Unless you’ve been in a cave for the last few months — and if you have, I assume you have Wi-Fi since you’re reading this — you’ll have seen that the latest Captain America film, Civil War, is out. Not only are we supposed to watch it, but we’re supposed to decide whose side we’re on — either “Team Cap” or “Team Tony.” Perfectly sensible people have been clogging the internet with excited arguments on the topic. So is the hype justified? Let’s take a look.
The disadvantages of being a comics fan
The titles of Marvel movies can be a little misleading if you’re a diehard comics reader. The second Avengers film, Age of Ultron, had next to nothing to do with the comics storyline of the same name. They both had Ultron in them, but that’s about it. Civil War is a little closer to its namesake, the divisive Mark-Millar-penned Marvel crossover event that started with the jarringly incongruous image of a schoolbus full of kids being blown up in a fight scene that involved Speedball the Masked Marvel, of all people.
The comics Civil War suffered from the fact that its plot was essentially to point out a part of the Marvel universe that writers had been assiduously avoiding for forty years because it made no sense at all. The film is a lot better off in that regard — the Marvel films, particularly the Cap movies, have always had a strong dose of superhero-government interaction. But other than a very loose outline, and a brief scene where Alfre Woodward plays the mother of a young man killed in a big superhero fight, this movie doesn’t have much to do with its ancestor. Which is a good thing, because having Namor show up at the last minute would just confuse everyone.
Instead we get a plot in which the prospect of international regulation of superheroes pits teammates against each other, with Captain America (Chris Evans) and his ragtag band of allies trying to protect the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) from Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr) and his backup. Also, there’s a villain, but he’s pretty perfunctory.
Two types of viewers
I was chatting with a good friend of mine who had just seen the film, and she told me that she’d been in tears in the cinema, moved by the heroic journey of her favourite character, the Scarlet Witch, as well as by the difficult relationship between the three main characters (that’s Cap, Iron Man and the Winter Soldier, which is worth explaining considering there’s approximately 100 secondary heroes in this story). I … did not have that reaction. For me, the highlight of the movie was watching something that comics have been doing for almost as long as there have been superheroes but that seldom appears in film: a good old-fashioned super-hero slugfest.
I still smile when I think of the film’s central fight scene, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who enjoyed seeing beloved characters thump the hell out of each other for what felt like a good quarter of an hour. Superhero fans have been arguing about whether Thor is stronger than the Hulk as long as there have been superhero fans, and comics heroes fight one another more than is strictly healthy. It was delightful to see that larger-than-life conflict realised in a battle scene so dynamic and eventful that it was easy to forget how technically challenging it must have been.
I’m not saying my friend’s reaction was wrong at all; I just mean that it’s nice to see superhero movies successfully hitting the mark that comics have always aimed at and pleasing both those who care about the soap-opera aspects and those who want the ol’ senses-shattering action.
The film’s marketing urged us all to choose sides in the conflict, but ultimately this is an action movie. Its political conflict stays out of the spotlight, which is a good move because — even leaving aside the fact that it requires you to forget Iron Man 2 — it doesn’t make a lot of sense. How could it? In the real world, complex international regulations aren’t finalized in three five-minute scenes. Instead, it wisely chooses to focus on how the political conflict illuminates the personalities of its characters; the conflict could have been about anything. Even so, the script has a lot of heavy lifting to do, juggling its plot with plenty of fights and chases while also introducing two new heroes, Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland). That’s a lot of ground to cover, and it’s to the film’s credit that it feels breathless but seldom rushed.
So is it any good?
It’s good, and in the unlikely event that you haven’t seen it yet you ought to. It does occasionally feel as though it’s going over old ground rather than doing anything interestingly new with its mythology, but it’s so well-executed that it’s hard to fault it. There’s nothing as weirdly revolutionary as Ant-Man (Ant-Man is a fantastic example of the transgressive opportunities of superhero filmmaking; I’ll explain some other time), but it’s well-acted, exciting and, for all its moral quandaries and violent conflicts, more optimistic than some other contemporary takes on the hero-fight genre.