Geez, can’t these superheroes all just get along? First Batman and Superman face off against one another; now Captain America and Iron Man do likewise—and each brings a bunch of colleagues along to turn their fight into a gang rumble. In both cases, ironically enough, the argument is over excessive violence and collateral damage (along with the government’s effort to rein in the metahumans), but the guys can settle their disputes only by creating more of each. You’d think that, being super and all, they could sit down and talk through a compromise—but that’s rendered impossible in the end because Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), it turns out, has Batman-like issues about the death of his parents. Indeed, “Captain America: Civil War” shares a lot with “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” That’s not intended as a compliment.
The movie begins—following a 1991 prologue about the programming of the Winter Soldier, aka Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan)—with a group of Avengers led by Captain America (Chris Evans) overcoming a bunch of terrorist thugs in Lagos. Unfortunately, in the melee Wanda Maximoff, aka The Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) unleashes an energy bolt wildly, leading to the deaths of some people in a nearby skyscraper, including a group of aid workers from the African nation of Wakanda. That provokes a move by the US Secretary of State (an emaciated-looking William Hurt) to place the Avengers under the supervision of a United Nations panel. (Compare all of this to the narrative thread in “Dawn of Justice” involving Superman’s being blamed for needless deaths and hauled before a congressional committee.)
The Captain opposes giving up the group’s autonomy, but Stark, recently berated by the mother (Alfre Woodard) of a young man killed in Sokovia (see the last “Avengers” finale), is suffering guilt pangs and expresses his support of the plan. Eventually our heroes split into two factions, with Stark receiving backing from James Rhodes, aka War Machine (Don Cheadle), the enigmatic Vision (Paul Bettany), Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and the grieving Wanda, and the Captain eventually finding support from Sam Wilson, aka Falcon (Anthony Mackie) as well as the supposedly retired Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). Each side will also attract a new recruit: Stark will find an eager acolyte in Peter Parker, just beginning his career as Spider-Man (Tom Holland), while Cap will be joined by Scott Lang, aka Ant-Man (Paul Rudd). And added to the mix is a wild card, Prince T’Challa of Wakanda (Chadwick Boseman), who takes on the persona of Black Panther, who believes the Winter Soldier is responsible for his father’s death and is determined to take vengeance on him. Of course, since Bucky is Cap’s one-time sidekick, the Panther’s mission will put him in the thick of the battle.
Black Panther’s desire for revenge against the person he blames for a parent’s death is mirrored elsewhere in “Civil War” as well—in the reason behind Iron Man’s final mano-a-mano with Captain America, which is no less protracted and unpleasant than that between Batman and Supes, but even more significantly in what’s driving the story’s ultimate villain Zemo (Daniel Bruhl). Bruhl brings a coolly menacing attitude to the role, but ultimately his motivation is no less grief-based. Unfortunately, even a rather dim viewer should recognize that Zemo’s goal could easily have been achieved through much simpler means than the ridiculously intricate scenario he’s arranged here, which—like so many such diabolical schemes—depends on everybody doing exactly as he foresees at every stage.
Nonetheless one feels a certain thankfulness for the narrative convolutions, since they might take your attention away momentarily from the pervasively gloomy mood of the picture, which is alleviated only by an occasional limp joke—and by the welcome presence of Holland and Rudd. In their performances “Civil War” evinces a sense of fun that’s decidedly lacking elsewhere, boding well for the continuation of the “Ant-Man” series and the upcoming “Spider-Man” reboot. They might actually make you smile, which is certainly not the case with a brief flashback sequence in which Downey is digitally made to look like his much younger self—though not as convincingly, one must note, as the similar transformation Michael Douglas underwent in the first “Ant-Man” movie.
Of course, there are all the fights among the heroes in various combinations—so many that the picture sometimes seems like a series of them merely punctuated by bits and pieces of exposition. The biggest of the confrontations, and certainly the best, is a fracas at an airport, with the contributions of Holland and Rudd, as usual, providing the high points. It goes on way too long, but at least isn’t as gruesome as the last-act Iron Man-Captain America face-off. It’s notable that, in keeping with the movie’s general theme, the fisticuffs—enhanced, of course, by the various super-powers involved—are conducted in places devoid of other souls (it’s prominently announced, for example, that the airport has been evacuated). But while other people might not be in danger, your ability to remain interested during the battles could be.
As usual with these Marvel productions, “Civil War” is efficiently made, with technical contributions from Trent Opalach’s cinematography to the visual effects by a small army of artisans topnotch (though the editing by Jeffrey Ford and Matthew Schmidt could have been more ruthless at some points and Henry Jackman’s score could have used an infusion of originality). But while the direction by Anthony and Joe Russo is solid enough in a workmanlike way, except for Holland and Rudd the duo haven’t enticed particularly effective work from the cast. Evans is okay in his customarily impassive fashion, but Downey’s glumness quickly grows boring; it’s as if he’s tiring of the whole Iron Man business, and one can understand why. Most of the others are underused to some degree, though Boseman makes almost as auspicious a debut as Holland, even if a stand-alone Panther film seems a more doubtful proposition. Stan also has a touch of charisma as Barnes, and could easily take on a starring part or a large supporting one in future.
There’s no doubt that the appetite for further installments in the Marvel superhero juggernaut remains very strong. One wonders, however, whether audiences will eventually tire of the endless stream of solo efforts and team-ups for their metahuman stable that the makers have in store, planning as they are to release them like $200 million issues of comic books at regular intervals. (The same question arises concerning Disney’s “Star Wars” project and Warner’s DC Comics franchise.) Still, “Civil War” isn’t likely to break the cycle of mega-hits from this source, even though despite its technical polish, it comes across more as just another assembly-line commercial product than the special event that fans are no doubt hoping for, and a letdown after the first two “Captain America” installments.
As usual with these Marvel superhero movies, there are a couple of teaser trailers embedded in the final credits, so you might want to stick around for them.