Have we reached peak superhero yet? After spending the winter months watching “Jessica Jones” and “Daredevil” on Netflix, viewers can now subject themselves to a barrage of comic-book spectacle at their local multiplex. Following last month’s clattering, messy “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” comes “Captain America: Civil War,” an even more elaborately conceived clash between costumed ubermenschen.
As if that wasn’t enough, “X-Men: Apocalypse” is due for international release in just a few weeks’ time — well, everywhere except for Japan, which doesn’t get the film until August. On reflection, that might not be such a bad thing. A little of this stuff goes a long way.
Sitting through the wearying “Avengers: Age of Ultron” last year, it wasn’t hard to envisage the current crop of superhero franchises reaching a stalemate, where the interests of hardcore fans and casual viewers became impossible to reconcile. You shouldn’t need to do homework to enjoy a popcorn flick, but that’s what the Marvel cinematic universe — which includes the “Avengers” and “Captain America” movies — increasingly requires.
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||147 minutes|
With “Age of Ultron,” the pay-off didn’t justify the investment: Too often, the movie evoked the sensation of watching characters and plot points get checked off an Excel spreadsheet issued to the filmmakers by Marvel HQ. But “Civil War” makes a more convincing case for the merits of the ensemble superhero soap opera. It wields an equally large cast with surprising dexterity, never losing sight of which players matter most to the story it’s trying to tell.
Returning directors Joe and Anthony Russo have tightened their game since 2014’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” Working with the same cinematographer, screenwriters and editors as before, they’ve kept the grit and paranoia of the previous film, while smoothing out a few of its kinks.
While the action sequences in “The Winter Soldier” could sometimes devolve into a confused jumble of CGI, they’re far more coherent here, suggesting that the Russos — who graduated from TV’s “Arrested Development” and “Community” — are getting more confident in delivering big-screen thrills.
At the start of the film, Steve “Captain America” Rogers (Chris Evans) and his fellow Avengers are wrestling with an unfamiliar foe: accountability. After inflicting collateral damage while foiling a terrorist plot in Nigeria, the group is pressured to put itself under United Nations supervision. Tony “Iron Man” Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is happy to comply, but Rogers can’t bring himself to surrender control over his moral compass.
Unfortunately, we never get to see bureaucrats debating whether to dispatch a U.N. peacekeeping force or Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow to a crisis hotspot. The film’s exploration of “just war” theory gets sidetracked by more personal concerns after a U.N. meeting is bombed, and all evidence points toward Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), Rogers’ former pal turned brainwashed Soviet super-soldier.
The tension within the Avengers ranks soon spills over into real-life conflict, building toward a showdown between rival factions that’s one of the most enjoyable set pieces in any Marvel movie to date. It’s improved by the addition of a few new (or new-ish) arrivals: Paul Rudd’s wisecracking Ant-Man, Chadwick Boseman’s achingly cool Black Panther and, especially, the latest screen incarnation of Spider-Man, played to winningly geeky effect by Tom Holland.
When the sparring superheroes assemble for their title match, there’s an air of fun that’s sometimes been missing in the Marvel movies: Iron Man pulls dirty tricks; Black Widow and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) trade playful barbs; Spider-Man compliments Bucky on his metal arm while they fight (“That is awesome, dude!”). Maybe the best model for future installments in the saga isn’t yet another “save the world”-type story line. They should stick to pro-wrestling.
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