‘Captain America: Civil War’
Directors: Joe and Anthony Russo
Stars: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr.
2 (out of 5) Globes
There’s some good stuff in “Captain America: Civil War.” That’s what these Marvel things are now: a lot of stuff. Some of the stuff is enjoyable, some of it’s rousing; some of it’s thumb-twiddling, some of it causes migraines. Almost all of it, good or bad or indifferent, is now there simply to keep the perpetual Marvel Cinematic Universe machine moving. The franchise is now Too Big to Fail. There are too many moving parts, too many sequels and spin-offs to set up, to create something like the relatively stripped-down pleasures of the first “Iron Man.” At best they’re an out-of-control monster its many makers can barely control; at worst they’re arrogant, assuming viewers will always show up in droves, no matter how listless or chaotic the entries.
But like we said, the third “Captain America” has some good stuff, if not as much good stuff as outliers like “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Ant-Man.” Where the second “Avengers” was a Michael Bay-style mess of crap comin’ at ya, “Civil War” has a fairly clean emotional undertow. Where both “Avengers” recklessly destroyed cities for our enjoyment, this one — just like the loathed “Batman v Superman,” as it were — focuses on the aftermath and the hundreds, maybe thousands of civilian deaths. There are, once again, too many characters, but they don’t clog the screen at the same time all the time. The story mostly zeroes in on Cap/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), who not so politely disagree on a key point: that the do-gooder Avengers need to be regulated, lest they destroy yet another village in order to save it.
But “Civil War” also has some bad stuff, or at least some stuff that falls short of the franchise’s increasingly unwieldy ambitions. It’s more somber than any Marvel entry, but also more of a drag. Even this comparatively pared-down story is too immense for streamlining, meaning endless expository scenes setting up countless threads that may be addressed here or, likely, a future entry. Every now and then there’s a fight.
It’s not very involving storytelling, and it’s not helped that even the debate that drives the film — and ushers in the civil war that will split the team into two outsized factions — is barely addressed. Rogers simply doesn’t think the Avengers should have governmental oversight, and that’s that. Some team members agree with him, more out of loyalty than the eloquence of his arguments, which he never quite makes. Stark, meanwhile, has good reasons: He’s haunted by the high civilian body count of previous romps. He’s also the character the screenplay comes closest to portraying as a bad guy — apart, that is, from the actual bad guy, who, amusingly, is just some guy played by Daniel Bruhl, out to quietly manipulate the goodies into fighting each other.
It’s not cynical to decipher all this as a mere excuse to get to the film’s centerpiece: a mass Avengers vs. Avengers smackdown on an airport tarmac. It’s almost worth it, too: Returning “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” directors Joe and Anthony Russo have no sense of scale, but they delight in fun pair-ups, pitting dueling abilities for kicky superhero-on-superhero action. Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man shows up for no reason than to be another body on the field, which is good enough. Ditto newbies like Chadwick Boseman’s serious Black Panther and our new Spider-Man (Tom Holland), who turns out to be delightfully gee-whiz, endearingly over-eager to play with the big boys (and two girls).
Holland is charming enough to make us long for the second Spidey reboot — but there we go again. Now 13 titles in to the MCU, we’ve been trained not to look at what’s in front of us but what’s coming next. They’re perfect films for the current pop culture landscape, in which the articles with the biggest hits tend to be about news of films that will be made, not about the films themselves once they’re cobbled together. Not to sound like someone who’s listened to too much Rage Against the Machine, but these movies reflect and perpetuate a dispiriting trend in the entertainment world, turning nerds into corporate tools who angrily defend the brand against anyone who would defy it.
“Civil War” could have been the one to turn the ship around. Sometimes it almost does. The big brawl is essentially comedic — until, of course, it’s not. The climax isn’t another clangy spectacle in which a metropolis is giddily leveled. It's intimate, even borderline scary. But this won’t be the “dark” one. This is no “Game of Thrones” because Marvel isn’t about ruthlessness. Indeed, by the end we’re back on course for the nine other MCU films en route in the next three years alone. Ultimately even the stuff that thrilled us or emotionally engaged us or maybe even provoked deeper thought turns out to be just that: stuff.