Is Civil War the best Avengers-related Marvel movie yet?

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

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

Funny how “patriotism” gets continually redefined depending on such variables as which party currently holds the presidency, whether or not the nation is officially at war or how well the economy’s doing. Surely I’m not the only Baby Boomer to have observed that the same sorts of people who accused us of being “unpatriotic” for opposing the Vietnam War are now calling Obama’s birth certificate a forgery and identifying Big Government as the root of all evil. Now, imagine how much more exaggerated that tightrope dance of Americanness looks to Steve Rogers after going into a deep-freeze during World War II and being reawakened in the early 21st century. No wonder the guy is going through such an identity crisis in the series of movies from the Marvel Universe most recently manifested in Captain America: Civil War.

Last time we saw Cap (Chris Evans) on the big screen, in Avengers: Age of Ultron, the rigid, righteous, wholesome warrior of the ol’ Red, White and Blue was starting to let down his crewcut a little, chuckling at jokes made at his expense and even allowing himself to be provoked into some mild profanity. But in the third installment of the Captain America film franchise, he has taken a turn toward the Tea Party movement, going rogue rather than sign an agreement that would make the Avengers accountable to an agency of the United Nations and defuse international tensions.

Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) and some of his other SHIELD colleagues, guilt-ridden over the high civilian body count in the wake of their last few campaigns to save the Earth from malevolent aliens and other mega-baddies, think that the time has indeed come for some accountability; viewers reminded of the level of CGI destruction in the last several Avenger movies via a collage of clips might tend to agree. But Cap no longer trusts any governmental or supergovernmental entity with an “agenda.” Someone chucks a whopping big bomb at the meeting to sign the Sokovia Accords, and the man who ran looks a lot like…Steve’s boyhood pal, fellow cryogenics lab alum and easily programmable assassin Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), a/k/a the Winter Soldier.

This complicates matters immensely, and a whole lot of Avengers – plus some new recruits – need to decide which side they’re on. The upshot is a sort of all-star superhero version of the 1968 Japanese kaiju flick Destroy All Monsters, with an excellent battle royal in an airport towards the end. But it’s a bit of a slog getting there – especially the first third of the movie, which has smaller fights featuring lots of spiffy stunts but may leave you muddled as to who’s killing whom and why, if you don’t eat, drink, sleep and breathe Marvel Comics characters. If you haven’t seen the previous Captain America film directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, Winter Soldier, I highly recommend watching it before you tackle Civil War. I’d seen it, but too long ago to have more than a fuzzy recollection of the convoluted Cap/Bucky dynamic. The hero’s dogged loyalty to his highly compromised friend is key to the central conflict of the new movie.

It’s mildly interesting to tease out the motivations of the various players; the two main antagonists, Captain America and Iron Man, each have their reasons, neither one’s entirely pure. (And both are being played in a villainous megascam, of course.) A welcome third-party point of view is supplied by the latest Marvel superhero to be introduced to the screen franchise, Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), the son of the assassinated king of a fictional African country.

Speaking of changes of perspective, Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) joins the fray and provides an excuse for some spectacular size-morphing visuals. Things really start to pick up when Stark recruits teenaged Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) to his side. Spidey’s exuberance, overconfidence and inexperience combine to supply some of the funniest bits during the big fight scene.

Quieter moments allow for some interesting acting turns from supporting players like Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, who can see both sides of the argument, and the wonderful Paul Bettany as Vision, who used to be the voice of Iron Man’s indispensable AI aide JARVIS but got transformed into a virtual superhero, sort of by accident, in Age of Ultron. Though buried in robot makeup and required to maintain an affectless demeanor, Bettany is touching as he muddles through burgeoning human feelings of protectiveness toward Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), the Avengers’ biggest loose cannon whom he is assigned to keep out of trouble. It’s sort of like watching Mr. Spock fall quizzically in love.

On the minus side, Bruce Banner/the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) is either off on a secret assignment or sulking in some obscure corner of the world doing doctory things, so we are deprived of the Banner/Stark banter that’s usually so entertaining. On the plus side for those with low tolerance for fakey-sounding Scandinavian accents, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) seems to be off vacationing in Asgard for this round as well.

Is Civil War the best Avengers-related Marvel movie yet, as some critics are claiming? I don’t know that I’d go that far. But it’s fun, occasionally thought-provoking and manages to nudge the franchise forward with less collateral damage than usual. And not all the contentiousness is resolved at the end, so I for one will be interested enough to plunk down a few bucks to see where this saga goes next.

P.S. As with all Marvel movies, do sit all the way through the closing credits, so that you don’t miss all the Easter eggs. Oh, and keep half an eye out for that white-haired FedEx delivery guy.

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