Captain America: Civil War is a comic book pulped into today's newspaper. The bright colors have been desaturated into a crisp, clean gray. So has the plot, which jettisons the Avengers' aliens and astral gizmos for an earthbound mano-a-enhanced-mano between Iron Man and Captain America, both backed up by their dodgeball teams. Open a newspaper and there are 19 civil wars happening right now. This new Captain America makes it an even 20, while demanding we bear witness to the other headlines we'd rather skim: suicide bombings in Nigeria; terrorist bombings in Europe; bloodied victims sitting stunned next to ambulances; secret government prisons; and ineffectual United Nations resolutions. Enjoy your popcorn!
Actually, you will enjoy that popcorn, because Captain America: Civil War isn't just the third Steve Rogers spin-off. It's the best Avengers movie to date, with an all-star cast that includes so many new and newish faces that there's no time to miss Hulk and Thor, the only absent Garbos. It's the Met Ball of Marvel movies — anybody who's anybody is there and dressed in literally killer couture. Bonus fashion kudos to debut hero Black Panther, played by an imperious and charismatic Chadwick Boseman, whose catsuit comes with an embedded necklace and retractable vibranium manicure. (Expect to see Jaden Smith wearing a knockoff at the Video Music Awards.)
In the first 10 minutes, Civil War directors Joe and Anthony Russo make their mission clear: This comic-book movie will be real. Most filmmakers mistake "real" for dark and punishing, as though the average human is a mope surrounded by psychos. (Yes, I'm looking at you, Batman v Superman.) But to the Russos, real means relatable. The villain isn't a galactic ghoul, but a mortal with a stockpile of explosives. Lacking magic hammers and giant green men, our heroes fight with punches and kicks. And, most relatable of all, the movie finally admits that normal people matter. Usually, a PG-13 movie treats bystanders like cockroaches living under the fridge. We assume they're there when Hulk slams Iron Man into a skyscraper. Sometimes, the camera captures them scattering. But we'd rather not think about it, and, to keep a family-friendly rating, these films look away from the squashed goo.
I can't even count how many skyscrapers exploded in The Avengers 1 and 2. Here, the big opening action sequence that sets up the film ends with telekinetic Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) accidentally firebombing one corner of a building. Yet this is the first blast to get a body count: 11 dead civilians, all from Black Panther's home country of Wakanda. Wanda — otherwise known as the Scarlet Witch — becomes the most demonized woman on the news. In the next scene, Tony Stark is confronted by a grieving mother who lost her son in Sokovia. Suddenly, the smash-em-up happy endings of every other Marvel film are rebuked. What have we really been cheering for?
Thirteen films into the franchise, this is a strange, smart reversal that manages to both apologize for its past violence and reframe the entire series. It even steps back enough to question the entire Marvel blockbuster universe: What if the reason Earth has suffered 13 almost-apocalypses in eight years is because the initial emergence of Iron Man enticed killers to take their best shot? (We don't buy that pass-the-blame theory for a second, but cute effort, cash-counting studio execs.)
With innocent humans a protected species (at least until Thanos comes laser-blasting for them in Avengers 3), the superdudes have no one left to hurt but each other. Stark capitulates to government pressure and demands that the Avengers sign the Sokovia Accords, a 117-country treaty that treats them like weaponry. Captain America can't cede his powers to bureaucrats — his brainwashed best friend Bucky, a miserable Hydra mercenary, proves that a winter soldier is only as good as his commanders. When the scraggly Bucky, looking like a rock star on a bender he can't remember, is spotted blowing up politicians, the battle lines are drawn: Cap wants to bring his friend in alive. Stark declares him rogue. This time, our old heroes can't both win. But they'll bludgeon each other — and the rest of their supersquads — trying.
This all sounds bleak. It is. Yet the Russos keep the mood light enough for laughs — a magic feat as staggering as Wanda levitating a truck. At this point, we know these characters so well that they can speak in shorthand, like a family reunion where everyone still cracks up at Uncle Tony's same old punch line. Anthony Mackie's Falcon wrings giggles with just a wounded look. The inhumanly wise Vision (Paul Bettany) is used for comic relief, unnerving people by floating into their bedrooms and offering to cook them paprikash. And Tom Holland's pubescent Peter Parker actually made me look forward to this decade's third new web-slinger just by saying his own name. "Sp-spider-man," he stammers, suddenly ashamed by his own swagger when he's too young to grow a beard.
But, as the title promises, this sequel is all brawls — two and a half hours of traded blows — building up to a centerpiece battle of Black Panther versus Hawkeye versus Black Widow versus Falcon versus Rhodey versus Bucky versus Vision versus Wanda versus Spider-man versus Ant-man versus Iron Man versus O Captain our Captain. As our heroes duked it out on an airport tarmac, I pictured the Russo brothers as children in their Cleveland driveway clashing their action figures together and squabbling over which toy is best. "Falcon beats Spider-man 'cause he flies!" "Nuh-uh! Spider-man's webs can stick Falcon to the ground!"
The Russos' mega-million-dollar adult playground has that same manic energy -- it helps that these fighters are mostly athletes and engineers, not Norse gods -- and the tactile smash-crash of metal hitting concrete. The camerawork is too shaky, but you can still see that Black Widow gets the coolest fight choreography. (And, for once, the camera doesn't reward her hard work by squatting in the perfect place to get a glamour shot of her ass.) That sounds like faint praise, but with Civil War, the Russos have won an impossible fight: They've gotten me eager to see the next 10 (yes, 10) Marvel movies. As Black Panther growls, "The living are not done with you yet."