The most powerful costume this super-season is the suit and tie. After the destruction caused in New York, Washington and ‘Sokovia’ (endless, post-Soviet tenements), the UN have finally decided that superheroes need to start filing insurance claims and going to fire safety talks. It is inevitable that, given the volume of superhero films, the genre would eventually become more introspective and politically-charged, particularly after the attack of surveillance that was ‘The Winter Soldier’. However, let’s not kid ourselves: ‘Civil War’ is a film about indestructible clowns hitting each other, only taking breaks for globe-trotting and banter.
In fairness to the Russo brothers (who continue their world domination here before gearing up for the next two ‘Avengers’ films), they are very good at orchestrating all the hitting. ‘Civil War’ begins with lots of hitting in Lagos as the team track a terror group, but the hitting goes very wrong when Scarlett Witch (now sans comedy Russki accent) accidentally hits some innocent Africans who did not want to be near the hitting. In a cinema-landscape which is predominantly empty CGI, it’s pleasing that the Russos place importance on location throughout the film, as well as good, old-fashioned hand-to-hand combat. In this opening scene and throughout, the brothers show homage to the ‘Bourne’ films by putting faith in dizzying shaky-cams and odd angles, ensuring that we feel every intense punch and superhuman flip.
Unfortunately, this disastrous hitting in Nigeria leads to the aforementioned bureaucracy, as nations worldwide begin to worry about unregulated superheroes crossing their borders, taking their jobs and shagging their women. And thus, the titular ‘Civil War’ commences. In the red (and yellow) corner, we have Iron Man, who, totally against everything we know about the rebellious, unorthodox playboy, agrees to the Sokovia Accords, which will limit the freedom of supers. He is backed by Black Widow (The Pout), War Machine (Iron Brother), The Vision (Pink David Gandy) and a couple of newcomers, Black Panther (Africat) and a certain arachnophile. Meanwhile, in the blue (and red and white) corner, there is Captain America (remember, it is his film), who cannot sign away his life to a government organisation with a changing agenda, despite being genetically designed to follow orders and ask no questions.
Principally, Cap’s rejection of the Accords rests on his relationship with Bucky Barnes, AKA The Winter Soldier, who is being tracked by the authorities for apparently blowing up a UN building and killing the King of Wakanda (still with me?). Much of the film’s supposed emotional core is meant to arise from the tension between Captain America’s loyalty to his childhood friend and his allegiance to former boss and team-mate Tony Stark, but, Sebastian Stan is still playing Bucky as a cold, brainwashed assassin, and it’s mightily difficult to see why Cap or his team would side with him. Indeed, cameos from Ant-Man and Hawkeye, while entertaining, seem present only to make the super-clash a fair fight.
The problem for much of the film is the same problem we saw in the clunky (and boring) ‘Age of Ultron’. Too many characters, too much exposition, too many time-zones crossed (here shown with trendy big lettering like a music video), too much narrative, too many motives, too much sequel-baiting, too many tonally-odd quiet moments in between all the hitting… The result is an exhausting hybrid-movie which at once tries to make bold political comment while convincing us that a man dressed as a panther can outrun a motorbike. Weirdly, it is in the action scenes where the film is most settled, away from the tangled narrative and muddled script. Black Panther chasing Bucky through a motorway tunnel is thrilling, as is a claustrophobic fist fight in a stairwell, but the Russos really get to flex their directorial muscles in the main showdown at Leipzig airport, which is most reminiscent of the fantastic climax of ‘Avengers Assemble’ in its loving attention-to-detail.
In fact, ‘Civil War’ begins its joyous middle section with a visit to Queens, as Stark chats up a geeky teen who has had an amazing encounter with a radioactive arachnid. Thankfully, Spider-Man’s intro to the Avengers family is superb, all naivety and sarcasm, now with added AILF in the form of Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May. Tom Holland is the first Spidey to actually look pubescent – he is perfect in his cameo here and really lifts the film into something fun, which up to this point had been severely lacking. Weirdly, the best scene in the film belongs to two insects. Spider-Man’s nervous loquaciousness is the gossamer that hold the scene together, while Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man adds a kind of accidental brilliance on a giant scale. Both characters bring a warmth to ‘Civil War’ that is often missing due to the unflinching and frosty focus on The Winter Soldier and overly-ponderous discussion of the Accords.
Despite the glorious hitting of this melée, the climax is a comparatively quieter affair which re-concentrates our attention on Iron Man Vs Captain America, as well as Winter Soldier Vs. Black Panther and My Brain Vs The Narrative. As now expected, the hitting here is very intense and rather brutal, but we still have the old problem that deep down we know that none of these characters can die, which renders all the hitting quite pointless and (whisper it) dull. This would not be a problem if the scenes without hitting were engaging, but alas, the verbal sparring of the boardroom is limper than the Sokovian economy post-Ultron (#burn). It also seems odd that so long is spent discussing who should be on which team and why, as we wait for the next bout of hitting, given that the trailers and promotional material have made it pretty clear where the superheroes will stand and fall with horrible hashtags.
In any case, regardless if you are #TeamIronMan, #TeamCap or #TeamDontGiveAShit, there is no doubt that this is a stronger entry in the Marvel canon, particularly if you are fan of hitting. It is let down by a incongruous balance of tones, a cast-list more stuffed than Tony Stark’s Tom Ford-designed pockets, and a lazy attempt at ‘feems’ (Freedom, Responsibility, Loyalty) which were actually more carefully explored in ‘The Incredibles’, in half the time and double the laughs. Ultimately, ‘Civil War’ follows the same repetitive plot-hit-banter structure that has been immensely lucrative for Marvel and will ensure superheroes’ total domination of the multiplex for the next decade. Now that’s bureaucracy.