The third installment of Captain America’s franchise is the darkest yet of the lot, a sprawling, globetrotting adventure that draws in a veritable kitchen sink of Marvel heroes. The story opens in 1991, with Cap’s friend James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes/The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) being thawed out and mnemonically pried open by a few choice words in Russian, setting him out on a quick mission to recover several packets of super-soldier serum and leave no witnesses. Fast-forward to present day, and Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) is casing out portions of Lagos, Nigeria, with the team assembled at the end of “Avengers: Age of Ultron”. Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie) are there to help Cap take down Hydra baddie Brock Rumlow (Frank Grillo), who emerged from the wreckage of the former S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters as the enhanced and completely psychotic Crossbones.
While the team seems to have its game down, for the most part, a miscalculation by the Scarlet Witch ends up creating more than the usual amount of destruction and the unseen body count ticker starts running. Badly. Speaking of body counts, Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) is enjoying a bittersweet celebration at MIT, lauding the launch of his grant program to fund new technology, when he’s confronted by Miriam Sharpe (Alfre Woodard), the mother of a fatality from the Avengers’ battle in Sokovia. It’s a consistent theme for Stark–his past (or his father’s past) is constantly coming back to haunt him. Licking their emotional wounds, the team (including Paul Bettany’s Vision and Don Cheadle’s Lt. James Rhodes/War Machine) retreats to their compound in upstate New York, where U.S. Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) subjects the Avengers (sans a “retired” Hawkeye and the M.I.A. Thor and Hulk) to a dressing down, reminding them that they go in with the best of intentions but end up leaving without so much as picking up a broom and dustpan. If only they could clean up their messes so easily.
Ross explains that over 100 countries have come together to create the “Sokovia Accords”: an agreement that puts the Avengers under the management and oversight of a UN panel. The days of the Avengers’ autonomy are numbered, and they have precious little time to submit to the UN’s authority or face being shut down altogether. At this point, a rift begins to form between those on the team that are wary of the negative impact of the agreement and those willing to take that risk. The words spoken by the grieving Wakandan King T’Chaka (John Kani) following the Nigerian tragedy are obviously ringing in their ears: “Victory at the expense of the innocent is no victory at all.”
Captain America, in his usual indifference to any authority other than his own, frets about the new oversight being “run by agendas, and agendas change”. Called away to attend the funeral of one of the few people about whom he intimately cares, Cap manages to connect briefly with the former Agent 13, Sharon Carter–yes, CARTER–played by Emily VanCamp. The reeling Cap then joins the Avengers in Vienna for the signing of an agreement he has no intention to autograph himself. The team’s division becomes crystal clear: Iron Man, War Machine, Vision, and Black Widow all signed, but Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch, and Falcon have refused. The divide widens as an explosion rips apart the UN compound, killing King T’Chaka and leaving evidence that points to Bucky as the culprit. There’s enough set up with the shadowy Zemo (Daniel Brühl) to suggest that perhaps Bucky’s not 100% in control of his own decisions.
The second act focuses primarily on Captain America’s hunt for Bucky and the lengths to which he will go to protect his friends from just about everything–except himself. In one of the few cases where Cap puts the individual in front of the team, Rogers is willing to sacrifice it all to save his long-lost best friend. Of course, Bucky is more than just lost; he’s a ticking time bomb. The half of the team that forms behind Stark settles on the idea that Bucky needs to be put behind bars and anyone who stands in their way is a criminal. Rogers rebuffs Stark’s renewed offer to sign on the dotted line for the Sokovia Accords, and the counter-team forms up behind the Captain and his shield.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a kitchen sink approach without adding even MORE superheroes into the mix. Team Iron Man adds Black Panther (the Wakandan heir–now King T’Challa, played by Chadwick Boseman) and Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland); Team Cap adds Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and a not-truly-retired Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). What follows is a messy brawl where neither side really, truly wants to hurt the other. More like, they all just want to stop the other team from getting their way without inflicting too much damage. Unfortunately, this is the Avengers, and if there’s one message we’ve learned from prior movies (and the high-tech PowerPoint Ross put on earlier), it’s that things will get out of hand quickly. The injuries, both emotional and physical, take their toll, with Cap and Bucky barely escaping to chase after Zemo.
It’s impossible to go into much detail on the third act without spilling spoilers left, right, and center, so suffice to say that the action continues apace. Cap and Bucky are a comfortable pairing–both are damaged goods, men out of time who’ve seen and done things they wish had gone differently. Stark is a man haunted by the ghosts he will never shake, and he’ll swing at anything that will make the pain go away.
This movie is very much a Captain America film–a slower burn with plenty of action and character development. On the other hand, it also tries really hard to make sure that no one feels left out, which only seems overdone when it comes to Ant-Man and Spider-Man. Black Panther fits in well as a superhero who has no real need for a team (and will suffer an alliance), but Ant-Man and Spider-Man seem there for only two things: 1) comic relief, and 2) setups for 2018’s “Ant-Man and The Wasp” and Disney’s reboot of the Spider-Man franchise, respectively. The subtler sarcasm of Falcon and Hawkeye fits well with the vibe of the movie, but the slapstick and neophyte humor of the insect and arachnid just don’t work nearly as well.
Even so, this is a great film and a worthy addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe–dramatic, action-filled, and intense. Everyone is bringing as much A-game as they can, and the team leads (Evans and Downey Jr.) are just outstanding. Each plays their role with a genuine approach that shows these two actors really understand how to play tortured souls.
When it’s not heart-stopping, it’s heart-wrenching; “Captain America: CIVIL WAR” isn’t just about the chasms that form between friends when they sit on opposite sides of an issue, it’s also about the internal struggles that people face when they have to make tough choices that have real and painful consequences.
Is “Captain America: CIVIL WAR” for kids? Well, not really. I’d probably peg this as for ages 10-and-up, but if the child has already seen and ably managed “Captain America: Winter Soldier” and “Avengers: Age of Ultron”, they’ll do fine here. The screening I attended was in IMAX 3D and the fight scenes were somewhat hard to follow due to the format’s poor handling of incredibly fast movement. I recommend aiming for 2D or regular 3D for this one unless there’s an absolute preference for IMAX 3D. As per usual, there are two extra post-credit scenes for this movie–one immediately following the initial set of cast credits and one at the very end of the full credit roll. In other words: stick around until the screen is completely unlit.
3-1/2 out of 4 stars
“Captain America: CIVIL WAR” opens nationwide on May 6, 2016. This movie is rated PG-13 for extended sequences of violence, action, and mayhem.