It might be hard to have a coherent conversation with me about “Captain America: Civil War.”
I say that not because the latest Marvel movie doesn’t have depth, skill or resonance; it’s the rare superhero movie with all of those things. Rather, I think calm discussion is going to be difficult because my typical comments to friends and family have gone along these lines:
“It’s so good! There’s a scene where Ant-Man [SPOILER REDACTED] and then Spider-man [SPOILER REDACTED], and it’s awesome! And then there’s a fight on [SPOILER REDACTED] between [SPOILER REDACTED], [SPOILER REDACTED] and [SPOILER REDACTED] and it’s so cool. Oh, and they [SPOILER REDACTED] and it’s amazing!”
The 13th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, “Civil War” is the height of geek bliss. A sort-of “Avengers 2.5,” it features a showdown between Captain America and Iron Man that works in every way a similar match-up between Batman and Superman failed just a month ago. It brings most of the other Avengers in for a spectacular rumble at a Berlin airport. It introduces a thrilling new hero in Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and gives us possibly the best cinematic version of Spider-man yet. It’s a busy movie, yet it never collapses under its own weight.
The film is a direct sequel to both “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and last summer’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” It opens with Captain America (Chris Evans) leading his new team — Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) — on a mission in Lagos, which goes belly-up when the Avengers’ actions accidentally destroy a building with innocent bystanders inside. The Secretary of State (William Hurt, reprising his role from “The Incredible Hulk”) informs the superhero squad that the United Nations has drafted the Sokovia Accords, which turn the team from free agents into tools of the government. Captain America, fearing political entanglement, refuses to sign. But Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), haunted by the people who he couldn’t save, thinks signing is the right thing to do. “We need to be kept in check,” he says. The situation grows more complicated when an explosion rips through Vienna and Captain America’s old pal Bucky (Sebastian Stan), aka The Winter Soldier, is the main suspect. The U.N. and the majority of Avengers believe Bucky’s still a ruthless assassin; Cap believes his friend is innocent and goes rogue to prove it. It’s not long before the Avengers begin choosing sides.
The benefit of playing a long game, as Marvel has done since 2008’s “Iron Man,” is that by now we’re familiar with the characters and their dynamics. Through three Iron Man films and two Avengers adventures, we’ve watched Tony Stark grapple with the cost of his decisions. When he’s confronted by a woman (Alfre Woodard) whose son died during the final battle of “Age of Ultron,” it’s easy to understand why Tony is so affected by it. Likewise, we’ve watched Captain America turn from a tool of the U.S. government to seeing just how gray the political climate has become. “People have agendas,” he says of the accords. “What if they send us somewhere we don’t want to go or keep us from going somewhere we need to be?” The brilliance of “Civil War” is that both Tony and Cap are right; this is a superhero film about the consequences of violence — even “righteous” violence — and the tricky politics of power. This isn’t about angry smashing; it’s about how a refusal to compromise can put even good friends at odds.
The conflict builds slowly, through heated conversations, provocations and attempts to stop the fighting until there’s no other way to solve the problem than a physical confrontation. Sure, there’s a villain (Daniel Bruhl) manipulating some things behind the scenes, but the film wisely keeps him to the side. The main conflict is between Captain America and Iron Man, up to the end. Evans and Downey are both fantastic as they lay out their characters’ perspectives, neither budging nor comprising, but both trying to find a way to end this before it gets ugly. In particular, Downey is more raw than we’ve seen him in this franchise. It’s a testament to how much character work has been done over the last eight years that we accept that the prideful Tony Stark feels broken by the Avengers’ actions and is hurt by Cap’s decision. It might be the best work the actor’s done in over a decade. And because we’ve come to love these characters, there’s a horror to the final act. This isn’t the DC universe, where every fight has to be badass. During that last, brutal slugfest between Iron Man and Captain America, every blow hurts, and we spend much of it hoping the two will just stop hitting each other. The fight isn’t triumphant; it’s tragic.
And there’s room for expansion in the Marvel family. Boseman, in particular, is a welcome addition as T’Challa, an African prince who takes on the mantle of Black Panther to avenge his father, who was killed in the Vienna blast. I loved the dignified, quiet rage Boseman brings, and I really dig Black Panther’s sleek costume and quick fighting moves. Even better is Tom Holland, the first Peter Parker/Spider-man to actually be played by a teenager. Peter’s introduced as a nerdy teen in Queens whose secret is revealed to Tony Stark. That scene alone is worth it for Stark’s flirtation with Aunt May (Marisa Tomei). When Spider-man joins the airport brawl, it might be his finest on-screen moment. The costume is amazing and there’s a nervous energy Holland brings; Spider-man just can’t help but break into banter when he meets his heroes. It’s perfect, and it makes me excited to see a new Spidey film.
I was initially nervous about just how much was being crammed into one movie, especially after “Age of Ultron” barely held together. But by making this a Captain America film, the Russos find a focus that keeps the film from becoming bloated. It never feels gimmicky; there’s a reason why every character is on screen. Every plot beat is tied into the film’s larger themes, and the two-and-a-half-hour film moves briskly, with the Cap and Bucky relationship always at the center. Even the setup for future movies — a quick mention of the absence of Hulk and Thor, the introduction of Martin Freeman as a bureaucrat who I assume we’ll see more of down the line — never feels gratuitous. The Russos guide the film with the steady hand they brought to “Winter Soldier.” And although things get dark, it’s never overly morose. Downey is still good with a quip, and the sense of humor that’s been the secret sauce of so many Marvel films is still there. Rudd, in particular, has a wonderful entrance, and it’s probably impossible not to at least chuckle when the Winter Soldier — stuck in the back seat of a Volkswagen Beetle — asks Falcon to move his seat up.
The action is also better than we’ve seen in previous Marvel films, and more varied. There’s a gritty military raid that opens the film and a breathtaking, multi-level chase sequence that puts most traditional action films to shame. The aforementioned airport brawl is lively, fun and over-the-top, with every superhero getting a moment to showcase their powers. And then there’s the final, brutal beat-down between Captain America and Iron Man, both filled with rage. It’s a dark moment for the Marvel franchise, and it’s to the film’s credit that the darkness is just as emotional as it is physical. When the film ends, the Marvel universe is shaken up, and I’m curious to see how the Russos resolve things in the next two Avengers movies.
“Captain America: Civil War” is the peak of this round of superhero flicks. It’s exciting and fun without sacrificing intelligence or emotion, and it delivers on the promise of 12 previous movies. No one does this better than Marvel.