After an explosive mishap during a mission, the Avengers are told they must be regulated by the UN. Their leader, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) resists; their bankroller, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) supports it. Then their tensions turn into full-on schism when Rogers’ buddy-turned-assassin Bucky (Sebastian Stan) resurfaces.
When the Avengers first assembled four years ago, it felt like a grand culmination, the ultimate Marvel superhero event: its Big Four characters united (well, eventually) against a colossal planetary threat. Since then, the studio’s ever-expanding Cinematic Universe has delivered sequels of varying quality and introduced new heroes in stand-alone movies (well, as close to stand-alone as Marvel can ever get), but it’s never quite matched the ensemble-balancing finesse and Earth-quaking action scale of Joss Whedon’s initial assembling. Certainly not in his clunkier, team-gathering follow up, Age Of Ultron. Not until now.
Captain America: Civil War is the best Marvel Studios movie yet. There, we said it. First, and most importantly, it does what the best Marvel films do: juggling multiple characters so each is allowed its moment in a story that pushes forward the series’ overall continuity, while also forming and concluding its own cogent plot. So here Scarlet Witch (Elisabeth Olsen) wrestles with the consequences of her immense power; Vision (Paul Bettany) starts getting to grips with being ‘human’; Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) finds herself torn when the battle line is drawn; and supposed retiree Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) just can’t stay out of the fight.
Then there are the new recruits: Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman, playing it gravelly and furrow-browed), nimble protector of a secretive African nation who has his own beef with Bucky; and a quippy kid from Queens (Tom Holland) who crawls up walls in a red-and-blue outfit and can shoot webs at people. His introduction to the action is resoundingly joyous, the reboot the character truly deserves. (“I don’t know if you’ve been in a fight before,” he’s told by one opponent, “but there’s not usually this much talk.”) Even Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man receives more than a tokenistic ‘hey it’s him!’ cameo, and in spectacle terms at least, is given the film’s biggest scene.
Captain America: Civil War is the best Marvel Studios movie yet. There, we said it.
At its not-so-soft-and-gooey centre, though, is the friendship between Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), two war buddies out of time, one of them out of his mind. Stan remains, for the most part, as blank and frosty as he was in The Winter Soldier, allowing only the occasional warm glint of ’40s sidekick Bucky. Evans, meanwhile, further hones a role he’s effortlessly owned for five movies now, pushing Steve to impressive new depths and reminding us that his straight arrow still has a dangerous edge. The Steve/Bucky thread stretches back to the first Captain America, and is what makes this Cap Three rather than Avengers Two-and-a-half. But built around that is the bigger conflict that, despite the title, does place it as a direct sequel to Age Of Ultron.
In a similar way that Zack Snyder’s DC-world reacted to Superman’s ascension and the emergence of its “metahumans” — though here it is more lightly and elegantly handled — the world of the Avengers has had enough of these “enhanced” agents wreaking collateral havoc and decided, not unreasonably, to bring them to account. So US Secretary Of State William Ross (reappearing for the first time since he was just a monster-chasing General in The Incredible Hulk) presents the Sokovia Accord, signed by 117 countries, which states the Avengers should be answerable to the United Nations. Wracked with guilt over his Ultron faux-pas, Tony Stark’s all for it, and Robert Downey Jr burdens the still occasionally glib hero with a weight-of-the-world weariness that is well matched by his own MCU mileage. But stubborn Steve, distrustful of the post-war world’s version of ‘authority’, refuses to sign on the dotted line.
It’s bold of writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely to place their title hero in the most obviously dubious position. If the Avengers don’t answer to the UN, who should they answer to? And Steve’s defence of Bucky is questionable: he may be his childhood friend, but now he’s a lethal, robot-armed killing machine forever in danger of being reactivated. It’s fair enough that he should be brought to heel, right? Then again, there are flaws in Tony’s arguments, too, especially the problematic evidence on which he rests them. Who the audience should agree with is hardly a clear-cut matter.
It’s even bolder that the conflict at the film’s heart doesn’t pander to genre convention and become sidetracked by a grandstanding supervillain plot. And this is the second way Civil War earns our ‘Greatest Marvel Yet’ accolade: by rising above the series’ greatest weakness. Too often, the snappy writing and slick action in these films is undermined by flimsy big bads and formulaic final acts. Yet there is no Loki or Ultron (or, for that matter, Lex Luthor) equivalent this time. Not a whiff of Thanos, or any more of those forgettable Marvel sub-baddies with ‘The’ for a middle name. There is a meddling manipulator — of course there is — but, interestingly, their agenda is as blurred as Steve’s and Tony’s. Arguably just as sympathetic, too. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo don’t just want to rocket your heart into your mouth with their action sequences, which have the tight choreography of a Greengrass Bourne, and the brutal flair of a Gareth Evans rumble; they want to keep your brain firmly engaged, too.
Who needs a villain when you have Steve and Tony?
Who needs a villain when you have Steve and Tony? Both protagonists. Both antagonists. And drawing other power-people to their cause in surprising ways. The clashes go far beyond the set-up squabbles of Avengers Assemble. Or even that other big 2016 superhero showdown. Forget Batman v Superman. Here you get Ant-Man v Spider-Man, Hawkeye v Black Widow, Scarlet Witch v Vision, The Winter Soldier v Black Panther and (well, duh) Captain America v Iron Man, all rolled into one. And that is what you call the ultimate Marvel superhero event.
Matching its blockbuster scale and spectacle with the smarts of a great, grown-up thriller, Captain America: Civil War is Marvel Studios’ finest film yet. There. We said it again.