Consider this the summer of superhero discontent.
First came “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” with the twin titans of the DC Comics universe having at each other like enraged cage fighters.
Now it’s Marvel’s turn, and “Captain America: Civil War” doesn’t hesitate to amp up the volume.
Not for this group the existential loneliness of single combat. The Avengers are split asunder, with two six-person teams, one lead by Captain America, the other by Iron Man, facing off Stanley Cup playoff style. In fact, so many players go at it hammer and tongs it’s at moments hard to tell them apart, which is not necessarily a good thing.
It’s not that “Civil War,” directed by Anthony and Joe Russo and written by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely, doesn’t eventually win you over, doesn’t turn your frustration into grudging respect. But it turns out to be a longer slog than you may anticipate unless you are a Marvel true believer who lives and breathes these characters’ every quirk and qualm.
For, paradoxically, the more the interconnectedness of Marvel films increases at warp speed (“Civil War” is described with a straight face as “the first film in Phase 3 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe,” MCU for short), the more insular they become. Despite their mushrooming popularity — 12 consecutive Marvel films and counting have debuted at the No. 1 spot in U.S. box office — they are becoming increasingly exclusionary, making it difficult for random first-time viewers, if such people still exist, to come in off the street and fully enjoy them.
Yes, the broad outlines of “Civil War” are knowable even from the title, but you can’t go five minutes in the film without seeing something that plays better the more of these you’ve seen, or without feeling you’re missing the joke because your Marvel memory is not as fresh as it might be.
So if you don’t know the origins of the villain Crossbones (Frank Grillo), his key role in the film’s opening feels confusing, and if you don’t recognize that Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) is the same person as Gen. Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross of “The Incredible Hulk,” you are not getting full value for his moment.
Most critically, if you don’t know the intricacies of the complicated history between Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and his World War II buddy James “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan) as revealed in the previous “Captain America: The First Avenger” and “Captain America: Winter Soldier,” critical aspects of this film’s plot will be lost to you.
With so many characters to care about and look after, with so many personality trait boxes to check off, “Civil War” has to fight hard not to seem as pro forma overall as the cameo moment for Marvel’s spry eminence grise Stan Lee inevitably does.
All this time and energy spent in these prescribed pursuits sometimes means that things that are truly important, like convincing us that the Captain America/Iron Man split is more than a convenient plot contrivance, don’t get the attention they need.
Whatever flaws “Batman v Superman” had, Ben Affleck’s atavistic performance as the Dark Knight left you without the smallest doubt that he loathed the Krypton native. “Civil War” does eventually get to that point with Captain America and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), but it frankly takes a shrewd Hail Mary plot twist far into the 2-hour, 27-minute running time to make it happen.
Like “Batman v Superman,” “Captain America” shows us early on an example of collateral damage by the good guys as the Avengers end up inflicting casualties on the unsuspecting civilians of Lagos, Nigeria, (magically re-created on an Atlanta sound stage) while chasing a determined evildoer.
After a dressing down by the aggrieved mother (Alfre Woodard, effective even in cameo) of a dead innocent, Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man, starts to agree with the secretary of state and 116 other nations that to avoid charges of vigilante behavior the Avengers must sign the Sokovia Accords (named after the fictional city that got pulverized during a superhero intervention in “Avengers: Age of Ultron”) and agree not to spring into action unless a U.N. panel says it’s OK.
This does not sit well with the good Captain, born into a more straightforward era, who feels signing would be a dereliction of his patriotic duty. This is the issue that causes the Civil War with, for those who are keeping score, Falcon, Ant-Man, Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch and Winter Soldier teaming up with Cap and Black Widow, War Machine, the newly introduced Black Panther, Vision and Spider-Man on Iron Man’s side. (Thor and the Hulk, having apparently picked a good time to take vacations, are not involved.)
Fortunately, Zemo, “Civil War’s” main villain played by the fine German actor Daniel Bruhl, is quite an interesting character. It is Zemo we see as the film begins attempting to reactivate the golem-like Winter Soldier for his own nefarious purposes.
Of equal interest are the newest additions to the Avengers canon, each of whom brings some welcome spice to the proceedings. Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man is amusingly light on his feet, Chadwick Boseman’s dedicated Black Panther is arresting even though he’s around mainly to promote his own upcoming feature, and, most intriguing of all, is the presence of Tom Holland’s new iteration of Spider-Man, a character whose appearance involved such complex negotiations between Disney and rival studio Sony they put the Sokovia Accords to shame.
On the plus side, as has become the norm with Marvel films, the cost-the-earth action stunts are the best money can buy, and “Captain America: Civil War” finally works its will on us, wearing us down with the weight of its self-importance as much as anything else. If you live and breathe Marvel, this is one of the MCU’s stronger offerings. If you are a spy coming in from the cold, the answer is not so clear.
‘CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR’
MPAA rating: PG-13, for extended sequences of violence, action and mayhem.
Running time: 2 hours, 27 minutes.
Playing: In general release.
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