WASHINGTON — The release strategy itself feels like a superhero showdown between Hollywood comic-book studios: “DC v Marvel: Box Office War.”
Just weeks ago, DC Comics delivered Ben Affleck vs. Henry Cavill in “Batman v Superman.”
Now, Marvel gives us Captain America vs. Iron Man in “Captain America: Civil War.”
With posters billing this as a clash, it’s a tad puzzling why the title takes a side. Either way, the Cap brand conjures warm memories of the most consistent trilogy in the Marvel Cinematic Universe after “Captain America: The First Avenger” (2011) and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (2014).
Returning are screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who penned the first two installments, as well as brother directors Anthony and Joe Russo, who directed “Winter Soldier.”
In truth, “Civil War” is a showcase of about a dozen different superheroes, with Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Captain America (Chris Evans) serving as team captains for the internal dispute.
The rift is over the unintended collateral damage sustained over the past eight years of super battles. Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) wants the group to sign global accords for government oversight, while Steve Rogers (aka Captain America) wants the group to remain a free-enterprise operation.
It’s Decision 2016: “Feel the Marvel Burn” or “Make Comics Great Again.”
The political themes are fitting for a franchise that’s always reflected the times in which we live. Phase One built toward a giant battle to save New York City (9/11); Phase Two dealt with PTSD (Iraq War) and government spying (NSA); and Phase Three now has our patriots contemplating whether we’ve overreached with unintended blowback (toppled dictators and a destabilized Middle East).
“Civil War” is at its best in these thematic moments, particularly as U.N. officials sit The Avengers down to watch a compilation video of all the cities they’ve unintentionally destroyed while fighting the super-terrorist baddies. Watching the tape, the caped crusaders can’t help but flinch, wince and lower their heads, ashamed at the devastation they’ve caused — despite their good intentions.
It’s Stark who thinks the group has gone too far, no longer trusting the group nor himself, as his relationship with Pepper Potts is on the rocks. So, he rounds up War Machine (Don Cheadle), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Vision (Paul Bethany) to agree to sign the oversight accords.
On the other side, Rogers fights to remain autonomous, rounding up Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Scarlet Witch (Elisabeth Olson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Ant Man (Paul Rudd), as well as his old friend Bucky (Sebastian Stan), who’s brainwashed on-and-off again as The Winter Soldier.
Among these familiar faces, we welcome an adorable romance blossoming between Vision and Scarlet Witch while making dinner in the kitchen. We giggle as the guys snicker in the back seat of a car as they watch a superhero kiss. And we convulse in laughter at Ant Man’s size-shifting quips.
Still, the movie’s biggest appeal is in its two impressive additions.
These aren’t spoilers, because they’re both in the trailers.
Tom Holland — who voiced Eddie to Tom Hardy’s post-Bane role in “Locke” (2014) — is a show stopper as the ever-lovable Spider-Man, spinning his trademark webs with naive adolescence while engaging in hilarious banter with the snarky Downey Jr. just like the kid in “Iron Man 3” (2013).
Holland is at once nerdier than Andrew Garfield in Marc Webb’s version, and more likable than Tobey Maguire in Sam Raimi’s version, two qualities that combine for arguably the best Peter Parker yet.
Get ready for your own 2017 spinoff, kid. You earned it.
An equally welcome addition is Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther, sporting an African accent, sleek black suit, sharp claws and catlike reflexes. After playing Jackie Robinson in “42” (2013) and James Brown in “Get On Up” (2014), it’s nice to see him transcend biopics to blockbuster status.
His 2018 spinoff will be directed by Ryan Coogler, who’s on a role after his Sundance gem “Fruitvale Station” (2014) and his boxing blockbuster “Creed” (2015). Bring on the Black Panther origin story!
With Spidey and Panther gloriously introduced, “Civil War” successfully kicks off Phase 3:
- “Captain America: Civil War” (May 6, 2016)
- “Doctor Strange” (November 4, 2016)
- “Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2” (May 5, 2017)
- “Spider-Man: Homecoming” (July 7, 2017)
- “Thor: Ragnarok” (November 3, 2017)
- “Black Panther” (February 16, 2018)
- “Avengers: Infinity War — Part 1” (May 4, 2018)
- “Ant-Man and The Wasp” (July 6, 2018)
- “Captain Marvel” (May 8, 2019)
- “Avengers: Infinity War — Part 2” (May 3, 2019)
Thankfully, the Russos have been tapped to direct both installments of “Avengers: Infinity War” to effectively close out the 11-year saga, so we know the Marvel Cinematic Universe is in good hands.
But before you wave your finger and say, “See! This is why Marvel rules and D.C. sucks,” let’s not get carried away. Just as DC’s “Batman v Superman” wasn’t quite as bad as everyone said (28 percent on Rotten Tomatoes), Marvel’s “Civil War” isn’t quite as masterful (92 percent on Rotten Tomatoes).
As entertaining as “Civil War” is, it’s still encased in the same flawed franchise formula, which becomes less a catalyst of creativity and more an albatross of obligation. It’s this generation’s unfortunate Hollywood crutch, limiting each script’s ability to pull off some very basic storytelling.
Rather than “Team Cap” vs. “Team Iron Man,” the real civil war brewing is “Team Self-Contained Story” vs. “Team Episodic Installment,” which I fear is a battle already lost. Movies have taken on the TV model, the chief difference being that TV gives us a new episode every week, while movies make us wait a year or two. There is never a true beginning and never a true end, lowering the stakes and leaving critics at a crossroads as to whether to review each film as a standalone or an episode.
Just like the majority of MCU movies, “Civil War” smothers the screen with so many characters that it’s virtually impossible for even the most talented of filmmakers to give each hero his or her due.
If only every character was given the complete character arc that the Black Panther receives. Will he or won’t he give in to the temptation of vengeance? Boseman’s moment of decision is one of the film’s strongest scenes, and we applaud, feeling like his character has been given some sense of closure.
Unfortunately, we can’t say the same for the other characters, some of whom simply show up for the fights, then disappear. “Civil War” would have felt more whole if Spidey and Ant Man had some sort of Act Three resolution (post-credit teasers don’t count). Similarly, the love triangle between Vision, Scarlet Witch and Hawkeye fizzles out. And while the Stark-Rogers relationship changes during a juicy twist, we’re left wondering: how long will Cap drag Bucky around as a dangerous liability?
The more time these heroes spend on screen fighting each other, the less time we get to know the film’s true villain (Daniel Bruhl, “Rush”). Like Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor in “Batman v Superman,” Bruhl’s Zemo fades way too far to the background while other protagonist battles are going on.
Likewise, the conflict of these battles is diluted as between punches the heroes are forced to say, “We’re still friends, right?” It’s obvious this is to protect future sequels, but it waters down the animosity. It’s like opponents trading jerseys after NFL games. Stop it. We want a real rivalry here.
In pro wrestling terms, let them straight up turn heel. You can always switch them back to baby face later. “Civil War” plays out like a WWE “Survivor Series” match that was entertaining enough that you’re glad you bought the Pay Per View, but you know it won’t ever end up on a highlight reel.
That is to say, “Civil War” won’t be making movie history — surely “The Dark Knight” (2008) or “Iron Man” (2008) have the best shot of cracking any big-picture best list — but it’s absolutely worth the price of admission with plenty of thrills (a rapid tracking shot during the opening battle), pop culture references (“The Manchurian Candidate”) and laugh-out-loud lines (“He just flew into me!”).
In the end, “Civil War” isn’t going for all-time cinematic masterpiece status.
Enjoy it for what it is — a fun Marvel night out on a rainy D.C. weekend.