Captain America: Civil War, our 13th spin around the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is such a satisfying Problems In 21st Century Superheroics seminar that I'd be humming its theme for days if only I could remember it. Does Captain America have a theme? Does Iron Man? What about Black Widow? Haven't they each earned one by now?
Eight years into a lovingly micromanaged franchise that has made Marvel Studios as indomitable as Galactus, benevolent mogul Kevin Feige still hasn't found a composer to elevate one of these movies to into the firmament of earworms. Civil War's ersatz score, by Henry "Not Wolverine" Jackman, might've been borrowed from a '90s Tom Clancy flick.
The movie isn't all that much to look at, either. Much of it takes place indoors, and its exteriors all appear to have been captured on the same cloudy afternoon in the spring of 2015 (though there's a Mark Fuhrman joke that American Crime Story has made topical again). Sibling directors Anthony and Joe Russo were best known for the hip TV comedies Arrested Development and Community before Marvel hired them to make the superb Captain America: The Winter Soldier; they're doing the next two Avengers, too. Their current Avengers movie, the one called Captain America: Civil War, has aerial combat and even a shot-in-IMAX sequence, but its visual sense remains stubbornly small screen. (I saw it in 3D, which made the fight choreography — so crisp in Winter Soldier — look sloppier and the green-screen shots look faker. 2D is A-1.)
At least it'll hold up well on the at-home revisits it's bound to enjoy as Marvel's sinister-sounding Phase Three marches on. Because in all the ways that matter most — characterization, performance, emotional tension, allegorical heft — Civil War is Earth's Mightiest Marvel movie. It is also, at 147 minutes, the longest, but every minute is up there on the screen, so to speak. It's both more tense and more operatic than Joss Whedon's seminal Avengers chapters, and it juggles even more characters successfully. Best of all, it achieves genuine pathos while still being enormously funny. It's the Vibranium standard for super-team flicks.
Liberally adapted from a Mark Millar comic book scenario circa 2006-7, Civil War finds the Avengers disassembled: The cumulative human cost of their adventures, plus a botched mission in this movie resulting in still more loss of life, has the world demanding the team submit to United Nations oversight. Tony "Iron Man" Stark, the hero most traumatized by their battles, thinks it's the right move. (As the person most responsible for creating Ultron, the malignant A.I. that talks like James Spader, he has good reason to believe that their power is too dangerous to remain unchecked.)
But Captain Steve Rogers — still the lionhearted Brooklyn kid who tried again to enlist against the Nazis each time the draft board ruled him 4F — believes the world will be safer if its guardians remain autonomous. And because screenwriters Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely and star Chris Evans have developed the character so beautifully over the last five years, our hearts are with Cap, even though Stark's position is clearly the rational one.
Things get more dire when Bucky "The Winter Soldier" Barnes (Sebastian Stan) — who, like his pre-brainwashing best pal Steve, has stayed in his early thirties since the early '40s thanks to evil Nazi cryo-science — becomes a suspect in an assassination that puts the enigmatic new hero Black Panther on his trail. Cap is maniacally determined to protect his oldest friend, even when he appears to be guilty.
This pattern of characters we know to be good making honest and consequential mistakes is what makes Civil War resonate like a classical tragedy. Well, that and Robert Downey, Jr., who in his sixth appearance as Stark appears more invested to the part than ever. He's not the glib egotist of films past; his worldview has darkened. And yet his scouting trip to Queens to recruit a certain friendly neighborhood do-gooder who lives with his aunt proves that even in brooding mode, Downey can still knock a comedic scene out of the park. He gets a big assist from believably adolescent new wall-crawler Tom Holland, who makes the occasion of Spidey finally being granted full MCU citizenship feel like the blessed event that it is.
Perhaps sensing that some quarters of the audience may be getting fidgety after all this chitchat, the partners of McFeely, Markus, Russo & Russo reward our patience with grandest, most inventive super-smackdown in cape-flick history. It's six on six; Iron Man isn't the only one who thought to bring backup. The filmmakers have approached the problem of how warriors with these particular talents might attack and counter one another with the zealous imagination of nine-year-olds. But they've also considered that each side is trying to subdue their rivals without causing irreversible harm. That would-that-it-'twere-so-simple objective, plus the humor that inexperienced combatants Spider-Man and Ant-Man bring to the fray, make for an ingenious set piece that keeps finding new ways to surprise us.
After that bravura sequence, the film wisely goes for intimacy rather than trying to top itself on spectacle. There are revelations large and small, and some plotting that's just as wobbly as Batman v Superman's if we're being honest. That kind of thing is almost inevitable in a story with this many moving parts, and is easily forgiven in a picture — a franchise — that's done the hard work of making us care.
That's not to say it isn't hard to look at all those perfectly sculpted visages: Anthony Mackie as Cap's best 21st century pal, Falcon. Daniel Brühl, playing a mysterious conspirator. Someone named Scarlet Johansson. (I had to look her up.) Chadwick Boseman, whose regal Black Panther makes you wish his Ryan Coogler-helmed movie was arriving sooner than 2018. Elizabeth Olsen as the Scarlet Witch, still learning to control her hex-projecting (really) powers. Paul Bettany as Vision, the Infinity Stone-encrusted android (stay with me) who is struggling with his feelings for a teammate. And Evans, who is struggling with his feelings for a S.H.I.E.L.D. colleague with a connection to his (distant) past.
So much struggling. So many feelings. So many faces.
Stare at any one of them too long and your retinas will burn out. Even Martin Freeman — Bilbo Baggins, for crying out loud — gets a Slatteryesque silver-fox coif in this movie, as if a cameo by the real John Slattery weren't enough. And William Hurt, playing the official face of the U.N. oversight plan, looks hale enough to start filming Body Heat 2: Ragnarok tomorrow.
If Feige lets the Russos make it, I'm there.
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