Last year’s big-screen superhero team-up, Avengers: Age of Ultron, came uncomfortably close to proving that the law of diminishing returns applied to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) too. With its overstuffed plot, leaden exposition, distracting sequel/universe building, and dull, tiresome superhero action, including a beat-for-beat replay of the Avengers’ low-stakes battle against an army of faceless drones – with all the emotional impact and dramatic weight that implies (i.e., none) – the future of the MCU looked dim (if not grim, that’s DC territory, now and forever, amen). Maybe the onetime House of Ideas no longer had any. Maybe the law of diminishing returns could no longer be   ignored or indefinitely postponed. Maybe, just maybe, superhero fatigue had started to set in with moviegoers bombarded with costumed crusaders year round.

But a year can change everything – well, almost everything, at least where the MCU is concerned. Any lingering doubts about the MCU’s present or future are immediately dispelled in the opening moments of Captain America: Civil War. It’s not just the obligatory “open with action” scene typical of every big-budget action film (and where there’s a big budget, there’s always action, regardless of the genre). In jumping from a roadside accident that, in context, offers a key to the final moments between Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) and Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), to a bigger scaled scene involving an unsanctioned Avengers op in Lagos, Africa, that goes predictably sideways. The resulting civilian casualties prove fundamental to the central conflict between Captain America and Iron Man: The Socovia Accords.


The Accords function as the equivalent of the Superhero Registration in the 2006 comic-book series that gives Captain America: Civil War its name (if, thankfully, little else). Once opposed to government oversight and control over his Iron Man armor, an emotionally battered and bruised Stark, wracked with guilt over the lives lost whenever the Avengers intervened to save the world, becomes the chief spokesman and supporter of the Accords, urging the other members of the Avengers to sign on. In due order, individual members of the Avengers make pro and con arguments, but Rogers, as opposed to government oversight and control as Stark supports government oversight and control (that whole Hydra taking over S.H.I.E.L.D. thing has made him understandably wary of government institutions, regardless of their good intentions), refuses to sign, forcing him and anyone who follows him into becoming vigilantes operating outside domestic and international law.

To the considerable credit of co-screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeelyCaptain America: Civil War never tips its hand too heavily toward one particular side, instead letting Captain America and Iron Man, each be the embodiment of their respective positions, and make their respective cases through words and deeds. It might be Captain America’s movie, but his point-of-view might not be the only point-of-view (or even the right one). Turning the political argument personal – an easy solution, certainly, especially where superheroes are concerned – Captain America and Iron Man break up (theirs was a bromance for the ages, but it was always a bromantic triangle) over Rogers’ first best friend, Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier (Sebastian Shaw). A fugitive from justice, (it’s okay, he was brainwashed into becoming a Hydra owned and operated killing machine/assassin) Barnes becomes the first target under the Accords, in part for his past deeds, but also for a more recent incident that leaves dozens killed or injured.


Before long, individual members of the Avengers start picking sides, some partly out of ideology like Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), others out of mathematical rigor and scientific rationality like the Vision (Paul Bettany). Most, however, pick sides based on friendship and loyalty. In addition to Black Widow and the Vision, James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle), T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) – a more than worthy addition to Marvel’s cinematic pantheon of superheroes – and Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) join Team Iron Man, while Wanda Maximoff/Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and Scott Lang/Ant Man /Ultimate Captain America Fanboy (Paul Rudd), eventually join Team Cap. Balancing out the sides makes for perfect symmetry (everyone gets a dance/fight partner on the other side of the divide), but despite the Black Panther and Spider-Man getting rousing, crowd-pleasing introductions, only the Black Panther’s feels organic and necessary to the overall Captain America-Iron Man conflict.

On the plus side, the world doesn’t need to be saved from CGI annihilation again. The Russo Brothers, Joe and Anthony, deftly build scenes, sequences, and entire acts, not to mention individual character arcs (practically every major and minor character gets one), inexorably building toward the “civil war” of the title. It’s more of a battle royale than a civil war, but that’s, at most, a minor point. Unfortunately, it takes the better part of 90 minutes before we get to that battle royale on a people-free tarmac in Germany, but it’s still more than worth the wait. Essentially course-correcting the Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron’s central mistake (meaningless, weightless third-act punch-fests) by setting recognizable, relatable, human-sized stakes. Of course, that doesn’t mean that Team Cap and Team Iron Man sit down at a negotiating table to resolve their differences. They do what superheroes always do: They punch it out, often with little respect for the laws of physics or gravity. Might makes right, the epitome of the power fantasies and wish fulfillment comic-book superheroes have long represented in and out of pop culture.


Laws of gravity, physics, and storytelling aside, Captain America: Civil War dials ups the already impressive scale and scope of Captain America: The Winter Soldier’s street-level fight scenes. Just as every character gets his or her arc or mini-arc, each character gets to show off his or her respective fighting skills and styles. They’re often brutal, albeit within the PG-13 rating system that allows for scrapes and bruises, but little or no blood. The fight scenes would matter little, though, without characters we care about, regardless of where they fall on the Captain America-Iron Man divide. The Marvel brand has also become synonymous with humor, mixing just the right amount of humor, a line here, an aside there, to keep the potential grimness and darkness of superheroes in conflict at a safe distance. And with an age-appropriate (for once), quip-happy Peter Parker/Spider-Man added to the Avengers mix, we can also expect great things to come from Marvel’s partnership with Sony. In Holland, Marvel and Sony have found the right actor to carry the slightly overused Spider-Man banner into the next decade.

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