Part of the fun of Marvel’s Avengers movies to date has been having a front-row seat to the super-powered posse fast-balling quippy, barbed insults at one another. When they’re not squaring off against doomsday villains like Loki and the ho-hum Ultron, they seem to get off on taking each other down a notch. They’re a family, sure. But you got the sense that, like most families, they didn’t always like one another. Despite its stars-and-stripes title, Marvel’s latest billion-dollar-blockbuster-to-be, Captain America: Civil War, is essentially a third Avengers movie — it’s also the best one yet. With a couple of exceptions, the gang’s all here (plus a few new faces). And the hook this time around is that the tension isn’t just verbal anymore. They beat the crap out of each other, too. It’s like a family reunion gone violent.
Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo — who turned the last Captain America outing, Winter Soldier, into a surprisingly heady meditation on Citizenfour-style government surveillance — the film is another timely parable smack dab in the middle of our current election season, where the U.S. electorate is as scarily divided as it’s ever been. The main philosophical rift is between Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers (aka Captain America) and Robert Downey, Jr.’s Tony Stark (Iron Man), which shouldn’t come as any surprise since those two are also the heroes of the franchise’s best stand-alone movies and its most interesting and multifaceted characters.
After a casualty-heavy volley of destruction in Lagos, Nigeria, at the opening of the film (coming on top of Age of Ultron‘s levitating heap of collateral-damage rubble in the fictional Sokovia), the world’s governments want to rein in the rogue crimefighters and put them under the oversight of the U.N. This set-up may sound awfully familiar to anyone who forked over ten bucks to see Spectre just six months ago, but Civil War writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely goose the hand-me-down premise with airtight logic and freshness — not to mention a sense of fun and joy missing from that other recent superhero smackdown, Batman v Superman.
Riddled with guilt, Stark somewhat surprisingly agrees to go along with the U.N.’s leash-tightening plan (the so-called “Sokovia Accords”), while Rogers regards it as a betrayal of the supergroup’s M.O. With the doctrinal lines drawn, the rest of the Avengers are forced to choose sides: Paul Bettany’s Vision and Don Cheadle’s War Machine line up with Stark; Anthony Mackie’s Falcon, Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye, Paul Rudd’s Ant Man, Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch, and Sebastian Stan’s Winter Soldier (now good guy Bucky Barnes) saddle up with Rogers. Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow is stuck somewhere in between. Lest things get too bleakly black and white, Markus and McFeely throw in a couple of newcomers — Tom Holland’s Spider-Man and Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther — to spice up the super-sibling schism, adding welcome doses of gravitas and light.
Plotwise, there’s a lot of ground to cover in Civil War (even at two-and-a-half hours). But the Russos juggle all of the murky motivations and shifting alliances with impressive deftness. In the pair of previous Avengers flicks, there’s been a tendency to feel a bit overwhelmed (perhaps “cheated” is a better word) by the sheer size of the cast. There were too many candy-colored balls to keep in the air. But Civil War generously gives everyone in the cast just the right amount to do, whether it’s showcasing their gee-whiz smashy-smashy gifts during one bravura battle royal set at the Leipzig airport, or allowing them to have a slower beat of character development that one assumes is the main reason for serious actors to sign on to these CGI behemoths (aside from the obscenely large paychecks, of course). Even rookie arrivals like Boseman’s somberly avenging African prince Black Panther and Holland’s highly promising Spider-Man get their due, as does the film’s so-so villain, Daniel Bruhl’s Helmut Zemo. As with even the most dysfunctional families, it would be nice to think that no matter how heated things get, all gets forgiven in the end. That certainly ends up being case with the Avengers… for now, at least. Who knows what insults (and punches) will fly at their next family reunion?