What is the best way to deploy vastly superior abilities against less capable but nevertheless still very dangerous bad guys? How best to minimize collateral damage when those vastly superior abilities are put to use? And what happens when people of good conscience disagree over the answers to these questions?
There's a recent movie that Captain America: Civil War feels a helluva lot like, and it's not Batman v. Superman. It's Eye in the Sky, the drama thriller about drone warfare. The philosophies of both films go way beyond the mantra of "With great power comes great responsibility"; they take that as a given as they explore what, precisely, that responsibility means and how it gets expressed.
The world has had enough of the destruction the Avengers have left in their wake in the movie series to this point, no matter how well-intentioned, and the U.N. proposes that they come under the umbrella of an international oversight panel that will decide where they go, what they do, and also where they shouldn't go and what they shouldn't do. But the gang cannot all agree to these limitations, with the two factions aligning behind either Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), aka Iron Man, who believes they need some reining in – I like to think this is because he's still feeling guilty over how he became an accidental mad-scientist villain in Ultron – or Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), aka Captain America, who doesn't want to hand over his autonomy to a governmental body, probably because he hasn't had the best experiences in the past as a tool of politicians. (His early life as a super soldier in World War II, after all, was all about political propaganda: looking good, not doing good.)
This is almost an Avengers movie in its own right, with so many familiar faces present: kickass spy Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), high-flying Falcon (Anthony Mackie), telekinetic Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Iron Man-esque War Machine (Don Cheadle). And they are joined by some newcomers: Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), Spider-Man (Tom Holland) and – most excitingly – badass fighter Black Panther (an absolutely electrifying Chadwick Boseman). When the two factions meet in a spectacular battle over the U.N. issue, it's thrilling and often amusing, not only because they're all pulling their punches – none of them actually wants to hurt their friends – but also because we witness them combining their powers in weird, intriguing and effective ways across a grand canvas.
It's superhero action on a scale we haven't seen before, and it's fantastic. The directing team of brothers Joe and Anthony Russo, returning from Winter Soldier, and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who wrote both previous Captain America movies, ensure that all the action sequences are spectacular, innovative and – perhaps most importantly – do not drag on past the point at which you've had enough.
But this is primarily a story about Rogers and his friendship with Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), aka the Winter Soldier, who looks to have committed another terrible and very public crime as a result of his Soviet conditioning as a super soldier and is now being hunted by police worldwide. Rogers believes in Barnes' innocence, but is Rogers deluded about his old friend? Rogers's super soldier treatment was targeted only at his body, not at his mind, but Bucky's brain was messed with. Is there any coming back from that? How do you trust a guy that you don't know you can trust? How far can faith alone in someone take you? Aren't some safeguards a good thing?
These are the unspoken questions that hang over everything going on in Civil War, between the world and the Avengers, and among the Avengers and their hangers-on themselves. (I cannot decide if I am #TeamCap or #TeamTony ... and that's a marvelous thing.) There's barely a villain here at all, just unanswerable questions: What legal framework are superhumans best placed in, or can they be placed in one at all? What is the morality of the use of superpowers, even by undoubtedly good people?
One of the things that has made the Avengers movies work so well is that all the characters feel like real people: They are never cartoonish, and, ironically, they are at their most human when they are behaving in superhuman ways. That's never been more true than in Civil War. And that's what makes the questions it asks impossible to dismiss as "mere" fantasy. This is one superhero series that only keeps getting more relevant, more pertinent and more necessary.
5 out of 5 stars