You can usually spot a confident person simply by the way they carry themselves. There's an admirable, breezy, yet quiet contentment that exudes from knowing and liking exactly who you are. Captain America: Civil War is the film-based embodiment of just that. It oozes warranted self-esteem. In a genre sometimes crowded by Marvel Studios' own schedule of releases, Civil War puts to bed any low rumblings that they might be on the wane. It is absolutely their most well-rounded film to date and relights a fire that critics suggested might be burning out.
It seems a touch too obvious and even unfair to mention the glaring differences between Captain America: Civil War's assurance and Batman vs Superman's shakiness. As if asking a PhD student and a first year undergrad to write an essay on the same topic. One is several films deep into a well-established universe that's been filling out over years, the other a second instalment of a DC Universe not yet realised. But it's hard not to make comparisons when the crux of both stories lie in much the same territory. It's all about regulation and whether superheroes operating above the law are a help or a hindrance. Peacekeepers or slapdash killers without consequences. There was a lot to love about Ben Affleck's Batman, but even BvS's most ardent fans had to admit that regarding the ABCs of storytelling, it was akin to being dealt a dodgy hand of Scrabble letters. Civil War, on the other hand, is glorious in its ability to tell a 'start, middle and end' story that still leaves doors open for new chapters.
As the trailers suggest, Tony Stark and Steve Rogers sit on opposing sides of the room while the Avengers debate whether to sign an agreement that would leave them answerable to politicians or not. Considering what went down in Avengers: Age of Ultron, it makes sense that Iron Man has a conscience about the death and destruction that's inadvertently left blood on his hands. Interestingly, Captain America - that once real-life icon of US political propaganda - believes they can only truly succeed without any outside influences and campaigns for self-regulation. Each of the other Avengers present must essentially pick a side, but it's never quite as black-and-white for anyone outside the two big-hitters butting heads. What's even better as a viewer is that both sides make excellent points, meaning that even if you go in with a clear idea of whose team jersey you want to wear, it ends up feeling risky to actively hate anyone on either side. Asking "What would you do?" of the audience is a clever way of making us feel truly inside the action.
Of course, much like picking a side is complicated, so is what informs the rest of the story. The resurfacing of Bucky Barnes to potentially cloud Cap's judgement is crucial, as are the individual stories trailing behind each of the Avengers. One of the advantages of being this far past most of their origin stories is that, even if you're not a comic book reader, they now have a cinematic lineage that leaves you hopping into their minds as they act and decide. Both we and the actors know who they are inside this universe and it's a breath of fresh air that the audience aren't patronised with character recaps. The onus is on us to make the film more fulfilling for ourselves by plundering the back-catalogue of movies. With such an enormous ensemble cast, there simply isn't the time to pause for a roll-call while still keeping up the considerable pace. We can be grateful for that trust between the Russo brothers and ourselves. Typically, the film could successfully stand alone for Marvel virgins, but it's made all the better for knowing their past.
The new faces are welcome, too. The greater involvement of Black Panther before he gets his own film in a few years time is both important and brilliantly done. But the biggest excitement comes from the appearance of Tom Holland's Spider-Man, who is so good as Peter Parker and his Lycra-clad alter ego that he may well have been born to play him. Everything down to the tone of voice is perfection and the scene where he's recruited allows for some of the best comedy in the film.
Despite the heaviness of the squabbling, there's still a sizeable amount of trademark Marvel humour to punctuate the posturing and frowning. And again, there's improved confidence in knowing when it's appropriate to drop a gag into the mix without it seeming out-of-place. The same could be said of the humanity we get from the characters in Civil War. Ant-Man may not have made such an enormous dent at the box office, but the less fantastical and more tempered feel opened the gate for showing superheroes doing something other than frenzied feats of physical and mental power. More than ever, even those with truly super powers feel like real people.
The extra human connection doesn't mean Captain America: Civil War is without spectacular explosions and calamitous fight scenes. There may be plenty of jostling for political position, but some of that has to be done physically. The usual detractors will pipe up to complain about the use of CGI, but it's simply impossible to have the actors achieve what the characters need to do to tell this particular story without the assistance of CGI. When done well - and they really are in Civil War - computer generated graphics can be thrilling in unexpected ways. The best use of CGI in Civil War has nothing to do with flaming tower blocks and everything to do with the kind of face filter we all secretly wish we could get from Instagram. Stylistically too, from the typography of the title screens that allow us to move around the globe as if in a 1970s documentary, to the dusky colour palette of the expert costuming, everything works in well-planned harmony.
Calling a film 'easy to watch' isn't always a compliment. It often suggests two hours you can allow to wash over you with minimal brain engagement. For some, the escapism of any superhero movie will always do that. But what makes Captain America: Civil War so easy to watch isn't an insult at all. It's that it's so perfectly balanced in all possible directions, it's just incredibly difficult to find things not to love about it. For that reason, it's absolutely the best film Marvel Studios have made so far, making for this kick-off into Phase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe all the more compelling.
Captain America: Civil War is showing nationwide now in the UK and opens in North America this Friday.