After the depressing Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, I admittedly approached 2016's second hero vs. hero comic book flick, Captain America: Civil War, with some degree of caution. Sure, it's helmed by Anthony and Joe Russo, who also directed the spectacular Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and sure, it features Spider-Man's debut in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but how could a movie that pits Earth's Mightiest Heroes against each other be any fun at all? The comic book by Mark Millar, upon which this film is loosely based, certainly doesn't have the trappings of an escapist adventure. At its core, this a story about the shattering of longtime friendships, the crossing of moral boundaries and the dangers of Big Government.
So why did I have a stupid smile on my face from beginning to end?
Somehow, the Russo brothers have transformed what could have and probably should have been a very bleak narrative into one of the most exciting Marvel movies to date, even as it puts our characters in a precarious position for future installments in the expansive MCU.
This third Captain America film (and 13th in this movie universe), is set one year after the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron, and leaders of the world are none too pleased about the Avengers' lack of government oversight. The United Nations seeks to pass legislature known as the Sokovia Accords, which would force the superhero team to report to a UN panel. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) sees the value in accountability, while Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) does not. With Iron Man and Captain America unable to see eye-to-eye, battle lines are drawn, sides are chosen and the Avengers are divided.
Returning from previous films are Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Vision (Paul Bettany), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), Agent 13 (Emily VanCamp) War Machine (Don Cheadle) and Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), whose past life as Hydra's secret weapon continues to haunt him throughout the film.
M.I.A. during all of this hero-on-hero action are Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), although their whereabouts will likely be explored in Thor: Ragnarok, due in theaters next year. That hero deficit is more than rectified, however, with the introduction of Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland). Boseman's T'Challa is a pure badass, bringing to life a complicated character that I never thought I'd see in a live-action movie. Holland's Peter Parker, meanwhile, puts a fresh spin (ha) on a character we've seen in five other films already, but he just might be the best and most comic-accurate version of the Wall-Crawler to date. This version of Parker never seems to shut up, especially during the film's big fight scene, and the way he annoys other heroes on the battlefield gives us the smartass (and sometimes accidentally insulting) Spidey we've never really seen on the big screen. I can't wait to see more of this iteration of the character in Spider-Man: Homecoming, where Stark will no doubt continue to horn in on Peter's Aunt May (Marisa Tomei).
There's a lot of "gee-whiz" action on display in Civil War (just wait 'til you see what Ant-Man can do now) but by the end of the film's tense climax, characters' lives are forever altered, at least one beloved MCU character goes to the Great Beyond and relationships are irrevocably tarnished. Despite its somber moments, though, the film doesn't wallow in darkness, nor does it betray the moral foundations of its characters, even when they're at each other's throats. I sincerely hope Batman v Superman director Zack Snyder takes in a screening at some point.
It's hyperbolic to say that Civil War is the best Marvel Studios movie yet, but it also might be true. It's vastly superior to last year's uneven Age of Ultron, and it's right up there with the original Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy and The Winter Soldier in its combination of spectacle, humor and character growth. Go see it, and if you wind up with a stupid smile like I did, don't worry. That's supposed to happen.