When Avengers fall out it’s up to the new version of Spider-Man to save the day – and in the latest Marvel blockbuster he’s played by an actual teenager
Thank god for Spider-Man. About 90 minutes into Captain America: Civil War (***) – a gargantuan beast of a movie that is pulling triple duty as the third film for Marvel’s least interesting superhero, as a bridge movie for the next Avengers outing and as the launch pad for a host of new characters set to have their own films in due course (most intriguingly Black Panther) – we’re treated to an extended guest-spot for the web-slinger. Now played by the young British actor Tom Holland – replacing the too-old-from-the-start Andrew Garfield – he’s hilarious and delightful; a proper teenager who’s all nervy and awkward and excitable about his powers, his cockiness barely suppressing his desperation to impress the other superheroes, Tony Stark’s Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) most of all.
That billionaire tech genius, who is suiting up as the Armoured Avenger less and less in these movies, is on a recruitment drive for the film’s much-hyped showdown with Captain America (Chris Evans). Seeing something of his younger self in the super-smart Peter Parker, Stark arrives at Peter’s apartment and immediately hits on his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) before proceeding to tease the kid about his makeshift costume, his superhero name and his captured-on-YouTube antics.
The sequence lets Downey be properly funny, not just in an odd-quip-here-and-there way, but in the raffish fashion that helped make Shane Black’s Iron Man 3 – the last Marvel film to have any kind of directorial stamp on it and the best Marvel film to date – consistently hilarious and subversive.
In fact, the return of Spider-Man is the first point in the film as a whole in which the thing that Marvel does best – putting the “comic” in comic book, the “super” in super-hero – is allowed to thrive. Until this point it’s all doom and gloom, with returning directors Anthony and Joe Russo (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) disassembling the Avengers as the governments of the world unite against all the collateral damage and deaths Stark and Co. have caused by indiscriminately throwing things through buildings in their efforts to save the world.
The party’s over, in other words, and Stark in particular, who has lost his appetite for destruction having had his conscience reawakened, is urging the Avengers to accept some proposed UN regulations regarding their activities. Opposing him is Captain America, the once super-patriotic super-soldier who has grown mistrustful of his government, but who is also blinded somewhat by his loyalty to his best friend Bucky, himself reckoning with being manipulated into his previous existence as the aforementioned villainous assassin, the Winter Solder. (Bucky is once again played by the anonymous Sebastian Stan, who now finds himself in the odd position of being the focal point of two massive franchise movies at a time when Scarlett Johansson – returning all-too-briefly as Black Widow – can’t even get one to herself.)
If the basic plot sounds familiar that’s because it’s almost the same as last month’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. (Plenty have already argued that this is the superior movie – something akin to arguing a fondness for McDonald’s over Burger King or Coke over Pepsi.) The hash-tag-team grudge match that does ensue here is amusing in as much as the film lines up all the dullest characters (Captain America, Ant-Man, Scarlet Witch, Falcon, and – good grief – an out-of-retirement Hawkeye) against the most entertaining ones (Iron Man, Spider-Man, Black Widow and new guy Black Panther, played by Chadwick Boseman). Why anyone would cheer on the other team is anyone’s guess, although as it zeroes in on the enmity between Captain America and Iron Man the film does pull out an intriguing twist that actually gives their fight some purpose beyond their ideological split, a twist that makes the shadowy character Daniel Brühl plays a more compelling villain than that goofy AI thing in last year’s rubbish Avengers: Age of Ultron.
As is increasingly the problem with all these films, though, there’s just too much to wade through. As much as Civil War’s shortcomings are shored up by Spider-Man’s aforementioned re-introduction, they’re also exposed more acutely. This film may excel at building anticipation for cool things coming a year or two down the line, but does a movie called Captain America that leaves you wishing you were watching one called Spider-Man really count as a win for blockbuster fans?
There’s plenty of wanton destruction in Demolition (**), a tonally all-over-the-place drama about a newly widowed investment banker (Jake Gyllenhaal) who realises he hasn’t actually felt anything for 12 years. Alas, this is not the opening gambit for some satirical exploration of the soul-sucking nature of corporate life, but rather the basis for a somewhat quirky feel-good exploration of grief.
The film isn’t always as bad as that makes it sound. Gyllenhaal, for instance, is appealing enough as a disconnected soul who literally and figuratively starts demolishing aspects of his life so he can start rebuilding himself. The obviousness of its central metaphor (replete with actual sledgehammers) can also be somewhat forgiven for the accuracy with which it reflects the way traumatic times cause people to see significance in almost anything. But director Jean Marc Vallée (Wild) does over-egg everything by casting Naomi Watts as a bafflingly motivated customer service operator who becomes a lifeline for Gyllenhaal after he starts obsessively writing complaint letters about malfunctioning vending machines. Plausibility clearly wasn’t a prime concern here.