CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR

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CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR  * * 1 / 2

Starring Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan and Scarlett Johansson. Screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo.

“Spider-Man will return,” promises a title card at the tail end of Captain America: Civil War, prompting a thunderous ovation from the capacity crowd at a Thursday night sneak I attended.

I caught myself applauding along with them, as Tom Holland’s pint-sized webslinger runs away with this whole damn picture and he’s barely got thirty minutes of screen time. Awkwardly shoehorned into the proceedings with no bearing whatsoever on the outcome of the actual story, Peter Parker’s arrival feels more like a boffo product launch – interrupting a dutifully mopey tale of vengeance and consequences with a charming extended trailer for Spider-Man: Homecoming, opening July 2017.

That everybody walks out of Captain America: Civil War talking about Spider-Man doesn’t bode well for Captain Steve Rogers, a bit of a stick in the mud here in his third “standalone” picture — an unfocused and overcrowed affair that appears to have been hijacked early in production and reconfigured into something more like Avengers 2.5 than Captain America 3. A shame, as Cap’s The First Avenger and The Winter Soldier were a cut above his funnybook brethren’s adventures. The latter in particular had a propulsive, paranoid energy and asserted that questioning authority is the patriotic duty of every American, captains or otherwise. I liked it a lot.

Civil War finds Earth’s Mightiest Heroes called on the carpet for their pesky habit of leveling cities during those tedious third-act battle sequences when large CGI things crash into other things and I excuse myself to go use the restroom. The Secretary of State (William Hurt) wants The Avengers to operate under UN oversight. Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark — riddled with guilt after his pet science project turned into James Spader and almost destroyed the world in last summer’s dismal Age Of Ultron – is suddenly all about accountability. Chris Evans’ Captain America – gone full libertarian after Robert Redford and the corrupt government agency he was working for almost murdered millions in a much better blockbuster from the previous year – makes his own decisions and that’s that.

Captain America and Iron Man’s ideological differences are talked out rather incessantly and not particularly well, but we must have lots of hand-wringing about collateral damage and the price of heroism because the sad middle-aged dudes who cling so desperately to these films require constant reassurances that they’re *actually about serious issues and stuff* and not just fun stories for children in which men wear tights. Civil War covers a lot of the same ground as the recent Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice, but benefits from comparison by not being completely fucking terrible.

Cap’s boyhood friend Bucky Barnes — brainwashed and turned into a super-soldier assassin that the bad guys kept in a freezer for seventy years — is still on the loose and now finds himself framed for a terrorist attack in the made-up African country of Wakanda. The King is killed and his son T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) vows revenge, donning a vibranium jumpsuit in yet another product launch — this one for Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, coming to theatres sometime in 2018.

There are glimpses here and there of the more streamlined Winter Soldier sequel this was at one point obviously intended to be, with Cap and his trusty sidekick Falcon (a terrific Anthony Mackie) on the lam trying to rescue the last connection Steve Rogers has with his life before the ice. But franchise traffic management means we must also devote unwieldy swaths of screen time to Paul Bettany’s sentient android thingie developing romantic feelings for Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch. (Two movies later and I still don’t understand what her powers are.)

Cap is so marginalized in his own story that when he finally plants a smooch on the secret-agent-next-door he’d flirted with in the previous installment (Emily VanCamp) the moment is so comically unearned it seems to arrive out of left field. Evans continues to bring such a marvelous decency to the role — these days Captain America has taken over the pop culture post for aspirational goodness once held by Superman – it’s frustrating that what’s supposed to be his star vehicle keeps leaving him by the side of the road.

There’s a flat, functional quality to the images in Civil War, as if returning directors Joe and Anthony Russo are working so hard to ground the fantastical events in the everyday that they’ve declared a moratorium on grandeur. The sleek, retro-futuristic surfaces and sly Washington D.C. iconography they brought to The Winter Soldier are replaced here by generic soundstage settings and indistinct location work. (A couple of pals on Twitter have been joking that this film was shot in Slough Business Park.)

And yet Civil War boasts a single sequence better than anything in the other dozen Marvel movies. There’s a superhero smackdown roughly two-thirds of the way through the film — a six-on-six brawl across a strip of airport tarmac – that may be the most consistently delightful set-piece in any comic book adaptation ever.

Tonally it doesn’t even fit with the rest of the picture, parting the clouds of gloom and doom with a gee-whiz sense of wonder and deliriously slap-sticky gags. (I don’t want to give too much away but our two special guest star bug-men have the best bits, and the best one-liners.) These superfriends may be fighting, but they’re also pulling punches and trying really hard not to seriously hurt one another, lending the entire scuffle a lightness and sense of play that’s sorely missing from the rest of this morose exercise in brand extension.

Really looking forward to that new Spider-Man movie, though.

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