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Captain America: Civil War review

Captain America: Civil War is thrilling proof there's plenty of life left in superhero movies

Eight years ago, the arrival of Iron Man in theaters kick-started both Marvel Studios’ cinematic universe and four years of heated debate regarding the likelihood of Marvel — or any studio, for that matter — pulling off the sort of ambitious, interconnected movie plan the studio had envisioned for its films.

In the years (and films) that followed, Marvel not only proved skeptics wrong, but also managed to change the conversation around its films. These days, it’s no longer a question of whether Marvel can pull it off, but how long the studio can keep their wildly successful franchise rolling along.

If there’s an answer to be found in Captain America: Civil War, the latest film in the studio’s cinematic universe and the 13th movie overall, it’s that the Marvel movie train isn’t showing any signs of slowing down any time soon.

Civil War is an ensemble piece, jam-packed with just about every costumed character introduced in the studio’s universe.

Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and directed by brothers Joe and Anthony Russo (the same teams responsible for 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier), Captain America: Civil War has Marvel’s superheroes dealing with the ramifications of their actions throughout all of the previous films and facing the deadly toll that their super-powered battles take on the innocent people around them. The Avengers soon find their loyalties fractured when the world demands that the team answer to government agencies, and the divide grows even greater when a terrorist attack implicates Captain America’s old friend, James “Bucky” Barnes — the former assassin known as The Winter Soldier.

It almost seems disingenuous to frame Civil War as part of the Captain America solo franchise. More so than any of the previous films in Marvel’s movie-verse, Civil War is an ensemble piece, jam-packed with just about every costumed character introduced in the studio’s universe so far (with the exception of Chris Hemsworth’s Thor and Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk) and masterfully balancing out their screen time so no one feels neglected. Sure, the philosophical war at the heart of Civil War is primarily waged between Chris Evans’ soldier-turned-superhero, Steve Rogers (a.k.a. Captain America), and Robert Downey Jr.’s playboy industrialist, Tony Stark (Iron Man), but nearly everyone seems to have their own, unique perspective on both what’s at stake and the best way to handle it.

Related: Spider-Man gets more attention in the latest Captain America: Civil War trailer

To its credit, there’s actually a surprising amount of depth in the supporting characters of Civil War, and what could easily have been a film in which characters get smashed together under weak pretenses (a la Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice) ends up being a remarkably nuanced presentation of some complicated perspectives on personal accountability, collateral damage, and the balance between freedom and security. Both Evans and Downey articulate their  positions well — possibly even better than their characters did in the Civil War comic book series that inspired the film — and most of the supporting characters who ally themselves with one hero or the other offer up some convincing arguments for doing so.

That’s not to say there isn’t a lot of smashing characters together to be found in Civil War, though. There’s plenty of that, too.

Each of the primary “team-up” films in Marvel’s cinematic universe so far have raised the bar when it comes to ensemble action sequences, from the novelty of seeing them interact in The Avengers to the impressive coordination of their efforts in films like The Winter Soldier and last year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron. The same holds true for Civil War, which boasts some of the best, visually thrilling chase- and fight-sequences of any film produced by Marvel so far.

Where Age of Ultron upped the ante when it came to the scale of the ensemble sequences and how much cooperative choreography it asked of its hero characters, Civil War takes things to the next level by relying on scenes in which the characters battle each other instead of hordes of digitally created robot villains. Given the characters’ powers, those battles unfold in the air and on the ground (and occasionally at a miniature level), frequently shifting between both environments on the fly (pun totally intended) and transitioning certain match-ups from the background to the foreground as the characters trade off opponents.

Newcomers to the franchise more than live up to the hype.

The end result is a wildly entertaining celebration of both hyper-detailed fight choreography and the creative team’s deep understanding of the characters and the unique ways each character moves and acts.

Among the returning cast for the film are the aforementioned Evans and Downey, as well as much of the cast from both Age of Ultron and The Winter Soldier. Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man character, Scott Lang, is also thrown into the mix. While that’s all well and good (and Rudd is particularly good in the role he plays), it’s the newcomers to the franchise that have been generating the lion’s share of buzz leading up to the film’s release — and they more than live up to the hype.

In his debut as the new Spider-Man, actor Tom Holland hits all the right notes, and plays off Downey and the rest of the cast well. Tonally, he captures the best parts of former Spider-Man actor Andrew Garfield’s under-appreciated portrayal of the character, offering an endless commentary on everything happening around him and bringing a light-hearted tone to the scenes he appears in. The transition into Marvel’s cinematic universe appears to have been a smooth one for the famous webslinger, and his surprisingly ample amount of screen time should leave fans feeling good about his future at Marvel.

There’s also a lot to like about 42 actor Chadwick Boseman’s introduction as Black Panther, the popular African superhero, over the course of Civil War.

Although the title of the film suggests that it’s Captain America’s movie, Boseman’s Black Panther and Scarlett Johansson’s spy superhero Natasha Romanoff (a.k.a. Black Widow) seem positioned to be the moral centers of the narrative. Both Johansson and Boseman do a nice job of conveying their respective characters’ uncertainty about the events transpiring around them and the opposing, rigid positions taken by each side’s leader. It’s an interesting — and clever — juxtaposition, with Black Panther offering an outsider’s perspective, while Black Widow is too deeply entrenched to fully commit to either side. It’s a difference that both actors seem well aware of in their performances, and adds another layer to the story being told in the film.

As the first installment in “Phase Three” of Marvel’s cinematic universe, Captain America: Civil War does an excellent job of establishing a new status quo for The Avengers and the world they inhabit, and leaves the audience craving more without relying on a cliffhanger. It’s not an easy feat, and the film succeeds where so many other projects envisioned as chapters in a larger, over-arching story fall short.

At a time when the failings of Batman V. Superman seem to have opened the door once again to discussion of “superhero fatigue,” Captain America: Civil War offers a strong argument that the best is yet to come in the superhero movie genre.