Marvel slings a calibrated knockout with ‘Captain America: Civil War’

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As justice-leagued avengers have seized the cultural landscape, entertainment options have narrowed tremendously. With Captain America: Civil War, Marvel launches Phase Three of its operation to reclaim the mono-culture, but it can’t escape the creeping sense that something is rotten in the state of the art. Six short weeks after releasing D.C.’s toxically dour dust-up Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Hollywood is offering another superhero title fight: Captain America: Civil War. The plots are essentially the same—either an example of those narrow options or, considering their fixation on domestic conflict, a reflection of a house divided. Both rest on the public fallout over collateral damage from an earlier installment; outcry leads to superhero oversight; allies disagree; governments convene; a wily creep disrupts the proceedings; allies descend into warring factions; ka boom.

As Iron Man and Captain America dispute the merits of preemptive cooperation against autonomous self-determination, they look like pumped-up personifications of cynical Cold War pragmatism and blue-eyed New Deal idealism. Cap’s opposition to obedience is in line with the character’s experience and corner of the Marvel universe. Of the brand’s lookalike lineup, the Captain America movies have been the most willing to take chances: the first was a zippy riff on The Dirty Dozen and the recent Winter Soldier was spiked with a paranoid pop reminiscent of Three Days of the Condor.

For the most part, that trend continues with Civil War. Despite hints of The Manchurian Candidate and an Empire Strikes Back build (the movie is kind enough to name-check both), it’s less formally playful than its predecessors—the top half is standard-issue Marvel—but it still refuses to conform to the contemporary tent-pole template. The most visually arresting sequences are set in tight spaces: a brawl in a crowded stairwell feels like Vertigo on steroids; and, counter intuitively, this giant spectacle all leads to a fistfight in the belly of a Soviet missile silo. Of course, the main event is the matchup that pits super brother against super brother. And boy does it deliver. That sequence alone is worth the price of admission: sharp, crackerjack kinetic, and shot through with some jaw-dropping special effects, it’s lock-step entertainment at its most appealing.

Still, Civil War is curiously ambivalent about its hero’s motive. It may be a Captain America joint, but don’t assumes he’s on the right side: that freedom from oversight—or the Marvel mandate—trumps compromise. His ultimate impulse is loyalty, and that makes sense: the Avengers are as much brand as band. (The post-credits trailers remind that Marvel has elevated shameless self-promotion to an art form.) It’s a shill; but it’s a softer version of the punishing acquiescence pushed by Batman v Superman, with more heart than its bloodless sheen suggests. Marvel may be an inescapable commercial behemoth, but Civil War is a refreshingly civil pop commodity.

Captain America: Civil War. Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo. Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. Starring Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., and Scarlett Johansson. Opens in Kansas City May 5th.

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