On one hand, "Captain America: Civil War" is a corrective to March's dour, punishing "Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice," where one can actually imagine someone caring about the heroes. On the other, it's a film with many of the same problems as "BvS" — facile deployment of big themes, elephantine running-time, contrived plot machinations — and all of the drawbacks of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. If it's a tick less stultifying than last year's "Avengers: Age of Ultron," it's equally draining.
The plot, loosely based on the "Civil War" limited series in the mid-2000s, involves a series of international measures to put the Avengers in check following the collateral damage of several missions. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) supports the initiative, the weight of lives lost hanging over him; Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) is opposed. Things get more complicated when an attack apparently made by Cap's brainwashed friend Bucky Barnes/The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Shaw) forces Iron Man to try to bring him in while Cap protects him, pushing the Avengers into conflict. Oh, there's also a bland villain (Daniel Bruhl, trying his best to enliven the part) with his own hidden agenda, but he's easy to forget when he's not on screen.
There are several more moving pieces (there always are in these things): Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Paul Rudd and half a dozen others reprising their various roles, with new additions T'Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and yet another Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) joining in. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo, like "Avengers"-helmer Joss Whedon before them, have a long list of ensemble-driven TV shows to their names, making them ideal picks for juggling all of the cast members and giving most of them a moment or two.
The freshest cast members fare the best, with Boseman's commanding Black Panther, Rudd's smart-alecky Ant-Man and Holland's excitable teenage Spider-Man leavening the proceedings. Holland in particular is a nice corrective to the disastrously smug Andrew Garfield interpretation, bringing back some of Tobey Maguire's sincerity with his own jocularity.
But with their TV credits comes a certain dull functionality to the images, a house style without style that sits on the whole Marvel enterprise (lots of bland). The dialogue scenes in "Civil War" take on a subtext "let's get to the next thing and stay out of the way" as the heroes glean over the moral implications of the government's role in the Avengers' work and the guilt of Bucky Barnes.
The conversations never complicate the film as much as they pay lip service to the idea of complication. The actors are all pros, but there's so little new thrown their way and so little help from the directors to underline their psychologies that they're mostly just hitting their marks, given a pretext to start punching. Though there's finally some emotional motivation drudged up in the last half hour, it's too little too late and easily swept over to ensure there's no hard feelings (read: brand-compromising emotional semi-complexity) by the end.
It might be easy to overlook if the actual sight of superheroes fighting were exciting — I'm human, I like seeing superheroes duking it out as much as the next person. But "seeing" is the operative word here, and the Russos have little faculty for shooting action. The filmmakers bring the same trigger-happy editing scheme that rendered much of the mostly enjoyable "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" nigh-incomprehensible, and it mostly blurs and obscures the sight of Cap and Iron Man's (among others) punches. This isn't the propulsive, jarring approach Paul Greengrass or Kathryn Bigelow bring to their action — it's just sloppy.
More than anything else, "Civil War" has the same problem, whether it's in the action scenes or the dialogue, that several of the MCU films have: It's marking time. It's simultaneously gargantuan enough to feel like it's the one they've all been building to and brand-extension happy to the point where it's still setting up for something bigger. It's the latest product, dutifully pleasing the studio higher-ups and the die-hards and never striving for more. After 13 of these things in nine years (and nine more promised in the next four years), enough already.