Every summer, like clockwork, our planet comes under siege. As blockbuster season sets in, a familiar scene inevitably unfolds in multiplexes across the country: aliens, natural disasters, or vengeful baddies are unleashed upon major metropolitan areas. The earth cracks, buildings crumble, and untold thousands are lost in the rubble. And we in the audience are implicitly expected to look the other way. All those broken bodies would get in the way of our popcorn thrills, so they remain unseen, ensuring that everything remains relatively bloodless and suitably PG-13.
In March, "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" attempted to address this issue head-on, making the destruction and massive loss of lives a prime motivator in the titular feud. The result was only mildly successful. Just two months later, another superhero smackdown offers a superior take on a remarkably similar idea.
"The Winter Soldier" directors Anthony and Joe Russo return for "Captain America: Civil War," and successfully reframe the climactic battles that have ended so many Marvel movies before it. A misstep during a mission in Lagos results in the telekinetic Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) accidentally tearing a hole in an office building and killing dozens. The incident leads to the drafting of the Sokovia Accords -- named after the location of the climactic battle in "Age of Ultron" -- which seeks to make the Avengers subject to oversight by the United Nations.
Still reeling from his guilt over creating the homicidal Ultron, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) immediately agrees to the new measure. Meanwhile Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) -- wary of the Avengers becoming a tool to further whatever secret agenda the government happens to be pursuing that day -- refuses to sign.
Their differing ideologies cause a rift in the Avengers team that forces the remaining members to choose sides like a playground game of kickball. Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) side with Cap; Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), War Machine (Don Cheadle), and Vision (Paul Bettany) go with Iron Man.
Then security footage from a terrorist attack implicates the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), Cap's best bud turned brainwashed super-soldier. Captain America sets out to protect his friend, and the stage is set for a conflict that quickly turns violent. Of course, there's another player pulling the strings.
The Russo brothers are building on the groundwork laid throughout 13 prior films in Marvel Studios' massive, interconnected universe. We've gotten to know these characters, and knowing their personalities adds to the satisfaction in seeing how this all plays out.
Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely do a nice job exploring the opposing sides of the debate, and make it clear where each character is coming from. In exploring the issues of accountability and collateral damage, there are obvious parallels to the real world and the responsibilities of modern warfare and American intervention. For a summer blockbuster, it's relatively nuanced stuff. But at a certain point their level-headed debates need to stop and the fists need to come out because, hey, that's what we paid to see.
During all of this, the Russo brothers find time to introduce two great new characters: Black Panther (a wonderful Chadwick Boseman), an African prince turned crime-fighter, and Spider-Man, played by Tom Holland who portrays the webslinger as a cocky, affably motor-mouthed teen awed by the idea that his idols have asked for his help.
Even with all those characters flying around -- despite the title, this is really the third Avengers film, with only Hulk, Thor, and Nick Fury MIA -- Captain America and his mission remain at the fore. The central conflict remains personal, and those emotional stakes are what make it all work.
The film may be packed, but the Russo brothers find time to let things breathe. There's a sense of joy they're able to bring to the material, never more so than in a standout sequence in which both sides clash in a battle royale on an airport tarmac. In the most comic booky fight we've seen put to film, a dozen heroes clash, and demonstrate their various powers with witty choreography and fan-pleasing inventiveness (even if the camerawork is sometimes too shaky to take it all in).
This infectious enthusiasm and manic energy takes nothing away from the Russo's ability to sell the dark moments, and this story does go to some dark places. Our heroes battle it out, but they never let us lose sight of why it all matters.