The most impressive superpower on display in “Captain America: Civil War” isn’t Tony Stark flying in a tin suit or Steve Rogers throwing a hefty shield like a Frisbee. It’s the whole team’s ability to give an escapist comic book movie an intelligent sense of connection to life in the modern world.
The 13th film in the eight-year-old Disney/Marvel Cinematic Universe is straight-up entertainment and a cautionary tale.
Echoing their paranoid political thriller approach in 2014’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” directors Anthony and Joe Russo throw a wrench into every received convention we expect from genre movies. This follow-up digs further into security procedures that often feel more invasive than protective.
Here the vainglorious Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and true-blue Rogers (Chris Evans), who have long had a conflicted relationship, butt heads and every other body part.
In his previous outing, Stark helped the Avengers defeat the monstrous Ultron, decimating the European nation of Sokovia in the process. A new defense mission bringing trainee Avengers Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) to Africa triggers another collateral body count. The ongoing costs of victory throw our heroes into debate about the uses of power as the means to an uncertain end.
His conscience dirtied, Stark supports a global initiative to place superpowered vigilantes under international control. Rogers refuses to abide by an agreement submitting the squad to dubious authorities. The longtime allies each draw rival factions into the ethical showdown.
It grows from debate to pitched battle when Bucky “The Winter Soldier” Barnes (Sebastian Stan), once a brainwashed secret soldier for evildoers, is accused of fallout fatalities linked to the Avengers. He claims he’s not guilty and Cap, who has been his friend since World War II, believes him.
The story arc makes both sides collide in a battle royal that is both a critique and a celebration of highly caffeinated bravado.
Here the unbelievably precise action choreography is not used to showcase masculine aggression, not entirely. The film makes Captain America — a moral icon of America’s last good war — a hero of calmer times, its title character quite deliberately. Analogies to social issues have been a hallmark of Marvel’s imaginary world since Stan Lee co-created the X-Men, a civil rights allegory whose leaders Professor X and Magneto were based on the pious Martin Luther King Jr. and brash Malcolm X.
It’s a tradition continuing here, in a story where the emotional repercussions of conflict carry genuine pathos. I have watched state of the union addresses less meaningful and moving.
The film is not all arguments, chase scenes and showdowns. Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man, and perfectly cast newcomer Tom Holland playing a high school Spider-Man, give the grandiose activity delightfully bonkers comic relief. If you’d like to see what it’s like when three big superheroes cram themselves into a VW Beetle or hear how it sounds when Spidey yelps some salty language, prepare to slap your thighs numb.
They’re enormously funny because they give the superheroes a human everyman dimension, something rarely seen in projects adapted from Saturday morning cartoons. The film takes all the time it needs to be witty and complex, exciting and moving. At 2 ½ hours, it’s a behemoth, but one that never bored me for a beat.
I don’t think this is the finest Marvel film to date, a title that belongs to Joss Whedon’s incomparable 2012 “The Avengers.” But after the dumpster fire of “Batman v Superman,” this is a glorious lesson on how to make concrete-shattering comic book throw-downs irresistibly entertaining.