Captain America: Civil War Review: Pure Superheroic Bliss

We learned last summer when the ho-hum Avengers: Age of Ultron debuted that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has limits. No matter what mystical realm we explore or piece of metaphysics we unlock, these movies are going to look and sound the same. The third Captain America and might-as-well-be third Avengers doesn’t break the mold, but it does perfect it. Much like the best episode of a great TV show. That’s really what Marvel is doing on a grander scale than anyone has ever imagined. The MCU is the biggest, most expensive TV show ever made. The boldest attempt at long form storytelling in the motion picture medium yet still within the confines of its own flavor and intension. Thor feels more like Iron Man than Game of Thrones, while Iron Man feels more like Thor than Mad Men, because they’re episodes of the same show, so naturally they should feel like each other. The lack of artistic innovation in Civil War is justified by the near perfect story it tells, while also reminding us just how incredible this universe really is. And, like the best episodes of the best TV shows out there, it’s all been building up to this.

Just about every piece of this now 13 film story, aside from the Thorand Guardians of the Galaxy, comes together in spectacular fashion through two and a half hours of pure superheroic bliss. The mass destruction of the two Avengers films and Captain America: The Winter Solider weigh heavy on the world when Scarlet Witch (Elisabeth Olsen, with a much meatier role this time around) misguides her unruly powers and causes an explosion that kills a number of innocent civilians during what was supposed to be a routine Avengers mission. Enter Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt), promoted from the Hulk-hunting general in The Incredible Hulk to the current Secretary of State, with the Sokovia Accords. This new legislation will put the world’s various governments in charge of where, when, and how superheroes act. Effective immediately, any superhero who doesn’t sign the Accords and acts on their own will be seen as a criminal. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) refuses after Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr., maybe better than ever) is first to sign.

What’s most surprisingly effective is Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s script, which gives the long list of superheroes in this movie each a distinct voice. The side each hero chooses feels 100% validated while neither side seems inherently wrong. There’s a genuine conflict here between heroes like never before, putting Batman v. Superman to shame more than I think anyone anticipated it to. And after eight years of watching these guys save the world, together and separate, seeing Iron Man and Captain America hit each other and mean it is an emotional gut-punch.

Escalating the conflict to that point is the mysterious reappearance of the Winter Solider, a.k.a. Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), right when a terrorist attack kills an important world leader. While the government sanctions Iron Man and his team to find and bring him in, Steve and his team seek the truth, with good ol’ Cap knowing his best friend is still in there. Through these teams, we get two great new Marvel heroes with Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and, finally, your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man (a scene-stealing Tom Holland). I try not to gush in my reviews, but damn, I was a kid again watching Spider-Man trade blows and quips with all these heroes in the showstopper airport battle that leads the second act into the third. The majesty of what Marvel has done is on full display here when a serious movie with serious issues and consequences puts together the most fun action sequence of the decade and sneaks in so much great comedy. It also contains the best Empire Strikes Back reference in history.

But when Civil War needs to, it returns to the heady drama that was worth pondering in the first act to finish everything up. Between the pitch-perfect script and the brilliant direction and pacing by brother directors Joe and Anthony Russo, this easily ranks as one of Marvel’s best films, if not just the flat-out best (my brain is having its own civil war right now on whether this film or the first Avengers is better). There are quibbles to be sure, namely another boring villain, but in terms of pure cinematic enjoyment, you can’t go wrong with Civil War. It’s as fun, big, and visually stunning as the rest of Marvel’s movies, if not more so. But what sets it apart is that it’s also really intelligent. DC should just quit now. Grade: A-

By Matt Dougherty

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