May has arrived in 2016 and with it, as is tradition, the opening salvo of the summer movie season (sorry, eventual footnote to history Batman v. Superman, you have failed in your attempt to push up the calendar). It shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone that juggernaut of juggernauts Disney has claimed the first weekend of the season, as just as Will Smith once owned Independence Day weekend, so to does the superhero movie own the month of May. And Disney has pulled out all the stops, siccing its Marvel Studios pop cultural phenomenon on the public with Captain America: Civil War. Siblings Joe and Anthony Russo have returned to the directors’ chair after their successful superhero debut Captain America: The Winter Soldier, now with a much wider swath of characters to litter their sandbox. With the next two Avengers films in their sights, the Brothers Russo have become Kevin Feige’s flagship creative team. But can they repeat the success of Cap 2, or are they simply a flash in the pan?
The Civil War subtitle is of course a reference to the 2006 comic crossover event that pitted hero against hero in a battle of ideologies. The flashpoint for that Civil War was an accidental explosion tangentially caused by the goofy superhero Speedball that resulted in the death of innocents and a crackdown by the government. In the film version, Speedball is replaced by the young, unstable Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), whose attempt to battle the villain Crossbones (Frank Grillo) leads to the very public destruction of property and many casualties. This is enough to get the UN involved, represented by firebrand Thunderbolt Ross (WIlliam Hurt, singlehandedly reminding the world that The Incredible Hulk actually existed). In part due to pressure from the recency of reclusive African state Wakanda, the world’s nations set out to curtail the powers of these superheroes turned vigilantes to add some accountability to the mix. The likes of Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), War Machine (Don Cheadle) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson) agree with the plan, dubbed the Sokovia Accords after the country was nearly razed to the ground during the events of The Avengers: Age of Ultron, while Captain America (Chris Evans) and Falcon (Anthony Mackie) are less keen on governmental oversight. When the ratification ceremony appears to be bombed by the Winter Soldier, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), the young Wakandan T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) vows revenge, forcing Cap, Bucky and Falcon on the run. And in the middle of it all, a mysterious psychiatrist (Daneil Bruhl) seems particularly interested in Bucky and his past.
Captain America: Civil War may not carry the Avengers moniker, but it feels just as big, if not bigger, than those keystone films. The Russos, aided by a script from Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (the writes of both previous Captain America films), have the unenviable task of corralling a mammoth cast (that recap paragraph didn’t even have room to mention Paul Bettany’s Vision, Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye, Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man or the debuting Tom Holland, bringing Spider-Man into the main Marvel Cinematic Universe) and steering them through a twisty narrative chock full of multiple belligerents coming from all angles. It’s exceedingly impressive, then, how airy it all feels in action. Avengers: Age of Ultron was bogged down by the weight of the franchises it had to support and launch, but this film feels remarkably less self-serious, even with a larger cast and more personal stakes. The Marvel Cinematic Universe films have always prided themselves on the charm and fun of their interpersonal relationships, and the dialogue here crackles, making its standard superhero bulging runtime almost sprint by. More important than anything, though, is the need for the central conflict, represented by the battle between freedom and control, between justice and authority, between Captain America and Iron Man, to feel genuine and earned. Luckily, for the most part, Captain America: Civil War gets it right. The motivations of Cap and Iron Man logically follow from their personalities, and the sides chosen by the rest of the heroes fall in line with what would happen based on previous actions. Boseman and Holland bring enough new blood into the mix to keep it fresh (as well as giving Marvel ample marketing opportunities for future projects), and everyone has enough fun to avoid being crushed by the profundity of it all.
Truly, there are only a few moments where Captain America: Civil War trips over its own feet. While the giant cast is generally well served, throwing in a character like Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) seems like little more than setup for the future, with the character never finding a way to justify why he’s in the scenes he’s in. Paul Rudd also feels slightly off when fully integrated with the rest of the Avengers. I wasn’t in love with Ant-Man, and his delivery feels like it’s a half a step slower than everyone else’s, creating kind of a logy energy compared to the rest of the cast. The Russos also struggle a bit with some of the action sequences, over-relying on disorienting quick cuts and Paul Greengrass shaky cam that obscures the power of movement. Perhaps most worrying, though, is the Marvel villain curse rearing its head once again. Daniel Bruhl is a tremendous actor, and he does more than adequate work as Zemo, but his motivations are murky and his actions logically questionable, making him yet another in a long line of uninspired villains, taking a few too many logical leaps in the third act to feel genuine.
While such trifles could be enough to upset the balance as happened in Ant-Man or Avengers: Age of Ultron or the unmitigated disaster that was Thor: The Dark World, it’s a testament to the cast and the script that Captain America: Civil War can so effortlessly burst through its niggles like Cap launching himself shield first through a brick wall like it’s tissue paper. These Marvel films have a pretty serious glass ceiling, whether it’s because of their unrelenting desire to focus more on what is to come than what is currently happening, the samey directorial styles and color palettes or the thematic foundation rarely taking any real chances, but it is refreshing to see a film flirt with breaking through, even if it falls short doing so. This is thrilling, confident and undeniably entertaining cinema, and that counts for more than a little in today’s blockbuster landscape. The summer has arrived indeed.