Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr. in Captain America: Civil War (Photo: Marvel & Disney)

★★★½ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Anthony Russo & Joe Russo
STARS Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr.

In the long run, it’s unlikely the notion of Team Cap or Team Iron Man will take root in the cultural lexicon in the same manner as, say, Team Beatles or Team Elvis or even Team Boxers or Team Briefs, but that’s mainly because Team Marvel overpowers them both. In an era when superhero flicks hit theaters with the same frequency as bugs hit windshields, Captain America: Civil War still manages to rise above the fray and declare itself one of the finest pictures yet from Team Stan Lee.

Or should this thing have been called Avengers: Civil War? It could certainly go both ways. With no less than 12 superheroes on display, this clearly isn’t a one-man show; at the same time, it’s apparent that Captain America (as always, played to perfection by Chris Evans) is the principal character in this chapter of the ongoing saga, more personally tied to the proceedings thanks to the involvement of his childhood friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), now known (and feared) as the Winter Soldier.

Directors Anthony Russo and Joe Russo and scripters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely are able to make Civil War feel like a direct follow-up to both 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier and 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron. Intriguingly, it shares narrative material with the lambasted Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, with a discussion of whether superheroes should be allowed to roam — and fight — as they please or whether there should be some sort of governmental oversight when their actions lead to collateral damage. This issue comes to a head right at the beginning of this picture, as civilian deaths lead both the U.S. government (repped by William Hurt) and the United Nations to propose a resolution wherein the Avengers will only act when given permission by these bodies. And here’s where the movie really starts to flex its intelligence, since it would be logical to assume that the patriotic, by-the-book Cap/Steve Rogers would be the one to agree to this and the arrogant, maverick Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) would be the one to snort and walk away. But after the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, wherein Steve witnessed corruption at the highest levels of government, he’s no longer the all-trusting innocent, and he balks at this executive order. Stark, on the other hand, is haunted by a number of deaths — many at the hands of his creation Ultron — and he thinks that maybe the Avengers should be reined in a bit. The line in the sand becomes even more pronounced once Bucky is fingered for a terrorist bombing and Rogers comes to his aid, thereby establishing himself and his allies as fugitives.

Some, like War Machine/James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) and Vision (Paul Bettany), strongly side with Iron Man. Others, such as the Scarlet Witch/Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and Hawkeye/Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), firmly align themselves with Cap. And with heroes to the left of her, heroes to the right, here’s Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), stuck in the middle. Black Widow (aka Natasha Romanoff) continues to be perhaps the most fascinating and complex character in this Marvel world order: smart, brave, witty, troubled, and able to read people and situations better than most of the others. She’s a dynamic figure — gee, you think somebody would give her a movie of her own.

Chadwick Boseman as the Black Panther (Photo: Marvel & Disney)

There’s very little that Captain America: Civil War does wrong. After Avengers: Age of Ultron, which allowed too much bloat to get in the way of some socko individual scenes, this one establishes a beautiful balance between quieter character-driven sequences and splashy action set-pieces (the airport skirmish goes on a tad too long for my liking, but since it’s clearly the movie’s showcase moment, others doubtless won’t complain). Tom Holland is introduced as the new Spider-Man/Peter Parker, and after the miscasting of Andrew Garfield in those underwhelming Amazing Spider-Hipster flicks, he’s simply divine, the geeky, motormouth teen we all know and love — along with Anthony Mackie’s Falcon/Sam Wilson and Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man/Scott Lang, he provides most of the film’s knowing laughs. Also new to the roster is T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman, further demonstrating his range following his Jackie Robinson in 42 and his James Brown in Get On Up), African royalty who dons the sleek duds to fight crime as the Black Panther. T’Challa’s involvement in the proceedings ultimately becomes as personal as Steve’s, and he figures in many of the picture’s best moments. Finally, there’s the villain of the piece: Zemo (Daniel Bruhl, so excellent as Rush‘s Niki Lauda), an ordinary man as opposed to the godlike likes of Loki and Ultron. Never missing a chance to add twisty issues of morality to their saga, Markus and McFeely provide even Zemo with enough backstory to make his reasons for his wrongdoing impossible to dismiss out of hand.

And, yes, there’s the requisite cameo by the one and only Stan Lee. The Marvel maestro has now clocked appearances in over two dozen superhero films, but his brief bit here ranks among the best. So does the movie itself.

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