Ever since Samuel L. Jackson cropped up in an eye patch in Iron Man’s post-credits, Marvel films have had their eye firmly planted on the future. Setting up incoming installments has been a precarious process, resulting in such face-palmingly clunky sequences as the infamous “Thor in a Bath Tub” scene and the entirety of Iron Man 2. When not preoccupied with teasing the oncoming comic strata or hogtying in easter eggs for uber-nerds to dissect and debate, Marvel has admittedly done fine work developing their roster of heroes, taking careful stock in ensuring that its non-comic reading audience has at the bare minimum a working sense of what drives these supers to strap into spandex and save the world. With Captain America: Civil War, a direct sequel to the events of Captain America: Winter Solider that employs nearly the entirety of The Avengers, those characters turn to the rear view to take stock of what has been lost along the way.
Leave it to the curmudgeonly ‘Thunderbolt’ Ross (William Hurt from the mostly buried Edward Norton Incredible Hulk continuity), now the Secretary of State, to recall the haphazard collateral damage that those “saving the world” have left in their wake. Stuttgart, New York, Johannesburg, Sokovia, Washington D.C. All have been the unintended victims of their “heroic” antics. More recently Lagos joined the long list of contestants for “Most Infrastructural Damage Inadvertently Inflicted by The Avengers” when their attempt to stop Crossbones (Frank Grillo) from disseminating a biological weapon led to an explosion that left countless innocents brûléed.
Led by military tactician and ideological leader Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), the superhero union that is The Avengers face a philosophical treatise: is utilitarianism justifiable? The ethical quandary addressed here traces back to Phillipa Foot and the “trolley problem”. That being: if there is a trolley barreling towards five people tied to train tracks and you could pull a lever to divert said trolley so that it struck one individual rather than the five, should you, from a moral and ethical standpoint, pull the lever? Captain America seems to think yes, the needs of the many must outweigh the needs of the few and that judgement call ought to remain within the jurisdiction of The Avengers.
Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), still carrying the burden of creating a cataclysmic monster in Ulton, doesn’t share this view, or at least doesn’t want the responsibility of calling heads or tails as it pertains to the lives of innocent bystanders. When Secretary of State Ross urges (read: demands) Rogers, Stark and the other supers to sign the Sokovia Accords, a document that gives governing power over the Avengers to the United Nations, Stark sees this as a way to shirk ownership and atone for their past miscarriages of justice while Rogers, seeing bureaucratic parallels to the seedy operations at the now-defunct S.H.I.E.L.D., cannot in good conscience sign away the autonomy to “do the right thing” as he sees it, hence opening a rift that snowballs into their becoming ideological enemies.
In the ensuing civil war, no expense is spared and brothers Anthony and Joe Russo confidently conduct the cacophony of punches and CG wizardry to masterful effect. A vine-ripened-for-marketing showdown enlists every MCU mainstay, save for Thor, Hulk and Nick Fury, but the film respectfully treats them to support roles that serve the central thrust of Captain America’s arch without descending to slick, winking cameos. The Russos understand these characters, borrowing on our established familiarity and fondness to construct standout popcorn sequences.
Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) enlist with Captain America, whose philosophical stance has incidentally wrapped itself up in a greater mission to absolve Bucky Barnes, aka the Winter Solider (Sebastian Stan) and stop an even greater threat orchestrated by the dubious Zemo (Daniel Brühl). To do so, they must face off against Iron Man, War Machine (Don Cheadle), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Vision (Paul Bettany) as well as new roster additions Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland), all of whom are given commendable justification for buying into their own moral superiority. Also did I mention Spider-Man because he’s totally in this movie. Even better, Holland proves custom-tailored for the suit.
With an inventory that has marched confidently past double-digitry, each player on the field is afforded a fraction of the screen time that they would in their own film but in the juggling act of stirring new established players into the forum (Ant-Man) as well as introducing entirely new characters (Black Panther, Spider-Man), Captain America: Civil War does exemplary work. Each bit player comes equipped with diverse powers and witnessing this super-powered smorgasbord put to an absolute orgy of tumult results in some truly out-of-sight set pieces. In the past, one of the MCU’s biggest hurdles has been its uninspired standalone villains or, in the case of the assembled avengers, hordes of faceless, monotonous invaders. By dispensing with the gratuity of quantity over quality, the Russo’s craft the MCU’s most delicious action sequences to date. Turns out that Marvel’s ubiquitous villain problem can be solved by removing the villain from the equation almost entirely.
Captain America: Civil War isn’t the first movie this summer to deal with the backlash of salvation but there is no contest between it and Zack Synder’s unintelligible stinker Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. In the showdown of feuding supers, Civil War is ten times the film with ten times the fun. It’s a film that balances its vast array of characters without stacking tie-ins and teasers to the 11th floor. One that manages to breathe easily; that doesn’t buckle awkwardly under its ambition. A film that can see the men beneath the suits and give credence to their warring stanches. One that can drop levity bombs when appropriate and still tackle a meaningful conceit. In that regard, it body-slams that whence came before it WWE-style, leaving it not unlike the withered, crumbled spine of The Dark Knight Rises‘ Bruce Wayne.
That’s not to say that Civil War doesn’t struggle to define its purpose within the ongoing march towards Infinity War once the dust has settled or offer much grit to pluck from one’s teeth upon returning from the theater but in terms of sheer entertainment and summer movie excess, Civil War is definitive popcorn fodder of the butteriest variety. Add to that the fact that its 146 run-time melts away like, to continue the analogy, butter on popcorn, and you have a rousing good time at the cinema in store and one of Marvel’s best efforts to date.
CONCLUSION: ‘Captain America: Civil War’ is the Marveliest Marvel movie yet. And in this context, that’s a good thing. With a battalion of supers at their disposal, Anthony and Joe Russo create a sublime visual feast tucked delightfully within an intriguing and ideologically satisfying narrative. The addition of Spider-Man and Black Panther only helps make the affair that much sweeter.