Remarkably outshining both ‘Avengers‘ films in its deployment of superhero pyrotechnics and credible, amped-up character conflict, “Captain America: Civil War” is finally the fully realized team-up movie Marvel has been striving to make all these years. Following their efforts on “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” directors Joe and Anthony Russo exhibit a rock-steady hand as they guide the Avengers through a stripped-down plot pitting former allies Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) against one another. With other heroes rallying around those two poles, the characters face the consequences of their super-powered actions and ultimately examine how their own personal histories influence their heroics. Somehow managing time to introduce both Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and a new version of Spider-Man (Tom Holland) without overstuffing the plot, the filmmakers maintain a consistent focus on their own particular exploration of the “with great power comes great responsibility” concept and craft one of the few satisfying end-game battles in Marvel’s cinematic canon so far.
‘Civil War’ features none of Marvel’s galactic digressions. Like ‘The Winter Soldier,’ it is firmly grounded on Earth. With a dozen costumed characters, a villain, and at least three major supporting characters to push the story forward, this sequel could easily fall prey to the same overwrought bulge that has troubled other ensemble superhero films. But despite all those moving parts, this third Captain America movie is relatively lean, driving forward from an introductory sequence melding action and the film’s central moral imperative. Setting up this strong foundation quickly, the movie then sets in motion an espionage-tinged manhunt that becomes much more than a basic excuse for these heroes to punch each other.
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Credit the Russos, Marvel’s Kevin Feige, and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely for designing a story with shark-like forward momentum. An opening action sequence pits the Avengers against the scarred mercenary Crossbones (Frank Grillo), and shows off the team’s coordination and teamwork, but also their fallibility. A protective maneuver gone wrong leads to innocent deaths, which becomes the breaking point for world governments increasingly uneasy about the unrestrained power of the Avengers after major battles in New York (“The Avengers”) and Sokovia (‘Age of Ultron’). A United Nations resolution proposes the meta-humans submit to “voluntary” oversight, but not every Avenger is ready to yield.
Idealogical lines are quickly drawn. Tony Stark, driven by guilt for designing Ultron, advocates for the UN’s demands, while Captain America’s suspicions of modern government, born during ‘The Winter Soldier,’ grows a fiercely independent streak and refuses to adhere the so-called “Sokovia Accords.” Complications multiply when the legislation signing is marred by terrorist violence, apparently set off by Cap’s old pal Bucky (Sebastian Stan), now known as the mentally-programmed Winter Soldier. This draws the Black Panther, aka T’challa, prince of the isolated African nation Wakanda, into the fray, focused on taking down Bucky for his terrorist action.
With so many characters in the mix, the plot sounds more complex than it really is. But simplicity is the film’s chief asset; with the major scenario sketched in the characters are free to bounce around within its relatively confined parameters. More often than not their collisions are physically violent, but the battle between Cap and Iron Man, these friends and teammates whose political affiliations have become irretrievably tied to their personae, is also an emotional one.
Just as the film avoids galactic complications, the climax remains local, with no world engines or Earth-threatening alien. It would be a stretch to call this third Captain America film a drama, but far more than most comic book films, this is a story of conflict between people, building on the history of Marvel’s cinematic universe. And the old affection between the two heroes amplifies their new enmity which only further draws the audience in. While the villain Baron Zemo, ably played by Daniel Brühl, drives a wedge into the film’s schism, he is primarily taking advantage of existing cracks in the Avengers’ foundation.
Battles are not exclusively emotional, however. “It always ends in a fight,” as Bucky grimly notes. The Russos and their various fight choreographers and visual effects leads design fight sequences with a fluidity that would please Bruce Lee. One sequence featuring Captain America, Bucky, and a host of government agents, plays like a scale version of “The Raid” with impressive use of vertical space and consistent character beats which define the action and each hero’s relationship to it.
A battle at the Berlin airport acts as the film’s marquee centerpiece, with Ant-Man and Spider-Man joining the fray for a seventeen-minute feast of super-powered action dominated by Marvel’s first in-house realization of Spidey’s acrobatic prowess. As Iron Man’s team (Vision, Black Widow, Spider-Man, War Machine, and Black Panther) attempts to capture Bucky and Cap, the heroes on Cap’s side (Falcon, Scarlet Witch, Ant-Man, and Hawkeye) engage in constantly-shifting engagements to display every power in the collective arsenal and a good many we hadn’t seen yet.
Spider-Man stands out from the pack not only by virtue of the unique deal that brings him back into Marvel’s fold, but because Tom Holland plays the character as a kid — this is the youngest Spider-Man we’ve seen on the big screen, wide-eyed, not quite in control of his skills, and thus closest to the classic version of the character. In extended dialogue with Robert Downey Jr., Holland nails Peter Parker’s combination of eager adolescence and emerging confidence, while the battle sequence shows off just how agile, energetic, and quippy the character can be. It’s too early to call Holland the best silver screen Spider-Man (let’s see him anchor his own film first) but the young actor is a delight who embodies the character perfectly.
Throughout this big fight and all the film’s other battles, those character quirks are front and center. We’ve seen other superhero movies stumble as characters seemingly cast off their personalities in combat. The Russos, however, use fisticuffs as a method to draw out aspects of each individual, whether it be the evolving independence of Scarlet Witch, the moral quandary faced by Black Widow, or the determined and canny mind of Black Panther.
Chadwick Boseman plays Panther as a regal leader, intelligent and physically powerful, with all the confidence of a man who has earned his place in the world. As a new presence in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Black Panther is distinguished as a unique character informed by the best examples of his long comic book history. However, Boseman does employ a distractingly exaggerated accent that is the one down side to the character.
Arriving so quickly on the heels of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” there’s a temptation to treat this Marvel sequel as a rebuttal to DC’s recent effort. The pitched battle between two primary heroes, set against the backdrop of a world concerned about super-powered accountability, is remarkably similar. However, the two films are couldn’t be more different in their perspectives and methods. ‘Civil War’ is effective thanks to a focus on character, with the film’s extended roster serving to explore and underline absorbing ideas about family, friendship, and the use of power. As big as this movie is, “Captain America: Civil War” thrives on a smaller, human scale. Striking and consistently engaging, the Russos deftly craft compelling blockbuster entertainment out of a moral and emotional conflict, and that’s more impressive than any overblown display of loud and vulgar power. [A-]