Greek tragedy is possibly what the makers of Marvel’s “Captain America: Civil War” were going for in the latest film installment of the Avengers series. Setting its superheroes, demigods in the comic-book universe, against one another with righteous fury may not exactly be civil war, as the title portends, but it does let divided loyalties play out to near tragic consequences.
Near … and yet so far.
Unlike Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” series, the various Avenger movies often raise interesting moral and ethical issues only to fall back on action extravaganzas and digital overload. “Civil War” does exactly this.
The movie fumbles the question at the very heart of the Avengers but not before giving its fan base plenty of reasons to cheer with huge action sequences, lively new character intros and plot strands from previous movies expertly unraveling further.
In terms of box-office candy, this is a big, gooey hot fudge Sunday with toppings of extra fruit, nuts and cereal. In other words, the works.
I seriously doubt anyone in the Marvel brain trust pays the least bit of attention to critics, but more than a few have remarked on the Avengers’ capacity for saving a city or even a country while leaving it in rubble. With so much collateral damage, you’re left to wonder about the cost of salvation.
So this new film from the director/brother team of Anthony and Joe Russo, who last directed “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (2014), finds the Avengers under international pressure to bow to a governing body to oversee and direct the team rather than continue to pursue what amounts to vigilante justice as it sees fit.
Another “incident” of insane destruction with considerable loss of innocent life, mostly caused by the energy projection of Wanda “Scarlet Witch” Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), has led the international community, headed by the American Secretary of State (William Hurt), to demand a system of accountability.
As it happens, Steve Rogers, aka Captain America (Chris Evans), is having none of this — no one messes with Avengers sovereignty! — while Tony Stark, aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), somewhat surprisingly, supports United Nations oversight.
Stark does so because of one of those “real” moments that every now and then slip into a superhero movie. This happens when he is confronted by the mother (an incisive cameo by Alfre Woodard) of someone killed by Avengers’ actions.
So the team pretty much divides along party lines with Sam “The Falcon” Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and Scarlet Witch joining Captain America while Natasha “Black Widow” Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), War Machine (Don Cheadle) and the non-human, purple-visaged Vision (Paul Bettany) side with Iron Man.
Throw in the requisite wall-to-wall super battles and you can see why there isn’t much time for furrowed brows or deep thinking about the whole idea of “enhanced individuals” pursuing vigilante actions.
A missed opportunity but doubtless Avengers fans won’t much mind. The Russo Bros. certainly give everyone all the trimmings for that ice cream Sunday with battles through all three acts. Initial rumbles rely mostly on old-fashioned stunt work but gradually, as the battles become much larger, the CGI-ists take over.
Which means the combat becomes progressively less interesting and more repetitive. When superheroes fight, no one can really get hurt. (Well, in fact, that turns out not to be true.) And then, as someone notices, the Avengers are “pulling their punches.” Unlike the Greeks — remember Medea? — no one really wants to seriously hurt the others even if they are on opposite sides.
The focal point of all the mayhem is an ambiguous character, Zemo, played by Daniel Brüel. Nominally, he should be the villain and, indeed, does cause much havoc. But he’s a shadowy figure in Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s screenplay, flirting around the edges of the film without getting fully defined.
Zemo drives the plot and much of his animus apparently connects with the further misery and misadventures of Bucky Barnes, the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), left over from the earlier “Captain America” movie.
Because of Zemo’s vagueness, however, a few fans may feel a certain letdown at the end when motives get uncovered and the storytellers struggle with unwinding perhaps too many plot threads from too many previous movies. On the other hand, two newcomers get grand launches into the series.
Chadwick Boseman commands many of his sequences as an African prince named T’Challa, who transforms into Black Panther (set for his own platform when the Ryan Coogler-directed “Black Panther” appears some time in 2018). And Tom Holland supplies the movie’s comedy and heart as the latest Spider-Man (getting the umpteenth reboot next year).
Yes, it’s a crowded movie set so some characters such as Black Widow and Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye get shunted aside while Downey and Evans move in for their close-ups, giving the movie its dramatic impetus, each genuinely believing the rightness of his cause when they go mano a mano.
Trent Opaloch’s agile cameras catch all the action and then some while Owen Paterson’s production design shines with more sets and locations than a James Bond movie. The screen never lacks for eye-catching visuals but it’s a shame no one really wanted to dig any deeper to deal with the issues the movie itself raises then abandons.
Opens: May 6, 22016 (Walt Disney Studios)
Production company: Marvel Studios
Cast: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Rudd, Emily VanCamp, Marisa Tomei, Tom Holland, Frank Grillo, Martin Freeman, William Hurt, Daniel Brühl, Hope Davis, John Slattery, Alfre Woodard
Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Screenwriters: Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely
Producer: Kevin Feige
Executive producers: Louis D’Esposito, Victoria Alonso, Patricia Whitcher, Nate Moore, Stan Lee
Director of photography: Trent Opaloch
Production designer: Owen Paterson
Music: Henry Jackman
Costume designer: Judianna Makovsky
Special effects supervisor: Dan Sudick
Visual effects supervisor Jen Underdahl
Editors: Jeffrey Ford, Matthew Schmidt
PG-13 rating, 146 minutes