★ ★ ★ ½
The people have spoken, and it appears that superhero angst is the new look for comic-book films everywhere. After DC Comics made a move to expand their cinematic universe and add more star power by pitting Batman and Superman against each other, Marvel has followed suit with a similar large-scale effort to move on from the Joss Whedon era. Captain America: Civil War, directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, is ostensibly a movie about the titular superhero (Chris Evans) and his struggles with guilt, responsibility, and the price of temporary peace. But it’s truly an Avengers sequel, one that includes not only the majority of the superpowered crimefighters from previous installments, but also introduces a pair of fresh new faces (although one of them is really a reboot of a character we’ve seen many times before).
A fierce battle in the film’s early going results in catastrophe, as the Avengers’ efforts to stave off supervillainy once again result in a collateral damage of innocent lives. When U.S. Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) proposes an accord that would put a government-approved system of checks and balances on the supergroup’s activities, the majority of the Avengers, including a particularly guilt-ridden Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), acquiesce. But teammates Cap and the Falcon (Anthony Mackie), who prefer to act independently, are troubled by the idea of answering to a bureaucracy.
Things get even more heated when a bomb goes off as the accords are ratified at the United Nations headquarters, killing the leader of the nation of Wakanda. His son T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), who moonlights as a superhero known as Black Panther, makes it his new mission to kill the man responsible for his father’s death. The evidence points to Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), who was a close friend of Captain America’s before he was brainwashed and turned into a Soviet assassin; however, Barnes insists he’s no longer under anyone’s control and that he wasn’t responsible for the bombing. Cap believes him, and he and the Falcon pursue mysterious terrorist Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl), who might have framed Barnes, in defiance of the government’s orders. Their actions eventually divide the superheroes into two camps, with Captain America, Falcon, Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) eager to retain their autonomy, while Iron Man, Black Panther, War Machine (Don Cheadle), Vision (Paul Bettany), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Spider-Man (rebooted here as a much younger teen, and played by Tom Holland) are looking to regain the trust of the government and the public. Predictably, several epic battles ensue, which result in fractured alliances and bruised egos.
Civil War returns to what made the Avengers franchise so successful: Rather than trying to shoehorn in character arcs for everyone, the film smartly focuses on the dynamic between the earnest, genial Captain America and the prideful, snarky Iron Man, both of whom are hiding feelings of remorse and loneliness. But while those two superheroes are pushed to the forefront—along with Barnes, another man who must face the consequences of his actions—the film still makes time for glimpses into the other characters’ psyches, revealing their inner torment as they try to navigate the tricky ideological debate that Cap and Iron Man have created. Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, vets of the Marvel movie-verse, provide a winning script that highlights the heroes’ common humanity, and that is able to find humor and soulfulness in smaller moments.
With a film centered on a fight between two sets of “good guys,” it was probably inevitable that the main villain’s plot would end up feeling a bit half-baked: Zemo is effective as a catalyst for the Avengers’ split, but we never really understand what his endgame is. And as with most superhero movies, the constant battles eventually become somewhat numbing. But ultimately, the majority of viewers will be drawn in by a truly compelling story that benefits from a larger-than-expected scope, and which leaves several compelling loose ends. These conflicted characters find themselves demoralized and torn apart by their various obligations, but thankfully, the movie itself does not: In spite of the heaviness of its plot, Captain America: Civil War embraces the down-to-earth tone that made the Avengers so popular in the first place.