[Here’s the Sight & Sound review derived from these notes. I thought I’d leave the original screed up to illustrate the difference between what I jot down after seeing a movie – with detours, footnotes and all the arcana that come to mind – and what I write when tailoring a review to a particular outlet – and have to come in to a strict word length.]
The Marvel Cinema UniverseTM – or is that Marvel Cinematic UniverseTM? – juggernaut rolls on in this 147-minute playground game of ‘who would win in a fight between …?’ That’s four minutes shorter than Batman v Superman Dawn of Justice – and it’s impossible not to see similarities, even if mostly in terms of things BvS did poorly that this handles much better. In essence, the premise is the same: reasoning he can’t beat the superheroes hates but that they can beat each other, a villain pulls strings (some very clever) to arrange what boils down to Iron Man vs Captain America, with an assortment of others mixing it up in the background or on the sidelines. Marvel have established these takes on their flagship (and, indeed, flag-draped) characters in earlier Iron Man, Captain America and Avengers movies, and both Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr now inhabit their roles so well that they don’t need to rehash too much of the backstory (William Hurt’s Thaddeus Ross, unseen since the little-liked The Incredible Hulk, shows up early with a highlights reel of carnage caused by earlier super-scuffles) before getting down to business. Incidentally, for those critics and audiences fed up to the back teeth with comic book superheroes as tentpole movies, this is not a good jumping-on point … you either buy into the notion that a supersteroided defrosted WWII icon of integrity and a twitchy billionaire genius in trick armour are characters you can take seriously or you stay at home binge-watching Ozu.
It’s not that much of an achievement that co-directors Anthony and Joe Russo (held over from Captain America Winter Soldier) can make a better film than Zack Snyder …but it’s worth admiring the way Marvel (corporation as auteur) and the actors have nurtured these characters (even in weaker films like Iron Man 2) to the point when they carry more weight on screen than Batman and Superman. DC always had the edge over Marvel in icons: their big trinity of heroes crossed over from comics into mass popular culture in the 1940s and remain recognisable to people who can’t tell the difference between Cap’s armoured black best friend (Anthony Mackie as the Falcon) and IM’s armoured black best friend (Don Cheadle as War Machine) or the colour-hoded hot fighting chick on Steve Rogers’ side (Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch) from the colour-coded hot fighting chick on Tony Stark’s side (Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow). BvS, the second film in a wonky reboot of DC’s slate, had to pit its heroes against each other from a standing start, whereas this pays off plot threads that have been weaving for eight years (though it seems longer). Repetition has set in and the escalation of set-pieces reaches some sort of a peak. There are good-to-great action, chase and fight scenes here (though I think Bryan Singer’s X-Men films still have the edge on depicting superpowers) but there’s also a limit to the number of times people can be kicked through walls before the scraps start to feel samey.
There are two big face-offs: a mid-film mass battle on a German airport runway with twelve differently-aligned combatants, and a climactic, more intimate (and genuinely painful) struggle that’s more about character than gimmicks. Still, it’s not quite a Civil War (more an Internecine Squabble). Indeed, Mark Millar’s comics storyline – like Ed Brubaker’s Winter Soldier last time out – is only lightly referenced by screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. Millar’s concept of the US government enforcing a Superpowers Registration Act dropped in favour of a wishy-washier United Nations ‘Sokovia Accords’ that the real-life US (which doesn’t recognise the International Court of Justice, for instance) would never sign. Millar kicks off his story with foulup heroes levelling a town (and themselves) in an ill-considered battle; this puts the initial onus on poor, demented Wanda Maximoff (longtime comics victim of shoddy plot developments) in tossing a just-detonating suicide bomber into the wrong building in Lagos and a grieving mother (Alfre Woodard) giving Tony Stark a hard time after he’s delivered a lecture at MIT. Doubts about the collateral damage of superpowered adventuring are compounded when it seems Cap’s old war buddy Bucky Barnes aka Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), brainwashed by Hydra or the Soviets (or both), has launched an attack on the diplomats signing those accords. Rather than debate issues like individual responsibility, gun control, American domestic and foreign policy and civil disobedience (as Millar did), it all comes down to Cap doing everything he can to help his incredibly guilty-seeming (and, frankly, brainwashing or no, kind of a dick) old friend.
Stan Lee – who cameos here in what might be a reprise of his iconic role as Willy Lumpkin in the 2005 Fantastic Four – hated Bucky and gleefully killed him off when he and Jack Kirby revived Captain America in the 1960s. In every incarnation, James Buchanan Barnes remains more trouble than he’s worth so it’s perhaps a clever stroke in this movie that the crux of the plot is the hero’s stubborn siding by someone even the audience would happily see the back of (Stan’s floppy hair and metal arm still don’t make him interesting). But building this plot around him – and giving Zemo a motivation recycled from several previous Marvel movie characters – means there’s an odd absence from this particular Captain America movie. Millar’s story is all about America, but this isn’t – most of it takes place outside the United States, though this downplays the possibility that Yank superheroes might be mistrusted because of their nationality. Serious as Civil War would like to be, it doesn’t fundamentally question the IP (as BvS foolishly does) by interrogating the notion of Captain America – even if there’s a possibility the character is being lead into that 1970s period when he got disillusioned and dropped the flag and name. Martin Freeman pops up as Everett Ross, a weaselly State Department type who gets to sneer at superpowered folks and epitomise the incipient tyranny of the non-enhanced: Ross is plucked from Black Panther’s supporting cast to replace Henry Gyrich, who usually gets this job in comics (Gyrich’s rights got assigned to Fox – who killed him way back in X-Men).
One reason for the length is that this has to include updates on simmering sub-plots like the developing relationship between Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlet Witch (they get more to do here than in Avengers Age of Ultron) and the literally increasing powers of Ant-Man (Paul Rudd, a bit subdued). We also get debuts for Spider-Man (Tom Holland) and Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), primed for their own spin-offs. Holland’s Peter Parker, second big screen reboot of the character this century, impresses in his chattery cameo, while Boseman’s T’Challa is fluid in action and stiff out of costume in a way that’s true to the comics (Black Panther is a much trickier prospect than, say, Luke Cage – and his eventual solo vehicle is required to crack a nut that’s defeated many writer-artist teams). One reason Tony is off his game here – in addition to a bit of Bruce Waynery about his dead parents (John Slattery and a debuting Hope Davis) – is that he’s separated from love interest Pepper Potts, though this might well be down to finding it hard to get everyone’s non-combatant supporting cast into an already-crowded movie. Hulk, Thor, Hank Pym and Peggy Carter get namechecked and there’s just enough room for Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), King T’Chaka (John Kani), Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) and Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp). The film fits in beats (action and emotional) for all its characters, but exhaustion does eventually set in …
A developing problem with the MCU is its lack of first-rank villains. Crossbones (Frank Grillo), one of the series’ few genuine double-dyed bastards, gets an early look-in but is benched after one fight. Bruhl’s Zemo is typical of the MCU baddie breed in that he’s more grounded than his comic book equivalent but also considerably less interesting (and, frankly, Not Evil Enough). With many of core properties assigned elsewhere (even if a deal with Sony has enabled Marvel/Disney to use Spidey this time), it’s surprisingly seldom noted that the MCU could use the rogues galleries of Fantastic Four, Spider-Man and the X-Men more than those brand-name heroes. With the Red Skull in limbo. Loki and the Mandarin reimagined to the point that they aren’t strictly bad guys and promising types like the Leader (whose introduction was botched in The Incredible Hulk) off the board, Marvel seem stuck with one-use-only retreads or the desperately feeble cosmic dullard Thanos. At this rate, they’ll need to promote Vincent d’Onofrio’s Kingpin or David Tennant’s Purple Man from the TV division just to give headliners someone to fight aside from each other.
Captain America Civil War picks up on the greyish, drab paranoid feel of Winter Soldier – there’s a lot of concrete, and even the colourful costumes are muted. It’s not as murky as BvS (few films are) and judicious doses of wit and charm relieve the angst and the smashing. Iron Man (who addresses Bucky with ‘hey, Manchurian Candidate’), Spider-Man (‘remember that really old film The Empire Strikes Back?’), Ant-Man (‘I’m the voice of your conscience – you don’t hear from me very often’), Hawkeye and even straight-arrow Cap are all witty characters, but with different senses of humour. It’s refreshing to bring on a black character who isn’t primarily someone’s second best friend, but all the Tony-on-Steve bonding-and-bashing business shifts the women further to the sidelines than ever (this is Johansson’s least-taxing Black Widow turn and Hayley Atwell is just a smiling photograph). Next up, Dr Strange …