Truth be told, we should have seen this coming. Forget the fact that in the comic book universe, Marvel had already given readers a grand Civil War event, crossing over damn near every superhero title in their brand with Captain America as the heart and soul of the conflict, pitting him against his chief rival and Avengers co-founder, Iron Man. In that vast graphic landscape, complete with seemingly endless characters, the stakes had an undeniably personal dimension: It was a battle over identity — secret identities — which, if you think about it, verges on a question of civil rights and civil liberties. As a hero, should you be forced to register with the government, placing those you hold dear at risk simply because every crackpot with a beef against you would now have access to your family and friends at any time? The books, with the full complement of characters unbroken by the corporate interests seen on the film side, also had equally fracturing concerns over mutant registration, too.
In the evolving cinematic universe (and in the more-than-capable hands of directors Anthony and Joe Russo, returning after their triumphant debut with Captain America: The Winter Soldier), Marvel works under several constraints that would seem to hinder the impact of this big-screen version of the Civil War storyline. But all is not lost, because despite not having access to mutants in this realm and the decades-long history of the print narratives, the central figures remain on each side, and they are no less compelling here than in those hand-drawn frames.
Captain America (Chris Evans), aka Steve Rogers, is the endearing and enduring symbol of liberty we’ve come to love. He’s a great white savior who, again due to a tragic twist of fate, became a man out of time, frozen in ice and thawed out decades in the future — a strange and quite brave new world, with technology, shadowy bureaucracies and a growing collection of villains staging a new assault on freedom and justice.
Able assistance arrives in the form of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), the son of a brilliant scientist and compatriot of Captain America’s from back in the day. But much like his father, the younger Stark proves to be a bit of a wild card. The flamboyantly wealthy playboy with the ability to create such destructive toys fashioned himself as the ultimate deterrent to war thanks to his Iron Man armor, which he believed only he should control. That is until personal guilt and greater authoritative forces convinced him that some oversight might be necessary. But who should watch over the emerging gamma-mad brutes, the alien gods, the never-miss sharpshooters, the iron men and the high-flying birds of prey?
So caught up in the corporate branding of phases, developing storylines into the foreseeable future and managing multiple distribution formats, Marvel has somehow been able to maintain a strong focus on the characters and the interpersonal interactions between them in order to create a sense of camaraderie and the inevitable tension that fuels the fire in an explosive civil war.
Civil War, the third installment in the ongoing saga of Steve Rogers, continues the fascinating narrative of the most fully realized character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. From his nostalgically-rendered origin and the slam-bam espionage tale in Winter Soldier to the superhero-stuffed sandwich that is Civil War, Rogers and his bedrock relationship with his best friend, Bucky (Sebastian Stan), has served as the moral compass, ever-pointing to true north.
All of the old Avengers standbys are here, except Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), and there’s the embarrassment of riches with the inclusion of the new Spider-Man (Tom Holland) and Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), each of whom get more than enough opportunity to shine. But in a movie packed to the gills with heroes, Civil War never loses track of the fact that it is a Captain America story. The love, loss and life of Steve Rogers ground every scene. There is an intimacy here that does not exist in The Avengers movies.
From start to finish, Captain America: Civil War reminds us that there is a capable soldier and a remarkable human behind the mask and shield. (Opens wide Friday) (PG-13) Grade: A