Captain America: Civil War is gravy. Real gravy uses the run off produced while cooking meat to create a fatty, flavorful sauce that is served with the meal. It's not consumed alone, because that would be weird and kind of disgusting. But added to the other parts of the meal already on the plate, it changes and enhances the flavor. And so Civil War is the thick, delicious gravy poured atop the fluffy biscuit that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It can only be succeed by building on the previous 12 films in the franchise. While some could easily fault the film for not being totally accessible to newcomers, why create a 'cinematic universe' and not reap the benefits? Essentially picking up after the events of last year's Age of Ultron, the film opens with Captain America (Chris Evans) leading the team shown at the end of that film: Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olson), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), War Machine (Don Cheadle), and Falcon (Anthony Mackie). The team is tracking down Brock Rumlow (Frank Grillo), the traitorous Hydra agent from Captain America: Winter Soldier. While attempting to apprehend Rumlow, collateral damage from the fight leads the world to make the final push for the Sokovia Accords, which would give the United Nations authority over the Avengers.
This divides the team, with Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) being the strongest voice in favor of the Accords, while Captain America believes that the Avengers have the most impact without oversight as they can be free of others' political agendas. This fracture is deepened when a bombing occurs at the signing of the Accords, and evidence points to Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) being responsible. All while the villainous Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl) advances his own agenda.
That seems like it is a huge amount to set up, but the film handles it efficiently because it is a natural extension from what has come before. Civil War is free from the constraint of exposition, as even the division between these friends and teammates are widening the fissures that were already present in Age of Ultron. Even introducing two new characters, T'Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) doesn't slow the pace of the story much. T'Challa especially is nicely woven into the fold, as he is driven by his own agenda, different from the other characters. The Spider-Man stuff doesn't flow quite as smoothly, but Holland's performance is so energetic that it is easy to overlook.
The most impressive aspect of Civil War is that it balances telling a relatively complex superhero story while giving each of its (many) characters full arcs. Each character has a journey that happens in conjunction with the Accords and the Winter Solider-driven plots, and is identifiable because of the tight script work in this film as well as the continuity of character across all of the other films. While never diving as deep into the psychology of these characters in the way Joss Whedon did in Age of Ultron, it ends up being a more coherent experience, though also more shallow. One approach is not superior to the other, though Civil War is more immediately satisfying.
The story Civil War is telling also benefits from being character-driven. Rather than having to invent yet another existential crisis, the conflict is born from the characters. This allows the film to avoid the normal Marvel plot cadence (the ending of this film does not involve a portal or device that needs to be switched off), which also helps the film stand out from its peers.
Deciding if this is the best Marvel film to date will require a few more viewings, but it is safe to say that Civil War is absolutely part of that conversation. But none of those other movies have the Vision (Paul Bettany) wearing a sweater. So...case closed?
Captain America: Civil War opens today in Philly theaters.