A little over a month ago, Warner Bros.' execrable, excessive Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice arrived in theaters. As you know if you read my review, that film, with its storyline about the aftermath of a destructive superhero battle leading to a battle of wills between heroes, landed with a resounding thud for me. Perhaps my biggest complaint was how it was doing an end-run around its audience by forcing an emotional investment in its characters and their world that hadn't yet been earned. Well, here we are mere weeks later with Marvel's Captain America: Civil War, covering extremely similar thematic and narrative terrain while doing right exactly what the earlier film did so wrong.
Believe it or not, it was eight years ago this week that the first Iron Man's huge critical and commercial success kicked off the massive multi-franchise edifice that we've come to know as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Since then, Marvel Studios has gone from success to success, launching several concurrent series (last summer's delightful Ant-Man was one of my favorites of the year). And with Civil War and the beginning of their "Phase Three," we see the ultimate expression of the studio's fabled long game. Not only does it pay off plot and character threads we've watched intertwine for the better part of the last decade, it plies our history with those entanglements for maximum impact.
While this is nominally the third entry in the Captain America solo franchise (which began with 2011's Captain America: The First Avenger), in design and function it feels much more like Avengers 2.5. Picking up on story developments from both last summer's Avengers: Age of Ultron and 2014's Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Marvel's previous high point), Civil War -- inspired by a similarly-themed 2006 comic series -- sees an ideological fracture occur within the Avengers after an overseas operation gone awry leaves several civilians dead. With pressure mounting from world governments, Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) backs a plan to make himself and his fellow super-powered teammates accountable to a panel of international overseers.
Seeing the potential for this arrangement being used against them and inhibiting their ability to save lives, Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) refuses to sign on, which in turn triggers the war promised by the title as the various Avengers choose up sides against each other. Adding further tension into the mix is the re-emergence of Cap's old sidekick Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) who spent much of the twentieth century as a brainwashed assassin called the Winter Soldier, and who may be falling back into old patterns. Now it's a race against the clock as Steve tries to track down his best pal while staying a step ahead of the friends-turned-foes intent on bringing both of them in.
Along for the ride this time is virtually the entire roster of Avengers we've been introduced to thus far (albeit with a two very notable exceptions). Making appearances are -- deep breath -- Anthony Mackie (Falcon), Don Cheadle (War Machine), Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow), Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye), Paul Bettany (Vision), Elizabeth Olsen (Scarlet Witch), and Paul Rudd (Ant-Man). In addition, Civil War also boasts the Marvel Studios debuts of two new heroes who make promising cases for their respective upcoming solo features: Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther, and Tom Holland as the newest (and best) Spider-Man. Needless to say, Disney is in for a good couple of years based on what they've got on deck.
Now, looking at the list of characters above, you can see all the ways this had the potential to become an overstuffed mess -- The Love Boat with superheroes -- but somehow it never is. Every arc feels nourished, every character feels integral, and every emotion feels earned. I have to give it up to directors Joe & Anthony Russo and writers Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely, all of whom made such a strong mark with The Winter Soldier two years ago, for giving equal time to the spectacle (a second act battle between the two factions on an airport tarmac lives up to the hype) while remembering the beating heart underneath it all (Rogers' relationship with both Barnes and Stark).
With that in mind, Civil War benefits from the usual solid turns from Evans and Downey, so practiced and comfortable that rejoining them feels like picking up with a long-running TV series. In addition, the movie leverages our familiarity with and fondness for these actors in these roles to present a conflict that's far more internal (and thus far more engaging) than the "buildings falling over, blue beam shooting into the sky" stuff that this genre has sort of conditioned us to expect. And while there is indeed a villain working behind-the-scenes to push our heroes into a confrontation with each other, their motivations are constrained and personal in a way that feels wonderfully refreshing.
When I reviewed Avengers: Age of Ultron last year, I thought it was agreeable, but not exceptional. A "cog in the machine," I called it, and I didn't mean that in a pejorative sense. Well, one year later, Captain America: Civil War has arrived, and if Age of Ultron was the empty calorie aperitif, this is the filling entrée that justifies the wait in hindsight. Armed with the confidence that can only come from an unprecedented record of sustained success that's without comparison in this genre, Civil War emerges as as the strongest offering yet from Marvel Studios, and only further stokes my interest in seeing what's on tap for the MCU next. A+
For more movie talk, including thoughts on The Huntsman and The Jungle Book, plus my interview with Key & Peel about their new comedy Keanu, check out the latest MovieFilm Podcast at this link or via the embed below: