Another year, another Marvel movie. We're avowed fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, don't get us wrong, but it can be exhausting to see trailer after trailer for the next in a never-ending series of galaxy-spanning adventures. The bubble has to pop at some point, right? If so, it won't pop in 2016.
Captain America: Civil War doesn't come with the epic overtones of The Avengers or the unvarnished fun of Guardians of the Galaxy, but it has brought the feel of a comic book onto the big screen better than any of its predecessors. When we look back at the high-water mark of Marvel Studios movies, when they told the best story with the finest actors and actresses at the most opportune time, this might be it.
The plot practically demands knowledge of every Marvel movie to date: after a face-off in Nigeria ends with an Avengers-caused explosion that kills several Wakanadan citizens (Wakanda being a fictional African country on Marvel's version of Earth), Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr., duh) decides to abide by a new worldwide accord that'll place the Avengers under the United Nations' purview. Steve Rogers, also known as Captain America, disagrees; when his old friend Bucky Barnes, also known as the Winter Soldier, comes into the crosshairs of the government (and, by proxy, the Avengers) he has to officially choose a side. Unsurprisingly, but fortunately for the title of the movie, he chooses "war."
Pretty much everyone you remember is along for the ride in some capacity: Don Cheadle's War Machine, Elizabeth Olsen's Scarlet Witch, Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye, Paul Bettany's Vision, Anthony Mackie's Falcon, even Paul Rudd's Ant-Man. And introduced with vigor are two of the brightest additions Marvel has provided in a while: Tom Holland's Spider-Man (who'll be inhabiting a slightly shared cinematic world of his own going forward) and Chadwick Boseman's Black Panther.
It's not surprising that Spider-Man brings the happy, especially in his new teenage iteration; what's great is Black Panther is arguably the movie's best character. Stoic, confident, fueled by revenge but bound by Wakandan tradition and his own moral code: there couldn't be a better setup for his upcoming solo movie helmed by Creed director Ryan Coogler.
Speaking of directors, how about a hand for Joe and Anthony Russo? As in The Winter Soldier, their action scenes still feel like they’re moving at 1.5x speed; it’s more appropriate here, however, when the story is less about espionage and government intrigue and more about a dozen costumed dudes and dudettes punching each other. And beyond the fighting, they do an excellent job of balancing the bevy of superheroes at their control. Everyone gets an amusing quip, or a cool fight scene, and the new characters are seamlessly integrated into the story. Even Daniel Brühl’s Zemo, the ostensible bad guy, finds his place without interfering in a larger fight he couldn’t possibly win.
While two hours and 27 minutes is way too long for anything that isn’t The Godfather, the brothers keep it from turning into a Zack Snyder-esque interminable slog. Then again, the movie essentially exists for two tremendous scenes: a massive Avenger-versus-Avenger rumble at Leipzig/Halle Airport and a Rogers-Bucky-Stark scuffle in Siberia that was plastered all over the trailers.
The former specifically harkens back to the Avengers-fight-robots mayhem of Avengers: Age of Ultron, which was visually appealing but lacked emotional resonance; you know a robot isn’t going to kill an Avenger (or, at least, one you care about). But here, even with the clever insinuation that most Avengers are pulling punches so as to avoid hurting their friends, you can’t help but get swept up in the excitement of Hawkeye versus Black Widow, Ant-Man versus Iron Man, Spider-Man versus Captain America.
It also temporarily solves the issue with most comic book movies thus far: lackluster villains, especially when battling a superhero team. In the comics, Doctor Doom is a menacing presence with smarts to spare; on screen, why can’t Mr. Fantastic just wrap him up so The Thing can smash his face in? There’s less time for the subtle nuances, let alone the built-up histories, that make the bad guys special. So why not have the heroes fight each other?
Batman v Superman had the same idea, just much worse execution. Thanks to Marvel’s exceptional world-building, and a bevy of colorful good guys at their disposal, watching them fly around and use their powers is delightful. Not to mention the performers behind the masks and costumes: genuinely funny exchanges between Downey/Rudd and Holland/Mackie are reminders why DC’s gritty, dark atmosphere doesn’t hit home. We want to enjoy these movies, not brood along with Batman and friends. Marvel has never lost sight of that, which allows Civil War to dip between serious (or at least faux-serious) and comedic with ease.
It also serves all the purposes Ultron failed to accomplish, making up for that forgettable foray into scary Internet robots. Marvel’s strategy so far has been “several one-off adventures followed by a satisfying team-up,” but Ultron‘s stakes were disappointingly low. In Civil War, although the consequences don’t exactly match the buildup of Earth’s dozen mightiest heroes doing battle, all of our favorites come together for an enjoyable romp with just enough ramifications to make it count. The bubble’s going to burst someday, but for now this crazy universe keeps finding its way back to the light.