While Captain America: Civil War doesn’t open in North America until this Friday, fans living in the UK (like yours truly) and other overseas markets have already attended screenings of the film, and the message to our friends in the US is this: guys, you’re in for a treat.
Yes, the general consensus from fans and critics alike seems to be that not only does Civil War excel as a sequel to 2011’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it also serves as a more satisfying follow up to The Avengers than the mixed bag that was last year’s Age of Ultron.
Sure, it’s not without its flaws – it’s a little long at 147 minutes, and poor Daniel Brühl becomes the latest fine actor cast onto the rapidly growing pile of underwhelming Marvel big screen villains – but these are minor quibbles when compared with how much directors Anthony and Joe Russo nailed virtually every other aspect of the film.
With this in mind, join me now as I count down the top five reasons why Captain America: Civil War rocks as much (or more than) any other superhero film to date.
5. All your old favourites are given their due
One of the biggest improvements that Civil War has over Age of Ultron is just how well the Russos and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have managed to juggle the huge roster of characters running around in the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).
While the focus of the film is still the friendship between Captain America (Chris Evans) and Bucky (Sebastian Stan), the majority of the other major players from across the MCU are given at least some further character development, most notably Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Falcon (Anthony Mackie).
Even relative newcomers like Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) manage memorable scenes before the finale arrives, and Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) shines more here than he does in his entire previous solo outing!
And speaking of newcomers…
4. Spider-Man and Black Panther (almost) steal the show
By now we’re all used to Marvel movies introducing at least one new character per film with the intention of spinning them off into their own solo adventure later on down the line.
But few characters have enjoyed as hotly anticipated an arrival as Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland).
Fortunately, the debut of both proves to be an unqualified success.
In addition to offering a striking aesthetic contrast to his more colourful peers, Black Panther brings something new to the table, not merely thanks to his regal bearing and cultural background, but also due to his enigmatic and conflicted nature.
His role is skilfully woven into the film on both a narrative and thematic level, and Boseman is so perfect in the part that anticipation for the impending Black Panther feature is surely higher than ever before.
Old web-head’s introduction feels a little more tangential to the plot (more on that later), but that’s easy to overlook considering Marvel Studios’ first bash at bringing the character to life gets so much more right about the wall-crawler in this cameo than all five previous big screen attempts by Sony Pictures combined.
Not only is Holland is an actual teenager – unlike the usual baby-faced 20-somethings hired to fill Spidey’s tights – but more importantly, he behaves like one too.
For the first time on screen, we see a Spider-Man who is constantly running his mouth mid-fight, firing off a seemingly endless stream of terrible quips, science geek observations and pop culture references that bewilder his opponents even as they amuse audiences.
Coupled with the spot-on portrayal of his physicality and web-slinging abilities during the film’s major set piece, and it’s fair to say that Civil War gives fans the definitive movie Spider-Man they’ve always craved.
Oh, and while we’re on the subject of set-pieces…
3. The action sequences are jaw-droppingly good
Superhero movies in general – and Marvel movies in particular – are well-known for their unbelievable action sequences, and Civil War more than delivers on this front.
While the seams of the CGI work occasionally show, a lot of it is virtually invisible, and when combined with the healthy amount of practical stuntwork on display, the fights in Civil War retain enough of a flesh-and-blood element to keep audiences on the edge of their seats.
Admittedly, the final small-scale showdown does feel a little anti-climactic, but that’s only because the show-stopping brawl at the Berlin Airport that rounds out the second act is pretty much impossible to top.
To say too much would be to spoil things, but as mentioned earlier, all of our heroes get at least one big moment, and while the stakes always seem real, there’s a welcome sense of fun to proceedings as well.
Just on that point…
2. The tone is perfectly balanced
Part of the charm of the MCU has always been the way that each flick has embraced the fun and humour of the source material.
Whereas other films in the franchise – most notably Age of Ultron – could be criticised for leaning too heavily on the comedy at the expense of the story’s dramatic weight, Civil War expertly walks the tightrope of being fun without sacrificing any of it’s emotional heft.
In short, this is a movie that will make you laugh as much as it will make you cry (well, maybe not full on tears, but you might get a lump in your throat, at any rate).
What works so well about the humour is that it rarely comes across as forced, instead flowing naturally as a part of the characters and their situations.
It also doesn’t hurt that – as much as the Russos haven’t lost sight of the joy in superheroes slugging it out – they don’t feel the need to completely undercut the tension every five minutes just to score another chuckle from the audience.
The end result is a movie that ends with hearts being both literally and metaphorically broken, and yet which never feels oppressively and needlessly grim, and is thus in keeping with the MCU films which came before it.
And that brings me to my last point…
1. It’s a stand-alone movie
If I have a pet hate regarding the last eight or so years worth of blockbuster films, it’s the increasing trend towards releasing a film solely to set-up its eventual sequel.
Granted, yes – if you’re going to have a shared screen universe like the MCU, you kinda need to introduce characters and concepts that will only really come to fruition further down the line.
But audiences still deserve a coherent story that satisfies on its own merits apart from the wider franchise, rather than exiting the cinema having just watched over two hours of meandering board-setting (which Age of Ultron was certainly guilty of).
Happily, Civil War mostly bucks this trend, and – the introduction of Spider-Man aside (which could be excised without affecting the narrative even a teensy bit) – the film does a great job of focussing on the ongoing journey of Captain America, with the needs of future MCU installments coming a welcome second to this goal.
True, the film probably makes a lot more sense – and definitely packs a tonne more emotional weight – if you’re familiar with all the other MCU entries that came before it, but it still only draws upon that material in order to tell the best story it can before the credits roll, not after.