Oh, Cap. You’re as basic and predictable as a tank top during spring break. But like Gatsby before you, when you’re surrounded by people who are actually interesting, you can put on a helluva show.
This has never been more true than in Captain America: Civil War, a rock-’em-sock-’em stand-off that features no fewer than four massive fights and, even at 146 minutes, feels gargantuan but never over-stuffed. It’s a Captain America movie, yes, but it’s more about the struggle between consent and dissent, and how unlikely it is for a group of superheroes to remain united. It is, in short, the Avengers sequel that Age of Ultron just wasn’t.
And that’s not a dig at Joss Whedon’s movie, which was enjoyable, flaws and all. Ultron just focused too much on, well, Ultron. The need to set up and knock down a big bad in one movie sucked all the narrative air out of the room, and sacrificed time that could have been spent hanging out with the Avengers—which is the reason we go to Marvel movies in the first place. Civil War, on the other hand, backgrounds the bad guy (more on him later), and lets its Avengers fight amongst themselves.
But why the Civil War? Why must friends come to fisticuffs? Well, it turns out that superheroes—as was also pointed out in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice—often end up causing almost as much death and destruction as they’re trying to prevent. The solution, as proposed by the United Nations, is the Avengers signing the Sokovia Accords, a treaty drawn up following the events in Ultron. Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), a military man who remembers Hitler’s reich as if it were yesterday (because for him it pretty much was), is loath to put their power in the hands of a government. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) thinks that unchecked power leaves even more people at risk. They’re both kind of right, and the rest of their coterie are forced to choose sides.
We won’t reveal the final teams here (though trailers have largely given those away already), but watching the Avengers assemble is the beauty of Civil War. (And just to avoid ticking anyone off, there are minor spoilers ahead. You’ve been warned.) Knowing that Joe and Anthony Russo’s movie would be bringing in new MCU heroes T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland), we wondered how it would affect the pacing; thankfully, things stay brisk, even while also mixing in old faces (Black Widow, Hawkeye, Falcon, War Machine) and new(ish) ones (Scarlet Witch, Vision, Ant-Man). There are What It All Means conversations, but they’re not belabored—and really, what’s wrong with spending a little time with Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) in street clothes?
In many ways, the catalyst for Cap’s opposition to the Accords is the return of his old friend Bucky (Sebastian Stan). The Winter Soldier may or may not have done a Very Bad Thing, but Cap’s belief that a good person remains inside his brainwashed mind—and that authority figures are wrong about him—fuel his desire to not sign the Accords. And when the mysterious Zemo (Daniel Brühl) shows up and reactivates Bucky’s dormant assassin mode, Cap is forced to protect his old friend instead of his new ones. The draw here isn’t Steve Rogers’ stance—it’s how people respond to his unshakeable belief. (See: Bucky asking—rightfully—if he’s actually worth all the trouble, and/or Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow playing double-agent on both teams.)
The Captain America movies have always been at some level about bureaucracy, about the briefings and string-pullings taking place behind the alien invasions and evil AI. It’s the level of the Marvel universe that lives somewhere between Jessica Jones dealing with cops in Hell’s Kitchen and Gamora scheduling a meeting with Thanos. Politics might seem like a boring thing to build a franchise on, but when the Big Conversations are interspersed with set pieces that are a dozen heroes deep—and when one of your politicians is Black Panther—it ain’t so bad.
It’s that balance of slugfest and gabfest that ends up being Civil War’s greatest strength. In Marvel’s movie universe Steve Rogers is both leader and blank slate. When Jay Gatsby threw parties, the point was that everyone else had a good time. Much like Cap, he always had an agenda and knew everything that was going on, but the most interesting thing about him was the people he brought together. Captain America movies are like those parties—the conversation is thrilling, and you never know when a fight is going to break out.