It's a bit of a strange thing to say, but I might have liked Captain America: Civil War better if it were a less good movie. When films like The Dark Knight Rises or Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice deliver rancid political messages wrapped in equally rancid plots and characterization, the reviewer's job is made easier. We can point to how a failure to recognize the actual complexity of a situation, or to imbue characters with full humanity, both informs and reflects the simplistic, quasi-fascist message of the movie. Civil War is a trickier customer. It tries--and on some level, manages--to be more intelligent and more thoughtful than something like Batman v Superman. Its characters take the film's central conflict seriously, discussing it rationally and trying to find a way to resolve it without descending into fisticuffs. But even as they do so, they reveal the inherent impossibility of their project, the way the core assumptions of this entire genre combine to form a black hole that it can never escape. I've said it before, but the minute you start taking superheroes seriously, and debating the rights and wrongs of them, only one conclusion is possible: that superheroes are a really bad idea, and that any fictional world that houses more than a handful of them will inevitably devolve into a horrifying dystopia in which the rule of law and the authority of democratic government are meaningless. In the end, and despite the wide gulf of quality between them, Civil War ends up telling the same story as Batman v Superman: a tragedy about people who don't know any way to address their problems except through violence.
Before we get to that, however, let's note that for all my praise of it, Civil War is not a top-notch MCU movie. Though it does a better job of wrangling a truly epic number of characters than last year's Age of Ultron, the need to service all of them--and set up several future entries in the franchise, chiefly Black Panther and the next iteration of Spider-Man--means that the film is overlong and occasionally listless. It loses control of its tone--the one quality that has made the MCU undeniably excellent as a comics adaptation--at several crucial points, most importantly its climactic battle scene. The relationships that were such a delight in the Captain America: The Winter Soldier--particularly the friendships that Steve Rogers develops with Sam Wilson and Natasha Romanoff--are given short shrift, and in general those characters leave the movie feeling flattened and uninteresting. Perhaps most importantly, the film completely fails to sell the supposedly deep bond of friendship and loyalty between Steve and Bucky Barnes. Whether you read the relationship as platonic or (as most of fandom does) romantic, Steve's devotion to Bucky is what drives his actions throughout the movie. And yet what shows up on screen between the two friends is curiously inert--it's never believable that Steve would go the lengths he does for a man that he seems, at most, mildly fond of. Meanwhile, the relationship that's meant to carry the film's romantic weight, between Steve and Peggy Carter's niece Sharon, never grows beyond a not-very-convincing concept.
Having said all that, there are also a lot of things to praise about Civil War. Like Winter Soldier before it, it tells a relatively small-scale story, more rooted in espionage and conspiracy tales than in superheroics. This grounds the film and gives it a weight that was absent from the more high-concept Avengers movies. The action scenes, similarly, are excellent precisely because their scale is smaller, with the focus placed more on one-on-one matchups than CGI extravaganzas in which our heroes hit large things with even larger things. Chris Evans continues to anchor the Captain America series--perhaps the entire MCU--with his turn as Steve, conveying the character's staunch beliefs without ever making him seem stiff or inhuman. The film also, and a little more suprisingly, does a good job with Tony Stark, who is very nearly rehabilitated from his stint as an almost-world-destroying mad scientist in Age of Ultron. This Tony is more damaged and more thoughtful without losing his defining egotism, and the best scenes of the movie involve him and Steve arguing, not because either one of them is a bad guy, but because they have fundamentally irreconcilable worldviews. It's in these scenes that Civil War comes closest to selling its argument that "superheroes: yes or no" is a question on which reasonable people can disagree, and that both Tony and Steve have valid points to make.
In order to achieve that gloss of reasonableness, however, Civil War has to commit several rhetorical slights of hand that, as soon as they become clear, undermine not just the film's argument but its very premise. Our heroes' problems kick off when an Avengers mission in Lagos goes wrong, leaving dozens of civilians dead. It's the last straw for a world that has grown tired of seeing superheroes at the center of city-destroying mayhem, and as a response the Avengers are asked to sign the Sokovia Accords, which would place them under the auspices of the UN. While Tony champions the agreement, Steve demurs, refusing to once again place his power at the disposal of the authorities, and insisting that "the best hands are our own." What seems like a stalemate erupts into open conflict when the summit at which the accords were to be signed is bombed, apparently by Bucky Barnes. As Steve scrambles, first to bring Bucky in alive, and then to break him out when it becomes clear that he's being framed, he and Tony draw battle lines, with the other MCU characters falling in on both sides.
There are so many problems with this premise, and with how Civil War develops it, that it's hard to know where to start. For one thing, there is the subtle but insistent way in which the film massages the events of Age of Ultron so that no real blame attaches to any of the Avengers, most especially Tony Stark. Civil War makes much of the guilt that Tony feels, and of the personal consequences he's suffered as a result of the earlier film's events--we learn, for example, that he and Pepper have broken up. But like so much else about the movie, this is a bait-and-switch. The film pretends to acknowledge Tony's guilt, even as it obscures the things he is actually guilty of. When Tony tells Steve about his breakup with Pepper, for example, he blames it on his inability to leave behind the life of a superhero, not on the fact that he made the unilateral decision to build an all-powerful AI who went crazy and nearly destroyed the planet. People who hold Tony responsible for the deaths caused by Ultron are similarly unaware of his real guilt, which means the film can act as if it is taking the events of Age of Ultron seriously, without ever facing up to the consequences they should have had.
In other words, Civil War pretends that the problem with the Avengers is collateral damage, their inability to save everyone when they involve themselves in a messed-up situation--this, for example, is what happens in Nigeria, when Wanda Maximoff tries to levitate away a man wearing an explosive vest, but fails to contain the blast long enough to prevent any casualties. But the real problem with the Avengers is not what they don't or can't do, but what they have done, and what they've gotten away with. In one particularly galling scene, Wanda sadly muses that the world fears her for her psychic powers. When really, if anyone fears Wanda, it's probably because she's a former terrorist who sided first with Hydra and then with Ultron, who knowingly sicced the Hulk on a city of three-quarters of a million people, and who has avoided any consequences for these crimes because she enjoys the protection of powerful, connected people like Steve Rogers and Tony Stark.
Another way in which Civil War fudges its premise in order to make it workable is the very purpose of the Sokovia Accords. The film claims that, as in the original Civil War comic, the accords exist to regulate the actions of "enhanced" individuals, and uses Wanda as a poster child for that need. But the truth is, people like Wanda are the vast minority of MCU superheroes, and recent additions to boot--Wanda and Vision were introduced in Age of Ultron, and Spider-Man is new to Civil War. That leaves Steve as the only Avenger whose power is innate. Every other MCU hero is either someone who dons a supersuit--Tony, Sam, Scott Lang, James Rhodes, T'Challa--or a highly-trained super-agent--Natsha, Sharon Carter, Clint Barton. Once you realize this, it becomes easier to see that while Civil War claims to be about the question of whether we should have superheroes, what it's actually asking is whether people who are rich and famous (and, for the most part, white and American) should be allowed to form their own private armies, and carry out military missions in population centers all over the world.
Once you ask the question that way, it's clear that the answer is no, and the fact that Steve does not give this answer, while not entirely unearned, is ultimately inexcusable. Given the events of Winter Soldier, you can see why Steve would balk at placing himself and his powers under the control of any authority. Civil War also, and wisely, works its way up to the moment when Steve decides to become an outlaw and a criminal--initially, he merely refuses to sign the accords, and tries to bring Bucky in peacefully; it takes several fight scenes for him to become the aggressor. But ultimately, Steve's reticence to follow anyone's orders but his own is taken to extremes that are not justifiable, and which can't be explained by his loyalty to Bucky. Aside from anything else, it's not a believable turn for the character, who has to be flattened into self-satisfied authoritarianism in order for the story to work. The film tries to argue that Steve believes that he's doing the right thing--most notably, by quoting one of Cap's most famous comics lines, "When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth, and tell the whole world: 'No, you move.'" But of course a person who truly believes this sort of thing can just as easily be a monster as a hero. The thing that has made Steve Rogers into the latter rather than the former has, until now, been the sense that he realizes this. In Civil War, that no longer seems to be the case.
Steve's failure to recognize just how far beyond the pale he's gone may or may not be a betrayal of the character, but it certainly makes him seem unreasonable, and ultimately even a little villainous. So does the fact that he can't seem to find any middle ground between getting exactly what he wants, and erupting into violence when he doesn't. In fairness to Steve, Civil War does not seem to take place in a world in which such a middle ground exists. When he brings Bucky in to stand trial for the UN bombing, Steve's request that Bucky be represented by a lawyer is greeted, literally, with laughter and derision. When Steve's allies are arrested near the end of the movie, they are placed, without trial, in a secret prison in the middle of the ocean--even the ones, like Sam or Scott, who have no superpowers without their suits. It in fact gets a little hard to blame Steve for his intransigence when we realize just how untrustworthy and villainous government is in this movie. This, however, is a flaw in the story, not a justification for the characters' actions. It's a flaw that is hardly unique to Civil War, the MCU, or even superhero stories--seemingly all of Western pop culture has bought into the notion that government is either incompetent or evil, and that individual action, usually of the violent variety, is the only way to achieve change. But it reinforces the sense that for all the movie's pretense to thoughtfulness and sophistication, it ultimately has very little to say. In a world in which there are only two ways to respond to a problem--surrender and all-out war--there's only so much talking you can do before throwing punches becomes the only possible way to advance the plot.
Nowhere are Civil War's confusion and incoherence more palpable than when its characters finally start throwing punches, in a battle royale between the supers aligned with Steve (Sam, Bucky, Wanda, Scott, and Clint) and the ones aligned with Tony (Natasha, T'Challa, Rhodey, Vision, and Peter Parker). It is, simultaneously, the film's best scene and its worst one, a brilliant piece of action filmmaking that makes it clear that, for all the thought and care that went into making Civil War seem like a not-stupid movie, in the end this was all it was ever about--an excuse to get our heroes fighting each other, no matter how thin the pretext and how many contortions it has to take their personalities through to get there.
Most of the characters who choose to involve themselves in the climactic fight of Civil War have no real reason to be there. Why would Scott Lang and Clint Barton endanger their freedom and their lives with their families? Just because Captain America asks them to? That sort of thing worked in Winter Soldier, but when Steve's motives are so much murkier and less defensible, it's a lot less believable--and makes Scott and Clint a lot less sympathetic when, later in the movie, they are shocked to discover that breaking the law has landed them in prison. And then there's the matter of Spider-Man, who is not only a teenager, but, as played by Tom Holland, a very young-seeming one, whose heroics have so far amounted only to tackling street crime. The fact that Tony Stark recruits this inexperienced child to fight against trained killers is unforgivable. The fact that Steve Rogers, upon realizing that he's been pitted against a child, doesn't immediately lay down his arms is equally so. In a coherent story, this alone should disqualify either character from ever again being called a hero.
But Civil War doesn't acknowledge this, because it wants us to, simultaneously, take this scene very seriously--to thrill to the angst and conflict as our heroes are compelled to fight against one another--and not to take it seriously at all--to lean back and enjoy the quips and jokes, forgetting that it actually means something when people abandon diplomacy and compromise and choose violence instead. The ultimate effect of this tonal zigzag is to make these previously-beloved characters look callous and foolish, something that is only exacerbated by the choice of venue for this fight. The filmmakers clearly chose an empty airport runway because of the by-now frantic fear shared by all superhero storytellers of seeming indifferent to civilian casualties, but it's a choice that also reinforces the heroes' silliness. They end up looking like nothing so much as a bunch of hooligans, meeting up for a fistfight at an empty weekend parking lot, because violence is the only way they know to resolve their disputes.
Late in the movie, Steve tells Tony that the fundamental difference between them is that while Tony puts his faith in institutions, Steve chooses to believe in people. This is, obviously, a false and facile dichotomy, but what's worse is that it isn't even true. There is nothing about Steve's behavior in Civil War that suggests that he believes in people. On the contrary, his actions can only be explained by a profound distrust--perhaps even disdain--for the public, the press, and anyone who might form an opinion and pass judgment on his choices and actions. Instead of arguing publicly against the Sokovia Accords, instead of demanding in the press that Bucky be granted the same right to a fair trial as anyone else, instead of exposing things like the government's secret prison, Steve's approach is to expect everyone else to trust him, implicitly and without question, even as he repeatedly squanders that trust through his choices and actions. Civil War is a lot more subtle and insidious about it, but by its end the portrait it paints of Steve is not that different from Zack Snyder's take on Superman--they're both men who believe that they have the right to exercise violence as they see fit, and that anyone who tries to question them is so wrong that they're not even worth engaging with. For a character who was introduced, way back in Captain America: The First Avenger, with the line "I don't like bullies," this is a profoundly disappointing turn.
In Civil War's final scene, Tony and Steve finally realize that they've been played--that the entire purpose of the film's events, and the plot to frame Bucky, was to get them at each other's throats. It's a truce that doesn't last long, because the film's villain (Daniel Brühl as Zemo, whom I haven't mentioned already because he's ultimately not that important to the story, but who does a good job with a character who deserved more space and attention) reveals what Steve had already known and kept to himself, that one of Bucky's assignments as the Winter Soldier was to kill Tony's parents. The film obviously sees nothing wrong with the fact that this revelation sparks the final, knock-down fight between the two former friends, leading to a rift between them that will obviously not be resolved until Steve and those who have sided with him return to triumphantly save the day in Infinity War. But to me, Tony's choice to resort to violence--and Steve's choice to go along with him--reveal everything that is wrong, not just with this movie, but with the MCU and possibly even the superhero genre as a whole.
It's OK for Tony Stark to be furious at what he learns about Bucky and Steve. It's OK for Tony Stark to throw a punch at Steve Rogers. It is not OK for Iron Man to try to kill Captain America over what is, in the end, a personal matter. The minute that Tony (and Steve) feel free to use their powers to gratify their own roiling emotions, they cease to be heroes, because a real hero knows that they have the responsibility not only to act, but to know when not to act. To use their power only as a last resort, and not for frivolous or unjustified reasons. That both Tony and Steve fail this test is perhaps understandable and human. But that Civil War does not recognize this as a failure--that it sees their descent into violence as understandable, natural, perhaps even desirable--tells us everything we need to know about its world, in which people arrogate to themselves tremendous power and the right to use it whenever and however they want, and the rest of us don't even get to question it. Much as I enjoyed it, I think Civil War is the point where the MCU and I part ways, because there is, quite simply, no one left to root for.
 This is particularly true of Sam, whose devolution, from a counselor who was happy to befriend and help Steve but who also had his own life and his own career, into Captain America's sidekick, has been one of the more disappointing turns of the post-Winter Soldier MCU movies. ↩
 As an aside, it's extremely gratifying that the country that takes the lead in championing the Sokovia Accords is the fictional African superpower Wakanda. Obviously, as far as the MCU's handlers are concerned, this serves the purpose of introducing the Wakandan crown prince T'Challa, also known as the Black Panther. But given how casually the MCU's movies and TV shows have assumed that their American heroes are entitled to jet into sovereign--and mostly non-Western--nations, cause mayhem, and jet away, it's encouraging to see that within the films' universe, the pushback to this approach comes from the leaders of non-white countries. I've seen some conflicting reactions to the entire concept of Wakanda--why, some people quite reasonably ask, invent an African nation instead of using one of the many real ones that Hollywood blockbusters tend to treat as nothing but a backdrop? The answer to that question will obviously depend a great deal on how Black Panther handles its setting, but the little we see of it in Civil War--and the fact that Wakanda is able to demand concessions from the Western world--feels encouraging. ↩
 The fact that the world has been allowed to remain ignorant of Tony's role in creating Ultron is one of the huge potholes in the MCU that Civil War can't avoid falling into. It robs Tony of any moral authority he might otherwise have had, while making the other characters look stupid for not even bringing it up in their arguments with him. ↩
 Bucky is not an Avenger at any point in this movie, and anyway it's never been clear to me whether he has actual superpowers or is simply supremely trained. Technically, Thor and the Hulk should also count as supers with innate powers, but neither of them appears in this movie, and more importantly, it should be obvious that the Sokovia Accords can't be applied to either one of them. ↩
 Certainly by this point there seem to have been more MCU movies that depict Steve as a self-righteous prig than ones that take a more nuanced view of him. ↩
 It should be noted that not everyone in the film is so casually accepting of Steve and Tony's recourse to violence, but that the characters who question it are, for the most part, also the ones given the least space in the story. Natasha initially sides with Tony because she feels that signing the accords is the best solution to a real predicament, and stands with him in the parking lot fight. But she also chastises him for letting his ego guide his decisions, and, realizing that the situation between him and Steve can only escalate into further violence, removes herself from it. She is thus absent from the film's final act. Vision correctly warns that Tony and Steve's unwillingness to compromise will lead to calamity, but when his warnings go unheeded, he apparently feels obliged to join in the fighting. Only T'Challa is allowed to truly grow in his views, and to see clearly how foolish and pointless Steve and Tony's squabbling is. But he is also the character who is most disconnected from the rest of the story and its characters, existing, seemingly, in his own narrative that just happens to coincide with theirs. ↩
 It is darkly funny that in both Civil War and Batman v Superman, the crucial turning point in a battle between the two heroes is rooted in the Batman character's lingering issues over the murder of his mother. ↩