Marvel Entree: Brisk, adult-minded, entertaining "Civil War" a great start to Marvel's Phase 3

Captain America: Civil War (2016)
146 min., rated PG-13.

Finally, audiences can get to the entree that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been leading up to after all the solo superhero movies. The in-fighting between the Avengers has always been as much of a challenge as fighting against a villain. “Captain America: Civil War” now poses an actual war in the family, and without actually being an official “Avengers” sequel—Thor and Bruce Banner/Hulk take time off here—this is more of a turning point than “Avengers: Age of Ultron” had the chance to be with a more complete story where the conflict comes organically and the emotions feel real and earned. Brisk, consistently entertaining and more adult than cartoonish, “Captain America: Civil War” is Marvel’s Phase Three getting off to an auspicious beginning.

Seeking a biological weapon, Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and company stop Brock Rumlow/Crossbones (Frank Grillo) in Lagos, Nigeria, but there is some collateral damage caused by the telekinetic Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). From there, U.S. Secretary of State “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt) introduces a regulation agreement called the Sokovia Accords to keep a watchful eye on the Avengers, or else retirement could come early. Distraught by the encounter of a mother (Alfred Woodard) of a son whose life was taken in the Avenger’s destruction in the Eastern European attack, Tony trusts the government’s decision. A division soon forms once Steve’s brainwashed buddy Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), now Hydra’s Winter Soldier, is accused of a terrorist act at the UN Accords meeting in Vienna that kills Wakanda’s King T’Chaka (John Kani). On Cap’s side are Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Wanda, and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), who enlists the help of Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), while Lieutenant James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle), Black Widow, Vision (Paul Bettany) are Iron man’s allies, as well as eager-beaver teen Peter Parker (Tom Holland) and the vengeful Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman). Meanwhile, our heroes will have to also face an intelligent foe, Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl), who’s pulling all the strings.

Returning after 2014’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” directors Anthony and Joe Russo and screenwriters Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely pull off the tricky balancing act of when to be light and when to be dark, knowing how to juggle an excellent roster of characters we’ve already met in the MCU and introducing a few new supporting players, and checking off all the studio boxes in satisfying fashion. Following the Avengers’ destruction in New York (“The Avengers”) and then in the fictional Sokovia (“Avengers: Age of Ultron”), this film, in a change of pace, also smartly acknowledges and directly addresses the unnecessary destruction rather than exploiting post-9/11 imagery. The consequences are real and there is actual dramatic weight, even when there are exhilarating action set-pieces to be had. For those who want something to ponder afterward, there’s enough here. It’s hard to choose an actual side to get behind because the film has a bit of grey; both Captain America and Iron Man feel they are doing what’s right and they have their personal reasons. For those who just want to be entertained for 146 minutes, it has that in spades, as well. 

These movies have become ensemble pieces, and miraculously, no one feels like a mere cog in the machine yet, as everyone gets a little time to shine. Robert Downey Jr. just keeps springing right back into the glib Tony Stark, but luckily, he gets to add more devastation and vengeful rage to the mix here. Hats off to the pretty seamless de-aging effect of Tony, taking Downey Jr. back to his “Chances Are” days, and the “Only You” reunion he has with Marisa Tomei as Aunt May. From 2011’s “Captain America: The First Avenger” to now, Chris Evans has fully come into his own as Steve Rogers, sticking to his guns and given a point-of-view. Scarlett Johansson is back in her kick-ass glory Natasha, who’s put in a tricky position in having alliances with both Tony and Steve. No longer a henchwoman for Ultron, Elizabeth Olsen’s mind-controlling Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch is less of the afterthought she was in “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” As Wanda is placed on house arrest after the unfortunate death toll in Lagos, she and Paul Bettany’s Vision also share a sweet, quiet character moment of compassion in the kitchen before taking different sides. Room is splendidly made for the little guys in the form of Paul Rudd, who brings the same affable goofiness he did to his solo vehicle as Ant-Man, and Chadwick Boseman, very sympathetic as T’Challa and impressively filling out the suit as Black Panther. The film’s MVP, though, is Tom Holland (2012’s “The Impossible”), who’s terrific in putting his own fun, perfectly boyish, infectiously chatty stamp on the web-head.

Taking itself seriously without being self-serious and timing its humor perfectly, “Captain America: Civil War” is this year’s preferable, adroitly executed cross-over feud among superheroes. As any film should, it properly meets expectations on the side of quality and is still able to surprise. For a nearly two-and-a-half hour film jam-packed with characters, the film certainly has a lot going on, but it somehow avoids feeling bloated with the Russo brothers’ expert pacing. The comedy is never overplayed and more character-centric, as if it’s actually emerging from the characters’ mouths rather than the screenwriters. The action is more than glossy spectacle and never loses sight of the stakes at hand. A rooftop fight that extends to a car chase is a major highlight, and the pivotal showdown on an airplane tarmac is outright fun, pulling out all the stops and going on just long enough. Fight choreography is often jaw-dropping, adding even more of a brutal intensity than what these directors and cinematographer Trent Opaloch brought in “The Winter Soldier.” The Russo brothers are on such a roll that if they keep it up for “Infinity War,” superhero fatigue will cease to exist.

Grade: B +