Yo dawg, Captain America: Civil War heard that you like superhero movies, so it installed several pleasantly extraneous superhero movies in your superhero movie so you could watch more superhero movies during your superhero movie. It is the Pizza Box, the Double Down, the Quesarito of the form. Prepare to unhinge your jaw, loosen your belt, and quite possibly piss in your empty Sprite cup.
This is not, however, a complaint; for a solid half-hour in the middle there, it’s a legitimate goddamn delight. As with most new fast-food concoctions, the innovation lies not in any new summer-blockbuster ingredients, but in how the same old tropes you know and love—the Government’s Pissed at the Superheroes for Going Rogue, Rando Civilians Are Pissed at the Superheroes for Carnage Wrought in Previous Superhero Movies, Various Superheroes Are Pissed at Each Other for Somewhat Contrived Reasons—are recombined, or in this case just stacked haphazardly until the whole thing collapses, gloriously, at the (abandoned) airport. This is not the best front-to back Marvel movie—that’s still Captain America: Winter Soldier or the first Thor (LOL, j/k)—but it’s got the highest highs for sure. Don’t leave for the bathroom at the wrong time. Hence the Sprite cup.
It’s also got the lowest lows, emotionally; the first half-hour is dour, man. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) mourns his dead parents and the (merciful) absence of Gwyneth Paltrow. Captain America (Chris Evans) is a pallbearer at a funeral and sighs a lot and complains about “this job,” which mostly involves finding geometrically ingenious new ways to clobber bad guys with his frisbee-shield. The Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) speaks in an improbable accent and agonizes over some fresh rando-civilian casualties. Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan)—aka the Winter Soldier, who again figures heavily into the plot convolutions here—broods about not being nearly as famous as anyone else in this movie, possibly because he looks like the synth player in a second-tier ’90s industrial-rock band. (Stabbing Westward, Gravity Kills, or God Lives Underwater, take your pick.)
The good guys mostly snipe at one another in conference rooms as various world governments vie to muzzle them; the bad guy drowns an arguably worse bad guy upside-down, in a sink, in Cleveland. Some stylish and highly stylized ass-kicking does transpire amid all this, but let’s just say I snuck a granola bar into the theater, and it took forever to find a scene loud and engaging enough that I could chew without distracting and enraging the people around me.
This is Grim & Gritty Superhero Syndrome, an ongoing malady that proved fatal to Batman v Superman, and bodes ill for the forever-imminent Suicide Squad,
and is on the cusp of getting really goddamn old here when the tone shifts dramatically, and Civil War—directed by Joe and Anthony Russo, who did Winter Soldier, too, with the same pleasantly Whedon-esque jocularity—learns how to revel in its too-muchness. It jams in every major Marvel Cinematic Universe player save the Incredible Hulk (too bad) and Thor (fine), with an emphasis on style over coherence (also fine); as the Black Widow, Scarlett Johansson is the only one here even trying to inject genuine pathos (sorry, Iron Man), or at least the only one succeeding (sorry, Cap). Folks get sassy, arbitrary and ever-shifting battle lines are drawn, the number of exotic foreign cities climbs into the double digits, and the Civil War is on, pulling in two new blockbuster anchors for good measure: the vengeance-minded Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman, moping and glaring) and the gala 650th Spider-Man reboot (Tom Holland, gawking and mooning).
These dudes are also fine: As Iron Man, RDJ only really perks up for his scenes with Spider-Man, probably because he also gets to hit on Aunt May, who mercifully a) doesn’t die and b) is played by Marisa Tomei. By this time, the script has condescended to include Actual Jokes (“Can you move your seat up?” and “So, you like cats?” both inexplicably kill), and various arbitrary superhero parings (Vision/Scarlet Witch, Falcon/Ant-Man) are enjoying Actual Chemistry. A bunch of medium-cool action-movie shit happens, and various super-relevant and moderately tiresome real-world parallels are drawn (“I’m doing what has to be done to prevent something worse”), and then someone else says, “They evacuated everyone from the airport!” and look the fuck out.
Lord knows which airport, or why it was evacuated, or what the precise nature of the conflict is at this point, or who, exactly, is on whose side and why, exactly. Suffice it to say that the next 20 minutes are just superheroes kicking one another’s asses, in loopy and inventive and increasingly improbable and wildly enjoyable ways, the carnage leavened by yet more Actual Jokes. (The funniest, and least true, is, “I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a fight before, but there’s usually not this much talking.”)
Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man is way more prominent than you’d think here—as the bumbling everydude, he clearly does not belong in this crew in a bizarrely effective and appealing way. Meanwhile, the most frustrating Marvel Universe tenets—too many superheroes, too many movies, and a five-years-out release schedule so insane and voluminous that you’re assured that nothing of genuine, franchise-halting consequence is going to happen to any of these people, ever—are either neutralized or turned into perverse strengths. Everything is beautiful, and nothing really hurts. As for the granola-bar thing, at this point in the movie you could operate a wood-chipper in the theater and nobody would notice, or care. The two halves of this movie are the difference between drivers ed and actual driving.
And then the whole thing turns dour and quasi-Shakespearean again, but the adrenaline’s enough to sustain you, and without spoiling anything let’s just say that this movie is way more committed to its hero vs. hero conceit for way longer than Batman v Superman, resisting the urge to toss out a bunch of Nazis or space aliens or whatever at the 11th hour just to get everyone back on the same side. There is a Winner here, ultimately, but not so ultimately that the chessboard can’t be total reset now for the next half-dozen of these fuckers. All the Spider-Man setup, in particular, makes it feel like you’re watching a lavishly appointed movie trailer with a bunch of suspiciously complex pre-roll ads.
Note also that the next Avengers movie is a two-parter literally called Infinity War. You walk out of these movies exhausted but not quite totally tapped out, very very very full but somehow still hungry. You’d be disappointed if Civil War truly shocked you, and it doesn’t. You’d be shocked if it disappointed you, and it won’t.