The world is a different place than it was eight years ago, when Iron Man launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s unprecedented ascendance to critical and commercial acclaim. Superhero movies, once seen as a pariah on the medium, have become the main cash cow for major studios. And we’re way past the point of making movies starring the obvious choices of Superman, Batman, Spider-Man and the X-Men, with their own self-contained stories. (Thor, of all people, is on the verge of seeing his third film). And as if to flaunt its box office clout, Marvel has released Captain America: Civil War, which stars virtually every character in the MCU who needs no introduction. As directors Joe and Anthony Russo correctly assume, we already know and care who these people are.
It’s fascinating from an anthropological perspective that Marvel was able to accomplish this on its own terms, but is the movie any good? That depends on how frustrated you were by the loose ends of Age of Ultron, of which there were many. The name implies a Cap-centric story with the assistance of—and opposition from—the usual suspects, but Civil War is, to its own detriment, more interested in the franchise at large than its own title character, setting up backstories for newcomers (Black Panther, Spider-Man) while giving MCU mainstays convenient reasons to be absent in future installments in case the actors aren’t available, as if the studio chiefs went out of their way to wrap up loose threads ahead of the imminent Phase Three.
That’s why this movie exists first and foremost, and calling it a Captain America movie feels deceptive after the staggeringly high quality of Winter Soldier. The narrative extends more from Cap’s storyline than any others—the complicated legacy of Bucky Barnes and the Winter Soldier program intersects with ongoing doubts as to the ability of the Avengers to act on the world’s behalf with no accountability—but the film has no life of its own. In terms of substance, this is an extended subplot of Ultron.
But is it any fun? You bet it is. Unlike Batman v Superman, the titular conflict in Civil War begins quickly and lasts the entire movie, leading to more than a few spectacular action sequences (and a couple of iffy ones), which are alternately lighthearted and super serious. The much-advertised airport fight does not disappoint, and aside from an infuriating shaky-cam conflict at the beginning, everything is clean, bright and a delight to watch. If someone were to edit out all of the plot to leave only action sequences, it could pass as a PG-13 reimagining of The Raid.
Captain America: Civil War is neither a massive success nor a total disaster, despite its hyperbolic early press. The meteoric rise of this brand hasn’t yet led to a downward turn, but it definitely plateaus with this latest installment, no better or worse than its predecessors. Granted, a so-so entry in the MCU is far and away better than most blockbusters, but it’s no less obvious when they’re phoning it in.
Captain America: Civil War PG-13, 147 minutes
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