Marvel Studios has forever altered the way we think about superhero movies. We're no longer satisfied by a single adventure or even a boundary-pushing trilogy - oh, no. We demand a full, thriving cinematic universe.
Each Marvel film has become a must-see event, raising the bar ever higher for the one that follows. After the riotous applause for "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" and "Guardians of the Galaxy" came the mixed reviews, and flurry of think pieces, for "Avengers: Age of Ultron" and "Ant-Man." Into that roller-coaster ride comes "Captain America: Civil War," the opening volley in Phase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Does it live up to the hype? Oh, absolutely.
The third "Captain America" movie picks up not long after the earth-shattering events of "Age of Ultron," which devastated the fictional nation of Sokovia. The Avengers are training new recruits (Falcon, Scarlet Witch and Vision) while facing political blowback for the casualties of their messier missions. A government push to regulate these superheroes divides Earth's Mightiest Heroes: Team Tony Stark favors government regulation, while Team Steve Rogers believes superheroes should self-regulate. However, that philosophical debate turns personal when the fate of Bucky "The Winter Soldier" Barnes (Sebastian Stan) comes into play, leading Cap (Chris Evans) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) to face off in an epic and devastating battle.
Calling this a "Captain America" movie is perhaps a bit disingenuous; it's more a two-hander between Evans and Downey than a solo. While plenty of time is devoted to Cap and Bucky, Cap and Falcon, and Cap and Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp), Stark gets plenty of room to proselytize for his position, and to furrow into his daddy issues and painful past. Remarkably, "Civil War" is also able to create succinct yet satisfying arcs for supporting players Bucky, Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Vision (Paul Bettany) and Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), who's introduced alongside a zippy and authentically teenage Spider-Man (Tom Holland). But even those who don't rate a juicy character journey still get some great moments: Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) with their biting one-liners, Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) with his excitement at the team, and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) with her withering warnings to Cap and Tony.
"Civil War" is stuffed to the brim with superheroes, yet the script makes sure each player has a place in this complicated puzzle of setups, inside jokes and spectacle. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo (who thrilled us with "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," also penned by "Civil War" writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) smartly keep in moments of levity and warmth to ground these larger-than-life figures. Sure, it's crazy-cool to watch Winter Soldier snag a speeding motorcycle with one hand and then spin it under himself before riding off, but it's also a thrill to see that muscled warrior wedged into the backseat of a Volkswagen, glumly entreating a scowling Falcon to give him a bit more leg room. It humanizes these superhumans, and keeps the stakes personal and powerful; character moments like those are needed to help these fantastical tales stick the landing. And the cast is suitably stacked with incredibly charismatic and talented performers who can spin from a grandiose moment to a subtle one with a winsome ease.
"Yeah, yeah, character moments and humor, but what about the action," right? It's awesome. Throughout the film, chase scenes and showdowns will have audiences cheering. Stunt sequences are sometimes marred by CGI figures that are just a twinge too rubbery to read as real, but for the most part, the action is so kinetic and inventive it's hard to care. For instance, you've seen car chases, but the Russos give us one that has a superhuman fugitive on foot, another lunging from one high-speed vehicle to another and a third flying after them. There was one point where in my 2D screening, the action felt so real I instinctively ducked to evade a too-threatening helicopter blade. I could go on, but ... spoilers.
I will say this, however: The big, superhero-stacked showdown promoted in every ad and poster cannot be overhyped. It is long. It is bonkers. It is glorious. The Russos throw at you just about every faceoff you can imagine, with moments so big even the witty Spider-Man can't help but simply yelp, "Holy shit!"
"Captain America: Civil War" brings exactly the kind of intense action and spectacle come to demand from big summer blockbusters. But the point can't be underscored enough: The reason all this works so beautifully and so boldly is because the Russos never take the emotional storytelling for granted. Whether Tony is encouraging Peter Parker or calling out Steve, or whether a hero lands a blistering blow or takes one, it hits us hard. We've spent so much time with these characters by now, that it should pain us to watch them fight. And because of the downtime between Marvel releases, it's important for the Russos to not only introduce newcomers to the ensemble, but also refresh our memories on why Cap and Iron Man make such a great -- if volatile -- pair. Without that, this would be stunning fight choreography with little impact. Instead, it's not just breathtaking in its visuals, it's heartbreaking in its content, making "Captain America: Civil War" one of the best Marvel movies yet.
"Captain America: Civil War" opens May 6.