Marvel's Phase Three finally kicked off with Captain America: Civil War and sets the bar extremely high. The Russo Brothers' follow up to 2014's The Winter Soldier is a thrilling and intense story that succeeds on the strength of its characters. Heroes fighting heroes manages to be both incredibly entertaining but also emotionally devastating. By the time Steve Rogers/Captain America and Tony Stark/Iron Man come to blows, it manages to hurt.
(Mild spoilers to follow.)
Civil War has an advantage right out of the gate, being the thirteenth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and so almost every one of its central characters has already been introduced to the general audience. The world itself is already extremely well-established and while we already care a great deal for all of these characters, the directors don't rely on this foreknowledge and instead make sure that we are given reasons within the film itself.
Even with a dozen important characters, each of them are given enough moments to endear them to the audience regardless of previous appearances. You don't need to have seen last summer's Ant-Man to enjoy Scott Lang's (Paul Rudd) appearances, and this film gives Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and the Vision (Paul Bettany) more development than Age of Ultron managed. The characters are allowed to breathe, to be more more than just names on a roster or checked boxes to make sure each team has enough numbers to fight. Everyone has a believable reason why they would choose the side they fight on and this is one of the reasons why the film works so well.
The film is built around the concept of two extremely popular superheroes fighting. Sounds familiar? But while their fight is inevitable, due to the title and all, it carries so much weight because the characters absolutely do not want this. At the start of the movie, Rogers (Chris Evans) and Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) are still on good terms. They want the same ultimate goal and while they unfortunately see different paths, they just want the other to see things the same way. They talk and they argue and they do their very best to avoid violence. A fight is absolutely the last resort and it works to get us more invested in this conflict.
By taking this slow approach, the characters get to fully establish their opposing ideologies and so by the time they finally clash, we understand that there was no other way around this. Neither side can back down and we totally understand why because the film has taken the time to show us every moment that plays into their decision. We can see every moment where things could have gone a little differently and maybe saved the situation. If they had launched straight into punches, then all the emotional context would be lost and the film would be just a straight-up punch-up. Which while fun, would be nowhere near as great a film as this.
When it comes down to it, yes, there is a fight. The airport fight scene, as seen in the trailers, is amazing. Easily one of the best action sequences put to film by Marvel so far. Every participant has a chance to shine, to do something mad and crazy and it is just so entertaining. This is still a superhero movie and watching a battle full of bright-costumed characters flying and/or swinging about, shooting lasers, changing size and shooting a bow and arrow is still supposed to fun. The movie remembers this and also manages to be hilarious. Like any Marvel movie, there are some amazing jokes that help to keep the material from spiralling into self-importance and the airport battle might just contain some of my favourite Marvel humour so far.
But there's another motive at play. Sure, the movie reminds us to have fun, keeps it entertaining, makes us laugh. But then, just when you're having the best time, it hits hard. When everything comes crashing down, it's incredibly powerful The contrast is important, as it allows the painful consequences of all this super-fun we've been watching to really sink in. The Russo Brothers previously described the final act of the movie as being more akin to a psychological thriller and they're not wrong. At its heart, the stakes are small compared to the other entries in to this universe and yet it manages to feel just as grand as an alien invasion or a floating city.
It's incredibly impressive how the Russo Brothers managed to balance these two sides of the story, managing to create this devastating tale of broken friendships whilst remembering to keep it entertaining. Even if you just feel like watching some super-heroic action, the movie has you covered but if you've become as invested in this universe as I have, then Civil War is a spectacular entry.