Alan Watts, “The Way of Zen”

The Way of Zen

THE PHILOSOPHER ALAN Watts has fallen out of fashion somewhat in the last thirty or so years, in part due to the rising skepticism in the West towards religion––though Alan Watts belonged to no faith and was more spiritual than religious––and in part due to the death of the hippie movement in the late 1970s.  The views he expressed in innumerable essays and articles and lectures remain, in my eyes, if not necessarily life-changing then certainly worthy of consideration and discussion, and Watts, whose oratorical style is so absent of the tedious piety and gravity which you tend to associate with those who deal with the “spiritual” side of life, is still the best communicator of Eastern religions to the West. You wonder, for that matter, whether Watts’s work isn’t overdue for a revival, when you consider the rise of those who identify as “spiritual, but not religious”––those to whom Alain de Botton’s book Religion for Atheists is addressed––and who are struggling to quell the agitation of the sense of the numinous and the transcendent that the rituals and the music and the art of religion used to provide. As well-developed and considered as the conclusions at which Watts arrived and adopted are his instructive efforts on myth and religion and on individual religions, such as his bestselling 1957 book The Way of Zen.


You wonder, for that matter, whether Watts’s work isn’t overdue for a revival, when you consider the rise of those who identify as “spiritual, but not religious”––those to whom Alain de Botton’s book Religion for Atheists is addressed––and who are struggling to quell the agitation of the sense of the numinous and the transcendent that the rituals and the music and the art of religion used to provide.


In The Way of Zen Watts examines his subject far more deeply than authors such as D. T. Suzuki do in similar efforts, many of which are written by practicing and orthodox Buddhists and necessarily reflect the simplicity of Buddhist doctrine. But Watts also looks far wider outside the subject than those authors, at Zen’s origins in more orthodox Chinese and Indian Buddhism, and also in Taoism and Hinduism and Vedism, which both predated and sowed the seeds, so to speak, for Buddhism. His task is made all the more difficult by the indefinability and paradoxical nature of many aspects of Zen and the difficulty in explaining it in a way comprehensible to the so-called Western mind, but he accepts the task with characteristic patience and good humour, weaving in pithy anecdotes, quotations and lines of poetry to break up descriptions that are dense. As a result The Way of Zen is, in spite of its subject matter, immensely readable and enjoyable, not to mention enlightening, if you’ll excuse the pun.

What you will find if you sit down to read Watts’s book for any length of time is that you’ll feel a degree of the equanimity that characterises practicing Zen Buddhists, and there’s a sort of Buddhist clarity and freshness to Watts’s prose that is underpinned by his very British sense of humour. (You can take the boy out of England, but you can’t take England out of the boy.) It’s perhaps fitting that Watts seems so eager in his book to do away with the misconception that Zen is dull or sterile in some way; he emphasises not only the semi-permanent state of bliss in which the most devout Zen Buddhists live but also their––often childish––sense of humour. He tells amusing and surprising stories of Zen masters winding up their students, and dedicates a portion of the book to some of the religion’s more colourful characters such as the eccentric Sōtō Zen monk Ryōkan, who would get drunk on rice wine and “toss off a few lines of calligraphy” and once got naked so he could give his clothes to a thief disappointed to find there was nothing to steal.


What’s certain is that Watts had a gift for bringing about enthusiasm for his interests in others. To put it another way, he was, if not necessarily the most knowledgeable about the subject––which is not to say he wasn’t very knowledgeable––he was without a doubt its best communicator.


A significant departure of The Way of Zen from other introductions to Zen Buddhism is Watts’s diminution of the importance of zazen, or Zen sitting meditation––something for which Watts was almost roundly criticised by fellow students of the religion. Even those with a casual interest in Buddhism or Zen Buddhism will know that the Sōtō school founder Dōgen considered zazen to be the same as studying Zen. As he put it in the first sentence of Zazen-gi (“Principles of Zen”): “Studying Zen … is zazen.” This oversight seems uncharacteristic of Alan Watts, who was perhaps a victim of the time in which he wrote the book. (It is, ironically, partly thanks to the work of Watts that others in the West developed sufficient interest in Buddhism to educate us on the significance of zazen to Zen.) The firmly established fact that meditation is important to Zen leads you to wonder what else Watts might have downplayed or even misunderstood, although the chances are that if you’re drawn to a book like The Way of Zen you have enough basic knowledge of the subject to answer that question partly.

What’s certain is that Watts had a gift for bringing about enthusiasm for his interests in others. To put it another way, he was, if not necessarily the most knowledgeable about the subject––which is not to say he wasn’t very knowledgeable––he was without a doubt its best communicator. (You might say the same about someone like Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who is more a populariser of science than he is a scientist.) The Way of Zen reminds us that his death left a void that is yet to be filled, and is a particular loss to those who are areligious but nonetheless interested in the immaterial and the mystical.

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‘Athwart History: Half a Century of Polemics, Animadversions, and Illuminations’ by William F. Buckley, Jr.

'Athwart History'

SIX YEARS AFTER his death by oesophageal cancer, you still hear an awful lot about the brilliant Christopher Hitchens, the various descriptions of whom––journalist, public intellectual, ‘drink-sodden popinjay’––could probably fill this page. You hear far less about the equally prolific and many-faced journalist who gave Hitchens his first appearance on television. To a Brit the name William F. Buckley, Jr. might not ring any bells. He never ‘broke’ the United Kingdom in the sense that Hitch ‘broke’ the U.S., despite his having gone to school in England for a period and having an affectionate relationship with Margaret Thatcher. Across the Pond, however, he was a household name known equally for founding the conservative weekly National Review before his thirtieth birthday and for his long tenure as the host of the combative public affairs talk show Firing Line. WFB, as he was sometimes called, energised a sluggish American right-wing through the fusion of laissez-faire economics and anti-communism, the culmination of which was the election of Ronald Reagan in ’81. The American conservative historian George H. Nash calls Buckley ‘arguably the most important public intellectual in the United States in the past half century’–not a small feat by any means, considering the competition.


The American conservative historian George H. Nash calls Buckley ‘arguably the most important public intellectual in the United States in the past half century’–not a small feat by any means, considering the competition.


Buckley’s weekly columns for National Review, not solely on the political issues of the day but on subjects as eclectic as his love of peanut butter and his distaste for rock music, are collected in the sizeable Athwart History: Half a Century of Polemics, Animadversions, and Illuminations, which traces nearly sixty years of Buckley’s writing from the mission statement of the first issue of his magazine through to the articles that made him something like Republican kingmaker. We see, too, Buckley in his various guises: the ideologue, the anti-communist, the staunch Roman Catholic and the devoted friend. Some of the book’s best entries, in fact, are his affectionate obituaries for various members of his diverse social circle from Princess Grace of Monaco to the liberal-turned-conservative novelist John Dos Passos.

At its best Buckley’s distinct writing style, which reflects in almost every sentence his love of archaic and unusual words and passive-voice constructions, has a musical quality. The tone of that writing is nearly always cheerful and often playful; Buckley’s zest for life was, in fact, a large part of what made him the ‘Saint Paul of the conservative movement’, to quote Best of Enemies: he made conservatism ‘cool’––something which, and I’m sure conservatives would agree, it isn’t called often. Buckley’s passion can be felt in many of his columns, on skiing or Bach or sailing, for example, and it’s very difficult not to feel a sort of personal relationship with the man himself, in that curious way you will often do with a certain columnist or novelist, long before you finish the book. (That, by the way, is regardless of whatever you might think of the many opinions he articulates throughout). When Buckley’s writing is bad, however, it’s really very bad. There are sentences so confused and pretentious that they wouldn’t so much cause Orwell to roll over in his grave but to spring out, come back to life and promptly kill himself again. But these sentences are quite rare, and usually buried deeply in passages which otherwise sparkle with wit and energy regardless of whether the subject is the latest perceived sin of liberalism, his love for skiing or The Beatles, who Buckley wasn’t particularly fond of. ‘An estimable critic writing for National Review, after seeing Presley writhe his way through one of Ed Sullivan’s shows suggested that future entertainers would have to wrestle with live octopuses in order to entertain a mass American audience,’ wrote Buckley in 1964. ‘The Beatles don’t in fact do this, but how one wishes they did! And how this one wishes the octopus would win.’ It’s to the credit of editors Roger Kimball and Linda Bridges that the collection reads so well. The pair choose a rich variety of Buckley’s columns and separate his various dispatches into topics such as ‘The Cold War at Home’ and ‘Heroes and Villains’.


‘An estimable critic writing for National Review, after seeing Presley writhe his way through one of Ed Sullivan’s shows suggested that future entertainers would have to wrestle with live octopuses in order to entertain a mass American audience,’ wrote Buckley in 1964. ‘The Beatles don’t in fact do this, but how one wishes they did! And how this one wishes the octopus would win.’


Buckley, you might have seen, has once again been in the news over the past year. The first time it was due to the release of Best of Enemies, the excellent documentary about Buckley’s televised debates with Gore Vidal during the Democratic and Republican national conventions in 1968. The second, memorably (and amusingly), when then-presidential hopeful Donald Trump, apparently unaware that Buckley had written in less than favourable terms for National Review about the possibility of his one day running for president, claimed he would have had his backing. For those interested in politics or recent American history, Athwart History is something you simply have to read, and a worthy addition to two other essay collections produced by eloquent and witty polemicists: Arguably by Christopher Hitchens and State of the Union by Buckley’s long-time nemesis, Gore Vidal.

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“A Hero of Our Time” by Mikhail Lermontov

'A Hero of Our Time'

ONCE THE ROMANTIC poet Lord Byron had once and for all finished travelling around Europe womanising, man-ising, running up debts and dabbling in revolutions, a fashion began in literary Russia for stories which featured a very particular sort of antihero at their centre. This ‘Byronic’ hero shared the characteristics of his creator. Like Byron himself he was often sensitive and yet cynical, physically attractive and yet solitary, born into wealth but resentful of privilege and authority, and haunted by some crime or tragic event in the past. The trope was immortalised in Byron’s description of his most Byronic of Byronic heroes, Conrad, the pirate hero of The Corsair:

He knew himself a villain––but he deem’d

The rest no better than the thing he seem’d;

And scorn’d the best as hypocrites who hid

Those deeds the bolder spirit plainly did.

He knew himself detested, but he knew

The hearts that loath’d him, crouch’d and dreaded too.

Lone, wild, and strange, he stood alike exempt

From all affection and from all contempt:

Fifteen years after Byron succumbed to syphilis in Missolonghi, Mikhail Lermontov wrote what can be said to be the first of the great Russian psychological novels, A Hero of Our Time, at the centre of which is the bored young nobleman Grigory Alexandrovich Pechorin. It’s a lean book with little in common with the weighty tomes of classic Russian literature. There are three narrators, including Pechorin himself––though unlike the others Pechorin narrates through his diaries––and a slim cast of characters including various army officers, Ossetian tribesmen and the targets in Pechorin’s game of romantic conquest.


It’s a lean book with little in common with the weighty tomes of classic Russian literature. There are three narrators, including Pechorin himself––though unlike the others Pechorin narrates through his diaries––and a slim cast of characters including various army officers, Ossetian tribesmen and the targets in Pechorin’s game of romantic conquest.


A Hero of Our Time opens in the Caucasus mountains, where a young and unnamed Russian army officer is documenting his travels for later publication. Shortly after his introduction he meets the veteran Captain Maxim Maximych, who has been stationed in the region for years, and who tells him stories about the characters he’s encountered during his time there. The narration now falls to Maximych, who entertains his young companion with tales of the enigmatic Grigory Alexandrovich Pechorin and, once finished, gives him Pechorin’s diaries. Through his diary entries, Pechorin narrates the rest of the book.

The main success of the novel, of course, is its antiheroic lead, the titular ‘hero of our time’ and Lermontov, who was acutely aware of the magnetism of such a character, introduces the reader to him slowly, and indirectly. It isn’t until mid-way through the book that Pechorin takes the narrative reigns, though the reader is beginning to form an idea of him long before. Pechorin is, to begin with at least, characterised a sort of swashbuckling romantic hero, who is undeniably arrogant and self-obsessed but also interesting and likeable and, of course, relatable: he is the ‘composite of all the vices of our generation in the fullness of their development’, according to Lermontov, and therefore the ironic ‘hero’ of the author’s time, but equally, as the director and screenwriter Neil LaBute identifies, a ‘vivid’ portrayal of the male ego. Pechorin is something of an exaggerated version of Lermontov, who was also an army officer stationed in the Caucasus, who also got into romantic adventures (albeit with less success than his creation) and who was also, famously, involved in a duel. Lermontov shrugged off this connection as a ‘sorry old ruse’ but it’s impossible to deny the similarities between the pair.

Lermontov maintains an ironic tone throughout his novel, but it nevertheless gets steadily darker in the novellas Taman, Princess Mary and The Fatalist, which Pechorin narrates. His arrogance mutates into callousness and then cruelty; Pechorin becomes involved with smugglers and contrives to seduce a princess while attempting to maintain an affair with someone else.


Lermontov maintains an ironic tone throughout his novel, but it nevertheless gets steadily darker in the novellas TamanPrincess Mary and The Fatalist, which Pechorin narrates. His arrogance mutates into callousness and then cruelty; Pechorin becomes involved with smugglers and contrives to seduce a princess while attempting to maintain an affair with someone else.


A Hero of Our Time is also exceptional for Lermontov’s rolling descriptions of the Caucasus, which is as much a character as Pechorin. Take the following passage from the first page:

What a glorious place, this valley! On every side there are unassailable mountains and reddit promontories, hung with green ivy and crowned with clumps of plane trees; there are yellow precipices, covered with the lines of gullies; and right up high: a gold fringe of snow. Below, the Aragva River, having gathered another nameless rivulet which noisily unearthed itself from a black and gloomy chasm, extends like a silver thread, glittering like a scaly snake.

And this description, from page twenty-eight:

Indeed, it is likely that I shall never again see the likes of this panorama: the Koyshaursky Valley lay below us, intersected by the Aragva River and another small river, like two silver threads. A light bluish mist was crawling along it, fleeing the warm rays of morning to the neighbouring canyons. On the left and the right, the hackles of the mountains, one higher than the next, were criss-crossing and stretching along, covered in snows, bushes. In the distance, there were similar hills, where no two rock-faces were alike––and the snows burned with a rosy luster, so uplifting, so bright, that it seems you could live here before. The sun was just showing itself from behind the dark-blue mountains, which only an accustomed eye could discern from the thunderclouds; but there were blood-red streaks above the sun, to which my comrade was paying particular attention.

Lermontov later became known as the ‘poet of the Caucasus’. After he published Death of the Poet he was exiled to the region for allegedly accusing the ‘pillars’ of Russian high society of complicity in Alexander Pushkin’s death and later wrote that ‘all spleen has gone to hell’ since his arrival. The landscape Lermontov describes in A Hero of Our Time is at once beautiful and wild, and made almost as vivid as the sublime landscapes and seascapes of the Romantic period. The Caucasus, of course, is also as opaque and unknowable as Lermontov’s moody protagonist, who, you feel, might just be as much a hero of our time as well as of Lermontov’s.

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‘Stories of Your Life and Others’ by Ted Chiang

'Stories of Your Life and Others'

IT’S ENCOURAGING TO see that Denis Villeneuve’s excellent Arrival remained in the box office top-ten for so long after its initial release, because Ted Chiang, the author of the story on which it was based, is relatively unknown outside of his field. In the admittedly small world of science-fiction short stories, it might seem vaguely ludicrous that Chiang isn’t more popular, because he’s risen in a matter of years from relative obscurity to become one of the most well known writers of the genre. It’s quite an achievement given the size of his bibliography: Chiang produces a new collection only once every two or three years, but almost invariably receives a handful of awards each time he does so (a Hugo for The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate, a Nebula for Tower of Babylon, a Sidewise for Seventy-Two Letters, to name just three).

Though Chiang’s genre is science-fiction, his work has very little in common with what people tend to believe to be science-fiction, namely Star Wars, Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica (apparently, anything with ‘star’ in its title). Chiang, in response to the charge that his writing ‘isn’t science-fiction’, calls Star Wars and its like ‘adventure stories dressed up with lasers’ which are not ‘engaging in thought experiments, investigating philosophical questions’ as sci-fi ought to. Chiang’s stories might be science-fiction, but they stray into the realms of other genres: Chiang draws on theology (Hell is the Absence of God), classical myth (Tower of Babylon) and others areas of human knowledge. ‘Science-fiction author’, therefore, seems a woefully inadequate description for Chiang in the same way it does for Kurt Vonnegut or Philip K. Dick or Isaac Asimov, alongside whom Chiang will no doubt be talked about in years to come. Like the stories written by those authors (and any great author for that matter), Chiang’s work has, as nearly as possible, the potential to change the reader’s perspective on the world. Take, for instance, The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Fiction, which is about the invention of a device which allows the wearer to see specific events in their memory through the eyes of the others who were present. The central character is alarmed to learn just how much, and just how dramatically, he has misremembered significant incidents in his life, and the experience leads him (and the reader) to question how many of their ‘memories’ are part of a narrative of his or her own creation, constructed to preserve their sense of identity, if not their sanity.


Chiang, in response to the charge that his writing ‘isn’t science-fiction’, calls Star Wars and its like ‘adventure stories dressed up with lasers’ which are not ‘engaging in thought experiments, investigating philosophical questions’ as sci-fi ought to.


The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Fiction, which was released in 2013, isn’t featured in Chiang’s best collection, Stories of Your Life and Others, which was released in 2002, but the most well known short stories in his slim body of work, including Tower of Babylon, Understand and the titular Story of Your Life––on which Arrival is based––are all included, along with the triple-award-winning Hell is the Absence of God, and a story Chiang composed specifically for the collection, Liking What You See: A Documentary. All of Chiang’s writing has an understated brutality to it; he isn’t a stylist, exactly, but nevertheless there is an elegance to his prose: every sentence Chiang writes moves the story in some way. There are no wasted sentences in his body of work, then, and yet it’s still staggering just how much meaning he packs into his stories.

The singular thread which runs through nearly all of Chiang’s stories is the conflict between science and faith and the suggestion that this conflict might be resolved. In Tower of Babylon, Chiang describes a miner from Elam’s unforgiving three-month journey to the top of the obelisk of the story’s title, where he is to try to break through the Vault of Heaven of Babylonian mythology and discover Yahweh’s creation. Typically Chiang gives the reader little by way of background. The setting is revealed through the dialogue, of which there is also relatively little. It’s the weakest of Chiang’s better known short stories, and, due to its setting, the one that fans of ‘traditional’ science-fiction will likely enjoy the least.


The singular thread which runs through nearly all of Chiang’s stories is the conflict between science and faith and the suggestion that this conflict might be resolved. 


Hell is the Absence of God is set in a world in which various doctrines of Christian theology, including the existence of Heaven and Hell and angelic beings which sometimes come down to earth, are literally true. There is no dialogue in the story and therefore a sense of cool detachment from the described events; Hell is less emotionally affecting than other Chiang stories, and this is both its weakness and its strength. The impression is something like that of a documentary or thought experiment: Chiang deliberately reframes the questions of theology as questions of science, and in doing so treats the doubt and internal conflict which arise from the believer’s inevitable crisis of faith with compassion. The injustice of a serial rapist and murderer ascending to heaven because he sees the light of God reflects the Christian paradox that virtue is not necessarily rewarded and vice versa. (Chiang, incidentally, has said he found the Book of Job unsatisfying because at its end God restores Job’s fortunes, apparently undermining the Book’s overarching message that bad things happen to good people). Story of Your Life, which won no less than five awards and rightly gives the collection its title, is a story of staggering emotional depth and thematic range. The story has a simple plot consisting of two narratives and is narrated by the linguistics professor Dr. Louise Banks. In the first narrative, Dr. Banks and the physicist Dr. Gary Donnelly are hired by the military to communicate with a race of aliens that have arrived on the planet; in the second narrative, Dr. Banks describes the short life of her daughter. Through these narratives Chiang explores the relationship between thought and language popularly known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, determinism and loss, and the story is desperately sad. It’s perhaps the best illustration in all of the author’s work that in his universe it is impossible to disentangle humanism and rationalism.

A humanist science-fiction author is maybe the most appropriate description of Ted Chiang, which makes him something of a rare commodity. Whatever you choose to call him, the high-concept sci-fi Stories of Your Life and Others is sometimes eye-opening, often thought-provoking and always utterly readable.

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‘Captain America: Civil War’

'Captain America: Civil War'

I’M SURE YOU, like me, are beginning to feel as if a new comic-book film is released every week, and I’m sure you, like me, wouldn’t necessarily consider this is a problem if any of them were any good. I admit that I was briefly delivered of my cynicism towards superhero films by the bloody and brilliant Logan, which seemed to raise a middle, adamantium-augmented finger at all the lazily conceived and poorly executed Marvel and DC offerings that have choked up cinemas for longer than a decade. But the operative word in that sentence is briefly, because soon afterwards I sat through Captain America: Civil War.

The story begins in Russia, where, of course, it’s snowing. It’s 1991, and a government agent is reading a string of apparently unconnected words and phrases to the Winter Soldier, the brainwashed assassin of the second Captain America film. The Winter Soldier struggles against his shackles as his captor reads these random words with ever-greater assurity and intensity, and at the mention of one phrase, there’s a sudden change in the Winter Soldier’s bearing, and he breaks free of his chains. In Lagos, and in the modern day, the poundshop Avengers––Captain America (Chris Evans), Captain America’s unimpressive pseudo-superhero friend Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and new arrival Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen)––are on a mission that ostensibly ends successfully, only with disastrous consequences for the local populace.


In a mildly interesting role-reversal, it’s arch-libertarian Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) who supports the Sovokia Accords and the loyal and straight-laced Captain America who decides to defy the wishes of his government and refuse; the others pick sides until both teams are, by some strange coincidence, broadly equal.


This palaver, and the countless other missions that have ended with most of the locals dead and half the buildings destroyed, prompts the U.S. Secretary of State (William Hurt) to urge the Avengers to sign the Sokovia Accords, which will give the United Nations jurisdiction over their future activities. In a mildly interesting role-reversal, it’s arch-libertarian Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) who supports this move and the loyal and straight-laced Captain America who decides to defy the wishes of his government and refuse; the others pick sides until both teams are, by some strange coincidence, broadly equal. And while the Avengers bicker, a new villain (Daniel Bruhl) tries to track down the villain of the preamble for reasons of which we’re not yet certain.

To begin with, it’s amusing that the Avengers have only now realised that tearing apart the world’s cities tends to cause problems for people other than the villain du jour, and it’s surprising that after the awful Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Civil War writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely didn’t think it necessary to come up with a different premise for having their heroes turn on each other. But putting the plot to one side for the moment––and the first hour of the film is almost in its entirety devoted to plot building––Civil War is one of the better Marvel films of recent years. The action sequences are creative and shot well, if frenetically. In the first sequence, in Lagos, for example, cinematographer Trent Opaloch (District 9, Elysium) seamlessly switches focus from character to character within the same, extended shot; in that and other fight scenes directors Joe and Anthony Russo take down the frame rate so that the action has the sort of crazy, chaotic quality that made Mad Max so thrilling. There’s a fight sequence on a staircase that calls to mind both Daniel Craig’s stairwell scrap at the Montenegro hotel in Casino Royale and David Belle’s electrifying escape from the tower block in Banlieu 13, and despite some unnecessary camera gimmickry the chase which ends with the unveiling of the Black Panther is good.


Captain America himself is still a dull character despite the efforts and charisma of Chris Evans, and fringe-characters such as War Machine, Falcon and Hawkeye are better left on the fringes. The addition of Black Panther to the lineup is a welcome one, however, and there are a couple of other cameos––to say who, exactly, would be to spoil the fun––which are gladly received.


When it comes to action Black Widow is still the most watchable Avenger: in her first fight sequence she dispatches half a dozen mooks with her fists and feet, uses another as a human shield to save herself from a hand grenade and then free-runs through a busy market. And always in a film that markets itself as a Captain America but is very much another Avengers instalment the giant presences of the Hulk and Thor are conspicuously missing. Captain America himself is still a dull character despite the efforts and charisma of Chris Evans, and fringe-characters such as War Machine, Falcon and Hawkeye are better left on the fringes. The addition of Black Panther to the lineup is a welcome one, however, and there are a couple of other cameos––to say who, exactly, would be to spoil the fun––which are gladly received.

Civil War isn’t a terrible film, then, but it isn’t a good one either, and it isn’t in any way original: at any point in the film you feel you could be watching an Iron Man or an Avengers or a Captain America instalment, because these sorts of films are too often formulaic and always far too long.

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