Packed With Moral Complexity And Intrigue, Civil War Is Also Thrilling Fun. The Russos Are The Right Team To Lead The MCU.
If there was ever any doubt, then it is now confirmed. Joe and Anthony Russo, who helmed Marvel’s previous finest offering Captain America: The Winter Soldier, have the vision, scope and, a rarity in the cinematic superhero slugfest, the subtlety of character to lead the franchise.
A third Avengers movie in all but name, Captain America: Civil War leaves the previous instalments in the dust. Joss Whedon’s first was a rather generically fun romp that relied far too heavily on his trademark constant quipping, undermined the complexity of Loki as a villain and, yes, set off the seemingly never-ending cycle of city-smashing final acts. But at least it had heart and showed that the Avengers weren’t simply work colleagues, but also best friends. Avengers: Age of Ultron was a dog’s dinner, a soullessly corporate set up for a conveyor belt of spin-offs.
Whether the Russo’s are simply more skilled at resisting the studio (most likely) or the studio itself has cottoned on to fan disappointment and relented, the third Cap movie, penned by Winter Soldier scribes Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, has the room to breathe, using it to tell a complete and engaging story with shades of Bond’s global intrigue, free from the tyranny of set-up yet clearly placed on a continuum.
Ultron at least established a growing rift between Chris Evans’ All-American freedom fighter Cap/Steve Rogers and Robert Downey Jr’s cynical, egotistical and yet strangely more willing to play by the rules Tony Stark/Iron Man, haunted by the mistakes of his own arms dealing past and a believer in the system.
Newest recruit the Scarlet Witch, Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda Maximoff, tests their opposing worldviews to their limits. With the world beginning to fear their ‘saviours,’ following devastating battles that left great piles of rubble and multiple human casualties in New York, Washington DC and the fictional Eastern European nation of Sokovia, their latest mission, tracking the errant Crossbones (Frank Grillo) to Lagos, goes awry when Wanda, attempting to psycho-kinetically contain a mammoth explosion, accidentally exacerbates the death toll.
It’s the last straw, with 137 countries worldwide meeting in an extraordinary session of the United nations to sing the Sokovia Accord, with former General Thaddeus Ross, now US secretary of state (William Hurt) bringing the heroes to heel as Government-sanctioned agents who must immediately cease and desist their vigilantism and casual disregard for sovereign borders.
Stark, troubled by the continuous escalation of collateral damage, feels compelled to sign the accord, though it’s clearly not a move he takes lightly. Don Cheadle’s War Machine and Paul Bettany’s fantastic take on the Vision fall into line out of a sense of duty, with Wanda and Scarlet Johansson’s arse-kicking Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow are torn, but see no alternative.
Cap draws a line in the sand, arguing that the accord effectively criminalises the team, removing their agility when it comes to dealing with global threat levels. Fresh from dealing with the villainous Hydra’s infiltration of S.H.I.E.L.D, you can understand his reluctance to trust the authorities.
When Bucky Barne’s Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) is implicated in a devastating attack on the UN, which also serves as the perfect introduction to Wakandan prince T’Challa aka Black Panther – a sterling turn from Chadwick Boseman that leaves me wishing his solo debut was next, rather than Doctor Strange – Cap goes rogue with Sam Wilson’s Falcon (Anthony Mackie) to bust his good friend out of a tight corner, and that’s when it all goes horribly wrong.
While there are strong echoes of Mark Millar’s original comic book epic, the Russos use its bones to tell their own captivating clash of goodies vs goodie, with all the shades of grey in between, particularly when you factor in the perspective of the little guys caught in the crossfire. What makes the Iron Man against Captain America showdown so thrilling is that both sides are equally convincing and yet also flawed in their arguments. There is no easy answer to this dilemma, and that makes for fascinating cinema, boosted by the intrigue the Russos brought to Winter Soldier.
What is the dark secret of a roadside assassination executed by Bucky shortly after his brain-wiped reactivation? What does it have to do with Daniel Brühl’s sinister Zemo, determined to bring the Cold War warrior under his command? Compared to Loki’s petulance and Ultron’s maniacal Skynet tendencies, Zemo is a refreshingly different take on the big bad, played with a creepy calm and a even a relatable, though damaged, humanity.
Captain America: Civil War is also tonnes of fun. The spectacular fight sequences go easy on the CGI destruction, instead focusing on each character’s unique skill set, “everyone’s got a gimmick.” A roped-in Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) is in fine wisecracking form, goofily introducing himself to Cap before a breathtakingly staged airport showdown where he pulls off a new trick so awe-inspiring even an enraged Stark has to hand it to him.
He’s just pipped to the post in the scene-stealing stales, however, by the introduction of young Brit Tom Holland’s instantly adorable dufus Peter Parker 3.0, effectively erasing Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield from the timeline. Again, it’s a testament to the Russo’s deft ability that they can wrangle a cast this big and still find time for intimate character beats, even if it does mean Cap is slightly sidelined in his own franchise and War Machine, plus a late-addition Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), feel surplus to requirement.
Wrapped up with a satisfyingly intimate finale that carries far more weight than the standard orgy of destruction we’ve seen to date, while the story feels sound in its own right, it delves into the past smartly and leaves lasting ramifications for the MCU at large and the strained relations between Rogers and Stark more directly. A game changer, the universe is all the richer for this standoff.
Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords