Tony Fyler picks a side.
Now that’s how you write a superhero smackdown movie.
Batman Vs Superman was roundly panned for all sorts of reasons, among them its rehashing of origin drama that everyone going into the movie will already have seen some five or six times now, the half-hearted consistency of characters and actors – same Superman, another new Batman, another new Lex – the equally half-hearted stab at contemporary issue-anchoring: the rise of vigilantism being a weak thread on which to build an antagonism between Superman and Batman, on which Luthor can play. Most of all, of course, it was ridiculed for the ten minute single fight scene that was supposed to be the raison d’etre for the movie, the pathetic coincidence that makes these enemies down tools and fight in a common cause and the godforsaken sturm und drang of a pair of scarred orphans beating the bejesus out of each other unconvincingly, and then being bros for the final climax. It all smacked of an event movie that was lacking in events.
Now, to be fair, because this was the launch of yet another brand new Batman, it had to try and cram all its dramatic tension into the space of one ass-numbing movie. And what it ended up as was an ass-numbing movie about which it was staggeringly difficult to think positively, despite some solid performances – from Henry Cavill’s cheekbones if no-one else.
Captain America – Civil War (and let’s be clear here, yes, the internet pedants are spot on, it really should be called The Avengers – Civil War), calls intelligently back to many of the previous Marvel movies of the last decade, and a couple of TV series too. As such, it instantly, out of the gate, feels like a much richer, more nuanced and ultimately more real experience. We don’t get an enormous amount of laboured backstory explanation – no re-Cap (ahem) of how Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes became the men they are today. If you’re sitting down to this movie, Marvel gambles that you’re already going to know. It’s a gamble that pays off massively.
Let’s talk set pieces. There are quite a few, and they’re all pretty much up there in the punchy stakes. If the first of them seems to rely just a little too heavily on speeded-up footage that will make you look at it six months down the line and think ‘Hmm,’ well, so be it. You’re never allowed that cardinal sin of too many action movies – boredom – in Civil War, because there’s always something interesting going on. In terms of characterisation, Marvel’s ability to call on the previous movies in its stable means the emotional textures are entirely believable all the way down the line. The issue that divides the Avengers, too, is both solid within its context and actually hits the marks that Batman Vs Superman aimed for and hopelessly missed – the license given to enhanced humans, and whether they should be allowed to use that license on their own initiative. As well as having uncomfortable parallels to our own world in terms of the acts of terrorists and the acts sometimes apparently used by those who seek to stop them, the idea of putting the Avengers under the remit of the United Nations cleverly shows up the inherent divide between Stark and Rogers, between Iron Man and Captain America. Captain America is the idealistic patriot, the theoretical proud heart of the Land of the Free. Iron Man is the pragmatic bomb-maker, the businessman, the actual way that things get done. When the UN signs a set of accords to regulate the Avengers, there are only three options – you abide by the accords, you retire, or you become a renegade, and all the way down the line, you can draw the graph from the Avengers’ past behaviour to which side of the law they decide to fall on.
This idea that preventing greater ills can cause the deaths of innocents – the ‘Bigger Picture’ problem – is a throbbing note all the way through the movie; in essence, it’s the reason the movie exists, and one example at the start of the film allows lines of parallel to be drawn back through both the previous Avengers movies to the devastation left in the superheroes’ wake – devastation that for instance also got mentioned in Netflix Marvel outings like Daredevil and Jessica Jones. Coherence across multiple movies and media makes the Marvel universe feel like our own, but way, way cooler, as opposed to the brooding world of Batman Vs Superman where Gotham and Metropolis are apparently just a river’s width away. Certainly, Civil War beats all comers in terms of worldwide scope – locations are global, and are boldly announced, comic-book style. In this world, the Avengers are worldwide heroes, or global threats, depending on your point of view.
You’ve watched the trailer, and probably scanned every bit of advance news about the movie, so you’ll know that ‘Underoos’ makes an appearance here before starring in his own movie – third time could well be the charm, because this version of Peter Parker, played by Tom Holland, is by far the youngest-feeling, youngest-looking, and geekiest of the three recent wall-crawlers, with by far the coolest relative: Marisa Tomei is Aunt May, for Loki’s sake! He’s a very early Spidey, still getting to somewhat sticky-palmed grips with the whole hero thing, and his appearance here promises good things for his upcoming solo gig. Meanwhile, probably the cooler news is about the addition of a hero new to movies – T’Challa, known gorgeously as the Black Panther, is a fantastic presence here. Everything you know about Black Panther, everything you could go into this movie hoping against hope would be delivered, is absolutely here, Chadwick Boseman knocking it out of the park, and then, y’know, chasing after it and spiking it with Vibranium claws. Some of the best set-pieces in the movie are Panther-powered, and the character has a unique sense of movement that makes him look like nothing else on the screen at any point. Hell – we mean oh HELL yes - to the Black Panther movie in 2018!
Prepare to finally get the kind of Falcon action you’ve been hoping for ever since he joined the franchise, too – right from the start, Anthony Mackie’s Sam Wilson kicks some serious ass here, sometimes in ways that surprise.
There’s another character here too, and whether you know they’re returning depends on how much you’ve read in advance. We won’t spoiler them for the people who don’t know they’re coming to this party, but what we will say is their appearance here actually makes us want to go back and watch their previous movie – which didn’t seem at all likely beforehand. Charm and gags, DC, it’ll make even the obligatory superhero slapdown exciting to watch. And that’s the important point – yes, of course, there’s a ‘more heroes than you can shake Loki’s staff at’ set piece battle, and of course it rocks the screen, with everyone getting much more than their obligatory moment, but Civil War isn’t just about that slapdown – characters even acknowledge on-screen that this is ‘not the real battle.’ That goes on around the world as Barnes and Rogers (the superhero booksellers?) uncover a thrilling, terrifying threat of ultimate Winter Soldier-style chaos. In a way, while having a far more enjoyable, witty, energetic vibe about its dialogue and characterisation, Civil War, in being able to call on the textures of all the previous Marvel movies, is a much more mature affair than Batman Vs Superman could ever have realistically hoped to be.
It’s not all witty dialogue and slapdowns though. There are tragedies in this movie too, characters we’ve loved who don’t make it beyond the end of the movie, or who have an extremely challenged pathway beyond its events. And yes, for those who absolutely need it in their superheroes, there is even some orphan parent-losing angst. But here it’s delivered in a way that serves to move the story on, rather than, as in BvS, making the whole damned thing grind to a shuddering halt.
Bottom line, this isn’t particularly the Captain America movie it pretends to be – it’s the Avengers movie you want it to be. Yes it tells a long and complex story, but it never lets its length become especially noticeable, always delivering threads, or characters, or new developments that make you not only stick with it, but forget the necessity of doing so. Like a great page-turning novel, Civil War will set you free at the end wondering where the time went – a testament to the masterminds at Marvel and their extended, expensive, but absolutely priceless worldbuilding skills, their way with a witty line, and their lack of fear when it comes to delivering a screenful of heroes with genuinely different worldviews and motivations, while allowing them all to be doing what they feel is the right thing.
If you want a kickass superhero slapdown in 2016, it’s just arrived.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk