It’s almost not fair that “Captain America: Civil War” is opening barely a month after “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.” The movies share so much, from their escapist origins to their melodramatic themes of male honor and revenge to ambivalence toward unchecked power, that comparisons aren’t just inevitable, but required.
“Civil War” is by far the more dynamic, entertaining film — and not surprisingly so, considering how well Disney has shepherded the Marvel Comics Universe to big-screen dominance. Crisply photographed, thoughtfully acted and often refreshingly amusing, “Civil War” injects doses of much-needed fun into a genre of filmmaking that’s become mired in dour pretentiousness, when it’s not ridiculing its own excesses in such meta-snark exercises as “Deadpool.”
For all its considerable strengths, though, “Civil War” deserves mention with “Batman v. Superman” in one other respect, which is to suggest that the comic book spectacle is in danger of collapsing under its own weight. Overcrowded and overlong, it often plays less like a breathlessly awaited chapter of a rousing serial than a series of concussive set pieces strung together by vignettes that are either deeply serious or disarmingly witty, as the occasion requires. Its sheer bigness ultimately begins to work against it — as does the troubling tendency of the characters to talk just enough to express their feelings of bitterness and regret, but never enough to actually clear up a misunderstanding or solve an impending crisis.
For that, only bare-knuckle mano-a-mano confrontation will do. And, to quote the movie itself, these characters will never stop.
“Civil War” opens in Nigeria with an anarchic, spectacularly explosive action sequence involving gunfire, car crashes, fistfights and an acrobatic chase through a Lagos marketplace. The bludgeoning continues throughout the film, which bristles with undifferentiated hostility and aggression, amped up by a fragmented filming and editing style that gives the action a jittery, hyper-caffeinated edge.
Everybody’s jacked up and angry — jangry! — in “Captain America: Civil War.” The world is jangry at the Avengers for their vigilantism and wanton destruction of cities and citizens in their pursuit of justice. Captain America (Chris Evans) is jangry because the U.S. government wants to subject the team to the oversight of the United Nations. Tony Stark — played in a characteristically smooth turn by Robert Downey Jr. — is jangry because of abandonment issues that have lingered since the tragic death of his parents (John Slattery and Hope Davis). And I’m jangry because Disney hasn’t seen fit to give Scarlett Johansson her own Black Widow movie yet.
It’s a setup worthy of Bruce Wayne himself. But thankfully, “Civil War” isn’t nearly the moody slog that Bat-v-Supes turned out to be, thanks in large part to directors Joe and Anthony Russo. As in their previous outing, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” the brothers display a fine sense of craft here, executing the story and set pieces alike with efficiency and finesse. If the pummeling, numbingly protracted fight sequences begin to take on a sense of diminishing returns — especially after an impressively choreographed showdown at the Berlin airport — the Russos at least try to balance them with genuine character development during the quieter moments.
Toward that end, the filmmakers focus mostly on the title character — played by Evans in another appealingly sincere, straight-arrow performance — and Iron Man/Stark, who almost steals “Civil War” from his brother-in-arms. Downey has been accused of mugging in the past, but here he’s energetically on point as a master of the universe who’s been brought down a peg since the last episode. It’s Tony who features in the film’s best scenes, including a clever, CGI-enhanced flashback that’s staged not just with technical skill, but mournfully authentic emotion. (As for the fantasies of inflated potency these allegories are meant to stoke and indulge, Evans provides the film’s most indelible image, when he flexes improbably buff biceps and — literally single-handedly — prevents a helicopter from taking off.)
To single out the seemingly dozens of characters who show up in “Civil War” by name would possess the excitement of a fourth-grade roll call. Suffice it to say that, rather than psychic powers or super-strength, casting has always been the Marvel movies’ secret weapon. That holds true here, up to and including charismatic newcomers Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther and 19-year-old Tom Holland, the latter of whom, as Spider-Man, plays off Downey with the seeming self-effacement of an old pro.
Downey and Holland’s first scene together is a delight, as is the deepening friendship between Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) and some comic relief by way of a miniaturized, franchise-hopping Paul Rudd, as Ant-Man. As for the rest of the Avengers, it’s inexplicably reassuring to see the band get back together — albeit on opposing sides of the exceptionalism-accountability debate, and without a couple of key players, whose absence is duly noted.
As enjoyable as it is, “Civil War” often teeters on the brink of sheer overkill. As viewers approach the film’s second hour, they could be forgiven for wondering just how much more carnage, chaos and character-establishing they can take. The Russos are at their best when they’re camouflaging their movie’s real intentions, which is to tee up the more than a dozen Avengers movies planned into 2020 (including those anchored by Boseman and Holland). “Captain America: Civil War” acquits that duty with taste, skill and welcome pizzazz — even when it threatens to become way too much of a good thing.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains extended sequences of violence, action and mayhem. 147 minutes.