In my review of the first Avengers movie, I said Joss Whedon’s blockbuster represented “the most complete manifestation of the superhero team aesthetic yet seen on film.” Four years later, we have a new champion in the category of “best team film.” (To be fair, the hero-snuff-film future sequences in X-Men: Days of Future Past were pretty good examples of multi-hero action, as well.) The way in which Captain America: Civil War brings together a dozen or so heroes, sorts them into not one but two teams and then flings them at each other is its own special delight for comic book fans long accustomed to such things on the printed or digital page. And it must be pretty exciting for non-fans, too.
The Russo brothers’ second film in the Captain America trilogy, and their last before tackling the upcoming two-part Avengers: Infinity War films, Civil War maintains the same balance of action and significant (if brief) character development/interaction that made Winter Soldier so enjoyable. The fight and chase scenes are frenetic without being confusing, while the comic relief, mostly supplied by our bug-themed heroes, provides a Whedon-flavored lightening of the otherwise dark proceedings. Even more impressive, the film introduces two additional MCU Phase Three stars—one brand new to filmgoers and the other oh-so familiar—and both generate a real sense of “Man, I can’t wait to see his solo film!” All this is achieved without once veering too far from the core plot of the film.
As for that plot, Captain America: Civil War continues a controlled headlong rush down the road laid down by the preceding Captain America-themed entries: in the extended aftermath of Ultron’s Slovakia-based attempt at an extinction-level event and the unmasking of Hydra’s presence in S.H.I.E.L.D., Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and crew figure in yet another high-profile event during which lives are lost. (Paul Bettany’s Vision is absent for reasons we can only assume are plot-related—as in, had he been there, the fight would have been over in 30 seconds.) All the world’s governments want this particular band of enhanced individuals on a leash. A guilty Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) agrees. A wary Steve Rogers doesn’t. Throw in an explosion that costs Wakanda its king and for which Bucky (Sebastian Stan) is a prime suspect, and this particular go-round of “Watch the heroes fight each other” makes more sense than it usually does. (It actually makes more sense than the comic event upon which it’s based, as that material basically just turns Tony Stark, and a few other heroes, into a super-villain for the duration.)
As the MCU enters if not maturity, at least its late adolescence, its greatest achievement as embodied in Captain America: Civil War may lie in a continued absence rather than in the presence of something. Watching an MCU film is an act that’s free from unnecessary distractions related to characters and source material. Captain America looks and acts like Captain America. And that’s been true in all five films in which he’s appeared. The same is true for Ant-Man (Paul Rudd)—Scott Lang version—who has appeared now in two films, and even for Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) with just a mid-sized, if important, role in one. Meanwhile, at other studios, the failure to seemingly even understand the core nature and appeal of their characters means every one of their films has moments that cause both fans and new viewers alike to scratch their heads. “Um, why did Superman just let his father die?” “Wow, Batman just totally killed some guys.” “Oh my god, what have they done to Dr. Doom (twice!)/Galactus?!” For many, the distractions build and clutter and puncture both the anticipation for and enjoyment of these films. In addition to everything else it’s done right, Marvel Studios continues to get out of the way of its own characters.
Note, these distractions are not the same as traditional plot weaknesses. Lord knows the MCU films in general and Captain America: Civil War in particular has those. But it’s so much easier to ignore how problematic a villain’s master plan might be (“So this all hinged on Iron Man finding out where Cap and Bucky went?”) when one’s enjoyment hasn’t been constantly sapped by what seems like a defiant disrespect for the source material. So many other superhero films start with the nitpicking tipping point already in sight and quickly rush to hit it. (I’m not talking about you, Deadpool. I love you, man.)
If one thinks of the each MCU film as a juggling act—and each hero’s origin, “flavor” and power set as its own subset of items that must be kept in motion and in proper relation with each other—then as a series both Avengers films and Captain America: Civil War can be seen as an escalation of the routine that’s as impressive as it is necessary. After all, with each additional hero added, with each additional demand placed on the script in both action and dialogue, Kevin Feige and company are building toward Infinity.
Directors: Joe & Anthony Russo
Writers: Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely (screenplay); Mark Millar (comic book); Joe Simon (characters); Jack Kirby
Starring: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Rudd, Emily VanCamp, Tom Holland, Daniel Brühl
Release Date: May 6, 2016
Michael Burgin is the film editor for Paste. He would sure like to find an expert who can write on Bollywood.