Nobody ever accused Marvel Studios of not playing the long game. With Captain America: Civil War, we’ve now entered Phase 3 in the Marvel Cinematic Universe rollout/cash grab. But I do wonder if the MCU masterminds anticipated Civil War would be a better Avengers movie than, well, the last Avengers movie. While not all card-carrying members of that superhero supergroup report for duty here (Thor and the Hulk sit this one out), promising new recruits like Chadwick Boseman’s steely Black Panther and Tom Holland’s eager-to-please teen Spider-Man are introduced – fresh fodder for future phases. You know this franchise is going to outlive us all, right?
That’s a little bit chilling, considering the ripple effect these movies have had on popular entertainment – in Marvel Studios’ super-saturation of the market, its double-dog-dare-ya to other studios inspired them to launch their own hydra-headed franchises, and the lamentable squeezing out of midrange budgeted studio films (go big or don’t bother seems to be the mantra these days). But that’s a conversation – maybe a funeral dirge – for another day. For now, why not enjoy the contact high from Civil War?
Joss Whedon’s swan song Avengers: Age of Ultron was a bit of a slog, but it laid necessary groundwork for a growing rift between Captain America (Evans) and Tony Stark’s Iron Man (Downey Jr.) that turns chasmic in this follow-up. Notably the second superhero movie of the spring to hang its plot around collateral damage – is conscience catching? – Civil War hinges on a public outcry for accountability and oversight. Which sounds about as sexy as the minutes from a zoning meeting, but in practice makes for a toothsome debate. Stark, troubled by the win/loss ledger of their Age of Ultron battle in Sokovia (“Victory at the expense of the innocent is no victory at all,” Alfre Woodard’s grieving mother schools him), sides with UN officials wanting to register and rein in the superheroes, while Cap’s healthy suspicion of authority and his uber-patriotic defense of civil liberties compels him to defy U.N. orders to comply. That’s a hard line in the sand that forces the various Avengers to pick sides, but the film’s sympathies are strategically fluid (or flip-floppy, if you’re feeling cynical; don’t want to burn any bridges when we’ve got Phase 8 on the horizon!).
As with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, returning directors Anthony and Joe Russo confidently assemble the action set-pieces but mount in the downtime stretches a sly audition reel to take over the Bourne franchise, or maybe the next le Carré adaptation: The sturm und drang that gets asses in seats never feels perfunctory, but you get the feeling their hearts thump hardest for the spy-intrigue shoe-leather in between the fight scenes. (Marvel is all in with the Russos; they’re also slated to direct the next Avengers extravaganza, the two-part Infinity War.)
Also returning from Winter Soldier are screenwriters and Marvel vets Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, creators of the TV offshoot Agent Carter and tapped to write Infinity War. They also co-wrote Thor: The Dark World, in which they smartly opted for a mano a mano final battle, and not the heroes vs. an anonymous swarm of villainy so common to these movies. That lesson carries over here: Civil War’s main battle sequence is so effective because it’s six-on-six, and we’ve spent the past decade getting to know the combatants. Friends turned hesitant foes, they pull their punches, but the effects don’t – the whole point of being super-powered is so you can be flung against a wall or off a roof to no real damage, but the audience gets a dizzy rush anyway (the 3-D is top-notch). Apologies are made mid-wallop, and jokes cushion the blows, but there’s no doubting this is personal, for the reluctantly warring Avengers, and the paying audience, too. After so many forgettable baddies, and so much random blasting, it’s nice to put a name to the face when the Black Widow (Johannson, third-billed but forever playing backup) jujitsus her best friend, Clint (Renner), or when Iron Man and Cap’s brotherly bond is broken. Thirteen films in, that’s a real return on investment.Read a full review of Captain America: Civil War.