It has become a pretty standard occupational hazard for superhero franchises that, the longer they go on, the more they have to devote their resources to crowd control. It’s become straight-up de rigueur to shovel extra characters into these movies; many a comic epic has been ultimately felled by shoehorning in characters in successive sequels. But that’s the trouble with adapting funny books: audiences want to see their favorites, and pretty much every character is somebody’s. Captain America: Civil War, the 13th movie in Marvel’s inexhaustible house-produced comic book movie cycle, bows to this inevitable trend, but it pulls it off a little better than most through a clever stroke of plot mechanics: it cherry-picks from a core of about a dozen major Marvel Comics characters and divides them straight down the middle over a thorny policy issue.
This isn’t a new idea, of course. “Who would win in a fight? X or Y?” is a popular fanboy question for a reason, after all. Superheroes in the comics are routinely roughing each other up for invading each other’s turf or resisting their policies. Even the iconic superhero teams (including Marvel’s Avengers and competitor DC’s Justice League) are forever fraught with the unspoken tension that each squadmate could turn against the other at any minute. Uneasy alliances between alphas are pretty much the bread and butter of comic book arcs. Civil War goes about exploring this trope in a somewhat thoughtful way, pulling off the neat trick of making all of its star players simultaneously heroes and villains. Heck, even the real villain behind the scenes here is less an evil genius and more of a small, hurt man who has a real point, however misguidedly pursued.
The key icon here is, of course, Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), the red-white-and-blue supersoldier who stands for what’s right first, and America second (sometimes a distant second). But he’s given an ideological opponent this time in billionaire Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), who patrols the skies as Iron Man. There’s fallout to deal with in the Avengers’ world, since recent superheroic operations have created undeniable collateral damage, world-saving results aside. The U.N., represented by William Hurt, feels the need to respond to a growing world complaint that the Avengers are vigilantes that must be put in check with legislation. Stark, who even when we first met him in Iron Man (2008) was a guy with a penchant for sudden self-flagellation, is happy to accept the so-called “Sakovia Accords” (named after the city that was levelled by the apocalyptic tussle at the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron ). Cap, however, rejects this plan, since previous movies have shown his troubled history with authoritarian regimes, both abroad and at home. Or perhaps Cap’s stubborn moral rectitude shows a conscience bubbling with latent, uncomfortable objectivism. It’s a credit to the Marvel franchise’s careful attention to character development and planning that both of these characters’ attitudes make a lot of sense. “Sometimes I want to punch you in your perfect teeth,” says Tony to Cap, after Cap insists he can’t look the other way to injustice, even though sometimes he wishes he could. We get what both of them mean.
Civil War’s surprisingly talky first act deals with these ideas in altogether intangible terms, making them feel a little dramatically inert. But things get tangible with the re-emergence of Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), Cap’s oldest friend who was brainwashed into an evil cyborg assassin and now is a broken man trying to piece together fractured memories (by the way, tough luck to you if you haven’t seen the past several Marvel movies, as this one is in no hurry to stop and recap). Bucky ends up getting framed for a bombing and used as a pawn by the vengeful Zemo (Daniel Brühl), who has drafted a careful plan to rip the Avengers apart. Cap’s moves to protect Bucky become the focal point for the titanic clash, as both Steve and Tony start rallying troops to their banners. And if you’re starting to suspect that this conflict is just a convenient clothesline to hang action sequences, you’re right. There are gestures made to have the political conversation of this movie appear to be topical and relevant, but it’s isn’t actually.
So here’s where we mention who the supporting players are. Deep breath. In Cap’s corner there’s the telekinetic Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), the versatile and acrobatic archer Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), who flies in an bird-wing exoskeleton, shrinky-dink Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), and of course, Bucky. Meanwhile, Tony’s group enlists his partner-in-crime War Machine (Don Cheadle) and the conflicted assassin Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, who, top-billing wise, is yet again always a bridesmaid, never a bride). There’s also the domesticated artificial intelligence known as Vision (Paul Bettany), and two new players to this crew. The first is Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), who has a day job as prince to an African nation but moonlights in a clawed costume, and the second is a scrawny webslinging kid from Queens known as Spider-Man (Tom Holland).
As you can tell, this is a very very busy movie, and it’s a true credit to it that it somehow keeps all of these plates spinning without quite collapsing under its own weight, plus setting aside time for some nimble introductions (The most common line of dialogue, aside from steadfast declarations of what’s right and what’s wrong, is “Who’s this new guy?” or variations thereof). The motivations of the supporting players, and their decisions to be on each team, range from reasonable to arbitrary: Black Panther wants revenge on Bucky, Stark effectively buys Spidey’s loyalty, Hawkeye remains a cipher, and Rudd’s Ant-Man shows up to the fight asleep in the back of a van—that’s how little the movie cares about his perspective on things. It’s mainly just an iffy excuse to get a fight going, which everyone is up for; you can almost imagine Wolverine and the Fantastic Four sitting by the phone waiting for a call from either Tony Stark, Cap or their agents.
But the two teams rumble in a key sequence midway through the film that ranks high as one of the great superhero brawls. Powers and abilities are used and doubled and complemented and counteracted in an intricate free-for-all that is really quite fun to watch (and despite the movie’s grimmer tone, it uses its diverse cast to inject some welcome playfulness to the proceedings). It’s an evocation of what action figure-owners did as kids smashing together their favorites (“Now Ant-Man’s going to fight Spider-Man! Thwip! Black Widow’s going to fight Falcon! Swoosh!”). It’s a well-conceived bit of mayhem, veering just to the edge of camp silliness but staying on the right side, although the above-par fight choreography is flattened just a smidge by Joe and Anthony Russo’s flavorless direction (the team also helmed Cap’s last solo adventure, 2014’s superior The Winter Soldier).
The major thing that keeps Civil War from teetering into the goofball is its cast. I like the way Olsen, who was just one of many moving pieces in last year’s Age of Ultron, finds room to grow and struggle with her abilities. Holland makes an agreeable new Spider-Man, finding the right synthesis of good-hearted, quippy dweebitude. Boseman makes a formidable impression as Black Panther. Johannson is as engaging as always, Mackie and Rudd are always welcome, and Bettany finds just the right note as Vision, who gets a laugh just in the way he wears a cardigan as a simulacrum of human behavior. Downey has been playing Tony Stark for so long he has now edged into the iconic. But Evans gives the movie its heart. Has there ever been a more perfect marriage of actor to comic book hero role? He’s so sensational, making goodness and purity an honest-to-God virtue, not a mockery (unlike other franchises that don’t know how to process a character who stands for things). With the completion of this trilogy, Evans’ Cap cements himself as the clear superhero gold standard.
What hurts Civil War a little bit, though, is its lack of personality. The first Captain America, The First Avenger (2011), was a dynamite two-fisted throwback to pulp serials, Indiana Jones-style. The follow-up Winter Soldier evoked shady’s 70’s conspiracy thrillers like The Parallax View, achieving a neat intimacy underneath the bombast. This one is just a lumbering superhero epic. Its only reference points are other Avengers movies, which feels vaguely incestuous, not to mention that there’s an unshakable feeling of product made by a studio, not filmmakers (even Joss Whedon’s lesser Avengers sequel from last year has plenty of Whedon’s trademark wit, which feels kinda absent here).
Maybe that feeling is aided by the countless references and call backs and call forwards and easter eggs and in-jokes which don’t feel 100% reigned-in this time. The franchise-building used to feel exciting, now it’s just exhausting and calculated. Martin Freeman shows up and is wasted in a nothing CIA role. Brühl’s villainous Zemo is underutilized. Black Panther and Spidey are in this entirely to set up their own movies, lending a vaguely mercenary air. Emily Van Camp reprises her role as Sharon Carter (Cap’s official gf in the comics, revealed here to be the niece of movie-Cap’s paramour Peggy, not that that doesn’t weirdly keep her from getting a big smooch anyway). She does a little fighting, a little spying, then goes back into the woodwork. Job security at Marvel is pretty good, as long as you only want to work there only a couple days a year. After all, let’s give a big hand to returning player William Hurt, who injected the role of General “Thunderbolt” Ross in The Incredible Hulk (2008) with all the vigor of a coma patient and here successfully reprises his role by replicating that energy note for note.
Granted, none of these touches are as lame as some other universe’s attempts at world-building (this spring’s sloppy, contempt-laden adventure at Warner Brothers, Batman v Superman, pretty much defines the lowest possible bar for such lazy fan-wankery). And Civil War, despite its sops to crowd-pleasing theatrics, does venture to some darker places, including a cruel third-act trap that is practically a superhero chamber-piece tragedy (relatively, anyway). This is a movie that’s very much about consequences, in both the innocents who suffer under the boot of superheroics, and also the friendships that break because of this dust-up, and that function of the story is well-conceived by screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley (who have stewarded all three Captain Americas). It’s brave, sort of, to see a blockbuster series lean into some of this stuff and risk alienating its audience.
But despite the very high entertainment value, it all feels just a tiny bit rote, mainly because despite Civil War’s Empire Strikes Backish underpinnings and the grim notes sounded by its finale, we know that any setbacks will be temporary. The wheel will go on turning, friendships will crumble and rebuild, nothing is permanent. Civil War is a sequel to a prequel to a bridge to a new ending to a spinoff to a reboot to a new beginning, and while in the moment it’s good fun, there’s a stubborn speck of fatigue at the core of it, as it takes a movie that promises the end of all things for us to realize that this will never end. “Spider-Man will return!” trumpets the end title crawl, and it might as well amend that to “Every single one of these characters will return.” Which means it’s left to us to wonder when we’ll be able to pencil in some time to miss them.