Once more we return to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where an ever expanding roster of superhero Avengers quip and spar and save the world across interlocking franchises and overlapping continuity. Captain America: Civil War is only the latest in this series to expend energy maneuvering the multicolored combatants around while teasing more stories to come. It’s nothing but sequels to a variety of its predecessors – in addition to the third Captain America it operates as Avengers 3 and Iron Man 4 – and setups for its own future entries, plus previews of coming attractions as a variety of new characters and conflicts crowd the screen. All MCU properties do this to some extent, but this one does it the most joylessly, playing out as a grinding plot conveyance system full of sound, motion, and incident, but little in the way of story. Much of grave import is muttered with flashes of dull wit and routine twists between blandly assembled and weirdly small-scale action sequences. And in the end, we’re basically right back where we started.
We pick up shortly after the events of last year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, a film criticized in some corners for its overstuffed qualities. I found it entertaining, carried over with a light tough by Joss Whedon. He, like Jon Favreau, who had the bright idea to play Iron Man and Iron Man 2 with the pace and charm of fizzy comedy, knew how to juggle the demands of these massive spectacles with something approaching relaxed ease. That’s largely gone here, as Civil War powers forward weighed down with something serious in mind. Captain America (Chris Evans) leads the new Avengers (Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, Anthony Mackie’s Falcon, Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch, and Paul Bettany’s Vision), who, in an opening action beat, stop a villain, but accidentally blow up some civilians in the process. This is the last straw for many people around the world, so 117 nations sign accords demanding these super-beings be given governmental oversight. I mean, if you saw lawless beings smashing apart buildings to get at supervillains, you might be concerned, too.
When various characters from previous films gather to sit around a table and talk this out, the magic computer man Vision makes a good point. Since the Avengers have been public, calamitous world-threatening events have increased exponentially. Maybe they’re drawing this negative attention. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) agrees, and demands the others sign up to work under government supervision. Cap’s not so sure, and demands he be allowed to stay a free agent. This is the conflict, such as it is, amplified by Cap’s old pal Bucky (Sebastian Stan), the brainwashed supersoldier, who is framed for an explosion that kills several foreign leaders. Cap wants to go outside the law and save Buck to prevent him from taking responsibility for a crime he didn’t commit. Sure, he’s been assassinating and bombing plenty of people for decades, but he didn’t do this one. I get his loyalty to his scrambled friend, but this is some hard logic to follow. It creates one big misunderstanding the Captain and the Iron Man can’t seem to deescalate.
The first forty minutes or so are brisk enough, filled with colorful and loud conflict, as well as some mildly intriguing questions. What’s a superhero’s obligation to society? What happens when doing good means different things to different people? When is intervention more dangerous than helpful? There’s a certain amount of superhero melodrama as various players line up on different sides of the issue, straining relationships and casting doubt on tenuous friendships. But the whole operation grows monotonous as characters exchange increasingly hollow barbs, taking the whole thing Very Seriously even as we know the eventual fighting won’t be too consequential. There are too many sequels and spin-offs that need them. By the time we’ve been introduced to Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) – pausing for extended sample scenes for their forthcoming features – it’s easy to know the Civil War will be more like a scrimmage, everyone simply stretching their powers before their next solo outings.
Directors Anthony and Joe Russo, sitcom vets who helmed the last Cap, keep things brightly lit and blandly staged, pulling up tight on good actors, some more invested than others, trying to put real feeling in phony dialogue and then bouncing into action that’s a jumble of frenzied editing and blurry effects. Curiously small – only a few brawls and a chase or two – for running well over two hours, it’s a movie with elaborate hand-to-hand choreography (John Wick’s directors worked second unit) photographed with shaking, swooping cameras cut together to often deemphasize the impact. Sure we have War Machine (Don Cheadle) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Ant Man (Paul Rudd) and the rest lining up to show off their moves, throwing balls of light and color at each other in ways that fleetingly resemble cool comic panels – Spidey crawling over a giant’s mask; Vision shooting light from the jewel in his forehead; Ant Man shrinking and enlarging. But there’s nothing here to get invested in. It’s just not the sort of movie that’ll allow its major figures to hurt one another, not when their hurt feelings animate only this slapstick-adjacent goof-around scuffle on the way to tearful revelations. It’s tediously busy.
With nods – more like thin posturing – to serious disagreement tossed aside in favor of colorful action and bad quips, the screenplay by series regulars Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely cops out by making it all about personal grudges. Instead of actually engaging with intriguing inciting ideas about power and authority, it becomes digital shadowboxing drawn out between endless empty rounds of the kind of double-talking political Rorschach test corporate spectacles are best at. The Marvel machinery can’t afford dislike of these characters, and unconvincingly lets the ones in the wrong off the hook. After a poorly developed plotter (Daniel Bruhl), I’d call Captain America the closest thing this movie has to an antagonist, pushing along the conflict by refusing to accept responsibility for his actions, but this sure isn’t the movie willing to take a stance like that. He embodies the movie’s fight against consequences and for the status quo, demanding we care about morality of hero work and then distracting us with so much movement marking time we’re to forget they ever brought it up, let alone fail to resolve it in any way. It’s all left dangling, just a big prelude for the next one, and the next, and the next.