Everyone in Hollywood wants a cinematic universe. Universal is starting one based on classic movie monster series like The Mummy and Dracula, while Paramount is banking on Hasbro franchises including Transformers and GI Joe. Their plans, and those like them, draw groans from fans of cinema, but the efforts of some to recreate the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) shouldn’t detract from how daring, bold and fantastic an experiment Marvel’s has been.
For Marvel’s world of superheroes the concept of a cinematic universe makes perfect sense, as it does for DC Comics and Warner Bros. But while the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) trudges through the thick oil slick of Zack Snyder’s angsty gloom, the MCU continues to succeed through faithful characterisation and an understanding of the hope and optimism that underpins superheroes in all their guises.
Money-making potential aside, there two key benefits of a cinematic universe. Firstly, an interconnected series can lend support to lesser known characters and make them successful — Guardians of the Galaxy being the prime example . There’s also the long-term benefit of being able to pull together the various threads for event movies like Captain America: Civil War.
Marvel’s latest begins with catastrophe as an Avengers mission goes awry. As a result, the United Nations forces upon these heroes (as much as the UN can force anything upon anyone) a piece of legislature that demands they sign up and answer to them. Apparently they’re quick to forget how these guys stopped a full-scale alien invasion of Earth.
Riddled by the guilt of numerous personal fuck-ups, Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) is for signing up, whereas Captain America (Chris Evans) stands firmly against the idea of The Avengers answering to anyone but themselves.
As the debate winds on, a plot emerges concerning Captain America’s oldest and closest friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) — aka formerly brainwashed Hydra assassin The Winter Soldier — sending Cap and those fighting by his side on a collision course with Iron Man and those fighting by his. Bucky’s place in the film reduces him to little more than a human MacGuffin, and that’s a problem. He only shows a little character in the second half of the film, but not nearly enough to warrant all the fuss being made over him. It weakens Cap’s argument when he claims to fighting for a good man the audience seldom sees.
Comparisons to Warner Bros and DC’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice are inevitable. They’re both films that concern themselves with the collateral damage superheroes leave behind and, of course, involve an almighty scrap between fan-favourite good guys. Snyder’s Dawn of Justice fails because (awful script aside) it crams too much set-up and explanation in as it rushes to get to the action.
Civil War meanwhile is informed by years of character set-up, proving the benefits of a cinematic universe that nurtures an enormous cast of characters and let’s relationships between them grow in a somewhat organic way. The very fact it’s been eight years since we first met this Iron Man, and five years since we met this Cap, instantly makes their fight meaningful. What they’ve been through on their own and together, makes it dramatic.
For all the characters that appear however, this isn’t another Avengers film. Captain America’s name is there in the title, and it’s very much his story. Civil War continues the thread that ran through the character’s first outing and 2014’s The Winter Soldier, continuing to depict Cap’s growth and evolution as a character who was at first a loyal servant of his country and is now running against the establishment.
There are moments when Civil War starts to strain under the weight of its place in a cinematic universe. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) are absolutely shoe-horned in to create particular moments, set things up for future films and help the plot from point A.6 to A.7 — but they’re all so great in their roles that they attribute to the overall fun. The film would be leaner without one or two of them, but if they make the film more enjoyable, how much does it really matter?
One new character not at all squeezed in is Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther — a serious and driven character who takes exactly no shit from anyone. Any character that tells Captain America, to his face, that he’s going to kill his friend and there’s nothing he can do about it, is someone worth listening to. Boseman’s performance makes director Ryan Coogler’s upcoming Black Panther solo movie a must-see.
If anyone steals the show, it’s a close call between Boseman and Holland as Spider-Man. I’m not going to go overboard like some and call this depiction of the web-slinger the best big screen Spider-Man to date after only 10 minutes of screen-time, but the potential is certainly there. His arrival comes as a breath of fresh air just as the film appears to be getting a little too serious for its own good, and just as the film’s centrepiece is about to take place.
That centrepiece is the airport battle between Team Cap (Anthony Mackie’s Falcon, Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch, The Winter Soldier, Hawkeye, Ant-Man and Cap) and Team Iron Man (Don Cheadle’s War Machine, Paul Bettany’s Vision, Scarlet Johansson’s Black Widow, Black Panther and ol’ shellhead). It’s a joyous, exhilarating scene that surprises and delights in its crowd-pleasing, fan-debate-settling spectacle. Wonderful and unforgettable. One particular part justifies Ant-Man’s inclusion alone.
The scene does create a slight tonal mishmash however. It’s a big, bright and fun action scene in a film that’s often tonally darker than what we’re used to from the MCU. That darker tone is earned, but when the action switches to a lighter, and breezier action scene for 15 minutes — the shift is a little jarring.
It shifts back again for the climatic scene, during which Daniel Bruhl’s Helmut Zemo brings Cap, Iron Man and Winter Soldier together, and prompts an almighty scrap between the three. This is a powerful and meaningful finale. This is not a fight any of them wants, but it’s one they’re forced into and their regret and anguish makes it work. The sequence immediately before the fists start flying may also be Robert Downey Jr’s single best Marvel scene to date.
Captain America: Civil War is exciting and remarkable, but not without problems. The Marvel universe is at its best when its simpler, but Civil War serves as an example of how well it can work when there’s a large cast and a lot of plot. Civil War marks the end of one chapter, the beginning of another, the culmination of eight years of filmmaking and the jumping off point for many more.