Marvel Trades Fun For Frenzy In "Captain America: Civil War"

Summer 2012 posed a remarkable question to Marvel Studios: how do you follow up your groundbreaking, record-shattering superhero team-up movie? They answered by rolling out “Iron Man 3,” “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” and “Guardians Of The Galaxy,” a trio of films that not only raked in a collective $1.5 billion in box office receipts but actualized the color-soaked eccentricities that made comic books so beloved in the first place. Who could have guessed that a post-Avengers world would yield a new holy trinity of superhero movies, each a rousing, irreverent adaptation that could stand proudly on its own?

Now, just two short years after it seemed like Marvel would be unleashing exceptional superhero movies on the regular, we have “Captain America: Civil War” – a barely adequate, tonally berserk lyric to the pains of franchise building. In other words, it does absurdly little with a whole lot.

The whole Avengers gang is here (minus Hulk and Thor) to remind us again and again how badly mistitled a movie this is. Its place as a sequel to “The Winter Soldier” is questionable at best, pitting Steve ‘Captain America’ Rogers (Chris Evans) against Tony ‘Iron Man’ Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) over the political ramifications of weapons-grade human beings. Steve is back in overprotective best friend mode concerning his bestie-turned-mind-controlled-assassin, Bucky Barnes aka the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), but it feels disconnected from the story at large.

An exceedingly well-crafted opening combat sequence yields some serious collateral damage, leading to a plea on the part of General Thunderbolt Ross (William Hurt). He begs the Avengers to sign the upcoming Sokovia Peace Accords (named after their destruction in 2015’s “Age Of Ultron”), a U.N. measure meant to keep the heroes in check (and their only chance to swing public opinion back in their favor). A newly introspective Stark agrees. Rogers doesn’t. The infighting from the Avengers movies eventually escalates into physical confrontation, culminating in two knock-down-drag-out fights that come off like they’re from two entirely different movies. The kind of are.

Directors Anthony and Joe Russo (returning from “The Winter Soldier”) have been saddled with so many incongruous fixings that it’s amazing the end product is coherent at all. That’s not to say it’s very coherent. The movie attempts to function as a Captain America movie, an Iron Man movie, an Avengers movie, a commentary on vigilantism, a look at sibling rivalry writ large, a bridge to a “Black Panther” solo movie, and a bridge to yet another Spider-Man reboot. All of this comes with callbacks to no fewer than twelve previous Marvel Cinematic Universe entries (all of them).

Act I presents the central conflict quite thoughtfully, thinking over the series’ death and destruction with gravitas. Rogers and Stark, at least, continue to be multi-dimensional characters. Even though their positions here seem to be at odds with their respective personalities, the emotional groundwork laid in previous films pays off hugely. We have a history with them, they have a history with each other, and the eventual fraying of their friendship works because of it.

More good news: new characters T’Challa / Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Peter Parker / Spider-Man (Tom Holland) are terrific. Boseman imbues T’Challa (the prince of fictional African nation Wakanda) with a palpable, righteous anger. His arc in the film is one-dimensional but Boseman uses his limited screen time to tease out emotions that other actors have failed to do in a trilogy’s worth of comic book films.

Holland’s Spidey is a different kind of success story. The 19 year-old actor absolutely sparks in his scenes with Downey Jr., suggesting that the Sony-held franchise is finally where it needs to be: home, working in concert with Marvel. The CGI used to animate the Webhead is spotty, but the base of the character is note-perfect, begging to be expanded upon in the upcoming “Spider-Man: Homecoming.”

But T’Challa and Peter being great isn’t so great at all. They’re utterly inessential to the story being told, revealing a gross, undulating coldness at the heart of “Civil War.” The best things in the movie are the things dedicated to making sure we come back next time. Black Panther and Spidey hog all of the film’s best moments, making their screen time an unhappy reminder that Marvel will never have enough of our money.

By the time act III rolls around, the screenplay – by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, also returning from “The Winter Soldier” – moves nonchalantly from a broadly silly, cartoonish airport battle to a climactic brawl that tries to shoulder a ton of emotional weight. The screenplay’s passes at geopolitics are all but discarded by the time Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) super-sizes himself and makes googly eyes at his foes. Just minutes later, Stark and Rogers are engaged in a stone-faced fistfight that hinges on a twist many will see coming in the film’s opening minute. It’s grim, it’s gloomy, and it’s everything Marvel’s best films have eschewed.

The brothers Russo have done an admirable job of twist-tying all of this together, turning in a largely affable work. But the voice of a Shane Black (“Iron Man 3”) or a James Gunn (“Guardians Of The Galaxy”) is plainly missing, and as gifted as the cast is, it’s a little disheartening to see actors that could and should be carrying their own films (superhero or otherwise) relegated to background duty. Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye), Anthony Mackie (Falcon), Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow), Elizabeth Olsen (Scarlet Witch), Paul Bettany (Vision), and Don Cheadle (War Machine) serve as little more than window dressing here, limited to interaction with one or two pre-determined members of their chosen in-group.

It’s easy to imagine this story without a bona fide villain at all. But this is “Captain America: Civil War,” a picture that passes on no opportunity to add an unnecessary character to the mix.

Daniel Bruhl (“Rush”) plays a loosely adapted version of supervillain Baron Helmut Zemo, portrayed here as a shadowy but un-costumed background figure with obviously nefarious plans for a certain Avenger. Or two. The character ends up being an underwritten plot device, but Bruhl is a tremendous actor, good enough to make the turn relatable and thought provoking. Even if he has to wait another film or two before he gets to do anything interesting.

Make no mistake: “Civil War” has moments that are exemplary of the genre. The opening firefight in Nigeria. Some hard-hitting exchanges about the consequences of unilateral violence. A genuinely affecting moment for Tony Stark that reconfigures his entire worldview. Even more, the pic’s second half sings whenever Spider-Man is on screen.

But the movie’s cartoonish setpieces clash loudly with its darker narrative tendencies and the screenplay is neither a satisfying continuation of Captain America’s story nor that of his counterparts. A series that should be opening up as it goes on is starting to become more and more insular (see last’s year’s disappointingly lightweight “Ant-Man”), more concerned with the next thing than the current thing. Viewers thirsty for mayhem will be sated, but anyone out for the left-of-center thrills that Marvel was churning out less than two years ago won’t find enough to fill a sippy cup.

Newbies will pay the highest price of all. As characters cycle in and out (Tony Stark disappears for nearly twenty minutes in act II) and the in-universe references pile up, even die-hards might wish they had a notebook to keep up with all the comings and goings.

How history treats “Civil War” is anyone’s guess, but right now it feels like an overprescription for a world staving off superhero fatigue. Or is it a placebo?

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: May 6, 2016
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures, Marvel Studios
Director: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Screenwriter: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Starring: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Sebastian Stan, Scarlett Johansson, Daniel Bruhl, Paul Bettany, Anthony Mackie, Elizabeth Olsen, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Paul Rudd, Chadwick Boseman, Tom Holland, Marisa Tomei, William Hurt, Frank Grillo, Emily VanCamp, Martin Freeman, John Slattery, Hope Davis
MPAA Rating: PG -13 (for extended sequences of violence, action and mayhem)