REVIEW SUMMARY: With a strong cast and genuine sense of fun, the latest entry in Marvel Studios’s superhero story engages and entertains, even if it never offers its audience anything new.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: When an operation in Lagos results in the deaths of civilians, Iron Man and Captain America must decide their place in a world that has become increasingly dangerous as a result of their actions.
PROS: Strong turn by each of the series regulars, with Paul Rudd and Tom Holland stealing the entire movie; engaging dialogue and character interaction.
CONS: Efficient but otherwise routine action; occasional lapses in plotting.
What, really, is the price a superhero pays for his remarkable powers? Regardless of how he or she acquired incredible strength, brilliant insight, or remarkable perception, the actions never exist in a vacuum. Yes, by all means don the costume and fight the evil…but also understand that you remain accountable for your actions. Whether you do battle with gods from Asgard or monsters Frankensteined from your own lab, you must realize that it comes at a cost, and human lives must be included in the tally. “You have operated with unlimited power and no supervision,” General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt) observes in Captain America: Civil War during the Avengers’ debriefing after an operation in Lagos results in the deaths of 12 civilians. “That’s something the world can no longer tolerate.”
Other superhero movies have addressed this topic, including last month’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. But that picture never evinced more than a passing interest in this core theme; when it bothered to ask the question at all, it answered with not only explosions but also an even higher body count. Perhaps it’s because directors Anthony and Joe Russo understand their need to tell a compelling story (rather than strike the pose of a geek Orson Welles in short pants) that they bother to show the emotional consequences of this steroids-induced Homeric derring-do. When a woman who lost her son during the climax of Avengers: Age of Ultron confronts Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) with her grief, he realizes yet again how dangerous his world can be, and arrives at the Avengers’ headquarters in ideological lockstep with Ross. “If we can’t accept limitations,” he tells Captain Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), “then we’re no better than the bad guys.” For Rogers, however, limitations suggest a lack of unilateral action. “If we sign accords,” he muses as he and other Avengers receive a request for oversight, “it takes away our right to choose.” Regardless, they possess little choice; when a bomber disrupts the United Nations’s Sakovia Accords in Vienna (I must have missed the move; the last I heard they called New York City headquarters), killing King T’Chaka of Wakanda, oversight seems all but certain…that is, until someone names Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Sean) as the bomber, and Captain America and the Falcon (Anthony Mackie) find need to protect him not only from Iron Man and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) but also T’Chaka’s son T’Chilla (Chadwick Boseman), who, as Black Panther, intends to avenge his father’s death.
Though the Russo brothers have two-and-a-half hours to tell their story, it occasionally feels as if they need much more time, especially as the screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely bring in other characters—some to side with Cap for unilateralism, some with Tony and the common good. Indeed, with so much occurring, the added element of a villain (Daniel Brühl and Helmut Zemo) orchestrating a bombing and events leading up to a mano-a-mano between the grand old soldier and the snarky Stark suggests a character and motivation too many. Nor does it help that the Russos, who told the previous Captain America tale, didn’t quite learn from the faults of Captain America: Winter Soldier; yes, they slow down the movie to let its multiple characters play off of each other (more on that shortly), but they undercrank their cameras during the action sequences and cut them so often that they become difficult to follow. They film each action sequence with urgency and efficiency, but their technique renders them unmemorable and, because we want to see the interaction between the characters, a distraction. It doesn’t help that the screenplay occasionally resorts to comic-book plotting in order to move its story, as in the U.N. bombing, in which an historic accord occurs with what looks like limited security—a mistake, especially because is often tells its story with deft economy. We learn exactly what we need to keep us oriented.
The cast glues everything together, and remains why we return to each new release by Marvel Studios. Evans returns again as Captain America, more comfortable in the role now, but still as assured. Downey, Jr., meanwhile, turns in a performance that makes up for his phoned-in appearances in his last two Marvel tales. Boseman’s T’Chilla might have been a simple walk-on, but his Black Panther turns out to be not only integral to the story but also the series’ most arresting newcomer. Elizabeth Olson and Paul Bettany return as Scarlet Witch and Vision, respectively, both exceptional in roles that will no doubt prove important in later chapters. Others, from Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye to Don Cheadle’s “Rodney” Rhodes, serve the material admirably. But the scene stealers turn out to be Paul Rudd’s Scott Lang and Tom Holland’s Peter Parker. Rudd delivers Ant-Man’s quips with the same grace Sean Connery used to bring to the James Bond movies, while Holland nails Spider-Man in a way that makes us forget both Tobey Maguire (a feat I initially thought impossible) and Andrew Garfield (good riddance). Indeed, the scene in which Stark recruits Parker to help stop Captain America stands out as the movie’s best. When Parker attempts to bow out of assisting Iron Man, he explains why with genuine geek pain: “I have homework.”
Since the release of Jon Favreau’s Iron Man eight years ago, Marvel Studios has allowed audiences a glimpse of a world only accessed by comic books and taken seriously by connoisseurs of same. Captain America: Civil War brings a culmination to their remarkable project, and reinvigorates a franchise that seemed in danger of fatigue. The heroes may battle among themselves, but they do so with a cohesive, and often arresting, picture.