Captain America: Civil War (Anthony Russo/Joe Russo, 2016)
My favorite superhero film in the current age of the ever-expanding Marvelverse – other than the delightfully irreverent variants like Ant-Man, Deadpool, and Guardians of the Galaxy – has been Captain America: The Winter Soldier. In that movie, the fantastical comic-book elements that normally numb the brain through ceaseless (and expanding) repetition were, for once, grounded in details relevant to the world in which we live. Suddenly, the titular character was fighting for a cause in which the stakes were high – preventing an NSA-like entity from excessive data-mining – yet comprehensible in human terms, and therefore meaningful. In both Avengers films – the second one even more so than the first – extra-terrestrial (and -dimensional) forces threatened our world with domination and destruction; how many times can global disaster be averted before it feels boring, rather than frightening? In that sense, though the final Dark Knight film was a bit tiresome, as well, Christopher Nolan’s series was, to me, more palatable, as the director kept the stakes earthbound (unlike this year’s Batman v Superman). If every time it’s the end of the world, and we know it, then I don’t feel that fine, in cinematic terms, anyway.
This is the age of the tentpole franchise! What can you do? Stop going to the movies? That’s an option, but if the reason you go to the multiplex is for spectacle, then Captain America: Civil War delivers the goods as well as could be hoped. In fact, to be fair, it’s better than most of the competition (and in IMAX 3D, to boot!). It has a decent cast and a compelling enough story (unless one is just exhausted by all the mayhem). What it is not, however, is a film solely about Captain America, that square-jawed, genetically modified refugee from a time gone by, frozen in ice at the end of his first adventure and then defrosted in our modern era at the start of his second. Though this new film is directed by the same brothers Anthony and Joe Russo) who gave us Winter Soldier, and though Captain America’s particular moral dilemma is the one that (mostly) drives the plot, this is really Avengers 3: Battle of the Brawn. One wonders if perhaps the Russos were not working out their personal demons, as the plot pits (spiritual) brother against brother (and one sister), as the fate of … yes, the world … hangs in the balance.
The movie begins with an Avengers mission that leaves many civilians dead. This time, the governments of the planet decide that the collateral damage is not acceptable, and heads of state gather to formulate a series of accords to check the use of power and might by these super-powered agents of ostensible good. The “civil war” refers to the fact that not all erstwhile partners agree on whether to sign these accords or not. Into this mix comes Bucky Barnes – aka, the “winter soldier” of the previous film – Captain America’s childhood friend whom our hero tried to de-program last time around. Bucky’s in hiding, but when he supposedly carries out a terrorist attack, the Avengers have one more issue that tears them further apart, since some think him guilty, while others support the Cap. Along the way, there are some attempts at weighty dialogue about the nature of good and evil, and shades in between, as well as some philosophizing about how power should be used responsibly. The movie works best in some of its action sequences, however – the simpler ones, like a brilliant car chase in Bucharest – than when it tries too hard to be consequential, since ultimately it sheds any relevance to our actual world when it morphs into a slugfest between former friends.
Chris Evans is back as Captain America/Steve Rogers, joined by Robert Downey, Jr., as Iron Man/Tony Stark, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff, and most of the rest of the gang from previous Avengers films. But not Thor and not the Hulk. We do get a new superhero, Black Panther, played by Chadwick Boseman (42) – very good – and a new Spider-Man, played by Tom Holland (In the Heart of the Sea), who is not bad, except that he is the third iteration of that character in the last 15 years. Talk about repetition! Paul Rudd shows up once more, as Ant-Man, in my favorite cameo of the movie, and the list goes on. It’s a cornucopia of super-riches, and if that’s your thing, then this is your movie. And even if this is no longer really my thing, the movie was by no means unentertaining. Call that a (very) qualified recommendation, then, and go throw your dollars at the screen to ensure that we never escape from Marvel martyrdom.