Everything has been building to this moment. Ever since the Avengers first assembled four years ago the superhero team has been frequently rattled by mistrust, petty squabbles and scraps so explosive they make your typical family fallouts seem like a prayer meeting. And in Captain America: Civil War all that pent up tension finally comes to a head as two of Marvel’s mightiest heroes go toe-to-toe in a bid to decide the future of the team.
That it arrives little over a month after DC’s own clash of titans failed to land a knockout blow must make its success that much sweeter. Raising the emotional stakes to match its epic scale and boasting the bravery to explore thought-provoking themes, this is the superhero dust-up we’ve all been waiting for.
Acting as a follow-up to both The Winter Soldier and Avengers: Age of Ultron, as well as introducing a host of new heroes to Marvel’s ever-expanding universe, the movie has a lot on its plate. Yet it never feels overstuffed in the way which derailed last year’s Avengers follow-up, largely because directors Joe and Anthony Russo play a superb balancing act to ensure every character receives their own unique motivation and emotional arc.
So here Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) wrestles with the consequences of her immense power; Vision (Paul Bettany) frets over his burgeoning humanity; Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) finds herself torn between her friend and her sense for self-preservation; and supposed retiree Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) is once again dragged away from his family and into the fight.
Such attention to character also elevates new recruits Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Spiderman (Tom Holland) above the status of mere fan-pleasing cameos. Boseman’s Wakandan king, in particular, is given a pivotal role in the fight as a personal tragedy thrusts him onto the tail of the Winter Solider (Sebastian Stan). Meanwhile, Holland almost steals the show as Queen’s fast-talking web-slinger, his joyous introduction raising hopes that Spiderman: Homecoming will offer something fresher than yet another re-tread of Peter Parker’s teenage years.
This balancing act would be much more challenging if the plot was not so disarmingly simple. After yet another mission results in the unintended loss of innocent lives, political pressure mounts on the Avengers to adopt a system of accountability. The result is the so-called Sokovia Accord, which would force the team to work under the authority of the United Nations. Consumed by guilt of his Ultron faux-pas, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) firmly supports the oversight, arguing the team needs to accept limitations. On the other side, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) sharply rejects the proposal, fearing government authorities simply cannot be trusted to do the right thing.
Whereas Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice was perhaps too muddled in its exploration of its opposing sides, here the various arguments are more elegantly handled. We fully understand why Stark is in favour of tighter controls, yet we can also see why Roger’s would distrust post-war politicians. And while Stark may be reckless in his determination to neutralise Bucky Barnes after he is framed for a terrorist plot, Roger’s defence of his war-time buddy is questionable at best: Bucky may be his friend, but he’s also a cold-hearted assassin – surely it’s right to keep him under lock and key?
This fracturing partnership between Iron Man and Captain America is the wrenching heart of the movie. Evans gives his best performance yet as the first avenger, pushing his character to new depths as he finally completes his transformation from patriotic company man to rogue insurgent. Downey Jr, too, adds a previously unseen dimension to Stark’s character, replacing the playboy shenanigans with a more sombre mood that befits his traumatic experiences over the last eight years.
These highly-charged emotional stakes ensure that when the final three-way showdown between Bucky, Stark and Rogers finally arrives, it’s as emotionally devastating as it is physically punishing, with every blow packing the weight of their shared history.
By focusing on the personal stakes rather than a grand supervillain scheme – Daniel Bruhl’s arch manipulator is, perhaps disappointingly, a forgettable figure – the Russos have found a way to sidestep Marvel’s troubles with formulaic third acts. For too long the MCU has been over-reliant on city smashing aerial battles and shaky big bads, but the Russos’ stripped back approach, which boasts the tight choreography of a Greengrass Bourne, negates the need for such bombastic scale whilst proving equally, if not even more, powerful.
Civil War is everything Batman vs Superman – and, indeed, Age of Ultron – wanted to be and more. Combining slick action beats with the smarts of a bold, engaging thriller, this is one superhero showdown that was well worth the wait.
Click here to watch a trailer for Captain America: Civil War