Let’s get the inevitable comparison out of the way first: Captain America: Civil War and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice both feature superheroes battling one another in stories posited as the inevitable fallout of the mass destruction they sometimes leave in their wake. However, Civil War does a far better job of it, and unlike its competitor it’s smartly written, fast-paced, and boasts incredibly well-choreographed action sequences that deliver without succumbing to overkill. Most importantly: even at its most downbeat it never ceases to be fun.
Writers-directors Joe and Anthony Russo have impressively crafted a movie that functions as a sequel for both the Avengers and Captain America movies, as well as one that further paves the way for the upcoming The Avengers: Infinity War two-parter. Surprisingly, they’ve done so without making it feel overstuffed with fan service and superfluous plot points a la The Avengers: Age of Ultron.
It also puts that latter film into perspective and redeems it some by getting gritty with the collateral damage that often accompanies super-heroics, something BvS only half-heartedly tried (and failed) to do. Civil War picks up roughly a year after the events of Age of Ultron, with Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) leading an Avengers team with a roster of mostly newer recruits. Their mission takes an unexpectedly ugly turn that results in a number of civilian casualties, including delegates from the reclusive high-tech African nation of Wakanda. This is the last straw for the powers that be, who put forth a provision that the Avengers will either place themselves under the supervision of the United Nations or be shut down. A guilt-ridden Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is all for it, but Cap is hesitant. Both have strong positions: Stark supports accountability and caution; Rogers fears placing the team under control of bureaucrats who have their own agendas.
The situation is complicated further when Rogers’ old friend and war buddy Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), last seen as a brainwashed super-assassin on the run at the end of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, is framed for an attack that kills Wakanda’s king. The UN and the king’s son, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) want Barnes brought in dead or alive (mainly the latter), and Stark and company see it as proof of their cause. Rogers wants to protect his friend and is willing to go off the reservation to do so. Their teammates chose sides, battle lines are drawn, and friends become enemies in a fight that grows increasingly personal.
Additionally, the Russos have the unenviable task of introducing two up-and-comers to the MCU. Boseman (Get on Up) is perfectly cast as the enigmatic, no-nonsense Black Panther, he of the bullet-proof catsuit, super strength, and claws sharp enough to scratch Cap’s shield. His is a fairly standard revenge plot, but it dovetails nicely with the plot and Boseman plays it with just the right degree of slow-burn gravitas. Tom Holland (In the Heart of the Sea) is an inspired casting choice as the new incarnation of Spider-Man. He and the Russos perfectly nail the high school-era version of the early comic books with a charmingly goofy mix of Peter Parker’s nerdy awkwardness and youthful enthusiasm. Marvel and Sony struck a joint-custody deal late in pre-production for Civil War and it shows; Spidey makes only a couple of appearances (each memorable) and his presence does little for the plot, whereas he was a key component of the comic book mega-crossover that the movie is based on. His presence feels a little forced, but it’s enjoyable enough to be forgiven.
The more veteran characters are given equal time to varying effect. The traumatized Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and sentient android Vision (Paul Bettany) haven’t fully gelled yet, whereas Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) feels fully drawn with a distinct personality for the first time since his debut way back in the first Thor movie. James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle) gets his heartiest screen time since Iron Man 2, and Anthony Mackie continues to stick the landing as the high-flying Falcon. Paul Rudd brings comedy relief and some nice surprises as Scott Lang/Ant-Man, enough to anticipate a certain sequel. Last but not proverbial least, Marvel needs to hurry up and give Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) her own movie before fans riot in the streets.
Its a great many plates that the Russos manage to keep spinning, though it ultimately climaxes with a muted bang. Marvel’s biggest hang-up in a so far stellar body of work is its weakness for bland villains (Loki notwithstanding), and the trend continues in the form of Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl, Rush), who feels like a lesser James Bond villain. Brühl gives a strong performance though, and the door is left open for Zemo to develop into something more impressive. Besides, this is an instance where the heroes’ biggest threat is each other, and that is ultimately why this movie succeeds where Batman v. Superman failed: Civil War‘s conflict is earned rather than contrived. It’s the culmination of tense friendships and strained egos that Marvel has cultivated for years. The stakes feel real, which gives this comic book spectacle more heft than the genre usually deserves.