At points over the past year, it looked like the worm was beginning to turn on the dominance of comic-book movies.
Sure, Avengers: Age of Ultron finished as the third highest-grossing movie of 2015, but it cost $30 million more and made $125 million less than its predecessor. Marvel's follow-up, Ant-Man, was a modest financial success from a studio accustomed to mega-blockbusters. The reception to both films, from fans and critics alike, was decidedly mixed.
Then there were the real turkeys. The Fantastic Four, made by 20th Century Fox for $120 million, pulled in just $56 million domestically and had an execrable score of nine percent "fresh" on the aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes. Warner Brothers' Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice managed a just dismal 28 percent "fresh."
But however bad it was, the latest D.C. Comics film property did pretty well at the box office, as has Fox's Deadpool (both have topped $350 million domestically). All of which puts the pressure on Marvel and Disney to return to form with Captain America: Civil War, opening this Friday nationwide.
I'm pleased to report they hit this one out of the park.
Filmmakers Joe and Anthony Russo (who earlier produced 2014's strong Captain America: Winter Soldier as a 1970s-style conspiracy thriller and who are signed on to replace director Joss Whedon on the next two Avengers films) here take the basic formula inherited from Whedon and turn all the dials up to 11: More action, more pathos, more locations, more jokes and more characters, with Chadwick Boseman's Black Panther and Tom Holland's Spider-Man (a character rebooted for the second time in less than a decade) serving as the new major arrivals. This approach could have gone horribly wrong, doubling down on the bloated mess that doomed Age of Ultron , but the Russos manage to make it work.
In the comics, the Civil War storyline originally was a heavy-handed and not entirely successful post-9/11 metaphor for our policy debates over surveillance and homeland security. The picture does offer a version of that plot — high-profile international incidents lead to a call for more governmental oversight of superheroes, sparking deep philosophical disagreements between Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) — but it smartly keeps the focus off the politics. The film instead serves as an extended rumination on the nature of familial and fraternal ties, as well as the notions of loyalty and (as befits a movie that essentially serves as Avengers III) vengeance.
All of which makes this sound far heavier than the film that actually unspools onscreen. What Civil War is, first and foremost, is a perfect popcorn picture, with a steady stream of perfectly choreographed fight and chase scene set-pieces that keep one from even noticing its 2:26 running time. Perhaps realizing that one of the weaknesses of Marvel movies past is that the villains (with the exception of Tom Hiddleston's Loki) have tended to be kind of lame, the film more or less dispenses with any true "big bad" and has the heroes mostly fight each other, to great effect. The effects keep getting better, though the single most eye-popping one this time around involves a CGI recreation of Downey's face from 30 years ago.
There is so very much this film gets right. As great as the action is, what's even more impressive is that everything is very much grounded in character. Each hero has motivations that make sense and each member of this huge and talented cast gets to add their own shadings. Holland, in particular, is a revelation, which is a positive sign as he prepares to launch his own franchise next year. For once, Peter Parker isn't a haunted soul, but a skinny, wiseacre kid, exactly how most fans best remember him (although straight men of my generation may need a moment or two to wrap their brains around the idea of the still eminently foxy Marisa Tomei as Peter's "elderly" Aunt May).
For those tired of the comic-book movie "fad," I'm sorry to report I don't think they're going away quite yet. Marvel is back strong, and the first great summer blockbuster of 2016 has arrived.