As much as I enjoyed Avengers: Age of Ultron, at the time of its initial release, one of the issues that I did have concerned how messy and unfocused the film occasionally felt. The impression that I had, at the time, was that the difficulty of sharing the focus between so many characters had simply proved to be more than the film could handle (I had other issues, too, of course – though, there's no need to get into that, here). Considering that Captain America: Civil War actually has a larger, and more varied, cast of characters to handle, the fact that it doesn't feel nearly as messy is something I found to be genuinely impressive.
When the Avengers' latest mission leads to the tragic, and accidental, deaths of civilian bystanders, concerns regarding the amount of freedom they have been given to act when and where they wish come to a head. The result of this is the Sokovia Accords – a document outlining rules of conduct for the Avengers as they find themselves placed under the authority of the United Nations. After his role in creating Ultron, Tony Stark has come to feel that, perhaps, the Avengers do actually need oversight and guidance – and so, he soon becomes the primary voice in support of signing the Accords. Steve Rogers is reluctant, though – believing that placing themselves at the disposal of authority figures with agendas of their own could, ultimately, hinder their efforts to do what is right.
With the team divided, more or less, evenly between those in favour, and those firmly against them, there is evidence of almost immediate tension within the team as the Sokovia Accords are presented to them by General Thaddeus 'Thunderbolt' Ross (William Hurt). But, of course, this essentially philosophical disagreement wasn't going to be the catalyst for any of the 'super-hero on super-hero' action we all saw in the trailers – so, obviously, there was going to be something else.
That 'something', it turns out, is the infamous Winter Soldier, James Buchanan 'Bucky' Barnes (Sabastian Stan). Bucky has been missing since the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. When the official signing of the Sokovia Accords comes under attack, though, Bucky is the only suspect – leading to a desperate hunt to track him down.
From here, things begin to get complicated. Captain America isn't entirely convinced that Bucky is the one responsible for the attack – and, also, believes himself (not without good reason) to be one of the few with any chance of capturing the Winter Soldier, anyway. So, despite refusing to sign the Accords and having no official sanction to act, Steve Rogers takes it upon himself to get involved.
At the same time, though, Prince T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman), of the reclusive African nation of Wakanda, finds himself inheriting the throne when his father, T'Chaka (John Cani), is killed during the attack. With his father's death, however, T'Challa also feels it necessary to step forward in the role of his nation's protector, the Black Panther, in order to track Bucky down, himself.
As the main voice in support of the Accords, meanwhile, Tony Stark finds himself placed in the unenviable position of, also, potentially having to go after Captain America and the Winter Soldier. And, through it all, a new figure, Helmut Zemo (Danial Brühl), operates in the shadows on his own mysterious agenda – one that seems to involve discovering the location of other Winter Soldiers created by Hydra.
And, so, here we have the true catalyst that leads us to the 'civil war'. Convinced that Bucky is innocent, and that there is a deeper mystery to be uncovered, Captain America decides to support his oldest friend, even if that means breaking the law and becoming a wanted criminal. Iron Man, meanwhile, is entirely committed to the capture of the Winter Soldier, even if that means having to go through Captain America. And, as for the rest of the impressively varied supporting cast? Well, obviously, they will all have to decide which side they support.
Performance-wise, of course, most of the cast have already proved themselves in their respective roles. Robert Downey, Jr has been widely considered to be an example of practically perfect casting since the begin, and there is nothing here that will change that impression. Stark's more sombre and serious demeanour throughout the film, as he struggles with the part he has played in so much death and destruction, may mean that he is not quite the source of quip-fuelled humour that he has been in the past – but, arguably, the this same change in demeanour is also very important. After all, it's this sense of very genuine regret that may allow some members of the audience to accept his position over that of Captain America – which is, of course, exactly what the film-makers would want.
Chris Evens, meanwhile, continues to walk a very fine line with his portrayal of Steve Rogers – playing a character fully committed to a very straight-forward personal code of honour, but also one who manages to never come across as naive, or entirely inflexible. Once again, that is the same as it has always been with Chris Evens's portrayal of Steve Rogers, though – so, nothing has really changed.
Regarding the supporting cast, though, it is extremely impressive how, despite there simply being so many of them, they are all giving little moments in which to establish themselves. Vision (Paul Bettany) and Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olson) seem to have developed an odd sort of rapport that clearly indicates that they might be headed in the same direction as their comic-book incarnations have in the past – gradually moving their way toward a romantic relationship. There are only a few moments devoted to exploring this possibility (with the one in which Vision attempts to cook a meal for Wanda standing out as especially entertaining), but it already feels more convincing than the sudden relationship we had between Bruce Banner and the Black Widow in Avengers: Age of Ultron.
As Captain America's closest allies, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and Bucky have some very entertaining moments of good-natured antagonism that manages to elicit some genuine laughs. Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), meanwhile, gets to make his return to the MCU after Ant-Man – and, proves to be another source of great comedy.
Spider-Man's much anticipate appearance in the film was entirely superfluous, admittedly – but, it also managed to provide exactly what fans of the character would have hoped for. He may not have been central to the story being told in any meaningful way, and he could likely have been cut out entirely without hindering the flow of the film – but, honestly, the same could also be said for much of the film's supporting cast. In the end, the decision to include Spider-Man, here, was easily justified by the fact that his time on-screen was a genuine high-light – and, by the fact that Tom Holland gave a genuinely entertaining performance.
Given the events which start everything off, the Black Panther is obviously a much more central figure, here – and, he also manages to be an instantly impressive one. As portrayed by Chadwick Boseman, T'Challa comes across as a legitimately compelling presence. He was intelligent and charismatic – and, when it came time to 'suit up', he proved to be a legitimately formidable opponent for both Captain America and the Winter Soldier. I would definitely have appreciated seeing more of the Black Panther, here – and, I am definitely looking forward to his solo film.
Action-wise, it is difficult to imagine a more impressive display of pure comic-book spectacle than the airport battle, in which the two side of the 'civil war' finally come head-to-head. It's a brilliantly handled scene, in which every member of this wildly varied cast of characters is giving their moment to shine. Spider-Man manages to hold his own against much more experienced super-heroes. Ant-Man rides on an arrow fired by Hawkeye. Iron-Man, War Machine, and the Falcon are given plenty of opportunity to engage in some aerial combat. The Scarlet Witch has many opportunities to display her increasing control over her powers. And, sure, by comparison, the Black Widow's and Hawkeye's action moments don't really seem nearly as impressive – but, it's still good to see them there.
If there is any real problem with this particular action-sequence, then it's only with the fact that it isn't the end-point of the film – and, as a result, Captain America: Civil War never quite reaches that level of sheer entertaining spectacle again. That's not so say that it is all down-hill from that point, of course – as the film begins to transition back into more sombre character drama, and more restrained action, as it shifts its focus back onto the film's key players. But, of course, at this point we're also moving firmly into 'spoiler' territory – so, I wont go into too much detail. It is, unfortunately, also at this point that the film's only true issues become evident – as, despite the film's best efforts, Helmut Zemo is never quite the compelling presence he clearly needed to be. Also, when it is ultimately revealed, there are details of his true plan that still leave me somewhat confused. Try as I might, I just haven't been able to convince myself that all of the pieces of this particular puzzle fit neatly together.
In all, though, Captain America: Civil War manages to strike a great balance between entertaining 'comic-book' spectacle and serious character drama. As a follow-up to Captain America: The Winter Soldier it is a great success – playing on those themes of loyalty and duty that the previous film hinted at. It is also, I have to admit, a much more successful as an 'Avengers' film than Avengers: Age of Ultron proved to be – doing a much better job of handling its diverse cast of character than that previous film had. Most impressively, though, it is a film which manages to concern itself with exploring the long-term consequences of this sort of super-hero activity in a way that feels realistic, but wihout seeming heavy-handed.
I'm not going to make any claim about this being the best of Marvel's films, so far – but, it definitely feels as though this film should be high up on that list.