CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR
It’s no secret that Marvel Studios routinely tosses a bonus scene or two into the end credits of its comic-book movies as a means of jacking up anticipation for adventures, and Avengers, yet to come. I rarely stay for these things, as I’m usually more than ready to leave the auditorium by the time “Directed by ...” flashes on-screen, and I didn’t stick around for the credit cookies in Captain America: Civil War, either. (From what I understand, one of them is designed to build interest in Ryan Coogler’s forthcoming Black Panther. Personally, I was on-board with the project the instant I saw Coogler’s name attached.) But about halfway through the good Captain’s new solo outing – one that’s really an Avengers sequel in everything but title – I suddenly found myself nearly giddy with excitement for an upcoming Marvel flick without having to wait for the inevitable teasers. Halfway through, you see, is when Spider-Man arrives.
I know, I know. Him again. And if you were somehow previously unaware: Yes, the web-slinger is getting yet another franchise re-boot. (When the series debuts next year, it will have been a decade and a half since Sam Raimi’s “original” with Tobey Maguire, which somehow feels simultaneously like yesterday and forever ago.) Yet while you’d have been hard-pressed to find anyone less stoked about Spider-Man’s incipient return than me, you may now have to fight me for first-in-line honors in 2017, because every second with the guy here is a grin-inducing treat. If Hulk stole the show in 2012’s The Avengers, Spidey – by which I mean his portrayer Tom Holland – gets bragging rights for directors Anthony and Joe Russo’s Civil War, a more-than-decent superhero epic that delivers occasional moments of explosive, child-like joy.
To even use the word “joy” in the context of a modern comic-book movie is, frankly, a relief, especially in light of this latest release’s early trailers, which suggested the series was leaning toward Snyder-ian levels of portentous über-seriousness. I shouldn’t have worried. Heaven knows there are Issues addressed and Themes explored, and the twinned Hero v Hero plotlines – one involving the Avengers facing U.N. regulation, one involving a terrorist attack presumably initiated by “Winter Soldier” Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) – certainly give the densely populated cast plenty of reasons to furrow their brows. But this is Marvel. (This is also Anthony and Joe Russo, who, for me, will never be “the Marvel directors” so much as “the guys who directed the Arrested Development pilot.”) No matter how dire the narrative circumstances, the studio is always, in the end, committed to fun, even if some of its titles are wa-a-ay less fun than others. No matter how bleak events get, you can always count on the mood being lightened by clever quips and visual gags and random pop-culture references. (Among many options, including the name-dropping of Mark Furhman, Civil War’s finest throwaway would have to be Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man casually nicknaming Barnes “Manchurian Candidate,” a joke that I pray lands with the film’s target demographic.)
And no matter how chaotic and downright ugly the action set pieces get – with a pair of early ones here so hyper-edited that you can’t tell what the hell is happening – they’re relatively easy to forget about when a good 75 percent of the movie is spent with predominantly excellent actors just, you know, talking. I don’t know what we did right to deserve our three minutes with Alfre Woodard, who plays a grieving state-department official and gives Downey a heartbreaking, wholly deserved dressing-down. But God bless her for showing up, and you frequently feel that same sizzle of performance energy in scenes with Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie, and even Captain America Chris Evans, all of whom go toe-to-toe with Downey and shake him loose from the sardonic lethargy of his recent Iron Man portrayals. Daniel Brühl, unfortunately, is underwhelming, and really kind of immaterial, as Civil War’s resident Euro-baddie Zemo; with his big eyes and adorable chubby cheeks, he may as well be Tickle Me Zemo. Why complain, however, when we’re also given Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Chadwick Boseman (a very promising Black Panther), Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Paul Rudd, William Hurt, Emily VanCamp, Martin Freeman, John Slattery, Hope Davis ... ?
Oh yeah, and Tom Holland. There will, no doubt, eventually be far more to say about his Spider-Man/Peter Parker interpretation that, at present, suggests a sweetly goofy kid whose amazing powers dropped on him last week in tandem with the dropping of his testicles. Yet while there was much to enjoy in this perfectly solid superhero saga – especially the surprisingly funny six-on-six battle royale and Evans being stretched between a departing helicopter and a rooftop’s edge, his torso forming a perfect “V” – it’s 19-year-old Holland who truly embodies the Marvel spirit. His introduction, a tongue-tied first encounter with Downey in which Peter endearingly attempts to hide his alter ego, is one for the ages, and is made all the more delightful for the additional intro to Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May, who you (Spidey-)sense will soon be making Gwyneth Paltrow a distant memory. (I hope Tomei is comfortable knowing she may be referred to as “Aunt Hottie” for the remainder of her career.) Make no mistake: Like its Marvel forebears, Captain America: Civil War is assembly-line product. Would that all products in its line were made with such welcome regard for their customers’ happiness.