A summer pop pleasure machine par excellence has just stormed into theaters and surprise, surprise, it’s less a Captain America flick than it is an Avengers Assemble movie—or, if you like, Iron Man 4.
Massive, overstuffed, overlong and yet fleet-footed, witty and terrifically entertaining, Captain America: Civil War gathers almost the whole superhero clan and throws in some new additions. But at heart, it basically pits against each other the two of most interesting characters—Cap and Iron Man—of Marvel’s smartest franchise.
With Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr. in very good form) guilt-ridden over having created Ultron and now second-in-command to Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, who owns the role), the plot shifts into overdrive during a battle in which Captain America and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen, finally settling into the role) cause massive collateral damage and equally massive political blowback. What—you thought that when superhero vigilantes pummel each other, topple skyscrapers, turn fleets of cars into fireballs and tear up streets, all the innocents get home in time to binge-watch Marvel’s Jessica Jones?
So the Secretary of State (William Hurt, bewigged and bearded) lectures the Avengers on why they need to be placed under the thumb of the United Nations. The split between those who agree with the restrictions and those who don’t not only makes for an interesting set of moral and ideological dilemmas; it also incites a screentime-gobbling series of epic mano-a-mano battles among the superheroes.
All of these set pieces are shot in a hyper-speeded up style that’s pulse-pounding at first but enervating by the finale. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, reunited after their paranoia-filled Captain America: Winter Soldier, are on their game here. But although the movie looks expensive, it lacks a distinct visual style, and lots of it—especially in 3D—looks muddy and undistinguished.
The things that make Civil War soar are the jokes and the jock-y one-upmanship of the team. Anthony Mackie (Falcon), Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and Tom Holland, in a promising debut as Spider-Man, get the best of the wisecracks and deliver their one-liners with style and charm.
Carrying off the gravitas are Chadwick Boseman as an African president who sidelines as Black Panther, Sebastian Stan as Steve Roger’s old buddy-turned-killing-machine Winter Soldier and silky Continental villain Daniel Bruhl. These three stand out in a movie full of sound, fury and rushing around but with very little for the protagonists to actually do.
The Avengers’ ranks keep swelling, but their reason for being keeps dwindling—and that’s a problem for Marvel and the movie. So while Captain America: Civil War is big, big fun, it’s not quite the wow it might have been.