The shaming of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” will continue apace — or better still, be forgotten entirely — in the wake of “Captain America: Civil War,” a decisively superior hero-vs.-hero extravaganza that also ranks as the most mature and substantive picture to have yet emerged from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Very much an “Avengers” movie in scope and ambition if not title (the conspicuous absence of Thor and Hulk notwithstanding), this chronicle of an epic clash between two equally noble factions, led by Captain America and Iron Man, proves as remarkable for its dramatic coherence and thematic unity as for its dizzyingly inventive action sequences; viewers who have grown weary of seeing cities blow up ad nauseam will scarcely believe their luck at the relative restraint and ingenuity on display. Buoyed by hearty critical support, 3D ticket premiums and enormous fan-ticipation, Disney’s May 6 release should have little trouble outperforming 2014’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” ($714 million worldwide) and could land in roughly the same commercial arena as the “Avengers” pics, both of which earned north of $1 billion globally.
As directed with escalating confidence by sibling filmmakers Joe and Anthony Russo (who helmed “The Winter Soldier”), and intricately scripted by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (who have been with the series since 2011’s “Captain America: The First Avenger”), “Civil War” is nothing if not a testament to the benefits of continuity; this is the rare Marvel sequel that feels like not just a continuation but a culmination. You can sense the movie plumbing the depths of its own history with a 1991-set opening flashback, in which James “Bucky” Buchanan (the brooding Sebastian Stan) is sprung from cryogenic deep-freeze by Russian soldiers, who proceed to activate the cold-blooded, metal-armed killing machine lurking within known as the Winter Soldier.
The nature of his first assignment is a mystery to which the picture occasionally alludes but leaves chillingly unresolved until the end. Back in the present day, Bucky’s estranged old buddy Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), aka Captain America, finds himself on a routine mission in Lagos with his team, which includes the fierce Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), the telekinetically gifted Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), and the high-flying Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie). But the ensuing battle has tragically unforeseen consequences, and the U.S. secretary of state (William Hurt), fed up with the fiery trail of fatalities and mass destruction the Avengers have left behind them, encourages them to agree to the Sokovia Accords, which will place them under the jurisdiction of the United Nations.
Haunted by his own role in the civilian deaths that occurred during the big-bang climax of “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) wholeheartedly supports this solution, which is also backed by his faithful No. 2, Lt. James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle), and the otherworldly humanoid philosopher-freak known as the Vision (Paul Bettany). But while Natasha and Wanda both understand the logic of Tony’s decision, Rogers is having none of it: To submit to the U.N., he feels, would deal too great a blow to their autonomy and effectively destroy their ability to mobilize and act as needed. Captain America’s defiance only intensifies when yet another deadly attack occurs, this time in Vienna, and the Winter Soldier is clearly implicated. As far as Iron Man is concerned, the Buck stops here, but Rogers, like the audience, knows there’s more to the story than meets the eye.
Not every globe-trotting action movie is self-critical enough to acknowledge the many lives that are presumably lost when buildings blow up and cars flip over. And while the idea of collateral damage was certainly central to the conflict in “Batman v Superman,” that film ultimately banished any sense of ethical responsibility — and any lingering audience goodwill — with its bombastic and incoherent end-of-the-world climax. Whatever apocalyptic associations its title may generate, “Captain America: Civil War” turns out to be an infinitely smarter piece of multiplex mythmaking, blessed as it is with a new villain (played with unnerving subtlety by Daniel Bruhl) who has more on his mind than blowing human civilization to smithereens. And the sides-taking showdown between Team Captain America and Team Iron Man, far from numbing the viewer with still more callous acts of destruction, is likely to leave you admiring its creativity.
This is probably the point at which a spoiler warning should be interjected, mainly for those readers perceptive enough to detect spoilers in paragraph breaks and pop-up ads. Not that it will come as much of a surprise to anyone with a degree in MCU studies that “Civil War’s” roster of fighters includes the first big-screen incarnation of T’Challa/Black Panther (a striking Chadwick Boseman), as well as the latest incarnation of Spider-Man, with the plucky young British actor Tom Holland (“The Impossible,” “In the Heart of the Sea”) donning the nervous, nerdy mien of Peter Parker to terrifically scene-stealing effect. We may be watching a series of trailers for these characters’ stand-alone projects, but they’re damn good trailers, and they dutifully uphold the playful egalitarian spirit that defines the Marvel comic-book universe.
“Everyone’s got a gimmick,” one guy notes wearily as the battle gets under way, but for a deliriously entertaining stretch, “Captain America: Civil War” delights in showing us what happens when those gimmicks collide. Under the supervision of the crack visual-effects team at Industrial Light & Magic, the laws of physics are upheld and gloriously flouted at will; it’s surprising how effectively a Spidey web holds up against even the Winter Soldier’s superhuman strength, or just how much trouble Ant-Man (Paul Rudd, earning one of the movie’s biggest applause moments) can cause when the inspiration seizes him. (The one character whose contribution feels superfluous here is Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye, who continues to register with all the commitment and charisma of a junior-high archery instructor.)
The Russos handle the action with growing assurance and impressive range, shooting the early fight scenes with an almost “Bourne”-style handheld intensity, in contrast with the more classically framed skirmishes that follow. Even more impressively, the film feels sincerely invested in the questions it raises about freedom vs. responsibility, heroism vs. vigilantism, and what those distinctions say about the individuals making them. In assembling this Marvel male weepie, scribes Markus and McFeely show a rare talent for spinning cliches into artful motifs: The pain of deep, irrecoverable loss recurs throughout the narrative, and for both Iron Man and Captain America, the bonds of friendship are shown to run deeper than any commitment to the greater good. The back-slapping happy ending toward which the movie seems to be making a beeline somehow fails, at the last minute, to materialize.
Evans has never been the most charismatic or interesting figure even in his own franchise, and while that remains true here, the opportunity to take an unpopular stand for what he believes in lends this sturdily old-fashioned character a more compelling edge. Notably, “Civil War” doesn’t play Captain America for laughs or treat him as a genial anachronism in the way that the earlier films did; its most crucial flashback to the guy’s pre-coma existence (which occasions a brief, impressive turn by Emily VanCamp) exists mainly so that we can hear his inner determination put into words: “Compromise where you can. And where you can’t, don’t.”
While their resolve is every bit as firm as their abs and biceps, to say nothing of their titanium suits and vibranium shields, one senses the growing schism between Captain America and Iron Man will be healed in the long run (though perhaps not until after the two-part “Avengers: Infinity War,” which the Russos are set to direct). But for the purposes of this surprisingly fleet-footed 146-minute entertainment, Evans and especially Downey invest their characters’ ideological divide with a potent sense of conviction, which helps offset the generally two-dimensional feel of the many other characters squeezed into the margins.
In the almost-too-smooth fashion that has come to define even Marvel’s non-Joss Whedon-directed entries, a steady undercurrent of droll, wisecracking humor punctures the tension at key intervals, to continually amusing if somewhat ingratiating effect; it’s a bit deflating when Iron Man at one point actually invokes “The Manchurian Candidate,” rather than simply allowing the obvious reference to speak for itself. All of which is to say that this clean-burning cinematic engine may qualify as a peak Marvel experience, but it isn’t a transcendent one; transcendence simply doesn’t factor into the calculations of a franchise dedicated more to its long-term survival strategy than to the quality of any individual chapter. “Captain America: Civil War” doesn’t break the mold; it burnishes the brand, and sets a high but not insurmountable bar. Let the games continue.