‘Captain America: Civil War’ and the State of the Superhero Union

Marvel's latest is a totally adequate superhero film. And that shouldn't be enough.

Had they spent their days in deep prayer and meditation and their nights sacrificing the blood of virgin animals to the god Eris, Captain America: Civil War directors Joe and Anthony Russo couldn’t have wished for a better moment to release their film than this one – a mere six weeks after Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice proved exactly how incompetent and depressing a superhero match-up movie could be. The lingering stench of DC’s shit-show is all over the rhapsodic reviews of Marvel’s latest, which looks comparatively masterful primarily by achieving such basic objectives as intentional laughter, well-defined conflict, clearly-photographed action beats, and occasional snatches of geopolitical relevance. It is a totally adequate superhero film.

For a large percentage of its audience – an audience that will, it seems safe to bet, lift it to yet another record-breaking opening – this is enough. For months now, they have been promised an Avengers movie in everything but name (all of those films’ major players are present and accounted for, excepting Thor and Hulk), with the crew divvied up between #TeamIronMan and #TeamCap like sides chose up for a lunchtime game of kickball. Civil War delivers on the promises it makes; there is indeed a big (and, admittedly, engaging) battle between its all-star superhero teams, plus a separate mano-a-mano between Chris Evans’s Steve Rogers/Captain America and Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark/Iron Man.

So that all happens, and it all works. But it’s not particularly inspired. Which is to say, if we’re really doing this, if the superhero movie is going to be our common multiplex currency/shared cultural experience, and if mainstream moviemaking circa 2016 is going to amount to some variation on the Superhero Industrial Complex, then we have to ask a couple of big questions. Namely, what do we want out of these movies? And what do we expect of them?

Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans in "Captain America: Civil War"

For me, a viewer who has admired some of these films and shrugged at others, those questions of desire and expectation have become central to the superhero moviegoing experience, because the disparity between them has grown so sharp – and was not always thus. What I want when I see one of these films, in a landscape that has become particularly saturated with them in the eight years since Marvel launched their Cinematic Universe with Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, is for them to do what that film did: surprise me. Landing in theaters a year after the hackwork of Ghost Rider, Spider-Man 3, and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, a trilogy of hokey, dopey, lifeless, worst-case scenarios, Iron Man was a film driven not by effects but by the wit and personality of its director and stars.

The best of the Marvel films that followed merged the needs of a commerce with a kind of anything-goes spirit, so that Joe Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger could be a gee-whiz WWII flag-waver, or Joss Whedon’s The Avengers could be (at its essence) a personality-driven character comedy, or James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy could be a funky ensemble goof, or Shane Black’s Iron Man 3 could be a snappy action/comedy, or Anthony and Joe Russo’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier could flip the script of the entire series. But in recent films, you can feel that freedom butting up against a rapidly cementing Marvel house style, and losing. These formulas are coagulating, and with each passing film, in spite of the busy casts and self-conscious one-upsmanship, they seem less and less capable of – or even interested in – surprising us.

Perhaps it’s just not possible, when you’re talking about this kind of scope. There’s just so much housekeeping to deal with when juggling this many characters; there are as many here as in you average Avengers movie, thanks to the return of Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man and the inductions of Black Panther and Yet Another Spider-Man. Between catching us up on the returning characters, introducing the new ones, and getting in the requisite number of set pieces, there is, unsurprisingly, not a lot of room for improvisation. And for all the time we spent mocking Batman v Superman’s ridiculous stop-the-movie-for-four-teaser-trailers sequence, the new character meet-n-greets here are barely more graceful (though the Only You reunion for Robert Downey Jr. and Marisa Tomei is a welcome one).

Tom Holland as Spider-Man in "Captain America: Civil War"

Early reviews have made much of the film’s questions of responsibility and accountability, a question similarly posed by Batman v Superman, and it’s worth nothing that Downey’s Stark has a little speech that sheds more light on the topic than the entirety of BvS. But that’s also damn near all Civil War has to say on it; in both films, it’s merely the engine that spurs the conflict between central characters. And here, there’s surprisingly little to explain why Cap lands where he does on the question – disappointing, considering a) it’s ostensibly his movie, and b) the ways in which the character grew, struggled, and questioned matters of naiveté and cynicism in his two previous solo vehicles. Here, he seems to just make up his mind right away, and hold to it, and that’s that.

Will any of this matter to the superhero movie fan? Probably not. They’ve known what they were getting every step along the way: the Apple-like Product Presentation of Phase III titles, logos, and release dates in October 2014; the official announcement of its cast and characters exactly one year ago; the set photos, the character posters, the first trailer, the teasers for the second trailer, the second trailer (this time with bonus Spider-Man). That’s a year-and-a-half process of, yes, promoting a film, but also making a checklist, which Civil War works its way down carefully and meticulously.

There’s much to like here: the way Robert Downey Jr. throws away a line (his reference to Bucky as “Manchurian Candidate” is a gem), the ease with which Scarlett Johansson (and her stunt double) glides through an action scene, how heavy hitters like Alfre Woodard and William Hurt make every second of screen time count, the big Soderbergh-esque fonts for the Russos’ globe-trotting establishing shots, the impressive de-aging of Downey into his Less Than Zero years (though Ant-Man’s prologue sorta beat them to the punch). It’s not a bad film. It’s fine. But these movies are sort of like going back to a magic show where the illusionist dazzled you the first time or two, and realizing he’s just going to keep doing the same damn tricks.

Captain America: Civil War is out Friday.