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Captain America: Civil War review – a knockout punch ()

By now, it's tempting to shrug off the significance of Marvel's "Cinematic Universe" – after all, why get too caught up on a film when the next one will be along shortly? But as a feat of storytelling – twelve films, earning $9billion over more than 24 hours of cinema – the franchise spun out since 2008 is a remarkable achievement.

It has reshaped Hollywood and spawned countless imitators. And without it, Captain America: Civil War simply wouldn't work. This is the culmination of story arcs and character relationships laid over the course of eight years. (Those rivals trying to do the same in two films, take note.) Civil War isn't just arguably the best Marvel Studios film to date, it's also a turning point for the franchise, and a daunting new benchmark for future films in the genre to overcome.

Who should superheroes answer to? The answer once was obvious – their own moral code. But when the collateral damage is increasingly high ("we can't save everyone," says Steve Rogers, after an outing by the new Avengers lineup ends badly) and self-inflicted (er, sorry Sokovia) should not they answer to the people?

Inevitably, the Avengers take sides, but their conclusions might seem counter-intuitive: Steve Rogers, the loyal soldier, is against UN oversight – having seen first hand the abuses of power undertaken by elected governments. Tony Stark, the free-market industrialist who flaunted his own unaccountability at the end of Iron Man, now wants to tow the line. Inevitably, each side is as much motivated by their own interests – Rogers by loyalty to his assassin buddy Bucky Barnes; Stark by his guilt over creating Ultron and accidentally laying waste to a small country. Whether you're Team Iron Man or Team Cap, Civil War suggests there is no right answer, and allegiances are made as much by friendship and self-preservation as by moral or political beliefs.

In fact, the only thing that is clear is that this is a conflict that won't end amicably. As a grim-faced Barnes tells Cap early on: "it always ends in a fight."

The fight in question, when it does finally come, is spectacular – but it's not even the best in the film. Like The Winter Soldier, Civil War's most satisfying sequences are those on the smallest scale, taking place in stairwells or plaster-walled rooms. The choreography, which brings to mind Paul Greengrass's Bourne films or more recently John Wick, manages to be visceral and intense, while immaculate cinematography showcases the superheroes as they should be – supernatural brawling machines. And the physical blows are balanced out by equally devastating conversations, in which grudges and disagreements built up over several years finally bubble to the surface.

Adding to the tension are yet more additions to the lineup. Tom Holland, as the new Spider-Man, manages to steal every scene he's in – which bodes well for 2017's standalone film Homecoming. The other fresh face, Chadwick Boseman's Black Panther, is equally welcome, providing a solemnity and emotional performance otherwise occasionally lacking in the franchise. Both characters, it should be said, speak to the most significant achievement by directors Anthony and Joe Russo: every hero, no matter how small, are given satisfying story arcs and end the film with an intriguing new dimension.

By the emotional climax, it's clear that whatever the future holds for the franchise, it won't look quite like what has come before. It's also reassuring to know that the Russo brothers will be in charge of the next Avengers films, the two-part Infinity War. Their biggest challenge will be topping this.

Captain America: Civil War is out on 29 April

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