Superhero movies have become staid, derivative and devoid of purpose, a malady that reached its nadir with the stultifying “Batman v Superman.” Like the aged, limp-hitting New York Yankees, the genre desperately needs new blood. A spark. A beating heart. Or, so you would think. Turns out it’s a nearly 100-year-old man leaping to the rescue. And his name is Steve Rogers; or, as you probably know him best, Captain America.
He’s tan, he’s fit and he’s got a rejuvenative script that shaves away all the fat and cuts to the meat of what it means to literally carry the world on your excessively broad shoulders. It’s titled “Civil War,” which perfectly sums up what’s going on in this spectacular movie, and in a real-life America that’s being ripped apart at the seams by an ever-faster festering recurrence of racism, hate and xenophobia.
It skillfully reminds us that no matter our intentions, our actions have consequences that can appear both immediately and in the distant future. And often, those consequences are death. These are basic facts that have – for various reasons – escaped the consciences of the formidable group of Marvel superheroes collectively known as the Avengers, including their de facto leaders, Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.). They, too, are a reflection of real-life America: Steve Rogers being the progressive Democrat with libertarian leanings; and Tony Stark as the war-mongering one-percenter fully invested in the military industrial complex.
As every Marvel fan knows, in “Civil War” the two are at odds over which direction to take the country, err, Avengers. But what’s neat is that they think the opposite of what you’d expect. It’s Stark who wants more government, agreeing with the secretary of state (William Hurt) that an agency should be formed to oversee the Avengers; and it’s Rogers who wants complete autonomy. But it’s what these two men share that gives this movie so much heart. And that is their guilt over the many innocent lives that their benevolent actions have claimed during throw downs in New York, Washington and the fictional Sokovia. Just as interesting is how the other Avengers (minus Thor and Hulk, who are conspicuously missing) choose up sides. Do they follow Iron Man, or throw in with Cap?
Then there’s the surprisingly riveting side plot concerning Cap’s continued loyalty to the brainwashed killing machine Bucky Barnes (the underappreciated Sebastian Stan), or, “the Manchurian Candidate,” as Stark snarkily refers to him. Is he worth saving? The Captain thinks so. But, us, we’re not so sure; same for the Sokovia Accords, which will establish an international committee to police how the Avengers exercise their immense powers. The movie has you constantly switching sides.
That’s a credit to directing brothers Anthony and Joe Russo, who make a seismic leap forward from their middling production of Cap’s last adventure: “The Winter Soldier.” A lot of that is due to a script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely that flows effortlessly and moves surprisingly quickly for a 149-minute movie. What’s special is how they go deep and existential without foregoing the superhero touchstones: the big car chase (wait until you see how niftily Bucky commandeers a motorcycle); the high-decibel, clanging-metal fight scenes; the super feats of strength and, of course, the wisecracking.
But like the last truly great superhero movie, “Spider-Man 2,” this one thrives on its quieter, seemingly throwaway moments: Bucky and the Cap recalling their youth in 1930s Brooklyn; Bucky pleading with Anthony Mackie’s Sam (aka The Falcon) to move his seat forward in the tiny VW Bug they’re shoehorned into; Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda (aka The Scarlet Witch) offering cooking tips to Paul Bettany’s copper-faced droid, Vision; and my favorite, Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man going all starry-eyed when he finally meets his hero, Captain America.
Wow! That’s a lot of superheroes. And I didn’t even mention Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, Don Cheadle’s War Machine, or Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye. Yet, somehow, the Russos find room for all of them, plus newcomers Black Panther (an outstanding Chadwick Boseman) and Spider-Man (the hilarious Tom Holland), who comes rockin’ with an Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) so incredibly HOT she might make Mr. Stark forget all about Pepper Potts. In fact, there are so many Avengers, you wonder why they didn’t just dub this “Avengers 3: Civil War” since Captain America is essentially just another member of a huge, talented ensemble.
Still, Evans, with his bulging muscles and “perfect teeth” (he even makes his stupid costume look hot), makes sure his presence is felt. He and Downey are clearly the stars, and the others just groveling for crumbs. But lucky for them, even the crumbs are memorable and delicious, as everyone gets at least one funny line, along with a chance to bust one of their co-workers in the chops. Most of those fisticuffs land during the film’s best set piece, when the Avengers choose up sides and have at it on an airport tarmac, smashing planes and control towers like they’re constructed of toothpicks. And the ability to convincingly grow one of the combatants to Godzilla size is just part of the mind-blowing achievements reached by a special-effects department that consistently dazzles you with its array of crumbling buildings, crashing helicopters and the most exotic prison you’ll ever see.
Speaking of penitentiaries, I almost forgot to mention the villain, even though he IS little more than an afterthought. But Daniel Bruhl’s Zemo still makes an impression, even drawing empathy for what it was that drove him to the dark side. Therein lies what makes this film so special: Its humanity. For once, we see superheroes bleed and sustain life-threatening injuries. Even better, they really talk to each other, even during fights, which we’re reminded is about as taboo as crying in baseball. And what they have to say often stings, whether it’s learning how your parents died and who killed them; or questioning what it is you do. Is it heroism or vigilantism?
That question is enticingly left for you to decide, and everyone will surely take from “Civil War” what they want. But what everyone will agree on is that Cap has not just saved the world, he’s saved a comic book universe from complacency by boldly raising the ante on all who dare follow this wonderful, magnificent entertainment.

Movie review
CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR(PG-13 for intense sequence of action, violence and mayhem.)
Cast includes Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie and Don Cheadle.
Grade: A-