Rating in Stars: ***½ (out of ****)
Cast: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie
Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for extended sequences of violence, action and mayhem)
Running Time: 2:27
Release Date: 05/06/16
Captain America: Civil War sews doubt within the group of superheroes known as the Avengers for the first time since they became a collective attempting to overthrow an external conflict in the form of an alien villain with supernatural abilities. The second and clumsier time saw one of them creating the threat against which they were to fight by accident and ego, and now the consequences of the actions taken in 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron have shown themselves with this new film. It is positioned as a direct sequel to the previous movies that included the character of the surtitle, but it really isn’t for a long time past somewhere in the second act. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have quite a lot to juggle with this sequel, the latest in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and in spite of the business, it’s a roaring entertainment.
There are more serious concerns here than the ones to which we are usually accustomed (often, though not always, limited to the introduction of a hero or heroes and the thrusting of them into a generic conflict). Here the conflict arises due to the machinations of a villain who has a specific–and, surprisingly and ultimately, sympathetic–goal to tear the Avengers apart from within. He is Baron Zemo (Daniel Brühl), a hardened former militant whose motivation to fight back against the heroes will not be revealed in this writing. Let’s just say that it’s central to the concerns that crop up in the first act. After a prologue in 1991 that introduces a biological weapon of MacGuffinish importance, there is an attack that forces one of our heroes to contain a blast, whose energy she can control with her mind, away from its intended target. It still ends in the deaths of a dozen peaceful people.
The central debate, says the Secretary of State (William Hurt, making his first appearance in the franchise since 2008’s The Incredible Hulk), is a largely a political one, exacerbated by measures taken by the United Nations to police the Avengers for good. The Sokovia Accords, named after the disaster that leveled an Eastern European city, are drafted. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), aka Captain America, is against regulation of this sort, believing that the collateral damage is an unfortunate necessity so as to eventually no longer necessitate it, and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr., very good), aka Iron Man, thinks the Accords are necessary to keep them in check. Battle lines are very literally drawn, but no one’s side is disregarded here. When “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan), aka the Winter Soldier, is framed for another explosion that results in yet more death, all bets are off.
The fact of the matter is that Steve probably has the more salient point in the matter, and later, he and Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), aka the Falcon, recruit the returning likes of Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), the energy-manipulating telekinetic who caused the first aforementioned explosion, Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), who comes equipped with his usual contingent of clever arrows, and Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), whose ability to shrink in size as his strength is multiplied seems oddly downplayed here. On side of Tony, who has increasingly personal stakes in the matter that ultimately define his motivation, are Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), the KGB agent whose persuasive ability is all but ignored this time around, James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle), Tony’s best friend and sidekick, and the Vision (Paul Bettany), the inexplicable fusing of Tony’s old, artificially-intelligent computer with an Infinity Stone.
There are a lot of characters–perhaps too many in the grand scheme of things, especially considering the niece of Steve’s old love interest, Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp), offers her support, some sort of official agent guy named Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) shows up to be present for stuff, and Cheadle, Rudd, and Renner all feel extraneous to the proceedings. They pale compared to the highlights of the new characters, such as an African prince named T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), aka Black Panther, and Peter Parker (Tom Holland, whose performance is brief but fantastic), aka Spider-Man, a kid from Queens whom Tony has been investigating. These two in particular are given either a solid motivation (revenge for T’Challa) or moral compass (a clear-cut vision of right, wrong, and the answer to both for Peter).
It’s an overflowing ensemble given a healthy amount of time (nearer two-and-a-half hours than any film in the franchise so far) to find their footing, even if it doesn’t always pay dividends. The action is particularly well-mounted in an extended sequence of clashing egos that finds the heroes doing battle in an abandoned airport (Spider-Man in particular holds his own in this sequence). No one is truly in danger because their powers are about equal, but the screenwriters and directors Anthony and Joe Russo understand this, saving the action with genuine gravitas for an extended, three-way duel between characters who don’t truly want to win in such a permanent way. It’s the emotional charge of that particular scene, though, that mirrors the desire on the part of the filmmakers to set Captain America: Civil War apart in a series that has started to feel like a lot of the same old same-old. These are superheroes treated, where it counts, as separate entities who desperately need to sit down and talk–preferably without their suits.