The geniuses at Marvel have figured out this superhero blockbuster movie thing. Take beloved characters and keep them true, mix in fantastic action scenes, weave in a theme that resonates with the audience—but never forget the audience comes to the movies, first and foremost, to have a good time.
The latest example? “Captain America: Civil War,” a fully satisfying episode in the expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe. Without a false note in its two-and-a-half-hour run, this may be the best Avengers movie yet. It certainly holds its own in a franchise known for quality.
As the advertising has promised, the film pits Captain America (Chris Evans) against Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.). The remaining heroes, plus a few newcomers, are forced to take sides, stretching their loyalties and causing some havoc in the process.
Cry Havoc and Let Slip the Gods of War
Havoc, as it turns out, is a ton of fun. The primary battle happens in an airport. Without ruining any surprises, let’s just say this long scene is absolutely the right blend of action and quips, explosions and laughs. All the action sequences are gripping, not too confusing, not too dark, just pure fun.
Part of the reason these films work so well is because each character (and there are so many) stays true to his or her primary motivation. Each character has his or her story advanced, from Hawkeye’s (Jeremy Renner) pull between home life and action to the Scarlet Witch’s (Elizabeth Olsen) need to assert herself as an adult. Even War Machine (Don Cheadle) has his moment in the spotlight. These scenes flit by quickly, but we understand each person a tad better and care about them a bit more. That’s a hard trick to pull off with 12 superheroes to keep track of, not to mention the decidedly-less-super characters.
Humor flows out of the essence of the characters, as well. We laugh most at those we love because their foibles are part of who they are. “Oh,” we think, laughing, “flirting with the amazingly still beautiful Marisa Tomei is SO something Iron Man would do!” That humor, with some excellent sight gags and a few nerdy references, makes the movie a chuckle-fest.
The film introduces two new superheroes, one we haven’t met before onscreen and one we know all too well. Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) is the son of a wise African king, a warrior and man of peace leading his people through the modern era. Boseman, who killed it as James Brown in the underappreciated “Get On Up,” plays the potentially hammy role with dignity and strength. He crackles onscreen. We will be seeing more of Black Panther.
Since Marvel recently reacquired the rights to Spiderman, perhaps it shouldn’t be a shock that he makes an appearance in the film. If you’re rolling your eyes at yet another iteration of the webbed wonder, you’re not alone. The presentation is so pitch-perfect, however, he might win you over.
Interwoven Fun and Sobriety
The other reason the Avengers movies work so well is serious themes, but never at the expense of having a good time. The film focuses on an internal crisis of purpose, the fact that while superheroes battle for big ideas, innocents suffer. While Captain America never doubts the rightness of his actions, even as he mourns those lost, Iron Man is a bundle of doubts and worries. Cap does not hesitate to make hard choices. Iron Man would examine each option in depth if he could. He’s just trying to hold it together.
This crisis of confidence feels so familiar, we do not need big, bad villains invading earth with otherworldly armies or maniacal demagogues attempting to rule the world. The villains will always be with us, but we need to figure ourselves out first. It is a civil war built into the fabric of America right now, evidenced in the real world by never-ending primaries and wars we can neither win nor leave.
Some people in the audience, probably those further on the Right, are passionately #TeamCap. Others, probably those more on the Left, are just as strongly #TeamIronMan. One friend told me how it never occurred to her that Captain America might not be the hero and Iron Man might not be the villain until a friend shocked her by saying he was with Iron Man. Sometimes we get so locked in our own camps we never realize there might be another camp with a different perspective.
The truth is that we need each other, those who never doubt and those who always doubt. That’s because, of course, we are all on the same side. This is what the Avengers keep trying to tell us. Like them, though, we seem to need to work it out for ourselves.
‘Captain America: Civil War’ is rated PG-13 for violence, action, and mayhem. There is no overt sexuality nor language and the violence is not gory. As long as kids are old enough to enjoy action, this is a good film to enjoy with the family.