Chris Evans as Captain America—with that retro-patriotic turtle-shell of a shield strapped on his back, and muscles sculpted into the exaggerated proportions of a parade balloon—looks completely ridiculous. Yet his very lack of embarrassment is what makes him so shiny and wonderful, and his spirit sets the tone for Captain America: Civil War. It’s that rare superhero movie that doesn’t grind you down with nonstop action or, worse yet, the usual tiresome cavalcade of smart-ass wisecracks.
Directors Anthony and Joe Russo have reassembled essentially the same cast from Joss Whedon’s leaden 2015 Avengers: Age of Ultron, including Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, who, thankfully, has more than six lines this time around, and Robert Downey Jr., who dials down his high-strung Tony Stark/Iron Man shtick to bearable levels. Overall, the movie around them is smarter and more intimate. What do superheroes talk about when we’re not around? The dialogue here gives us some idea: It’s Paul Bettany’s gallant, solar-powered Vision attempting to cook a meal for Elizabeth Olsen’s soulful but stubborn Scarlet Witch, under house arrest for possible misuse of her fire-starting powers. This is an act of selfless romantic daring, considering he’s never even eaten before.
Civil War’s plot is more of the usual: The Avengers must work together to vanquish evil, yet their petty disagreements divide them. Well, of course they do! And as in the recent Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, this superhero supergang has been supershamed by the fact that too many innocent civilians tend to be killed while they’re doing the business of dispatching baddies. (At the beginning of Civil War, it’s Olsen’s Scarlet Witch who commits a particularly glaring transgression—she registers the horror of what she’s done with a kind of anguished matter-of-factness, a recognition that she’ll have to live with the consequences for the rest of her days.) Just why are superhero movies only just now cottoning to how many random humans are killed or injured while their protagonists are reducing skyscrapers to rubble or making smoldering scrapheaps out of giant mechanical villains? This carte-blanche carnage has been happening for years now, especially given how elaborate special effects have become; until recently, it seems, we’ve just been expected to look the other way, muttering something about the greater good. Now, superhero guilt and culpability are major plot points, though it’s hard to say if it’s a way of making these characters richer and more complex, or simply of justifying bigger, more elaborate destructo-fests, as long as they’re accompanied by some token handwringing afterward.
Still, in Civil War, regret feels like progress, a hook of feeling for the actors to grab onto (and not just an excuse for a sodden gloominess à la Batman v Superman). Like all modern superhero movies, even this relatively restrained one is still bigger and louder than it needs to be, and it’s overstuffed with action sequences. But the Russos add enough witty touches to prevent complete brain shutdown: There’s Sebastian Stan’s beefy, bipolar Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier handily mounting a spinning motorcycle he’s just grabbed out of the air, and the vision of one superhero (whose identity shall not be revealed by order of the spoiler police) standing so tall and mighty above the rest that he could be a Ray Harryhausen stop-motion giant—it’s a computer-generated effect that still, somehow, retains enough awkwardness to look endearingly handmade.
Yet Captain America is most enjoyable for its quieter moments, and for its more intimate special effects, like Scarlet Witch’s ability to make tiny tongues of flame leap from fingertip to fingertip, or even just the way Evans’s Captain America, frozen in the ’40s only to be thawed in a strange, modern world, always looks a little dreamily out of place, as if he’d really prefer to be listening to Sinatra. And there’s a superb new addition, Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther, an African prince turned enigmatic crimefighter. As both man and cat, he’s patrician and polished, a touch of class padding quietly onto the scene. Like him, Civil War, at its best, is blessedly light on its superhero-booted feet.