3 stars (out of 4)
Psst … Want to know who wins the epic battle among the Avengers?
We all do.
Rollicking and action-packed, Captain America: Civil War (out May 6) is a comic book extravaganza that lives up to the hype. The characters are on point. The plot doesn't require a doctorate degree. At 147 minutes, it manages to move (fairly) briskly. Smart humor is peppered throughout. All right, let’s just spell it out: This movie course-corrects nearly everything Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice got wrong.
Perhaps its most impressive accomplishment is that despite a cast full of Marvel favorites, Captain America isn't just the title character in name only. Chris Evans’ decidedly square superhero, a former World War II soldier programmed by the government to be an indestructible figure, still feels like an outsider even as he dons the red, white and blue. He’s also seething that his ol’ Brooklyn buddy, James “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan), was brainwashed to be an assassin. The character carries that emotional baggage as the movie lands in Lagos, Nigeria — where he and his cohorts are on a mission to smoke out some guys up to no good. But one mercenary's mere mention of Bucky sends the Captain into a bone-crunching rage. Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) uses her mystical hocus pocus to fly the villain into a building, and, well, this all ends very badly for many innocent civilians.
The secretary of state arrives at the Avengers headquarters with a proposal: From now on, the U.S. government will call the shots on the superheroes' employment. In order to cut down on the global destruction, the various caped crusaders will no longer be free to roam the world to unleash their powers. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is on board with the plan because, as he puts it, “we need to be put in check.” Steely Natasha Romanov/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) sides with him. But Steve Rogers/Captain America is finished following orders and refuses to sign.
A moral disagreement explodes into a bitter feud. And after Bucky is punished for a crime he didn’t commit, Captain America goes rogue. Sure, he has trusty Falcon (Anthony Mackie) as a confidant, and Agent 13 (Emily VanCamp) returns to bat her eyes at him, but the Captain is essentially alone. Screw the rules and the hyper-verbal Tony Stark — the vet is determined to hunt down the man responsible for turning Bucky into an evil Winter Soldier.
Perhaps you wouldn’t expect such psychologically loaded drama from a Marvel flick. After all, Christopher Nolan isn’t in the director’s chair and creator Stan Lee makes his requisite cheesy cameo. Putting the characters out of costume for a few key scenes helps the cause. With all the loud bells and whistles in these Avengers movies, sometimes we forget that esteemed actors such as Downey, Johansson, Olsen, Mackie, Don Cheadle (War Machine) and Paul Bettany (Vision) are driving the story. Maybe someday they can all reunite on screen in a movie under a $100 million budget.
Fans will also get a kick out of watching familiar faces emerge and pick a team. The retired Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) gets drawn back in and promptly joins Cap's fight club. Falcon also reins in that pesky outlaw Ant-Man (Paul Rudd). Meanwhile, an intriguing new character named Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) unites with Iron Man because he believes Bucky is responsible for his father’s death.
And a teenager nearly upstages them all! In the most amusing scene, Stark shows up in a Queens living room to recruit a wide-eyed, web-slinging teen named Peter Parker (Tom Holland). Yeah, yeah, yeah: Yet another Spider-Man is about as necessary as another Kardashian reality show. But in his tiny role, Holland is charmingly adorkable. (And as a special bonus, Downey gets to share screen time with Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May. Assume this is as close as we’re going to get to a sequel to the underrated 1994 rom-com Only You.)
Just don’t try to make sense of why, say, Scarlet Witch aligns with Captain America or why Black Widow scraps her alliance with the former soldier and stands by Iron Man. Snappy punchlines asides, many of the characters’ rationales are murky at best. For that matter, Iron Man working so closely with the government goes against his rakish, devil-may-care M.O. These inconsistent qualities may prove bothersome for comic book aficionados and fans of the franchise.
The result of all this infighting is a bone-crunching and satisfying war in which every superhero has a moment to shine. (Jokes one, "Everyone's got a gimmick now!") Indeed, it’s a remarkable feat that the movie rarely feels overstuffed with characters and plots. Even the chief villain, Daniel Bruhl’s Helmut Zero, is quietly thoughtful yet forceful. He could teach Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor a lesson in how to underplay.
You don’t have to take a side, though. There’s no right or wrong or even a lame cop-out ending in which everyone agrees to get along and sing an all-star version of "Kumbaya." Just root for both teams and enjoy.
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