In retrospect, "the worst of the Captain Americas" and "the best of the Avengerses" is exactly what somebody with my tastes in Marvel movies should have expected from Captain America: Civil War, and lo and behold, that's exactly what it is. The first film in the much-ballyhooed Phase 3 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is much more a sequel to last summer's dreary Avengers: Age of Ultron (one of the worst of the 13 films in the franchise to date), than it is to 2014's high-strung thriller Captain America: The Winter Soldier (one of the best), but much more than either of those things, it's the movie in which the word "sequel" starts to not have a whole lot of meaning. Prior to now in the MCU, you could get by with any given title as long as you'd seen the previous ones starring the same titular superhero and maybe the most recent Avengers; in order to have a good sense of what the almighty hell is happening at every moment in Civil War, you'll need to have seen not just Age of Ultron, The Winter Soldier, Captain America: The First Avenger, Ant-Man, Iron Man 3 (which means Iron Man and Iron Man 2 also), the first Avengers couldn't hurt... Basically, the film assumes you've seen every one of the twelve preceding films other than Guardians of the Galaxy, and since that's the best of the whole lot, you might as well watch it anyway.

Civil War is, in other words, the point at which this comic book franchise really comes into its birthright: it has finally started to edge into something of the decadence that makes reading actual comic books from Marvel (and let us be fair: from DC also) more of a chore than a pleasure. There's no real point in pretending that these are movies any more: this is a gigantic movie serial writ large, stretched over eight years (and counting! They've got these things scheduled through 2019 and planned out even farther), and not so much designed to be consumed as two-hour objects, but as two-hour chunks of a narrative that will ultimately outlive all of us. To the internet's Comics Faithful, this is heaven itself; for me, I get a little bit tired just thinking about the fact that I'm going to be writing some variant on this same intro for Avengers: Infinity War, Part II three years and nine movies in the future.

On the other hand, since it's better to be optimistic rather than not, that's much less of an annoyance when the individual components of that gigantic multi-film object are this good. Civil War is not without its problems, and one of the biggest is a direct result of the fact that it's laying seed for at least three different follow-up movies, but this is much closer to the best that Marvel Studios can do than it is to the opposite. If it suffers from the obvious shortcomings of the serial format, it also benefits from its most obvious strength: the characters and their interactions are established enough that the film doesn't really need to establish anything, It can hit the ground at speed and does so to its advantage, moving quickly enough that despite a laughably indulgent 147-minute running time, Civil War never really flags or feels like it's spinning its wheels. Mind you, it's not always telling its story terribly well (parts of it are actively confusing, parts of it are blatant digressions), but it sure as hell never slows down.

I have not read all of the kajillion issues that make up the divisive 2006 comic book crossover event that gives Civil War its title and not much else, but as far as I can tell, screenwriters Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely did a good job of completely re-working the plot hook to fit with the tenor of the MCU as it has come into being. Following the events of Age of Ultron, the world has decided that these "superheroes" are more of a danger than a benefit, and the UN has accordingly drafted the Sokovia Accords to limit the Avengers' ability to act without proper authority. Plagued with guilt over his role in precipitating the disaster that made up AoU's third act, Tony "Iron Man" Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) is entirely ready to sign up for the Accords, while Steve "Captain America" Rogers (Chris Evans), probably still smarting from the discovery that governments and politicians can be corrupt, lying bastards in The Winter Soldier, is a lot less certain that this will work out the way it's meant to. And that would be enough to put a tense kink in the Avengers' HQ, except that with surprisingly good timing, Rogers's old WWII body James Buchanan "Bucky" "The Winter Soldier" Barnes (Sebastian Stan) shows up after two years in hiding, to do some generally horrible mischief - namely, blowing up the UN meeting in Vienna where the Accords were to have been ratified. Now Rogers really isn't interested in signing, since he'd rather track down Bucky on his own than let the Proper Authorities gun him down, and that puts him and Stark on opposites sides of a potentially violent conflict... a Civil War, if you will. But you shouldn't, because the situation here absolutely doesn't earn that phrase the way the comic book event did, although the movie makes up for it by presenting a situation that mostly makes sense and seems consistent with the personalities of everybody involved.

All of this is better the less you try to work out the exact reasoning behind everybody's choices, and for God's sake stay away from the political theories underpinning all of this. It's infinitely more satisfying as a clash of personalities, which is probably part of why Civil War doesn't real feel overstuffed despite the fact that by any objective measure, it is. There are too many ways to potentially diagram the narrative, but one of the most appealing is to think of the film in terms of the relationships it pokes at: Rogers vs. Stark, two self-confident leader types in conflict; Vision (Paul Bettany) vs. Wanda "Scarlet Witch" Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), two beings who are rather too overpowered to comfortably fit in these movies, and both fear for their ability to be morally good; Scott "Ant-Man" Lang (Paul Rudd) and Peter "Spider-Man" Parker (Tom Holland), two bug-themed superheroes who really just shouldn't be in this movie. I mean, come on. Obviously, Civil War is going to serve as a trailer for the next few moves in the franchise, and Holland's breathless adolescent enthusiasm makes him a great foil for Downey's crusty sarcasm, but the Spider-Man interlude is just wrong. It is bad screenwriting and bad storytelling and it exists solely so Kevin Feige can show off that he has the rights to Spider-Man now. Congrats, and I'm sure you'll make a much better movie than The Amazing Spider-Man. It's still pointless dead weight to introduce the character here.

But then, back to my point: Civil War is character driven, and there is, however pandering, pleasure to be seen in watching Parker and Stark banter, much as there is pleasure to be seen in watching Lang act like a teenybopper with a crush on Captain America. The movie is great at combining pairs and trios of characters who play off of each other well: the miniature caper film of Rogers, Sam "Falcon" Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and CIA Agent Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp) is full of terrifically sharp writing and great rhythms that suggest they could have just made that the plot of the movie and had an actual Captain America picture. It's even better as a movie about people interacting than it is as a big summer action movie, despite having two terrific setpieces (and, for balance, two kind of awful ones: happily, the good ones come later and thus linger more). Directors Anthony & Joe Russo, lest we forget, came out of television: they have training in exploring the dynamics of people who already knew each other before this story began, and they use it to excellent effect. Nothing is as well-tuned as the interplay between Rogers and Natasha "Black Widow" Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) in The Winter Soldier, not even their interplay here. But there's still plenty that's going right.

The character interactions even end up giving the film surprising gravitas. The only Marvel film with fewer jokes than this has been The Winter Soldier, and seeing the film taking itself seriously is a pleasant, unexpected surprise; the way that the conflict keeps narrowing, until it's literally just Captain America and Iron Man, as people and ethical codes, squaring off in an abandoned military base, ends up making the conflict feel more real and consequential than "the whole planet is at stake, and it is being overrun by CGI!" and the usual fluff and nonsense. It's not worth thinking about it too hard: there are some screenwriting tricks that get us to that final one-on-one battle that are shamefully contrived. And as much fun as it is to hang out with the characters, there's not much to them. Nobody really learns anything or evolves, except for Prince T'Challa of Wakovia (Chadwick Boseman), driven by increasingly manic vengeance until he sees what manic vengeance can do. As a direct result, he's the most interesting character out of the massive cast in Civil War, and the most dynamically performed, and I for one have been fully sold on Black Panther, so huzzah for corporate synergy. Most of the performances are pretty good, though: Downey has never, ever been this interesting in the role, Bettany and Olsen are far more comfortable and given more nuanced material than in Age of Ultron, and so on, and so forth. Daniel Brühl is stellar as the barely-seen villain, and Alfre Woodard steals the whole movie with a one-scene cameo as a grieving mother. Still, these are largely one-note characterizations: there's no actual depth to the people, any more than there are actual philosophies at play in the superhero versus superhero showdown. Civil War is the Marvel machine doing things right, but the machine is still designed to make films with all of the corners rounded off and all of the themes simplistic enough for ten-year-olds to digest in a dozen different languages worldwide. God knows I hope we see more of these moving forward than Age of Ultrons, but this is still a good popcorn movie rather than a great one, and only 30 hours after I watched it, I'm stunned by how much of it has already evaporated from my memory.

Other MCU reviews (Phase 3)
Captain America: Civil War (Russo Brothers, 2016)
Doctor Strange (Derrickson, 2016)
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (Gunn, 2017)
Spider-Man: Homecoming (Watts, 2017)
Thor: Ragnarok (Waititi, 2017)
Black Panther (Coogler, 2018)
Avengers: Infinity War (Russo Brothers, 2018)
Ant-Man and the Wasp (Reed, 2018)
Captain Marvel (Boden & Fleck, 2019)
Avengers: Endgame (Russo Brothers, 2019)
Spider-Man: Far from Home (Watts, 2019)