Didn’t we just deal with a case of superhero rivalry last month when Batman was pitted against Superman in a thanklessly sombre setup that everybody hated but we kinda admired? Well, more serious-minded debate on responsibility versus accountability among guys that fly is coming your way via the latest non-comical comics adaptation Captain America: Civil War. The somewhat distracting sense of déjà vu aside, this robust, improbably streamlined piece of filmmaking proves to be Marvel’s sleeker, gamer, altogether livelier answer to DC’s overzealous downer.
To be sure, there’s plenty of Plot covering a variety of Big Issues. The decades-spanning story fleshes out the main players’ individual histories and links entire mythologies together with old, bitter wounds. Also thrown in the mix are questions of loyalty, judgment, leadership, and global security. Human casualties in each of the Avengers’ outings are not treated as cartoonish collateral damage but attacks on the group’s legitimacy, even leverage for sanction. In other words, things get real pretty fast.
Of course it still feels a bit silly to be talking about superheroes in actual political, legal context (the Senate hearing in BvS traded for a goddamn UN assembly here). But the efforts that went into constructing a whole framework of conflicts and motives that would bind the otherworldly to us mortals do impress and deserve credit. More importantly, the Russo brothers show an uncanny knack for balancing gravitas and fun. Whenever the backstories threaten to become too overwrought, there’d be smart tonal adjustments to remind you of the movie’s fundamentally playful nature. The message being: see how everything’s on the line here – but it’s totally okay to stuff your face with popcorn.
One major contributing factor is that the action seldom lets up, and they really aced it. Sticking to their trend-defying preference for practical instead of computer-generated effects that proved hugely rewarding in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the Russos crafted numerous high-speed, hard-hitting chase and combat sequences built on production, editing, sound design, and old-school choreography. Whether it’s the multi-vehicle pursuit through a highway tunnel or the full-on Avengers face-off at the Leipzig airport, the filmmakers make excellent use of the physical environment to approximate mayhem with every friction, drop and crash instead of numbing, pixelated imagery. A short scene of Captain America, his friend Bucky and Iron Man locked in a close-quarters fist fight coveys that raw physicality so perfectly it fills you with an infantile if unadulterated sense of satisfaction.
Overcoming not just vastly complicated technical difficulties to incorporate as many as twelve protagonists and their superpowers into massive setpieces, but also the narrative challenge of juggling sophistication with entertainment, this new chapter in Marvel’s wildly successful movie franchise is a smooth, cracking ride. Have your Cokes and 3D glasses ready? Summer can come now.
Captain America: Civil War | Directed by Anthony Russo, Joe Russo (USA, Germany, Brazil, 2016) with Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Sebastian Stan, Daniel Brühl. Starts Apr 28.