Well quite a lot, as it happens. Kickstarting phase three of the MCU in spectacular style, the Russo brothers have once again crafted a magnificent superhero epic that serves as a dual-sequel to both Joss Whedon’s Avengers Age of Ultron and their very own Captain America The Winter Soldier; still arguably the poster-boy for Marvel cinematic excellence.
Upfront, I can say this easily eclipses the former and almost equals (but not necessarily surpasses) the latter. I’ll admit to being a little swept up in the hype last year when reviewing Avengers Age of Ultron and despite stubbornly defending that film, a year's reflection has laid bare it’s flaws. The Winter Soldier however has stood the test of time and only gets better. It’s a relief then that the Russo’s have skillfully avoided the pitfalls of Ultron whilst building on the strengths of their previous film.
A big part of that is how they handle the extensive array of characers that the story demands. Despite having every Avenger bar two (and two major new ones to fill the gap), this is still very much a Captain America movie and a continuation of his film saga; with a lot of focus on the ideology that made him Captain America in the first place (the imperative to fight to protect others, with or without permission), and massive emphasis on his enduring friendship with Bucky Barnes/ the Winter Soldier (who has a surprisingly large role in the story). To a lesser extent, it's also an Iron Man movie; with Robert Downey Jrs Tony Stark featuring as the other main character and primary antagonist for Cap. His goals and motivations come from an equally laudable place and the opposing rationales and motives of both make equal and opposite sense.
At the heart of the story is the relationship between these three characters, and the respective performances from Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr and Sebastian Stan are amoung the best that any of them have given in any of their previous films. Evan’s Steve Rogers is noble, intelligent and loyal to the core; yet with that comes an unwillingness to compromise that some see as arrogant and self righteous- even dangerous. His friend Bucky is again a tortured pawn in the agenda of more sinister agents, and scapegoat for their actions. His struggle to escape his past, regain his humanity and find peace is a big driving force in the plot.
If Steve Rogers is the conscience of the Avengers, Tony Stark is still the heart; arguably getting better treatment here than he got in his own franchise. He’s a more mature Tony Stark with an almost paternal attitute to the team. He’s lost some of his swagger (because, you know, character development), but he has a dignity and humility we haven’t seen since he first left his cave with a suit made from a box of scraps. Downey Jr plays him as a rather damaged figure; his commitment to the Avengers having cost him his relationship with Pepper, but his wit is intact, as seen in his golden interactions with 'new-super-on-the-block' Peter Parker.
The Russo’s have tried hard not to short change any of the characters, and of second-tier players Black Widow, Falcon, Scarlett Witch and newcomer Black Panther get the most screen time, for reasons that are narratively relevant. The others (Vision, Ant Man, Rhodey and Hawkeye) get less screen time but are put to good use, each getting a moment to shine. There’s literally no dead wood here. Daniel Bruhl's Zemo is another interesting addition to the saga, an ambiguous figure with an agenda of his own, pulling the strings from the shadows. He's not a memorable villain but he is a sympathetic one, with human motivations that directly mirror those of one of the heroes.
Then of course, there’s the much anticipated introduction of Spiderman 3.0; and third time really is the charm. Tom Holland plays Parker and Spidey with a youthful exhuberance and geeky sensibility that does justice to both personas. His screen time is limted, but he's a perfect Parker and does everything a spider can when in the suit. Some have called him a show-stealer, and his action scenes and interactions with Tony Stark (in a mentor/ pupil role) bode very well for his upcoming solo movie.
The stage is set then, but can it deliver on the promise of its dramatic title? No worries on that score either; Civil War has enough action to fill an entire franchise. The brutal combat of Winter Soldier has carried over to this film and it's as breathlessly exiting as before, with Rogers, Romanoff, Wilson, Barnes and T’Challa in particular administering vicious powerhouse moves and lethal knock-out blows left right and centre. Then of course, there’s the titular and now world-famous 'airport battle'; a comic-book inspired mega-brawl that is inarguably the most insane superhero smackdown ever. All 12 combatants involved get to show off their powers (most memorably Antman and Spiderman) and it’s here the Russo’s let their hair down and take a detour into pure fantasy nirvana. Some, including myself, may find the sheer daftness of some of the fight elements to be a little too jokey and silly in contrast to the grown up tone that informs the combat before (and after); but ultimately it's a gleeful and imaginative reminder of what the genre can do; it’s a fight that will be talked about for years to come. And that’s even before we get to the final, ferocious conflict between Iron Man and Captain America; where last minute character revelations raise the stakes even further. It’s a shattering, violent and yet intimate battle of wills and clashing metal that concludes the film on a powerful note. It's the dramatic context to the fighting that elevates Civil War above it's throwaway peers.
One cant ignore the elephant in the room however that is DC’s Batman vs Superman, first out of the ‘versus’ gate and with almost the same basic plot. Similar themes are tackled, and in a similar structure. In both films we have a call back to cataclysmic events in previous films; in both we have a disastrous encounter on foreign soil that implicates our heroes; both have government interventions and sabotaged political hearings; both have clashing ideologies and again there’s a third party with an agenda pulling the strings. The devil is in the details however. Here is a much more intimate, well written and emotionally charged treatment of the same subject matter, and it drives the action rather than simply being an excuse to have it. Themes of friendship, accountability, loyalty, collateral damage, compromise and revenge underpin every battle. And they are explored with conviction and maturity. And even more crucially, Civil War has well drawn and sympathetic characters, with believable and logical motivations. And their connection with the audience has been earned over 8 years of getting to know them.
Perfect? Not quite. Combining Winter Soldier's grittiness with the fantastical elements of Avengers Age of Ultron and Ant-Man creates some curious tonal shifts that can be occasionally jarring. We're asked to take this seriously and 'lighten up' simultaneously, and it's a mixed message. Some might also level criticism at the use of shaky cam during some of the action scenes, which aren't always popular (although it didn't bother me). But that's literally all I could find on my first-watch nitpick.
In conclusion then Civil War is everything it needed to be and more; excelling both as a significant MCU chapter (Avengers Disassemble?) and as a barnstorming conclusion to Cap's stand alone trilogy that may even equal the acheivements of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight saga. The First Avenger was a wholesome comic book adventure and solid (if unmemorable) origin story; Winter Soldier was an outstanding, game-changing sequel, and Civil War is now a triumphant finale that may be remembered as the superhero film of the decade.
Time to go see it again…