No Loki. No Ultron. No General Zod or Doomsday. No corrupt billionaire or international conspiracy or potentially world-dominating madman. Because that’s true, “Captain America: Civil War” appeals to me more strongly than any superhero movie of the last decade.
The team from “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” has come back intact: directing brothers Anthony and Joe Russo, writers Christopher Marcus and Stephen McFeely. (This group has also been announced for both parts of “The Avengers: Infinity War,” due in 2018 and 2019 respectively. If you’re a fan, cheer.)
They understand why recent Marvel adaptations for the big screen have worked and recent DC adaptations have not: Superheroes need to have a sense of humor – ideally, leavened with a little irony – about life in general and occasionally about themselves. And if one colossal fight is entertaining, 10 times as much fighting won’t be an exponential improvement.
That’s why, when the big battle unfolds two-thirds of the way through, it means something. It’s not just steroidal behemoths breaking furniture: It’s about opposing philosophies that cannot coexist. The resolution cannot logically be happy for all concerned, and sure enough, it isn’t. (Although one flaw in the superhero template never changes: Even with 12 warriors in one picture, Marvel dare not sacrifice any of them permanently.)
As often happens in the postmodern comic book universe, the story revolves around the question of governance. Innocent bystanders die during the Avengers’ intervention in Nigeria, where they successfully prevent terrorists from stealing a vial that could create an infectious disease epidemic. One hundred and seventeen nations then vote to put them under the command of the United Nations, oblivious to the likelihood that they might be needed with almost no advance notice.
Here the writers have a clever (if perhaps illogical) idea: Iconoclastic Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) believes the team should sign these accords, while faithful soldier Captain America (Chris Evans) insists they exercise judgment independently. Each leader has five adherents, but one of Cap’s is a ringer: His old pal the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) is suspected of causing a bombing that killed diplomats in Vienna.
It’s not a spoiler to say that he didn’t, or that guilty party Zemo (Daniel Brühl) committed that crime to split the Avengers. We quickly learn what he’s doing, but the how and why – which have satisfying explanations – don’t come until the end. Zemo’s villainy is finite and specific, a welcome rarity in this field.
The filmmakers catch us up on old friends, build stronger identities for newer ones (Paul Rudd’s Ant Man has tricks up his tiny sleeves) and introduce two significant characters, Black Panther (played with ferocious dignity by Chadwick Boseman) and a fresh Spider-Man (played as a genial, awestruck teen by Tom Holland, who actually is a teen). They add atmosphere and set up their own spinoffs in this eternally replicating genre.
Downey, looking more diabolical than ever but showing more heart, neatly balances Evans, who again proves it’s possible to make straight-arrow earnestness interesting. Luxury casting gives us Alfre Woodard in one scene as a grieving mother, Marisa Tomei in one as Spider-Man’s unsuspecting Aunt May, John Kani in two as an African king and Martin Freeman in two as a CIA agent. All of them add polish to an already shining project.
‘Captain America: Civil War’
☆ ☆ ☆ 1/2
Cast: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Daniel Brühl.
Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo.
Length: 146 minutes.
Rating: PG-13 (extended sequences of violence, action and mayhem).