Warning: Review contains very minor plot details. You may want to read a spoiler-heavy review of this title before indulging.
Not for nothing did Marvel aficionados and neutral observers alike react to Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron with exhaustion. Each instalment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a slave to the franchise imperative – integrated plots and character arcs that can and do make super-mince out of old fashioned storytelling. Ultron, the last blowout, featuring all the heroes and ejaculating as much sequel seed over the audience as was thought bearable by the story committee, lost its shape and its mind trying to hit those targets. Whedon, canonised by fandom for his first ensemble bangaround, admitted he’d lost his grip on the movie and gave the keys to the clubhouse to Joe and Anthony Russo, the directorial duo who’d scored the most critical plaudits attributed to the franchise with Captain America: The Winter Solider. Not only would the brothers, who’d showed aptitude in integrating the demands of the suits into stories that exhibited their taste for the grounded and character driven, helm the next Avengers movie, but they’d spearhead the run-in, Civil War, a loose adaptation of Mark Millar’s seven-issue tale of internal dissent and open conflict amongst Earth’s mightiest heroes.
The movie as trailed seemed stuffed with clusterfuck potential; a film with a prominent role for Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man, introducing, with lawyers’ approval, Tom Holland’s shared universe Spider-Man and Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther. All of this to be incorporated while finding time to have the Avengers split and fight, advancing their characters, while writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely try to sequelise Winter Soldier’s cold war inspired espionage story that promised Cap would hunt down and if necessary destroy his old pal, Bucky Barnes, the Manchurian Candidate with the indestructible bionic arm. If that’s exhausting to read, not to mention write, imagine the story conference and Markus and McFeely’s long nights, breaking it down, making it work. If they could, they’d surely have proven their mettle in circumstances that would have driven lesser custodians of popular culture to alcoholism and suicide.
Well, someone buy the pair a couple of orange juices. Civil War’s a remarkably coherent and tightly focused affair that by virtue of clarity and concision, manages to keep all its ducks in a row while providing both the movies billed, i.e. the sequel to Winter Soldier and the Avengers’ civil war, AND providing lucid and substantive introductions to new characters. The Russo brothers deserve credit for orchestrating big action sequences, albeit sparingly so the movie can breathe, most notably the comically tinged destruction of Leipzig airport, while cross-cutting between plots without losing the movie’s shape, keeping the audience rooted and orientated. But Markus and McFeely are the real stars of the show. Having been handed one of the toughest gigs on the movie calendar, with the viability of and goodwill attached to the next grand Avengers two-parter resting on their ability to make a freestanding and self-contained story out of this staging post, with all the requisite bullet points on Kevin Feige’s memo struck through, they’ve managed to bind the A and B story, making them natural bedfellows.
The recent Batman V Superman showed what happens when poor planning and a lack of storytelling nous obliges a set of filmmakers to crow bar it in – a film that plays as product. Civil War, like the team’s previous effort, takes a mature approach to telling its tale, offering its audience an ideological and moral quandary to chew over, tormenting characters they’ve grown to like and care about. It’s the difference between a film that affects to be serious and one that has real ideas to play with. Better yet, Tony Stark and Steve Rogers don’t put their differences aside having discovered their Mothers have the same Christian name.
Civil War’s often witty and technically accomplished – one effects sequence showing a teenage Robert Downey Jr shows how far technology’s come since X-Men: The Last Stand. But it scores big in cultivating its central themes, namely the ruinous character of vengeance, which pleasingly, for fans of ambiguity in storytelling, is mirrored in protagonist and antagonist alike, and responsibility of state actors on the global stage.
Given both sides of the argument are represented by characters the audience assumes to be sincere and fundamentally decent in nature, the movie could only work if the plot contrived to give weight to both positions. Pleasingly, it does. Maverick Tony Stark may seem a shoe-in for wanting to operate outside of state control, but Markus and McFeely make a smart play by tying his Damascene conversion to international regulation to guilt over a young proxy who died when “we dropped a building on him, while kicking ass”, and his relationship to the absent Pepper Potts. Stark wants to show his estranged girlfriend he’s serious about being responsible, that he understands the need to be hemmed in, and that’s symptomatic of the way the movie asks us to consider the arguments while remaining focused on the characters. Conversely, Steve Rogers, mirroring Stark, is also emboldened by an absent love, namely the expired Peggy Carter, a World War 2 figure who reminds him of the old fashioned virtues of individualism and resistance to state control; the virtues that fuelled the good fight. The ideas of those in power change, says Rogers, reminding Stark of his bottom-up philosophy, and said divide is the movie’s heart and strength. Both characters are moral, both are slaves to their personal bios, and neither particularly wants to fight the other. Yet they do, and that tragic dimension gives a colourful blockbuster some much needed heft.
Ultimately, Civil War is a fine addition to the series, but more importantly gives assurance that the key chapters in this increasingly complicated but fundamentally light-hearted franchise, are in strong, steady hands. Age of Ultron made the prospect of an Infinity War somewhat gruelling. Civil War suggests it could be a lot of fun after all.