More than even either Avengers movie, Captain America: Civil War is the biggest culmination of the MCU story so far. Every hero we’ve grown to know over the last seven years of Marvel movies (aside from Hulk and Thor) coming together for an enormous showdown led by Cap (Chris Evans) on one side and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) on the other. It’s a monumental task, one Batman v Superman failed with far fewer characters, but Joe and Anthony Russo along with writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have delivered Marvel’s best instalment yet and the best comic-book movie ever made. Immense fun from start to finish with brilliant action, a memorable cast of characters, and a surprisingly engaging villain, Civil War raises 2016’s blockbuster bar to a level that I doubt will be reached for the rest of the year.
The eponymous superhero conflict is sparked by the Sokovia Accords, named after the country that received such a hammering at the hands of Ultron and the Avengers last year. ‘Enhanced’ beings, as they’re known in this universe, are now seen as too destructive (especially after Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) loses control of her considerable power) to be allowed to operate without governmental oversight, and Iron Man’s guilt at creating Ultron leads him to sign on to the program. On the other hand, Cap doesn’t trust the government, led by the admittedly shady General Ross (William Hurt) and breaks away from his teammate. Everything is made far more difficult by the re-appearance of the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) and Cap’s insistence on protecting him. At this point battle lines are drawn and violence becomes inevitable.
And what violence it is. Superhero action has never looked this good or felt so exciting, combining the excellent choreography of 2014’s Winter Soldier with heightened stakes and extra superpowers. The showpiece battle between the two teams at a German airport manages to remain clear and comprehensible with each of the 12 combatants getting plenty of moments to shine. Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) retroactively makes his own standalone movie far more worthwhile, his unique powers allowing for joyous and funny moments throughout the fight.
However, despite the really effective use of all these established heroes (Falcon (Anthony Mackie) is another constant highlight), it’s the newcomers who pretty much run away with the movie. Tom Holland’s Spider-Man is easily the best screen iteration of the hero, hilariously excited just to be involved, and Chadwick Boseman brings an imposingly regal demeanour to the Black Panther. Both Holland and Boseman have bigger roles than expected, each vital to the overall plot, and seeing the Black Panther, my favourite comic book hero, on screen, being just as cool as he is in the source material, is a special kind of magic. Both of these characters have solo films on the way and, on this evidence, they’re both incredibly enticing prospects.
Daniel Bruhl plays the third major addition to the MCU, a rogue agent by the name of Zemo, and he makes the most of relatively limited screen time. Given the central concept of Captain America vs Iron Man, a Big Bad Villain isn’t entirely necessary, but Zemo makes for a well-motivated and acted antagonist.
Keeping all of the explosions, martial arts, and bug-themed heroes grounded is a smart script with real emotional stakes and plenty of laughs. Following on from the anti-NSA message of Winter Soldier, Civil War gives both sides of the governmental control argument equal credence, and deciding on who to side with is not easy. The physical scope of the danger is way smaller than most previous Marvel films – the world is never threatened with destruction here – but the emotional investment we already have in so many of these characters means that this is their most involving plot yet. It’s also one of their funniest films – not quite a full comedy like Guardians of the Galaxy, but packed with proper laugh out loud moments thanks to snappy writing and great chemistry between the actors.
Back in 2008, the very idea of a Marvel Cinematic Universe seemed farfetched, with the launch film, Jon Favreau’s Iron Man regarded as something of a risk. Since then, this franchise has made former B-list comic characters into billion dollar behemoths and produced some of the finest blockbuster cinema of recent years. Over 8 years and 13 movies, the MCU has become pretty much the closest thing to episodic TV on film, and Civil War is the best possible finale for Season 1, changing the status quo for the stories to come with such an abundance of quality that the follow ups already feel unmissable.