IN ONE of his memoirs, the novelist and screenwriter William Goldman draws attention to the pleasure audiences derive from watching slick competence on screen: the heist scene that unrolls with mechanical precision; the chef dicing and frying in a snicketty blur of stainless steel; the ballet of shop assistants transforming a leading lady into a model of haute couture. There are similar pleasures to be taken from “Captain America: Civil War”—not so much from specific set pieces (though pretty much everyone involved is very good indeed at hitting things) but from the work as a whole. It is the product of a team that knows very well what it is doing, and for the most part does it very well.
“Civil War” is the 13th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a province of the Disney empire based on characters from Marvel comic books. Since it began with “Iron Man” in 2008 the MCU’s films have all referred to each other to a greater or lesser extent; “Civil War” is very much in the greater category. The third Captain America film, it is not just a direct sequel to the second: it also makes use of characters introduced in the first two “Iron Man” films, “The Incredible Hulk”, “Thor”, “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” and “Antman”. All told 13 of the characters in “Civil War” come from these previous outings. As if that were not enough, the film provides substantial introductions to two new superheroes: Black Panther and Spider-Man. (Though he is a Marvel comics character, Spiderman has previously featured only in non-Disney films set outside the MCU. Do try and keep up…)
This sounds like a recipe for over-stuffed, under-developed disaster. But the film avoids the obvious pitfalls. Indeed a well-built screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, directed with precision and some flare by Anthony and Joe Russo, and performed by a cast that knows how to get the most out of superhero roles turns them into strengths. Less assiduous followers of the MCU may not know all of the characters, and neophytes may know none; but the characters clearly know each other, and the easy way that fellowship is conveyed makes you feel that you know them, too. This sense of a world full of partially-shared histories turns even the characters who have little to do into something more than just attendant lords swelling the odd progress and starting the occasional scene. It may help that the Russo brothers, like Joss Whedon, from whom they will be taking over as directors of the “Avengers” films, have experience in the world of television sitcoms, built on ringing the changes on relationships within large casts.
Another advantage of a well-articulated ensemble is that it can counter the secret weakness of superheroes: they tend to be a little dull. In a character-rich environment the story can always move on before things get bogged down. This does not save everyone—in a story centered on a chaste (if not utterly subtext-free) love-triangle in which Cap is torn between two male comrades-in-arms his almost-girlfriend gets little to work with. But for the most part the small performances add up nicely.
The film’s other strength is the premise which gives it its name: a fissure in the ranks of the world’s superheroes between those who see oversight by the United Nations as necessary, or at least tolerable, and those who wish to set their own compass (the analogy between having superpowers and being a superpower is pretty clear: in case it eludes people, the film’s climax is set in a missile silo). The internecine nature of the conflict gets rid of what is normally the weakest part of a superhero film; the monstrous antagonist, often a quasi-parody of the hero, who needs to be walloped ad nauseam in the third act.
A dearth of decent enemies has been one of the MCU’s weak points. The films’ concerns reflect the traumas of contemporary America: their archetypal sublime spectacle is that of great structures collapsing into cities; their worries often centre on conflicts between human values and technological enhancements; their threats typically come in the guise of terrorism; their reverses frequently come about through the radicalisation of people who have been damaged by previous conflict. But while the MCU echoes the real world it has no interest in coming to grips with its geopolitical underpinnings. Its terrorists are always fronts for domestic antagonists that no one could really root for: corrupt, power-crazed high-ups in America’s military-industrial complex who may also be undercover Nazis. Or space aliens. Either way, nothing to trouble sales of the film in overseas markets. (The writer of the next MCU movie, “Doctor Strange”, said this week that the casting of white actress Tilda Swinton as “The Ancient One”, a character who in the comics is a Tibetan man, stemmed not from Hollywood’s everyday sidelining of Asian actors but, at least in part, from calculations as to what might make the movie acceptable to China.)
“Civil War” does feature the near obligatory antagonistic brasshat, but for the most part the superheroes are fighting between themselves. With both sides of the conflict drawn with some sympathy, the fights—some handled lightly, some given dramatic heft by wounds that carry consequences—benefit from a sense that beliefs and personal ties are at stake. Towards the very end this conflict based on principles is transmuted into one based on deeper family history—but the change is done deftly, and convincingly. In this, as in its various other manifestations of intelligence, narrative clarity and wit, “Civil War” functions as a rebuff to the bloated, senseless disappointment of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”, a recent outing from rival comic-book/studio pairing DC and Warner Bros. The most obvious contrast, perhaps, is in the introduction of characters slated soon to star in their own films. “Batman v Superman” does this by having someone watch video clips of these coming attractions in exactly the manner of a fanboy scanning YouTube for spoilers—which is not anything like as amusingly meta as it might sound. “Civil War” makes one newbie fundamental to the plot, and the other a genuinely welcome addition to the action.
Whether “The Black Panther” and “Spider-Man: Homecoming” continue Marvel’s run of commercial success with films that range from the passable to the very good will depend on how well they are realised—but also, in part, on the development of public taste. There is a widespread view that the world has already seen enough, or too many, superhero films. At some point, it seems likely, this will translate into a disinclination to see more of them: as Steven Spielberg pointed out in this respect last year, westerns went from being a staple in the 1950s to a rarity in the 1980s. Poor superhero films will hasten that day of judgment. On current showing, though, those failures are not likely to come from the slickly machined, just-innovative-enough world of the MCU.