The collateral damage wrought by the yearly spectacle of summer blockbuster superhero battles and the sociopolitical ramifications thereof have been fodder for hand wringing and finger wagging, the stuff of a million hot takes and think pieces, since the first Avengers movie laid waste to a sizable chunk of New York and Man of Steel took things a bit further by leveling Superman’s beloved Metropolis while Big Blue was too busy snapping necks to save anyone. Last year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron took literally tens of minutes intricately detailing the search and rescue efforts of the team and was seen by many as a clunky and forced answer to the backlash. In-universe lives were still lost though, not only in Sokovia where most of the action took place but also during that otherwise spectacular Hulkbuster battle in Wakanda, and accountability is the answer, putting the Avengers under the thumb of the UN in an effort to “watch the watchmen” and prevent further disasters from occurring on a global scale.
Just as in the source material, Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) sides with the powers that be and Captain America (Chris Evans) chooses to rebel, but aside from the general ideas for and against government mandated heroes and the indelible image of the sentinel of liberty and the armored avenger at each other’s throats, Civil War doesn’t have much in common with the 2005 comic miniseries of the same name.
At this point that’s probably a good thing though, Marvel’s Cinematic Universe has always been better at capturing the feel of the House of Ideas’ iconic storied than adapting any particular arc, and the MCU has certainly evolved into its own beast over the years, necessitating more organic developments within its own ecosystem beyond serving the masters of the printed page. Civil War continues that streak, directors Joe and Anthony Russo soldiering on from their near perfect Winter Soldier, picking up the story threads that worked from Age of Ultron and leaving behind the franchise bloat and mediocrity that made that entry a disappointment.
AOU director Joss Whedon’s well publicized malaise towards franchise filmmaking may have reared its ugly head in the plotting and pacing departments, but his character work shone through, and the Russos continue that here with Scarlet Witch and Vision. Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany both excel in somewhat thankless roles as the oddball C listers, giving the classic comics readers that know of their eventual doomed romance a lot to look forward to. Marvelites also knew that the last film’s nasty business in Wakanda would lead to the emergence of Black Panther, and Chadwick Boseman inhabits the character with unexpected purpose and darkness that makes him feel both important and dangerous even after only seconds of screen time (the excellent production design of his costume doesn’t hurt either).
Of course the biggest news regarding this film’s casting was the inclusion of Spider-Man, with Sony and Marvel finally settling their differences to give fans an incarnation of the character that does his genius level intellect and sardonic wit justice. Young Tom Holland cuts a perfect High School aged Peter Parker, combining Tobey Maguire’s nerdy charm with Andrew Garfield’s smartass streak into a persona that can believably go toe to toe with Downey’s now immortal Tony Stark. The scene that introduces the characters to one another being an absolute master class in scripting, acting, reverence to source material and clever adaptation. Seriously, it sure has taken long enough to get these two in a live action room together, but it was worth it.
The design and effects that bring the web head to life are just right too, as far as splitting the difference between whiz bang technology and scruffy chutzpah, and his interactions both through fists and quips with all the existing Avengers are pitch perfect and will be some of the most crowd pleasing moments you’ll see at the multiplex all year.
Speaking of those returning Avengers, their contributions should not be overshadowed by the new class, especially Anthony Mackie and Don Cheadle filling out their “sidekick” roles with humor and heart, Sebastian Stan continuing to impress as the eternally tortured Winter Soldier, and Paul Rudd’s Ant Man making nearly as much of a hilarious impression as Spidey in his first Marvel Team Up.
A propulsive plot guides these heroes, building on what’s come before and leaving the playing field wide open for future adventures. The story may not be as tight as in the espionage flavored Winter Soldier, but the action set pieces more than make up for it. Falcon’s wings twist and turn, deflecting bullets and striking does as they propel him into the sky, Panther pounces and slashes as if he just stepped off the comic page, and even after five solo movies starring the character, this is hands down the most fun, fluid and spontaneous Spider-Man action we’ve seen hands down. And as for the biggest surprise? Well hopefully the toy line hasn’t spoiled it for you yet…
It’s not all about CGI and punching though, this ensemble of actors have truly transformed into these characters, and even when they’re all just sitting in a room together, it’s amazing to hear the characterization, the affectation, talking about Wakanda and Vibranium and other Marvel minutiae. It’s truly a gift to fans of superhero fiction that these films have been so good thus far to manage to get this deep into the lore and still remain just as engrossing and vital to the layman as well as the diehard.
So is this the best MCU film? Winter Soldier’s dark government conspiracies and brutal, close quarters hand-to-foot-to-shield Cap action still scratch me right where I itch, but how deep the bench is this time out and the fact that everyone gets to shine not just as colorful action figures but as flesh and blood humans (even Vision) more than makes up for it. This is basically Avengers 3, with the scale and scope of the action eclipsing even those mammoth blockbusters, even without heavy hitters Hulk and Thor on the roster, yet still maintaining the humor and heart, even in its most dramatic of hero on hero battle sequences, that begs audiences to keep coming back for more.