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Film Reviews Captain America: Civil War cements Marvel's victory over Hollywood

A scene from Captain America: Civil War.

Film Frame

3.5 out of 4 stars

Title
Captain America: Civil War
Written by
Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
Directed by
Anthony Russo and Joe Russo
Starring
Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr.,
Genre
Fantasy
Classification
PG
Country
USA
Language
English
Year
2016

With great power comes great responsibility, or so says a dying Ben Parker in the 2002 film Spider-Man. While the forever-doomed Uncle Ben was trying to instill a sense of justice in his young nephew Peter, his final words also serve as the guiding philosophy at Marvel Studios, which has been entrusted with Earth's mightiest heroes, or at least their naming rights.

Ever since the premiere of 2008's Iron Man, Hollywood's most powerful players have been holding their collective breath, waiting for the Marvel powers that be to nick themselves as they furiously unwrap toy after toy from their massive intellectual property treasure chest. Yet with the exception of two Hulk misfires, the studio has defied the odds and figured out the perfect formula for a superhero blockbuster, one that's allowed them to exploit name-brand characters (Captain America, Thor) just as easily as who's-that-again oddities (Groot, Ant-Man).

It's not as if Marvel has patented some unknowable cinematic algorithm. Its tried and true method is right up there on the screen each time, a refined mix of up-and-coming directors not yet commanding huge salaries (Joss Whedon, James Gunn), familiar-enough stars with backgrounds in comedy (Robert Downey Jr., Chris Pratt), 'splosion-heavy action that's actually easy to follow, and a keen sense of story continuity that ensures one film's developments affect an entire universe worth of other narratives.

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Most importantly, though, Marvel knows what everyone else in the industry seems to forget: Superheroes are supposed to be fun. The reason Spidey and Nick Fury and Doctor Strange and the rest of the Avengers succeeded way back when they first debuted in comic form was because they were light, whiz-bang diversions from a real world that was often cruel and calculating. Every Marvel film has embraced that same sense of levity, expertly balanced against the varied demands of modern blockbuster cinema.

All of which makes Captain America: Civil War such a rousing success, and a stinging rebuke to Marvel's many imitators. It might be unfair to compare this, the studio's 13th superhero film, to something like Batman v Superman, Warner's second, but in nearly every way Civil War represents the dizzying heights of the genre.

Where Zack Snyder's clash of the titans was dark, malicious and crassly designed to wring maximum profit by promising more than it could deliver, Joe and Anthony Russo's Civil War is a shiny, immensely attractive work of pop art that acknowledges the obligations of the genre without wallowing in cynicism or cash-grab stunts.

Okay, that last line might be difficult to swallow for anyone who's glimpsed the film's sprawling cast, which is a stunt in and of itself. In addition to its title hero (Chris Evans, whose bulging biceps are their own unique special effect), Captain America: Civil War throws in about 75 per cent of the Avengers (Thor and Hulk are missing, but only because they're busy prepping Thor: Ragnarok), a few long-absent frenemies (including William Hurt's General Ross, last glimpsed in 2008's The Incredible Hulk), plus two new superheroes. Well, new-ish.

First, there's Spider-Man, released from his contract at Sony, which has finally given up trying to reboot the webslinger after watching two franchises fall apart. Second, there's Black Panther, a hero hinted at in previous Marvel films but only glimpsed in the flesh – or, rather, in his super-strong and unnervingly sexy Wakandian suit – here. Both are given excellent life by new-to-Marvel stars (Tom Holland for Spidey, Chadwick Boseman for Black Panther), but both are really only in Civil War to lay the groundwork for their own upcoming films (July 2017 and February 2018, respectively – reserve your tickets today!).

The film's central conflict positions the libertarian Steve Rogers against the suddenly pro-authority Tony Stark (Downey Jr., smirking forever), for reasons that seem a bit too convenient. In any other series, such a manipulative hero vs. hero setup would fall flat. Yet because we've had a dozen movies immersed in Marvel's universe, because the Russos know how to inject emotional weight into conversational scenes just as much as action set-pieces, and because Evans and Downey Jr. wear their roles so well, the conflict is gut-wrenching.

Any war asks you to choose a side, but it's impossible to cheer here for one hero or another – you believe they're both right and worthy, in their own way. Civil War is an action movie whose main villain is not some all-powerful superbeing, but the conflicting emotions of its heroes. (That said, there are some all-powerful superbeings here and there.)

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Still, the sheer weight of the two-and-a-half-hour film can overwhelm. The Russos, for instance, spend so much time on building character and navigating the layered plot that their visuals occasionally fall flat. The brothers' Captain America: The Winter Soldier delivered an authoritative, sleek mix of greys and blues, the strong colours of a hardened spy thriller.

In Civil War, the only signature aesthetics seem to be the intimidating placelines popping up throughout the film – LAGOS! VIENNA! SIBERIA! – and the smoothly shot, if perhaps overly stretched, chase scenes.

Then again, comic books were never known for their restraint, and every moment of excess is balanced out by one of high comedy or delightful world-building. With Civil War, Marvel Studios has proven, once again, that the world's heroes remain in good hands.

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