Remember our Comic Book Week a little while back? In the run up to its kick off, I realised that I remembered so little about some of the earlier Marvel films that, if I was to be armed with all the right knowledge to enjoy Captain America: Civil War when it eventually hit cinemas, I'd have to watch them all again, from 2008's Iron Man, right up to 2015's Ant-Man. It was a task that took me right up to the last few hours before seeing Civil War, and one that made me realise that, with the exception of Winter Soldier and the barely-linked Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel's recent slate was looking a bit rubbish. Superhero movie fatigue was kicking in, and I didn't expect much of Civil War.
But oh, how wrong was I! Captain America: Civil War is an incredible action film, deftly handling a huge ensemble cast and its heaviest themes with care, while managing to revel in the fun of comic book absurdity at the same time. It makes Age of Ultron look like a mess by comparison, and Batman v Superman, well...simply awful.
Captain America Civil War Review
Captain America: Civil War pulls together the hanging plot threads of Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: Winter Soldier. The destruction wrought by the floating city finale of Ultron, and the new Avengers' increasingly dangerous international peacekeeping missions, has lead the world to question just how safe it is to allow superheroes to roam unchecked. A sombre Tony Stark, haunted by his involvement in events with serious collateral damage, feels the time has come for the Avengers to assimilate with a more formalised UN authority, while Steve "Captain America" Rogers (burnt by the fall of Shield at the hands of Hydra double-agents in Winter Soldier) believes that autonomy is the only way the Avengers will be able to keep the world safe. So when the Winter Soldier himself, Bucky Barnes, resurfaces in the wake of a terrorist attack, Cap's decision to try to bring his old buddy back into the flock despite his shady past splits our heroic team right down the middle, a schism that may never be fixed again.
Even more so than the first Avengers film, Civil War feels like the pay-off earned by sticking by Marvel's interconnected movie slate over the past few years. Each plot thread is given room to breathe, each character gets their superheroic moment to shine and all the teases of new characters being introduced to the Avengers team play out with glee. Breathtaking action sequences fly at you left, right and centre, but there's a chemistry to the now-veteran cast that allows for more reflection between the bouts than Ultron managed.
Though it's a film headlined by Chris Evans' Captain America and Robert Downey Jr's Iron Man, it's newcomers Chadwick Boseman (Black Panther) and Tom Holland (Spider-Man) who steal the show. Tom Holland effortlessly takes on web-slinging duties, giving a youthful, quip-happy portrayal of Peter Parker that's the most faithful to the comic books yet. But we've seen Spider-Man before – Black Panther, on the other hand, is crazy. His first bigscreen appearance under the cat's cowl, Boseman brings a strength and maturity to his dual role of superhero and King of Wakanda, and it's a joy to see this fan-favourite character given a key role when he could so easily have been a mere cameo. If you weren't interested in the Black Panther before Civil War, you'll be eagerly awaiting his solo flick by the time the credits roll.
Civil War has two minor, if noteworthy problems. Firstly, it brings a lot of baggage with it – the Marvel film series is now so extended and packed with callbacks and references to previous events from earlier movies (Captain America: Civil War is the thirteenth MCU entry) that it can be hard to remember who has beef with who, and why. Civil War does well not to dwell too heavily on what's gone before, but I was glad I'd refreshed my memory of some characters so as to fully enjoy every subtle character shift or plot call back. Civil War's second problem is a debatable one, and it lies with villain Helmut Zero, played by Daniel Brühl. It's an issue Marvel's had with all its villains barring Thor's Loki. Though Zero's motivations are worthy, you discover them too late to be truly invested in his evil plots, while the performance itself is a bit bland. Brühl's a great actor, so it would have been good to have seen him given more to do. But seeing as he's simply there to set up some fisticuffs between Team Cap and Team Iron Man, I suppose he serves his purpose.
And boy, when those fists start flying, it's simply breathtaking. The Russo brothers, once again in the directorial seat, really know how to choreograph a meaty fight scene, but also to hit funny or emotional beats along the way too. A second-act superhero rumble between the two ideologically opposed hero teams at a German airport is the film's highlight – funny, explosive, kinetic and even surprisingly surprising, given how heavily it featured in Civil War's trailers. Everything Batman v Superman got wrong, Civil War gets right.
So that headline then, "Marvel's Empire Strikes Back", carries a dual-meaning if you will. Like the original Star Wars trilogy's second act, Civil War is a darker, thoughtful action film that thoroughly trounces even the high watermark the best of its predecessors set, with an ending that will force a much needed narrative shift that successive installments into the universe will have to react to (and will be all the more interesting for it). And, in terms of Marvel's literal cinematic "empire", the superhero series is back on course with its most emphatically-brilliant flick since the first Avengers (quirky Guardians of the Galaxy notwithstanding).
Captain America: Civil War may well be the best Marvel film yet. If you've ever enjoyed a comic book movie in the past, even if superhero fatigue was starting to kick in, go see this. You won't regret it.
Captain America: Civil War hits UK cinemas nationwide on April 29th 2016.