The Russo brothers’ follow-up to Captain America: the Winter Soldier (2014) has been called Avengers 2.5, there are so many of Marvel’s premier superteam on parade here. Indeed, only Thor, Hulk and Nick Fury are missing from action.
Using the plot from 2006 Marvel comic-book series Civil War as a basis, the first film of Phase Three of the Marvel movie franchise sees Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) on a mission with Avengers teammates Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) to stop Cap villain Crossbones (Frank Grillo) from causing chaos in Lagos. Unfortunately for the team, the consequences of that confrontation are the last straw for government bigwig General Ross (William Hurt, reprising his role from 2008’s The Incredible Hulk) and it’s decided that all heroes must now register as part of a UN task force… or else.
This doesn’t sit well with Evans’s Sentinel of Liberty while Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man is all for Cap and his team to sign up. Cue a philosophical debate that’s been brewing for a few films now, and allows the two stars to flex some acting muscles for a change, as their characters argue the toss while hoping to save a rapidly fraying friendship.
However, verbal disagreements soon turn physical when Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), Cap’s war buddy-turned-brainwashed Hydra assassin the Winter Soldier, appears on the scene and is accused of a terrorist atrocity. The gloves come off and the heroes are forced to take a side.
The thumping action then comes thick and fast, as Cap and the Falcon try to save Bucky from capture by the police and the mysterious Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), a new costumed hero with his own very personal reasons for bringing the Winter Soldier down. Inevitably, mixed loyalties result in an epic face-off for Team Cap and Team Iron Man at a (mercifully) deserted airport. It has to be one of the best fight scenes in any Marvel movie as a multitude of superheroes, new recruits (Spider-Man) and old (Hawkeye), are drawn into punch-ups with each other (Cap v Black Panther, Hawkeye v Widow, Cap v Spidey) with one hero undergoing a massive transformation.
However, this clash of the titans is a mere prelude to a breathtakingly brutal climax when the physical and emotional toll on the combatants is something to behold.
As usual, Downey Jr provides much of the humour (have a guess who he calls “Manchurian Candidate”?), though the nature of this story means he has to exhibit serious chops, too. Evans stoically matches him all the way while newer characters like the Vision (Paul Bettany) and the Scarlet Witch have their moments and offer hints of future storylines.
The much-vaunted debut of yet another Spider-Man (Tom Holland is the third Peter Parker in ten years) is actually good fun, thanks to Downey Jr quipping his way through the introduction of the young webslinger to the movie Marvel Universe.
The villainous mastermind behind events is a tad anodyne compared to the likes of Loki or Ultron. But this is a minor quibble when the Russos deliver the goods once again and prove to have a safe pair of hands when it comes to pacey, well-choreographed action and accommodating a large starry cast. A good job, too, as they will direct the next two Avengers films (The Infinity Wars) and those epics will contain so many heroes, it will make this stupendous slugfest look like a chamber piece.
Captain America: Civil War is released in cinemas on 29th April
Sign up to the Radio Times newsletter for the latest TV and entertainment news