- By Joe Gross American-Statesman Staff
“When we last saw our heroes …” is the way any discussion of “Captain America: Civil War” should start, as this often intensely enjoyable film doesn’t even present any pretext of standing on its own. Which doesn’t mean it’s not a funny, thoughtful blast.
On one level, it is a 147-minute hunk of episodic filmmaking, yet another chapter of an old-school serial, as much the next Avengers movie as it is a Captain America picture.
And yet, directed by sibling filmmakers Joe and Anthony Russo, it is often joyous, raucous and action-packed while asking a serious question: With all the ungodly destruction in each of the previous 13 movies (reaching back to 2008’s “Iron Man”), shouldn’t the Avengers, Earth’s mightiest heroes, be accountable to someone, somewhere?
So, when we last saw our heroes at the end of “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) had left the team, Hulk was AWOL, Thor off-planet and Hawkeye retired.
Captain America (Chris Evans and his biceps) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) put together a new roster of super-beings, some more experienced than others. “Civil War” sports the largest cast of heroes yet assembled.
Their newbie status is thrown into sharp relief at the start of “Civil War” when a mission in Lagos, Nigeria, goes horribly awry, resulting in serious loss of life (on foreign soil, no less).
Secretary of State Ross (William Hurt), an old Hulk enemy, proposes a solution: The Avengers will be put under United Nations control — everyone sign these international accords or be considered de facto outlaws.
Stark (Robert Downey Jr., coasting on his patented charm/smarm combo) is feeling understandably guilty after being confronted by the mother of an innocent victim of the team’s avenging.
“We have to be put in check,” the billionaire industrialist says, and I wish they had dwelt on that irony just a bit more.
On the other hand, Captain America (known to his pals as Steve Rogers) prefers to trust his own sense of right and wrong and is wary of being prevented from saving lives “where they don’t want us to go.”
It’s a largely unsolvable dilemma, perhaps the fundamental American one, and credit should go to longtime Marvel screen scribes Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely for giving both arguments room to breathe and for careful plotting that shows the weaknesses of either choice.
Things gets even more complicated after a terrorist bomb flattens a building at the signing of the accords, killing the king of Wakanda, a fictional and quietly powerful African nation. It looks for all the world like the bombing was carried out by Steve’s old pal James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan, haggard as always), aka the Cold War assassin known as the Winter Soldier.
Captain America, convinced his old pal is being framed, tries to bring Bucky back into the fold even as the newly-minted Wakandan king T’Challa (a compelling Chadwick Boseman) vows revenge as the super-powered Wakandan avatar Black Panther.
Everyone chooses sides like it’s World War I, and punches start being thrown.
Even the B-listers get solid character moments. Paul Bettany titrates gentle, god-like guilelessness as the Spock-ish robot Vision, who is developing a romance with the alienated, guilt-ridden Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen)
Paul Rudd’s witty appearance as Ant-Man provides the movie’s most joyously comic-booky moments, while Boseman primes the pump perfectly for a Black Panther solo flick.
That’s a lot of movie. Again, rarely has a Marvel film felt more like an episode of a longer story.
But not since “Guardians of the Galaxy” has the tone been so on-point, full of the quippy wit and dense plotting, moral dilemmas and fist-pumping action that made Marvel comics so thrilling.
Heroes fighting each other over a misunderstanding or ideological conflict is a longtime comic book staple. “Batman v Superman” is a great example of the exact wrong way to present this sort of conflict. “Civil War” nails it.
And just wait until a certain wall-crawling teenager from Queens shows up.