Captain America: Civil War (2016) is an Avengers movie in everything but name. It’s got Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) as team captains picking sides in the hero-vs.-hero fight over government oversight of the self-appointed world policemen. Thor and Hulk are MIA but everyone else, from Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) to Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) to Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and War Machine (Don Cheadle), is caught up in the crisis. In fact, the film ups the ante on the two official Avengers movies to date. It introduces Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) to the Marvel Comics Universe, invites newcomer Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) to the party, and even reintroduces Spider-Man (Tom Holland) in a scene as wittily self-aware as it is admirably efficient. If anything, the film is in danger of getting swamped by the cornucopia of colorful suits, splashy powers, and clashing characters. They should be handing out programs like in a baseball game.
The basic storyline is taken right out of the Marvel Comics. Iron Man, who has long since revealed to the world that Tony Stark is the man in the suit, is sympathetic to a request for all heroes to register with the American government. Captain America, still recovering from Hydra’s infiltration of the highest levels of government and takeover of the most powerful military weapons, isn’t so sure. Refusal to register isn’t an option so half of the world’s greatest heroes are suddenly renegades and the other half are tasked with rounding them up. There’s a villain somewhere behind it all, of course, but ultimately it’s a family feud on an epic scale. The inevitable showdown erupts in an airport scrap where Cap’s rebel supporters and shell-head’s patriot squad collide in an open-air cage match. It’s nirvana for comic book mavens, one zippy, color-blasted action splash page after, accompanied by booming sound effects and word-balloon quips between tarmac-crumbling body blows.
Don’t expect anything so neat as closure before the closing credits. This is Phase Three in the new MCU paradigm, the big screen equivalent of a continuing comic book series, and the story is destined to play out over the next few issues.
Can you enjoy the film without investing in the larger project? Probably. Joe and Anthony Russo (who directed the earlier Captain America: Winter Soldier, which introduced even more story threads picked up in this film’s dense plot weave) are actually quite adept at this kind of big team juggling. They pick up on the banter and group dynamics that kept Joss Whedon’s Avengers movies from getting lost in the clutter and are careful to keep the plot moving as neatly as possible given the demands of more than a dozen heroes. But would you want to see it out of context? Probably not. The Marvel Comics movies, at least the big team-up films like this, are all part of a long-running story and this chapter moves the narrative ahead just a little more. It’s the character touches that make it fun: Downey’s Tony Stark flirting with a younger-than-expected Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) while recruiting teenage Peter Parker, a hint of romance between the intense but alienated Scarlet Witch and the thoroughly logical touched-by-magic cyborg Vision, which gets complicated by their conflicting allegiances, and Paul Rudd bringing his Ant-Man impudence and playfulness to the team sport smackdown. For the uninvested, it’s likely just a lot of colorful noise. For the fans, that’s entertainment.
SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay, and other services.
On DVD and Blu-ray from Disney. The Blu-ray editions feature commentary, a two-part making-of documentary, additional featurettes, and deleted and extended scenes.