It’s been a dark month. Like so many others, I felt brow-beaten by the hateful nihilism on display in Warner Brothers and Zack Snyder’s Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. There was a film in open contempt of its audience and its own characters, which turned the essential hopefulness of the Superman character into a destructive monster, and ham-fistedly tried to atone for the toppling cities and collateral damage on display in the earlier Man of Steel by arguing that the very concept of the superhero is vulgar and that we should help only ourselves, displaying some kind of Ayn Rand/Trump philosophy that was frightening to see in a packed and excitable screening. Walking out of the at times incomprehensible two and a half hour nightmare, Dawn of Justice didn’t just feel dangerous against cinema, it felt dangerous against mankind itself.
So the prospect of another interminably long superhero film in which our heroes are pitted against each other seemed tiresome, as though the entire Superhero genre has simply been moving to get recognisable characters to hit each other. But Captain America: Civil War is different. What we have is a Marvel film that delivers far less action than usual, preferring to study these characters’ psychologies as they find themselves divided over whether to sign their powers over to the UN, only allowed to help when sanctions allow for it. The action sequences, when they come, are breathtaking. But Civil War is more interested in really showing us the extent to which how the weight of a dozen films has changed these characters who have floated in the public consciousness in their current iterations for close to a decade.
Centering it all is Chris Evans as Captain America, a man holding onto the last tie he has to his own past by fiercely defending the potentially malicious Winter Soldier. As an audience we are convinced of Cap’s righteousness, but as the stakes rise we slowly begin to wonder the extent to which his own arrogance is clouding his vision. In opposition to him is Tony Stark, the most arrogant of all superheroes who comes to grips with a sudden self-awareness in the light of tragedy. It is a brilliant reversal of their standard roles, one that gives a depth hitherto unseen in these long-running characters. It helps that their ultimate villain, Baron Zemo, is less a cackling big-bad and more a representation of their own guilt and the suffering they have caused. He is a sort of karmic retribution made flesh, and the decision to go light on his screen time adds to his menace and allows for the real battle to exist between the main characters.
This plays into the Russos’ biggest strength: their ability to juggle dozens of characters without any individual journey being lost on the way. It comes from their work on the seminal sitcom Arrested Development, a show which would often fit as many as ten different plotlines into any given twenty two minute episode, with running gags and long-form jokes that could take a whole season or longer to pay off. It is amongst the most intricately plotted and dense shows of the modern American television era, and the Russo’s managed to balance all of these threads so well that it is no wonder Marvel head Kevin Feige called upon them to shepherd his juggernaut through its third phase.
Effectively the Russos are doing the same thing here, just on a much larger scale. They have the advantage of audiences being at least partially familiar with these characters, but even the less known players are given their dues. Black Panther is introduced here and given an origin story over the space of just a few short scenes, but by the time the wheels are really spinning he feels as developed as any of the other characters, and the resolution of his arc is restrained and graceful. There is a sweet, complex relationship between The Vision, a Dr Manhattan-esque character who has only logic in place of human emotions, and the guilt-wrecked Scarlet Witch, whose inability to master her powers sets the entire plot in motion. Their evolving, almost abusive relationship takes a larger role in representing the conflict between the two opposing superhero factions. And then just as the film is beginning to stagnate halfway through, Spiderman turns up and the film enters the most spectacular set piece of the entire Marvel canon. It needs to be seen to be believed, as the heroes finally go to war with each other. Character conflicts that have been building for years are finally paid off in a sequence that is spectacular and emotionally devastating in equal measure. By focusing on the characters, the Marvel franchise has reached a point of complete self-sufficiency, at which audiences can enter the series at any point and still know everything that’s going on. Didn’t see Ant Man? No sweat, watch Paul Rudd’s appearance here and you’re caught up for the sequel. Rudd steals the whole film by the way, he’s an absolute blast.
Turns out the Russo brothers are the perfect filmmakers for Marvel. They are adaptable, with a kinetic style that apes their influences without coming across as outright derivative. Here those biggest reference points are writ large. Action sequences are modelled on The Raid, the bombastic, playful violence of which perfectly suits the large scale of superpowers. The psychological thrillers of Brian De Palma are visible elsewhere, with characters taking it in turns to watch each other, Scarlett Johansson disguised in shades, the use of pulpy, populist material to really dig under the surface of the characters. And there’s one particular shower curtain shot that gives the game away and will leave those in the know with a grin on their face.
This is exemplar blockbuster filmmaking, an Empire Strikes Back moment for the franchise that will be watched and adored by the masses for years to come. Future generations will look at Civil War and wonder why they don’t make them like that any more. We will always feel frustrated by Snyder, Bay, McG, and all the other villains of the cinema. But as long as we have auteur driven blockbusters such as Civil War, Kingsmen, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Guardians of the Galaxy and Scott Pilgrim Vs The World, made by directors who go from strength to strength, written with adoration for the subject and its fans, and most importantly creating fully functional self-contained stories that slowly build up a larger series, the light is winning out no matter how dark it may seem at the time.