If nothing else, Captain America: Civil War stands as something of a corrective to this spring’s other superheroes-bludgeoning-each-other opus, Batman v Superman. While that film was severe and downcast, Civil War is expansive, at times even light. BvS strove to redefine its superheroes to fit newer, darker, borderline-sociopathic molds; Civil War finds conflict in its characters’ more ennobling qualities: Captain America’s idealism, Iron Man’s pragmatism, Black Widow’s resourcefulness. Zack Snyder’s film was stylized to a fault, with its slo-mo shots and pirouetting camera moves; the Russo brothers’ is functional, un-showy — maybe even a little drab. Batman v Superman was larded with ominous aphorisms and loaded dialogue about power and humanity and guilt and loyalty and duty; Civil War is … well, OK, it’s got a ton of those, too.
The story feels similar as well. After a big fight in Lagos leaves civilians dead, the Avengers are left to mull the consequences and collateral damage of their world-saving. Tony Stark, aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), confronted by a mother who lost her son during the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron, tries to get his superhero cohort to join him in signing the Sokovia Accords, which will bring our heroes under the control of an outside governing body. Steve Rogers, aka Captain America (Chris Evans), an earnest believer in American individualism and liberty, bristles at the idea. The heroes start to take sides — Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and War Machine (Don Cheadle) cast their lot with Iron Man, while Falcon (Anthony Mackie) goes with Captain America.
The situation becomes more personal with the bombing of the ceremonial signing of those accords. The culprit appears to be the Winter Soldier, aka Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), who was Steve Rogers’ best friend back in the 1940s but was revealed in the last Captain America movie to be a brainwashed super-soldier working for the bad guys. But the Winter Soldier had started to regain his identity by the finale of that film, and Cap isn’t convinced his bud Bucky would do something like this — and Bucky claims innocence. The bombing also kills the king of the small African nation of Wakanda, prompting a vow of revenge from his son, T’Challa, aka Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman). Cap believes his pal, Iron Man believes the government, Black Panther doesn’t believe anybody and as other heroes join in the fight (most notably, Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man and newly christened Spider-Man Tom Holland), the movie becomes Avengers 3: Avengers v Avengers.
Civil War treats the idea of internecine superhero combat as some kind of amazing novelty, when in fact that’s what they do in so many of the other movies, too. (Remember Hulk v. Thor in Avengers? Ant-Man v. Falcon in Ant-Man?) Still, the climactic battle in Leipzig Airport is Civil War’s high point: fast, inventive and funny. It also finds suspense, and even some pathos, in the idea of superhumans pulling their punches; they’re explicitly trying not to kill one another, and it turns out that’s sort of hard. That airport face-off also highlights the film’s most compelling elements, the newer heroes: Black Panther, with his drive for revenge; Spider-Man, with his eager-beaver witticisms; Ant-Man, with his aw-shucks ordinariness; Falcon, with his jaded sarcasm. At times, I wondered if Civil War might have worked better if it had played out strictly from the perspective of one of them.
But Marvel's schedule calls for a Captain America movie, this one about the collective guilt of the Avengers across all the earlier films. Maybe that’s the problem here: For these characters, this sense of responsibility for the consequences of their actions feels both overdue and out of place. The filmmakers want to bring these costumed fictions into the real world … but it’s all happening in a universe that’s already too invested in the supernatural and the galactic. This is where style might have helped. While the ornate, overbearing aestheticism of Batman v Superman was maybe too much, superhero movies should have visual panache, some sense of otherworldly wonder.
Winter Soldier, also directed by the Russo brothers, managed that by giving us a political thriller that wasn’t afraid to escalate into the realm of exotic childhood fantasy — vast, decades-old conspiracies and surreal images of ginormous heli-carriers doing battle in the skies over Washington, D.C. In trying to ground its characters in something resembling the ordinary, Civil War overcorrects. Gone are the wide-eyed sense of derring-do that characterized the first Captain America movie and the paranoid tension that defined Winter Soldier; there isn’t even the slapstick of Ant-Man or the witty abandon of the better Iron Man films.
But we watch anyway. Why? I’m not sure. Call it the confident caress of corporate continuity. It’s odd to think that a generation of viewers may not remember a time when interlocking superhero epics didn’t command such swathes of the mainstream moviegoing firmament. These films no longer have to delight and surprise us; no, their job now is to manage the brand, not screw anything up too royally and keep us hooked for the next installment. Civil War pulls all that off mostly well. It skips all around the world (Siberia! Lagos! Vienna! London! Leipzig! Queens!), anxiously maneuvering plot points into place, and audiences know to trust that it’ll all add up to something, because these things usually do. But I never found myself genuinely wondering what was going to happen next; the moves are too familiar. Even the big fight, as entertaining as it is, feels like it’s there not because of dramatic inevitability but because somebody behind a desk decided it had to be. It’s just a bunch of stuff.