CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR asks the cinematic question “What would happen if we took a whole passel of superheroes from the Marvel Comic universe and tossed them together into one film?” But wait, what if we pitted them against one another over a fundamental difference of opinion about ethics, and then added a dash (or more) of guilt and anguish over accountability when it comes to the massive collateral damage incurred when saving the world? What would we get? In this case, a rip-snorting action adventure with a clever plot that appeals to both the fan-boy and fan-girl, as well as an intelligent consideration of the uses and responsibilities of power. Indeed, if there is a flaw, it’s that at times it plays like two different films, the mood shifting for swaths of time from pratfalls and punchlines, to gritty suspense. Yet the shifts never become an insurmountably contradictory jumble, which is a neat trick in and of itself.
Captain America (Chris Evans) has his name in the title, but the film is an ensemble piece featuring many of the Avengers we’ve come to know and love, including Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr), Natasha Romanoff/ Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Vision (Paul Bettany), and James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle) all facing the aftermath of their exploits in Sokovia from AGE OF ULTRON. The price of saving the world that time was collapsed buildings and civilian deaths. Their latest mission, the one in Lagos that starts the film with a bang, also incurs property damage and civilian deaths on a lesser scale, but the pattern of destruction is such that the world has become nervous about these enhanced beings operating with no supervision. Hence the Sokovia Accords, drawn up by 117 very uneasy countries and administered through the United Nations. Hence, too, the rift among the Avengers, some who don’t want to ask permission to act, and others who see signing the Accords as a way to earn back the world’s trust, and also coping with their sense of guilt. Lacking the empirical evidence to convince each other who is right, Captain America retires from the public arena, taking Falcon with him.
Of course that’s not going to stick.
Cap’s old pal from World War II, The Winter Soldier, aka Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), aka the silver-armed puppet of subliminal programming, begins to wreak havoc. Rather than let the authorities kill him, Cap and Falcon take matters into their own hands, setting up the eponymous Civil War, and introducing us to an intriguingly amoral rogue agent without portfolio (Daniel Brühl), and his stalwart mirror-image, T’Challa / Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), who does the wrong things for what he is convinced are the right reasons. Thus amid the special effects extravaganza, issues of loyalty, duty, rigid ideologies, and the thirst for vengeance become the driving force for everything that ensues. The assorted mayhem of big explosions, epic chases, and various vehicles crashing with flaming abandon is window dressing for the real fireworks. That would be the inner conflicts that leave psychic wounds far more damaging than mere lacerations, bruises and broken bones.
Downey gives another emotionally compelling performance, grounding, as do the others’ performances, the hyperbolic fantasy elements into something palpably human. A scene with Stark being confronted by the mother (a devastating Alfre Woodard) of a dead son killed in Sokovia is as shattering to us as it is to Stark thanks to Downey’s ability to convey his character’s own vulnerability beneath the swagger and the barbed quips and bon mots. There’s also an unexpected sweetness to the budding relationship between the android Vision and guilt-scarred Scarlet Witch, as he tries to lift her spirits with home cooking and a discourse on the pitfalls of the amygdala.
CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR has the courtesy to bring up the missing Avengers (Hulk and Thor) and to do it in such a way that it becomes a minor but satisfying plot point. Ditto the absence of Tony’s true love, Pepper Potts. Sure, we miss (most) of them, but this is such a slick and smart flick, it’s not a problem. Rife with plot twists, surprise guest superheroes, and superb pacing that leaves us breathless, but never winded, it’s also more than just exceptionally good looking, charismatic people killing time between action sequences. It fearlessly and lucidly addresses complicated social issues and makes them an integral part of the whiz-bang action.