T he scheduling for the Marvel movies is so meticulous, we know the exact days its next nine titles will open, through 2020. But for a globe-conquering pop-culture phenomenon that will dominate movie screens for years to come, the Marvel Comics universe sure flies by the seat of its pants. Each new movie in this blockbuster saga throws in a batch of new wrinkles, many of which seem to be forgotten about or seriously revised by the time the next installment comes out. For instance, red-and-gold billionaire Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), also known as Iron Man, was clearly bowing out of the Avengers at the end of 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, as the superhero crew rejiggered its starting lineup.
Well, forget that. Captain America: Civil War has plenty of Stark. Downey’s contract negotiations were reportedly of the hardball variety, and his once-diminished role here has been beefed up accordingly. And out of nowhere—well, Queens, actually—the movie finds room for Spider-Man (Tom Holland), the rights to that character having been snapped up by Marvel (now owned by Disney) when previous Spidey contract-holder Sony suddenly decided to cut a deal. All right, fine—at least these incongruities add a little volatility to the Marvel long-term strategic corporate plan.
Civil War plucks a thread from Captain America: The Winter Soldier, one of the most enjoyable installments in the Marvel series. Cap (Chris Evans) discovers that his old pal Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) remains a dangerous “Manchurian Candidate” of sorts—a plot that, incredibly, ties back to Tony Stark’s origin story.
Meanwhile, the governments of the world want to rein in the Avengers, having noticed (as critics pointed out after the first few movies) that an awful lot of innocent people seem to get slaughtered when the Avengers save humanity. Stark and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) favor signing an agreement that would make the Avengers accountable to the world order; Captain America and his acolytes, including Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), opt for going rogue.
Putting aside for a moment the fact that this sounds like the opposite alignment for our leads—surely snarky Stark would play the anti-establishment card and Captain America would fall in line with authority—this division never feels especially useful. Aren’t there enough megavillains to supply stupid excuses for extensive mayhem? Instead, nominal bad guy Helmut Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) mostly works on the sidelines while our indestructible superheroes punch each other out in a series of numbing set-pieces. Directing brothers Anthony and Joe Russo find a few ways to cater to the specialty acts: In a pumped-up airport melée, Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) gets a frankly glorious workout. A new character, Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), enjoys a lively “Hey, who’s that guy?” arrival in his be-clawed catsuit. And the movie authentically stirs to life when Spider-Man is introduced, young Peter Parker’s gooey shtick having come to Stark’s attention through YouTube videos.
But too much of Civil War involves ginning up the phony conflict and preparing future storylines. The periodic displays of warm, witty communal behavior in the first Iron Man and Avengers pictures are rare here; in digital 3D, the people onscreen don’t even look human, especially when they don’t have their gear on. Thank Hydra for Downey, whose be-bopping style brings energy and humor. There’s a moment when Stark wants to clap newcomer Parker on the back, but Downey hesitates, holding his hand in the air for a moment, as though knowing that the welcoming touch will seal this kid’s future in the thankless world of crimefighting. That actor’s instinct says so much, and it’s a measure of what’s missing from the rest of this movie.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is meant to be viewed like a long-form TV series, so reviewing a single installment as though it were a discrete entity feels absurd. The various in-jokes and call-backs will stroke diehard fans who’ve mainlined the previous films repeatedly; otherwise, steering the apparatus carefully toward 2020 is what this is all about. Civil War makes a pretense of pondering the consequences of going rogue. But Marvel is all about playing it safe. Captain America: Civil War. Rated PG-13. Opens in muliple theaters Fri., May 6.