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Superhero Slap Fight

Marvel men behaving badly in Captain America: Civil War
Robert Downey Jr. in Captain America: Civil War
Robert Downey Jr. in Captain America: Civil War

Those of us who have been complaining that the stakes in superhero movies have gotten ridiculously high, that it’s always the end of the world, will be relieved that Captain America: Civil War brings things back down to Earth. There are no aliens, no artificial intelligences, no angry gods or malignant outside forces.

The villains here are just men.

Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo, Civil War opens with a gorgeously choreographed set piece that ties off one of several dangling threads from Winter Soldier (2014), the second installment in Marvel’s Captain America franchise. Working gloriously as a team, the Avengers solve the immediate problem but create another: An explosion kills people in a nearby building. Combine that with the grieving mother who confronts Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), and the movie’s point seems clear: All that collateral damage you’ve been complaining about in Age of Ultron and Man of Steel and the like? It has to stop.

But should this team control itself or, instead, be placed under outside supervision? Stark, offered an external way to put his arrogance in check, basically says: Yes, please, stop me from hurting anyone else and keep my friends from getting hurt. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), for reasons also involving his friends, disagrees. The team splits, and they cause a lot more collateral damage fighting about it — you get the picture.

Except the oversight argument isn’t really the point. (If it were, there would be some gesture toward a serious argument about the good the Avengers have done.) Civil War nods to its political parallels, but then focuses on the way ego, fear and love drive a person’s choices. The divide between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers turns the movie into a sort of Rorschach test: Do you side with cocky, troubled Stark, who can’t express his emotions but is burning up with PTSD and guilt? Or with Rogers, who doesn’t trust the authorities after what happened in the previous movie that bore his name?

Personally, I’m for Team Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen). With Thor and Hulk absent, this reformed baddie is easily the most powerful human on the team, and the movie doesn’t know what to do with her — an unfortunately apt statement on women in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in general (a few good Black Widow moments notwithstanding). Tony puts Wanda under house arrest with Vision (Paul Bettany), whose crush on her makes the entire situation extra creepy; she gets another pep talk from Clint (Jeremy Renner), but mostly she’s there as an object of the disagreement. However accidentally, Wanda killed people in this new, enlightened world, and must do the time for all of them.

Civil War is essentially a nasty disagreement among friends that degenerates into a powered-up slap fight. (One of the filmmakers’ best choices is to have the fights collapse along with the arguments; the last blow-up has nothing of the opening sequence’s grace.) At least these superfriends can still crack a joke (I’ve never been more grateful for Anthony Mackie’s light touch) and, for all its seriousness, Civil War sustains a much-needed sense of humor.

The movie also does what it needs to do in terms of future Marvel films, which is to say it leaves us wanting more of Chadwick Boseman’s scene-stealing Black Panther. Is it 2018 yet? (Regal Valley River, Cinemark 17)