I think a case can be made that Captain America: Civil War is mistitled. The skirmish promised there is duly presented, with the crummy crossover comic book series with which it shares its name thankfully providing only the barest of inspiration. Where the disconnect arrives is with the specific superhero cited by name. It is reasonable, I suppose, to position this latest outing from Marvel Studios the latest Captain America film. The star-spangled alter ego of Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, doing his usual exemplary work in the role) is indeed front and center through much of the film, and the plot does extend and wrap up story elements that were in place through the previous two installments. There’s even creative continuity, with sibling directors Anthony and Joe Russo returning after Captain America: Winter Soldier, one of the stronger offerings under the Marvel banner, and the presence of screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley, who’ve trained their word processor on every one of the films in this particular franchise (as well as arguably the worst movie Marvel has yet cranked out, but I’m trying not to hold that against them). And yet the film doesn’t feel all that connected to its two main predecessors, at least no more or less than it comes across as tangled up in the unprecedentedly interwoven world launched with Iron Man, in 2008. More than even the Avengers movies, Civil War plays like everything that’s come before funneling down to a single point. Officially, it’s Captain America 3, but it might be more accurate to simply call it Marvel Cinematic Universe 13.
The plot is dense enough to be a little staggering. Following the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America is still leading a group of heroes in various missions across the world, but the collateral damage of super-powered beings taking swings at each other is starting to wear on elected leaders. The nations of the world come together to call for greater control and oversight of those who put on costumes to practice their vigilante justice, an action that already creates a philosophical rift among these allies in fighting the good fight. Simultaneously, a skulking figure named Zemo (Daniel Brühl) is actively trying to gather information about the nefarious program that transformed Captain America’s longtime friend James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan) into the Winter Soldier, as well as one certain mission the brainwashed agent undertook. As that is happening, Bucky becomes the prime suspect in an act of terrorism, widening the gap between the feuding heroes, as Captain America insists on protecting his old friend and proving his innocence, while a team led by Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) follows orders calling for them to apprehend the suspect. That’s a lot already, and yet it is really only the beginning, barely providing insight on the placement within the plot of no less than thirteen major characters who bound through this stuffed adventure.
The Marvel Studios creators can’t be faulted for a lack of logistical ambition. Besides drawing on what’s come before, the film introduces Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman, as easily magnetic here as he was playing Jackie Robinson and James Brown) and the latest big screen Spider-Man (Tom Holland), the latter proving that Sony finally ceding creative control of the prized character to the Marvel movie braintrust was the smartest move they could have made after their deeply misguided attempt to relaunch the franchise with director Mark Webb. If the plotting is hardly airtight, at least most of the rollicking set pieces are genuine wonders of kinetic ingenuity, infused with panache and fun-loving appreciation for all the possibilities these colorful characters hold. In particular, all involved deserve credit for properly realizing that the best way to create dynamics and friction within these scenes is to let the characters remain true to their established tone, letting the genial goofiness of Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), for example, spark off the bedraggled dourness of Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), or the regular Joe fraying exasperation of Falcon (Anthony Mackie) contrast with the wry certainty of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, continuing to prove herself more and more invaluable in each new turn with the role). The Russos don’t try to wedge the characters into some grandiosely grim framework (as certainly seems to be the case with the spring’s other spectacle of costumed combatants). Instead, they shrewdly exploit the angles that naturally present themselves, and the film is all the better for that embedded respect for the material.
The film’s centerpiece is a multi-character battle on an airport tarmac that is staged with such jubilant spirit and expert construction that it asserts itself as almost impossible to top, even as there remains a whole final act to unspool. Sure enough, the filmmakers can’t draw the remaining narrative anywhere near that dizzying peak, even though they attempt to build greater depth of feeling into the action sequences that follow. While there’s still plenty to admire across the last third or so — led by a storytelling statement on vengeful justice that’s a welcome corrective to the usual path taken when it’s time to complete the long process of saving the day — the film stumbles somewhat by trafficking in heavy emotions that it hasn’t wholly earned. Even that flaw is at least representative of a desire to make something more of the wonderful toys onscreen. In general, the output connected to this big ongoing fiction continues to work better than anyone could reasonably expect. That might seem like grading on a curve, but I prefer to think of it as meeting the films where they are at. Regardless, I sat through Captain America: Civil War amazed, charmed, and occasionally giddy at what flickered before me. Bring on Marvel Cinematic Universe 14.