I don't know what it is about the "Captain America" series that makes it such a good platform for these more complicated, emotionally fraught Marvel movies. In the previous installment, "The Winter Soldier," the darker implications of the SHIELD peacekeeping force were raised and dealt with, eventually resulting in the organization's dismantling. In "Civil War," the series turns its sights on the Avengers, pointing out that a group of super-powered heroes operating with no checks on their power may be an equally bad idea.
After the efforts of the Avengers lead to civilian deaths in Nigeria, they're asked to place themselves under the supervision of the UN. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is for this, believing that the group needs oversight. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is against it, worried that the move will mire them in politics and remove necessary autonomy. However, matters really come to a head when Rogers' brainwashed old pal Bucky (Sebastian Stan), now the assassin The Winter Soldier, is the prime suspect after a major terror attack. Steve believes that he's innocent and takes measures to protect him. Tony wants to bring him in. The two end up pitted against each other with the other Avengers having to choose sides, including Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Vision (Paul Bettany), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). And if that wasn't enough players, newcomers Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), and a kid from Queens calling himself Spider-man (Tom Holland) also join the fray.
After the massive, headache-inducing crush of "Age of Ultron," which seemed overwhelmed by its large cast and many story obligations, it seems miraculous that "Civil War" manages to cover so much ground in one movie. First, there's the fallout between Tony and Steve that leads to the splitting of the Avengers. Then, there are the introductions of Black Panther and the new Spider-man, setting them up for later solo movies. And somehow the movie also manages to check in with everyone else, from Peggy Carter to Colonel Ross from "The Incredible Hulk " (Hi, William Hurt!) and everyone in between. And I haven't even mentioned the villain, Helmut Zemo (Daniel Bruhl), who is an absolutely fantastic character and may be the best Marvel antagonist to date. Clearly there was some paring down and weeding out of unnecessarily storylines - Thor and the Hulk are benched for this outing - but the sheer logistics of "Civil War" are mighty impressive.
A big reason for this is that "Civil War" is a very different type of movie from "Ultron," which was a typical big summer movie that often felt like it was built around giant action set pieces. The characters in "Civil War" are in political thriller territory, and they talk. They talk constantly, seriously, and about meaningful subjects. One of the major themes here is responsibility. Tony and Steve have to face up to all the negative repercussions of their crimefighting that have built up over the past several movies. Big questions are asked that the series has been avoiding for years - who should be held responsible for all the collateral damage? Why should they be trusted to act when they keep breaking the rules? What about their own biases and weaknesses? The two men deal with this in different ways, and the nice thing is that neither of them are wrong. And the film is much stronger because it builds the action on these character dynamics instead of some external threat. The film actually subverts itself in a few ways, by upending the usual Marvel formula and delivering a remarkably well-considered, ambiguous ending.
And, though it has its share of chases and fights, this feels like a significantly toned down Marvel film as far as action is concerned. There are two big set pieces, but they're much, much smaller scale than the climaxes of either "Avengers" film. The big airport sequence where twelve superhero characters get into a massive brawl, is a lot of fun and wonderfully executed. However, that takes place in the second act, and I really appreciated that the finale turns out to be a much more personal one for everyone involved. Without the constant pile-up of action sequences, there's some breathing room for the actors to give real performances. There's time for us get to know Boseman's intriguing Black Panther and Holland's wet-behind-the-ears Spidey - already nicely distinguished from the previous versions. There's room for Falcon and Bucky to really banter instead of just throwing out one-liners. There's room for the Ant-Man appearance to be more than a cameo. There's time to actually set up all the pieces that lead up to the ending fight and the resulting fallout.
I have my usual complaints. Bucky is simply not a good character, and my indifference to what happened to him impacted my investment in what was happening on a larger scale. Though the Russo brothers are a vast improvement over Joss Whedon in the directing department, they don't do much that's visually interesting beyond standard spectacle. And there's no way, with a cast this size, that the movie doesn't feel cluttered and overly busy in the certain spots. I should also note that this seems to finally be the point where Marvel has given up trying to offer any help to newcomers, and just assumes you're caught up on the previous films.
"Civil War" works better than I ever could have hoped, and it actually makes me like "Ultron" a bit better in hindsight because it solves many of the earlier movie's problems. However, there are still some lingering issues of concern. I'll talk about those later in the summer in a spoiler post.