Captain America: Civil War is one of the best Marvel flicks to date: a polished, emotionally involving entertainment that never loses sight of its characters amidst the large-scale bluster. It's a blast... and yet, it also serves as a slightly dispiriting demonstration of just how limited this franchise is. Despite its many virtues, it's still forced to function as a piece of this never-ending TV show format the Marvel movies have chosen, where you get films that studiously avoid satisfying conclusions in favor of setting up and selling the next batch of superhero flicks. Seeing a Marvel movie fly as high as it can reminds you that there's still a low ceiling to contend with.
Early on, we're treated to a fairly standard-issue comic book action sequence, as Captain America (Chris Evans, Captain America: The First Avenger), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin), Falcon (Anthony Mackie, The Hurt Locker) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen, Godzilla) do battle with a villain-of-the-week (whose true identity offers a nifty callback to an earlier movie) in Lagos. The bad guy is ultimately defeated, but the victory comes at a cost: in her efforts to prevent the villain from doing large-scale damage, Scarlet Witch accidentally kills several civilians.
This isn't the first time this has happened (we're treated to a montage of collateral damage from earlier movies), and unless something changes, it won't be the last. Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt, The Incredible Hulk) requests an official meeting with The Avengers, and informs them that a U.N. panel is being formed that will be responsible for overseeing the team. From now on, every mission the group takes on will have to be officially approved by an international committee. And if certain members of the group don't sign? “Then you retire,” Ross declares.
Here, we arrive at a complex political divide. Cap – whose actions in Captain America: The Winter Soldier suggested that he is fundamentally a libertarian – worries about giving that much authority to bureaucrats, and fears that The Avengers could ultimately be used to simply serve someone else's political agenda... or worse, could be prevented from saving lives. On the flip side, Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr., Sherlock Holmes) – overwhelmed by the guilt of being responsible for an innocent young man's death – is convinced that some sort of accountability is needed. With great power comes great responsibility, as as far as he's concerned, The Avengers haven't been responsible enough.
Both of these men make compelling arguments, and while I'd suggest that Cap has a slight edge from a logical standpoint, Downey more than compensates for the shortcomings of Stark's argument with a wounded, embittered performance that gives his words considerable weight. Indeed, this is arguably the best work Downey has done for Marvel to date: his witty sarcasm is still intact, but it's often accompanied by a hard-edged resentment that occasionally leads him directly into fury or despair.
Ah, but there's yet another wrinkle to be tossed into the mix before everybody starts punching each other. When the U.N. meets in Vienna to officially approve their new plan, a terrorist attacks kills several of the dignitaries present, including King T'Chaka (John Kani, Coriolanus) of the fictional African nation of Wakanda. The official suspect is former assassin Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan, The Martian), currently known as “The Winter Soldier.” Cap believes that Bucky is being framed, while others suspect that Bucky has returned to his former life of violence.
Teams are formed. Cap (who's very much an ensemble player here, despite the fact that he gets top billing and his name in the title) is joined by Falcon, Scarlet Witch, Bucky, Ant-Man (Paul Rudd, I Love You, Man) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker), while Iron Man teams up with Black Widow, War Machine (Don Cheadle, Hotel Rwanda), Vision (Paul Bettany, A Beautiful Mind), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman, 42) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland, The Impossible).
Yes, those last two characters are new to this particular franchise, and one of Civil War's Marvel-mandated tasks is to serve as a backdoor pilot for the standalone movies both of those characters will be receiving in the future. Thankfully, the film does an exceptionally good job with this, effectively presenting both characters as compelling, well-drawn individuals who deserve to be spotlighted. Boseman's Black Panther – the son of the late King T'Chaka – is a compelling, low-key presence whose quiet confidence makes him stand out amidst the more colorful showboats, and the character's rich mythology is teased just enough to make you want to know more. As for Spider-Man, I'm pleased to say that this is the first big-screen Spidey that feels almost exactly like the comic book version of the character: a chipper young motormouth who is incapable of hiding his delight at getting to be a superhero. His interactions with the world-weary Stark – youthful energy bouncing off cynical snark – are immensely fun.
Though the film has moments of darkness and takes a stab at operatic drama here and there, it's a much lighter, breezier affair than the ambitious-but-clunky Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice (the year's other big movie about superheroes beating each other up). Yes, everyone's fighting and the fights are sort of contrived, but the fact that directors Joe & Anthony Russo actually seem to be having fun with these scenes goes a long way. Even at its most dramatic, the film never slips too far into self-serious angst. There are multiple battles between sets of these heroes over the course of the film, but the big one – a giant six-on-six airport brawl – is so giddily enthusiastic that it feels like watching an eight-year-old comic book enthusiast playing with his plastic toys (admittedly, part of that feeling comes from the fact that the staging is a little sloppy).
Oh, and there's a villain! I almost forgot about him. In my defense, he's immensely forgettable. His name is Helmut Zero (Daniel Bruhl, Rush), and he's basically just a guy. Like Lex Luthor in Dawn of Justice, he's the man pulling the strings behind the scenes, encouraging our heroes to fight for reasons that will remain a mystery until the third act. In the film's dumbest sequence, he straight-up tells some of the superheroes exactly what his plan is and what he's hoping they'll do, and the heroes react precisely the way he's hoping they will. Somehow, Downey even manages to make this sorta-kinda work, furiously selling something that should be unsellable.
That hiccup aside, Civil War is a thoroughly enjoyable ride that comes much closer to feeling like a genuine payoff than these films usually do. The studio has built up a pretty impressive collection of actors over the years, and there's a relaxed chemistry between this overstuffed cast that feels reminiscent of the sort of just-right groove that good TV shows often find around their third season (coincidentally, Civil War marks the beginning of Marvel's “Phase 3”). It's not quite as thematically ambitious as Joss Whedon's Age of Ultron, but it does a better job of making sure that absolutely everything – even the most frantic action material – leaves room for the many personalities in the mix to shine (Ultron was plenty of fun when the heroes were just standing around talking, but frustratingly generic – even tired - during its big setpieces).
To put it more precisely: Civil War is good in the way that a lot of “event comics” (like the Civil War comics that provided the narrative inspiration for this movie) are good, which is to say that it's a fun, momentous, kinda-silly climax that ultimately serves to transition us into yet another phase of build-up. Those buzzworthy stories are often enjoyable as they're unfolding, but precious few of them actually hold up as stories that continue to resonate with comic book lovers years after the fact. You may or may not have had a blast with Secret Invasion or Secret Wars or House of M, but those action-packed bursts of fan service don't really leave much of an impression once they've concluded (even when they've Totally Changed Everything). Captain America: Civil War is nearly as good as it can possibly be, but even after thirteen films, I continue to hope Marvel will eventually decide to aim a little higher. In the meantime, this belongs on the shelf next to Iron Man 3, Guardians of the Galaxy and The Avengers as a Marvel flick that does a good job with the formula but never actually transcends it.
Captain America: Civil War
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 147 minutes
Release Year: 2016