Let us be frank. After the loose stool that was Batman V Superman, the latest Marvel film merely had to turn up to win the summer's critical death match. If Captain America spent two hours impersonating farmyard animals, the picture would still seem like a breath of fresh air.
I'm happy to relate that, like its predecessors in the Marvel Comics Universe, the disingenuously titled Captain America: Civil War hammers forward like a well-maintained locomotive. There isn't much here for those not already committed to the saga. Hanging threads from earlier episodes are tied on to further threads that then do their own dangling. At least two new sequences are launched with admirable concision and efficiency.
Indeed, the film is so tightly bound within the expanding universe that it plays more like an extravagant TV episode than a motion picture. Fair enough. Marvel has made the rules and devotees are content to play by them.
Influenced by a limited-series comic that ran in the middle of the last decade, Civil War dares to pitch one cadre of the superhero community against another (despite the absence of Thor and The Hulk, this is an Avengers film in all but name). Whereas the dispute between Batman and Superman made less sense than the average pre-kebab pub brawl, the writers of the Marvel film dare to build their split around key conflicts in global politics.
Concerned about the Avengers’ ever escalating power, the United Nations proposes a regulatory process that will determine when the gang is called in to international disasters. There’s something of the Patriot Act to the legislation. Equally, you might argue that the UN is attempting to register the superheroes in the way that handguns aren’t in the US. Either way, the dispute is between security and freedom.
It makes a kind of sense that Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), the corporate wonk whose life revolves around complex technological systems, should side with the UN and that Captain America (Chris Evans), the symbol of US manifest destiny, should err on the side of liberty. At any rate, after a great many preambles, the two teams find themselves going at it like Cavaliers (Iron Man’s side, I guess) and Roundheads (the non-conformist Cap and crew). Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Vision (Paul Bettany) stand for the Crown; Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Falcon (Anthony Mackie) turn out for Parliament. I can’t remember what teams Bananaman and Danger Mouse choose.
Okay, that’s a cheap shot. But the overcrowding does strip away any remaining sense of wonder at the heroes’ prodigious abilities. When everybody can vault buildings with a single leap, then vaulting buildings ceases to hold much interest. Indeed, it proves hard to keep track of who can do what during the busiest conflagrations.
The Vision’s powers seem limitless. War Machine (Don Cheadle) does much the same as his pal Iron Man. Black Widow looks to be little more than a physically fit person who’s good with a firearm. And then there’s poor old Hawkeye. Once again playing the charisma vacuum with a bow and arrow, Jeremy Renner turns up late like the boring cousin we thought we’d remembered not to invite.
You’d think a cull was in order. As it happens, Marvel is adding more players to the team. Chadwick Boseman smoulders as the Black Panther. Introduced during a very amusing, very speedy visit to Queens, Tom Holland looks to have the right clean-cheeked sass for Spider-Man. (Readers who, like your current reviewer, are about the same age as Marisa Tomei may be relieved to hear that Tony Stark seems to fancy this livelier, less flattened Aunt May.)
It is during those scenes with Spider-Man that Marvel Studios demonstrates its greatest strength: a certainty of tone. In earlier episodes, the quips have come just a little too quickly. Civil War feels light on its feet, but also manages to engage with issues that matter. We really should avoid the temptation to make another unfavourable comparison with The Other Film.
Too late now.