The catastrophe earlier this year of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice seemed to bode ill for the state of comic book movies, as well as putting the mockers on further accounts of inter-superhero discord.
After the poison, though, comes the antidote. Or Captain America: Civil War, as we shall call it. Take one before bedtime and the outlook will be brighter by morning.
Marvel Studios has put a lot of time and energy into creating the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU. (I always get it confused with ICU, which is where the majority of superhero screenplays belong.)
In the MCU, characters and storylines from different movies intersect freely and no one stops to ask Iron Man or Black Widow what the devil they think they’re doing in a picture bearing Captain America’s name.
Each film aims to function both as a standalone work and a continuation of the ongoing Marvel narrative. This extends even to the in-jokes: a passing reference in this new movie to The Empire Strikes Back reminds us that Lucasfilm, which makes the Star Wars series, is now owned, like Marvel, by Disney.
Nothing will ever make this MCU business sound like anything other than the multi-platforming, omni-branding corporate wet dream that it is. But Captain America: Civil War supplies the first indication that what quickens pulses among shareholders may translate equally well into excitement in the stalls.
Anyone not up to speed on their comic book folklore will need telling that the Avengers – as showcased in Avengers Assemble and last year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron – are a band of superheroes who have joined together to protect mankind.
Thor and the Hulk are on the bench for the new film, but present and correct are Captain America (Chris Evans), with his costume still betraying endearing signs of hand-stitching and his sensibility dependably homespun, Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), whose real superpower is not his sleek tin suit and rocket boosters but his wiseacre banter, and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), who can deliver 100 roundhouse kicks in the time it takes her opponent to notice that she has just emerged from a bombed building without so much as a speck of plaster in her unruffled hair.
Extra support comes from Falcon (Anthony Mackie), who is very touchy about having his costume referred to as a “bird suit”, Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), who deploys telekinetic powers, and the Vision (Paul Bettany), who has a red leather face and puts an amused, Jeeves-like spin on lines such as: “My amygdala is synthetic.”
As Captain America: Civil War begins, there is an air of disharmony about the casualties and chaos incurred during spectacular superhero rescue missions. With no structure for accountability, it is proposed to the Avengers by the US Secretary of State (William Hurt) that they should sign the Sokovia Accords, which will make them answerable to the UN.
Iron Man is heading the “Yes” camp: he’s feeling the guilt after being berated by a woman whose son he accidentally killed. Without limitations on their powers, he argues, the Avengers are no better than the bad guys. But Captain America is resisting. What if the UN were to dispatch the Avengers on missions with which they did not agree, or refuse to send them to places where they were desperately needed?
This escalates from a difference of opinion to a full-on slugfest when Captain America’s old pal Bucky, aka the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), enters the fray. He’s an engaging enough chap under normal circumstances. But in the hands of anyone who discovers the incantation that triggers him into action, he becomes an unstoppable killing machine. Well, we’ve all got our flaws.
Unfortunately, a shadowy figure (Daniel Brühl) with vengeance on his mind gains access to the Winter Soldier. Now it’s going to take a bit more to placate Iron Man than Captain America claiming that ol’ Bucky is really a stand-up guy once you get to know him.
The plot is so satisfyingly worked out, and the foundations for the hostilities in the second half of the film so carefully prepared, that you want to take aside the makers of Batman v Superman (who thought it was motivation enough just to have one superhero mistakenly believe that the other was running amok) and say to them: See? This is how it’s done. It’s not so hard, is it?
It helps also that there is nuance and colour here. The characters are multi-layered, crammed full of old allegiances and grudges and irritations. They have personalities. Remember those?
The pleasure of the Avengers films was always in the dialogue – those movies tend to go to pot once the banging and the crashing begins – but in Captain America: Civil War there’s a sharper feel for the tempo and shading required in a film of such scale. The directors Joe and Anthony Russo don’t neglect detail, even when things get hectic.
Each battle looks different, down to the lighting and production design. The clear highlight is the central showdown between all the superheroes on an airstrip. This long fight sequence hits lots of contrasting notes, with comic relief provided by Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and a rejuvenating debut outing from the new Spider-Man, played by the 19-year-old British actor Tom Holland. He’s a nerdy chatterbox even in action (“I don’t know if you’ve been in a fight before, but there’s not usually this much talking,” Falcon chides him, mid-combat).
And he gets a choice speech about the superhero calling: “If you can do the things I do and you don’t, and then the bad things happen – then it’s because of you.” Not as snappy, perhaps, as “With great power comes great responsibility” but certainly less portentous.
Putting him slap-bang in the middle of this movie is yet another instance of the Marvel PR engine in overdrive: his appearance here is essentially an inbuilt trailer for the forthcoming Spider-Man reboot. But what can I say? I didn’t want to see the next Spider-Man and now I do. It worked.
There is still the sense, as there was with Batman v Superman, that all this fretting and fallout over the negative side of superheroes was dealt with perfectly adequately more than a decade ago in Pixar’s The Incredibles. That film showed how easily the public could turn against those who protected them: a man whose suicide attempt was foiled by a superhero, for example, then brought a lawsuit against the superhero for injuries incurred during that intervention.
That’s old ground. And there was never going to be a wealth of peril in a movie that is basically two franchises having a dust-up. Marvel wouldn’t dare slaughter any of its cash cows – not while they’re still calves.
But at least Captain America: Civil War shows that a blockbuster need not be flatfooted in its pursuit of serious subjects. It can still soar – and probe. Watching Iron Man and Captain America flail and kick and jab in the dirt, drawn into a cyclone of potentially infinite revenge, it becomes apparent that it’s not really about them at all. It’s about us.
Captain America: Civil War opens on 29 April.