If anyone was going to do the movie justice it was going to be these two champions.
The hype for this movie was through the roof. The trailers looked great and Marvel was so supremely confident that it screened the film for critics a month out from its US premiere next month — and lifted the review embargo shortly thereafter. Of course, the critics have been very kind in return (97% Rotten Tomatoes), so much so that DC fanboys have accused Marvel of paying critics to slam BvS.
It was under these heightened expectations that I stepped into a surprisingly packed cinema on the morning of the first day of public release (a weekday, no less). I was hoping for awesomeness and accepting nothing less, and so I am super glad to report that Civil War does not disappoint. It’s by no means perfect and couldn’t quite live up to the astronomically positive hype, but as superhero movies go — and remember, the bar keeps getting higher as we keep demanding more — this one is about as good as they get.
Now I admit this is a bit of a dick move on my part, but I’ll be making some comparisons to BvS. It’s just the natural thing to do, given that both are mega franchises about two beloved superheroes going up against one another while setting the stage for the next ensemble movie (in this case, The Infinity Wars). It helps us put things in perspective and reminds us just how hard it is to get such movies right.
And so the first thing I will say is that Civil War kills BvS in terms of storytelling. To be fair, it’s not exactly an even fight because we’ve been with these Marvel characters for years and multiple films, while BvS only had Man of Steel before it and had to introduce one of its two main protagonists. That said, the end product could not be more different. Civil War is a lesson in great storytelling that Warner Bros and Zack Snyder should try to learn from. From the pacing and introduction and development of characters to conflict development and editing, Civil War shows BvS how it’s done. The story is tight and flows, gliding along as opposed to plodding along. Whereas BvS felt like a fragmented mess at times, Civil War felt like a well-lubed machine that knows when to crank things up and how to build things up so audiences can follow and become emotionally invested.
I don’t want to go into the story too much, though rest assured that there is a damn good story in there, not just a simple premise and a bunch of fight scenes. The stakes feel real and the dilemmas of the characters feel real. The rift in the Avengers stems from a fundamental difference in philosophies, and the film helps you see both sides. Ultimately, this is what makes the movie successful — you don’t really know which side to choose, as Captain America and Iron Man become both protagonist and antagonist.
What impressed me most about what the Russo Brothers did with this movie is how they managed to make it feel very different to just another Avengers movie, or even just another Captain America movie. The story is a continuation of Winter Soldier (though it incorporates events from the previous MCU movies, especially Age of Ultron) and comes across as clearly a Captain America movie. This story has plenty of other key characters, but Steve Rogers is without a doubt front and center. At the same time, the film also does what The Avengers did so well, which is to bring so many characters and plot strands — some old, some new — together seamlessly.
Without giving too much away, I count around a dozen people in this “civil war,” and none of them are neglected by the Russos. Captain America and Iron Man of course get their screen time as leads, though it is surprising how everyone else is given their moment and opportunities to shine. Perhaps this is why the 2.5-hour running time is justified, because you really need that much time to make sure everyone gets in on the action while ensuring that it remains a story about just one or two main characters. Importantly, at no point did the running time feel long. In fact, like Chris Evans says in the trailer, I can do this all day.
My concerns about how the film was going to introduce the new characters turned out to be unfounded. Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) is amazing. The Amazing Spider-Man (Tom Holland) is…er…amazing. Perfect casting and perfect characterisations. Black Panther is more integral to the plot, but Spider-Man is, in my opinion, the best incarnation of the popular character we’ve ever seen on the big screen. I can’t wait to see both of their standalone films (Black Panther in 2018 and Spider-Man: Homecoming in 2017).
It is important to remember, however, that Civil War isn’t just all out action. There are plenty of scenes that drive plot and build character so that we actually care about them and their plights when they eventually come to blows. But when the film decides to give us action, it is scintillating action. This is a big call, though I’m not afraid to call it: Civil War has the best action scenes of any MCU movie — ever. Probably of any comic book movie — ever. I think the film might have taken some hints from Netflix’s Daredevil series in focusing more on gritty and innovative combat sequences rather than CGI. The hand-to-hand fights are exquisitely choreographed and the stunts are brutal and bone-crunching. And because there’s so much emotion involved, the blows between the superheroes also feel more personal. It’s far more than just a bunch of indestructible freaks putting on a show.
The 17-minute sequence that has become known simply as “the airport scene” is as glorious as advertised. You’ve got all of them going head to head, and yet it never feels messy or fake like it did in Age of Ultron, despite the fact that there was probably just as much CGI involved. To put it in perspective, if I try to think of the fight scenes between Batman and Superman in BvS, I just remember the two of them taking turns punching and tackling each other through walls, which got a little “meh” after a while. The fight scenes of Batman against regular terrorist dudes, on the other hand, were far more entertaining and creative. The fight scenes in Civil War are all at that level or higher, and the craziest thing is that even without the airport scene it’s still got some of the best action sequences ever filmed.
The performances are excellent across the board. Chris Evans might suck in everything else he’s in, but there’s no denying that he is perfect as Steve Rogers/Captain America. And we already know how good Robert Downey Jr is as Tony Stark/Iron Man, though I think he is better in this than he has been in any other MCU movie since probably the first Iron Man. In Age of Ultron, Downey Jr seemed a little tired of the character, whereas here he appears to have a lot more energy. Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany — all of them are solid. Special mention goes to Paul Rudd, who pretty much provides a laugh-out-loud moment every time he says or does something as Scott Lang/Ant-Man. It makes me very eager to see the Ant-Man and the Wasp in 2018.
As I said earlier, the film is far from perfect, meaning Civil War is not without flaws. As is usually the case with MCU movies (with the exception of Tom Hiddleston’s Loki), the main antagonist is a little weak. I like that the villain is someone who relies on brains as opposed to brawn, but unfortunately his/her motivations are somewhat contrived, and his actions are in some cases nonsensical or unnecessarily elaborate. The same can be said for some other minor characters who pop up in the movie. Having said that, these are relatively minor complaints in the grand scheme of things, and I’m just grateful that the film sticks to its promise of being a Captain America vs Iron Man movie all the way to the end as opposed to throwing in some kind of all-powerful monster at the last minute so they can become buddies (cough, Doomsday).
So now I’m combing through all the MCU movies thus far (I’ve seen them all) and I’m wondering where Civil War ranks among that list. I’ve always thought that the first Iron Man and the first Avengers were the standouts, and I’ve recently added The Winter Soldier to that list after watching it again a couple more times. To me, Civil War is arguably in the top 3, or at worst in the top 4 after the aforementioned trio. What it also shows, categorically, is that the Captain America franchise is the best solo-character trilogy in the MCU, besting the Iron Man trilogy (thanks to a lacklustre second film) and the Thor trilogy (no matter how good Thor: Ragnarok is). This is a unique film that combines the best of both worlds: the personal, engaging story of Captain America and the spectacle and thrills of an ensemble superhero movie. I look forward to seeing it again.
4.25 stars out of 5
PS: Kudos to the marketing team for the trailer, which showed enough to get everyone super excited but not revealing the whole story and its many intricacies (unlike, again, BvS). Smart use of editing to mislead and avoiding certain subplots and characters all together made sure there were enough surprises for audiences. While some great lines and scenes did lose some impact because they were in the trailer, there’s so much more to the film than the trailer suggests.