Captain America: Civil War is arguably the best Marvel Studios movie yet. First, and most importantly, it does what the best Marvel films do – juggling multiple characters so each is allowed their moment in a story that pushes forward the series' overall continuity, while also forming and concluding its own cogent plot. So here Scarlet Witch (Elisabeth Olsen) wrestles with the consequences of her immense power, Vision (Paul Bettany) starts getting to grips with being human, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) finds herself torn when the battle line is drawn, and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) comes out of retirement in a satisfying continuation of his Avengers: Age Of Ultron arc.
Then there are the new recruits – Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), nimble protector of a secretive African nation who has his own issues with Bucky, and a quip happy kid from Queens (Tom Holland) who has recently become Spider-Man. His introduction to the action is a crowd pleasing delight and finally gives the character the reboot he truly deserves. Even Paul Rudd's Ant-Man receives more than a token cameo, and in spectacle terms at least, is given perhaps the film's biggest scene.
At the films core, though, is the friendship between stoic Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and the tortured Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), two war buddies out of time. Stan remains, for the most part, as blank and frosty as he was in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), allowing only the occasional warm glint of 1940s sidekick Bucky. Evans, meanwhile, further hones a role he has effortlessly owned for five movies, pushing Steve to impressive new depths and reminding us that his straight arrow still has a dangerous edge. The Steve and Bucky thread stretches back to Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) and is what makes this clearly a Captain America film rather than a new Avengers outing. But built around that is the bigger conflict that, despite the title, does place it as a direct sequel to Avengers: Age Of Ultron.
In perhaps a similar way to how Zack Snyder's DC cinematic world reacted to Superman's ascension and the emergence of its 'metahumans' in Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice, the world of the Avengers has had enough of these 'enhanced' agents wreaking collateral havoc and decided, not unreasonably, to bring them to account. "Compromise, reassurance, that's how the world works," says US Secretary Of State William Ross (William Hurt) leading to the creation of the Sokovia Accord, a decree signed by 117 countries, which states that the Avengers should be answerable to the United Nations.
Wracked with guilt over the creation of Ultron, Tony Stark supports the deal, and Robert Downey Jr burdens the still occasionally glib hero with a weight of the world weariness that is well matched by his own Marvel Cinematic Universe mileage. But the ever stubborn Steve Rogers, distrustful of the post-war world's version of authority, refuses to sign and battle lines are drawn.
It is certainly bold of writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely to place their title hero in the most obviously dubious position. If the Avengers don't answer to the United Nations, then who should they answer to? And Steve's defence of Bucky is questionable – he may be his childhood friend, but now he is a lethal, robot armed killing machine forever in danger of being reactivated. It is only right that he should be brought to heel, right? Then again, there are flaws in Tony's arguments, too, especially the problematic evidence on which he rests them. Who the audience should agree with is hardly a clear-cut matter.
Perhaps bolder still is that the conflict at the film's heart doesn't pander to genre convention and become sidetracked by a grandstanding supervillain plot. And this is the second way Captain America: Civil War earns the accolade of best Marvel outing yet – by rising above the series' greatest weakness. Too often, the snappy writing and slick action in these films are undermined by flimsy villains and formulaic final acts. Yet there is no Loki, Ultron or even Thanos equivalent this time. There is a meddling manipulator – of course there is – but, interestingly, their agenda is as blurred as Steve's and Tony's. Arguably just as sympathetic, too. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo don't just want to rocket your heart into your mouth with tightly choreographed shield flinging action sequences, they want to keep your brain firmly engaged, too.
Who needs a villain when you have Steve and Tony? Both protagonists. Both antagonists. And drawing other power people to their cause in surprising ways. The clashes go far beyond the set-up squabbles of The Avengers (2012). Or even this year's other superhero showdown Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice. "It always ends in a fight," says Bucky. Of course it does. And Captain America: Civil War builds to an unforgettable main event. After waiting a good 90 minutes for each side to suit up you can't help but brace for a huge let down, but the airport set Battle Royale ranks among the most inventive and fun sequences ever committed to superhero celluloid. Everyone gets a moment to shine, not least of which Holland's friendly neighbourhood web slinger and Rudd's amazing miniature man running away with the battle's most memorable moments, the Marvel melee consistently surprises with deliriously gleeful beats. The characters may be pulling their punches – after all they are the good guys, and with one key exception they don't want to see each other dead – but a later, three-way fight massively raises the emotional stakes, because after eight years and twelve films, you can't help but care about the people on each side of the divide.
If there is a risk of the Marvel formula becoming stale, there certainly isn't any evidence of that here. Matching its blockbuster scale and spectacle with the smarts of a great, grown-up thriller, Captain America: Civil War is Marvel Studios' finest film to date.