Walt Disney Pictures
Rated PG-13 for extended sequences of violence, action and mayhem.
Running time: 146 minutes.
Three and a half stars out of four.
With “Captain America: Civil War,” directors Anthony and Joe Russo have found the tricky balance that eluded the ordinarily reliable Joss Whedon with last year’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”
They’ve made a movie that’s both self-referential and self-reverential, thrilling and heady, packed with giant set pieces and sly pop-culture quips in equal measure. Yes, there’s probably too much going on here: too many characters, too many subplots, too many gears keeping the behemoth Marvel Cinematic Universe grinding ever forward toward world domination. And at nearly two and a half hours, it’s a long sit — although Nicolas, at age 6 1/2, was thoroughly engaged the whole time. (Then again, he’s inordinately Marvel-savvy. Your mileage may differ.).
But “Civil War” remains entertaining throughout, even as it turns introspective. The Russos, who also directed Chris Evans & Co. in the excellent “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” from 2014, have reteamed with the writers of that movie, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. Like “The Winter Soldier,” “Civil War” is relevant and resonant without becoming heavy-handed or self-serious the way, oh, say, “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” did. It’s got some intelligent, important matters on its mind but also finds a way to deliver in terms of summer thrills.
Now, I don’t want to divulge too much in terms of plot. I’d like to avoid spoilers for both of the people on the planet who haven’t seen “Civil War” yet. (For a spoiler-tastic review of the film, please enjoy our What the Flick?! discussion.) But I do want to touch on the main things the movie gets so right, as well as the few it gets not quite right.
An inadvertent deadly attack on an office building in Lagos, Nigeria — the result of the Avengers trying to do the right thing, as usual — prompts the U.S. government to question whether these superheroes should be allowed to continue functioning autonomously. A quick montage of the massive urban destruction that has occurred in the past few Marvel movies makes an awfully persuasive case: Yes, they’re using their powers for the greater good in all these instances, but the collateral damage is undeniable. The fact that a Marvel movie dares to question the big, shiny spectacle that is its bread and butter — and acknowledge that untold thousands die in the name of entertainment — seems rather novel. At the same time, “Civil War” approaches this topic in brisk, smart fashion rather than languishing in perpetually rainy, philosophical doldrums the way Zack Snyder’s “BvS” did earlier this year.
As the Avengers and their newfound allies take sides on the issue of whether to sign a treaty agreeing to international oversight or continue with their current strategy of world-saving, no matter the cost, it’s fascinating to see who falls where. It doesn’t shake out the way you might expect; there’s a bit of role reversal here. The typically brash, billionaire industrialist Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), better known as Iron Man, is surprisingly conservative when it comes to the group’s use of power. He’s seen some things and thinks General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt) has a point in seeking oversight and accountability. Meanwhile, Evans’ Steve Rogers — the earnest do-gooder, Captain America — takes an if-not-now-when, if-not-us-who approach. He wants to maintain the status quo and refuses to sign.
As Steve’s old childhood friend-turned-enemy Bucky (Sebastian Stan) returns from obscurity to unleash his full potential as the reprogrammed killing machine The Winter Soldier, the Avengers must side with either Iron Man or Captain America as the latest and greatest threat to world peace looms ever larger. We’re talking about a lot of people here, folks — so many that you may lose track of who’s on which team in the midst of major battles. Maybe that’s the point, though — the futility of war and whatnot. All I know is, the next day, Nicolas and I had a hard time recalling who was Team Cap and who was Team Iron Man. (Luckily, the ubiquitous billboards throughout Los Angeles helped jog our memories.)
There’s also the revelation of a deep secret that provides a surprisingly emotional underpinning to the ideological feud between Iron Man and Captain America. It arrives during a moment of beautiful dramatic in snowy Siberia, and it’s the film’s most gorgeous, memorable image (the work of cinematographer Trent Opaloch, who also shot “The Winter Soldier”). And that’s about all I want to say about that.
As for the performances — because yes, they do matter, even in a blockbuster about comic-book heroes — an enormous cast gets even bigger with the addition of characters from Marvel movies past and future. Everyone gets a brief moment to shine but it’s often tantalizing and perhaps not enough. Besides Evans and Downey — who seem to feel these characters in the very fiber of their being by now — there’s also Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, Anthony Mackie as Falcon, Paul Rudd as Ant-Man, Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch and Paul Bettany as Vision. The tremendously versatile Chadwick Boseman, who’s already played Jackie Robinson (“42”) and James Brown (“Get On Up”) in just the past few years, provides excitement both physically and emotionally as newcomer Black Panther — and he’ll get his own movie, directed by Ryan Coogler, in 2018.
But the best part of “Civil War” for me was the reintroduction of Peter Parker/Spider-Man. It is THE highlight of the movie. Tom Holland finds just the perfect tone as the webslinger, whom we’ve seen in countless other incarnations. Tobey Maguire was quippy and Andrew Garfield was angry and both played this iconic role with varying degrees of success. Holland gets the boyish giddiness of having superpowers; his joy is infectious, and his banter with Downey positively crackles.
And unlike the Black Panther movie, you only have to wait until next year for “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” Because regardless of how good any of these movies are individually, they’re all just cogs in the massive Marvel machinery.