*Warning: Spoilers*

Captain America: Civil War is a great movie. So great, in fact, that I wish it didn’t have to be tied down to the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe in order to exist. The Captain America films have always been the best of the MCU, but a perfect trilogy of slick and stylish action films is somewhat hampered by being forever tied to a gargantuan franchise that requires audiences to have watched hours upon hours of other films just to make sense of them. It’s a smart business tactic to devote 10% of your runtime to setting up future films, but it’s also  a frustrating novelty that renders future viewings somewhat disjointed. 30 years from now, will audiences have to watch three Iron Man movies, two Avenger films, a Thor flick or two, Ant-Man, and a few seasons of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D and Agent Carter just to follow the story of Captain America?

There are indeed stretches of Civil War that are dedicated to little more than setting up future Marvel film installments, including the beginning of brand-new Black Panther and (yet again) Spider-Man franchises. These elements are all handled with finesse, sure, with Chadwick Boseman as the agile feline and Tom Holland as the web-slinging teenage hero proving to be particularly refreshing newcomers to the Marvel universe (plus a recurring Paul Rudd as Ant Man giving a comedic boost and the film’s best visual effect). But they expand the film’s length to an excessive 147 minutes and, at times, give Civil War the air of being less a Captain America movie and more like a de factor Avengers sequel with only Thor and Hulk M.I.A.

These problems could derail a less interesting movie like they did Age of Ultron, but Civil War is weaving so many interesting strands together and doing it with such class that it almost doesn’t matter. Almost. Certainly, when you’re in the moment and sitting in the darkened theater, Civil War is weaving so many interesting strands together and doing it with such class that it almost doesn’t matter. Key word again: almost. Civil War thankfully restores faith and trumps Age of Ultron in almost every conceivable way. Perhaps most notably, the action sequences here improve upon Ultron’s forgettable, cluttered destruction. Many will highlight the big climactic duel between opposing Avengers as the highlight (and it’s certainly a wild ride watching the shifting allegiances among the chaos), but my favourite was a chase through Bucharest that begins in a claustrophobic East European apartment, moves into a winding staircase that utilizes the better-than-average 3D to great effect, before swiftly expanding outwards, taking to rooftops, and then the streets for a thrilling car chase. It’s a spectacular edge-of-your-seat moment that captures thumping stunt work and hand-to-hand combat over weightless pixels and emphasizes the filmmakers superb staging abilities.

Most surprising, despite its ever-expanding roster of characters, the screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely finds ample time to give everyone their moments of both comedy and drama. Chris Evans is a remarkably under-valued actor in the Marvel films, capable of turning the almost naïve idealism of Captain America into genuine pathos. Evans and Sebastian Stan are able to maneuver the earnest bromance between the Captain and Bucky into something that isn’t laughable. He’s also able to not look embarrassed during a particularly ridiculous mid-action bicep-flexing scene that will no doubt become a popular GIF moment. Scarlett Johansson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, and more do enough to counterbalance Downey Jr.’s smugness, while Boseman and Holland do more than enough to warrant their castings in later stand-alone films.

The film even beats James Bond at its own game of espionage, gadgets, and intrigue. Sure, Bond will never show up in Cleveland – has there ever been a less-riveting location title card than “CLEVELAND”? — buffeted as it is by set-pieces in Berlin, Siberia, and Africa. Still, the filmmaking brothers of Anthony and Joe Russo have stumbled upon a really strong aesthetic that sets their films apart from not just the other Marvel films that generally abstain from directorial flare (something which has led to several directors being hired and then leaving due to “artistic differences”), but other action adventure films, as well.

And Marvel has noticed; the pair will be in charge of the two-part finale Avengers: Infinity War in 2018 and 2019. Pretty good for a couple of guys who had previously done most of their work on television comedies like Community and Happy Endings. Where that film goes, I haven’t the slightest idea, since there are no less than SIX MCU titles between now and its conclusion. But on the basis of this latest edition, I am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. As a Captain America film, Civil War is fantastic. As an audition for the next Avengers movie, it teases with possibility.

Captain America: Civil War is in cinemas May 6th.

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