The Marvel Cinematic Universe has a villain problem. With a few blessed exceptions—Tom Hiddleston’s arrogant trickster god Loki; the ex-boyfriend-from-hell played by David Tennant on Jessica Jones—its bad guys aren’t half as interesting as its good guys. That’s true, mostly, of the sneering Machiavellian schemer Daniel Brühl portrays in Captain America: Civil War, who’s about as unmemorable as the usual intergalactic conqueror or corporate scumbag making life tough for Earth’s mightiest heroes. But the film’s hook, its big conceptual draw, is that it doesn’t really need a heavy at all: In this long but brightly entertaining return trip to the ever-expanding MCU, star-spangled do-gooder Captain America (Chris Evans) and playboy flyboy Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) find themselves on opposite sides of a conflict, their typically testy rapport flowering into a full-on showdown. The studio solves its villain problem by basically removing the villain from the equation.
That’s an old comic-book trick, pitting the superheroes against each other, and Civil War draws a battle line down Marvel’s whole roster, dividing the extended Avengers family into opposing camps. Don’t be fooled by the title, which tips off a slight allegiance in sympathies more than anything else: This is an Avengers movie, every bit as densely packed with plot, locations, costumed characters, melodrama, screwball comedy, and future-sequel groundwork as last summer’s Age Of Ultron. That Civil War doesn’t collapse under the weight of its various moving parts, that it manages to be the most serious entry yet in this franchise of franchises without sacrificing much in the way of valuable comic relief, is a testament to the creative mojo of directors Joe and Anthony Russo and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. They’re as close to a dream team as Marvel’s got, and as in the last Captain America movie, the propulsive conspiracy thriller The Winter Soldier, they wring plenty of thrills and grace notes from company mandate.
Though the basic plot outline comes from a decade-old crossover comic-book event, Civil War is more like the summation of its dozen big-screen predecessors, building the titular title match from the wreckage of several consecutive city-destroying climaxes and the seeds of friendly-fire antagonism first planted in The Avengers. As in this year’s other superhero grudge match, collateral damage is the catalyst: After an opening standoff with mercenaries adds another few names to the body count, the Secretary Of State (William Hurt) calls for some oversight, demanding that the Avengers submit to the authority of the United Nations. Haunted by guilt (and the breakup blues), Tony Stark, a.k.a Iron Man, proves amenable to the sanctions. But Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America, wants to stay independent, fearful as he is that politics will begin to muddy the ethics of the crime-fighting business. Things get personal after a terrorist attack puts Cap’s brainwashed ally Bucky (Sebastian Stan), a.k.a the Winter Soldier, in the line of fire, and suddenly half the team is chasing the other half across the globe. It’s a bit like The Fugitive, if Harrison Ford had super-powered backup and the man with one arm was the one trying to prove his innocence.
Directing episodes of Arrested Development and Community might seem like odd qualifications for a tenure in tentpole mythmaking, but orchestrating the comic chaos of those seminal sitcoms has made the Russos old pros at ensemble multitasking. Civil War somehow does right by all its bickering attractions, from airborne sidekicks the Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and War Machine (Don Cheadle) to steely old allies Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) to the most magical members of the team, Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany), who bond during a faintly romantic dinner for two. The filmmakers assume a total audience familiarity with these figures, most of whom are identified only by their civilian names. (Skip last summer’s Ant-Man? Don’t expect the movie to catch you up on what Paul Rudd’s doing here.) This being a Marvel movie, Civil War also shoehorns in a couple of new teammates, about as gracefully as possible. It helps that they’re instantly appealing: Chadwick Boseman (42, Get On Up) gives the African prince T’Challa, a.k.a. Black Panther, a soulful regal intensity, while Tom Holland (The Impossible) redeems the idea of yet another Spider-Man reboot by playing the character as an endearing ball of adolescent energy.
There’s obvious political metaphor to all this Avenger-on-Avenger violence, the infighting doubling as a crude debate on unilateral action. (Captain America, firmly against drone warfare in The Winter Soldier, here makes the case that a war on terror may result in occasional civilian casualties—a shift in worldview that might generously be read as a reflection of the country’s own sparring, mutating ideologies.) If that seems like pretty heavy thematic material for an all-hands-on-deck superhero jamboree, Civil War wears it lightly: The film is ambivalent about foreign policy but absolutely staunch in its belief that watching jacked-up titans bound through rush hour traffic is really cool. The action scenes in this movie, which blend intelligible CGI wizardry with vehicular mayhem and parkour-inflected fight choreography, are generally spectacular. It’s clear that the Russos have thought about how each of their numerous players would use their abilities, and have carefully staged the various showstoppers—like a brawl that plays out on a stairwell, creating multiple planes of blow-by-blow combat—to give everyone their due.
That becomes most clear during the movie’s centerpiece sequence, an extended bout of melee mayhem in an abandoned airport that’s like a microcosm of everything audiences love about the Avengers movies. As these once (and presumably future) team members tear into each other, forgetting to hold back as tempers flare and insults go off like fireworks, the film gets closer than any Marvel movie before it to actually capturing the playful, free-for-all spirit of its source material. It becomes, for these few blissful minutes, a true live-action comic book, and for once the strategy of endless interlocking spinoffs pays off: It’s like we’re seeing the fruit of the entire shared-universe labor, a set-piece built on not just the powers but also the personalities established across eight years of serialized storytelling. Civil War won’t turn skeptics into true believers; it refines rather than transcends its formula, and the ending, while admirably suffused for once with personal (rather than global) stakes, is too beholden to future franchise plans to go as far as it could and maybe should. But it does prove, if Marvel hasn’t already, that something can be both a load-bearing act of brand extension and a nimble, colorful blast of entertainment. Now just imagine if they could cook up a few more quality villains.
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, plot details we can’t reveal in this review, visit Captain America: Civil War’s Spoiler Space.