Captain America: Civil War has, by a conservative estimate, 13 significant characters. Eleven of those characters have both birth names and superhero names, not to mention superpowers and super-accessories. Every single one of those characters has a backstory — sometimes a lengthy and complex one — that helps drive the events of the plot.
What this tells us is that tent-pole films are no longer envisioned as self-enclosed stories geared to virgin viewers. The Marvelverse is a transmedia empire that encompasses theatrical films, source comics, multiple TV series and more. And Civil War assumes that viewers have a strong acquaintance with the previous films at the bare minimum. If you've been sticking to the full-ensemble Avengers extravaganzas and didn't see Ant-Man, for instance, you're going to be mighty confused when Paul Rudd suddenly pops up and starts quipping.
Confused, but not necessarily unhappy. While Civil War is as wide in scope and as information-overloaded as last year's Avengers: Age of Ultron, it's also more intimate and character-driven, and hence more compelling.
That's because the plot pivots on two personal bonds: one broken, the other restored. The broken bond is the one between the title character (Chris Evans) and Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). In the wake of Ultron's devastation — for which Stark bears the lion's share of responsibility — the bad-boy inventor is ready to let the United Nations step in and give marching orders to the superhero collective. But Captain America/Steve Rogers, the unfrozen patriot, is increasingly suspicious of the military brass and bureaucrats who want to control him.
The other pivotal bond is between Steve and his childhood friend, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), who rose again as the brainwashed Winter Soldier in the film of that name. When Bucky is implicated in the assassination of an African monarch, Steve stands by his friend, defying the UN orders to take him down.
Captain America's renegade status splits the Avengers in two camps and spirals into a conflict that culminates in an all-out battle on an airfield, with surprise guests. Like all the film's action sequences, this one is breathtakingly fast and cleverly staged by directors Anthony and Joe Russo (who also did the previous Captain America installment).
Where the climax of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was positively Wagnerian, turning its battling superheroes into oddly similar icons, the Russos never let you forget you're watching comic-book characters. They keep pausing the storm and fury for moments of bonding and bantering. It's a layering effect that works better with panels and speech balloons, but the Marvel team does it about as well as it's possible to do on-screen. More importantly, all that character development pays off in the film's eventual climax, which feels less like a standard blockbuster blowout than a superpowered version of a pivotal cable drama episode.
Yes, it's all a bit much — by the film's end, not one but three characters have gone on tearful rampages fueled by the need to avenge a loved one's death. Besides bringing long-simmering conflicts to a boil, Civil War introduces players new to the movie-verse, such as Chadwick Boseman as the princely Black Panther, and gives them conflicts of their own.
For complete Marvel neophytes, it's likely to be a baffling, if loud and shiny, experience. But then, that describes most blockbusters these days. The good news about Civil War is that those willing to bone up on the backstory will find characters they actually care about enough to root for. Neither Steve nor Tony is obviously wrong in his approach to the age-old problem of freedom and responsibility, and both argue their cases with more grace than many figures on the current American electoral landscape. Civil wars get a lot less civil than this one.