At the end of the first Iron Man, when Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) popped up to mention “The Avengers Initiative,” it launched what can only be described as the most massive collective nerdgasm in this or any quantum parallel reality. Since then, there have been minor nerdquake aftershocks (seeing the team together for the first time, hearing Captain America [Chris Evans] first bark out orders, the insane side-scrolling action shot in Age of Ultron). But twice during Captain America: Civil War, I thought the audience was going to have the first recorded joyous nerdshart. We’ll get to them, just wait for it.
Unlike Batman v. Superman: I Told You That Was Going to Suck, which was allegedly a sequel to Man of Steel but was really two hours of hilariously overwrought dude brooding, Civil War is honestly a sequel to Captain America: Winter Soldier. Hell, it harkens all the way back to the first solo Captain America movie in a meaningful way. Cap is looking for The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), who everyone sees as a terrorist menace who needs to be put down, except Cap, who wants his friend back.
This leads into a bigger divide when government agents decide that superheroes need more supervision. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) agrees, admitting that even he deserved oversight that would have possibly prevented the deaths of thousands when he accidentally invented Ultron. When The Winter Soldier, under brainwashed duress, is involved in another act of mass terror, the battle lines get drawn explicitly.
Team Cap boasts Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), The Winter Soldier, Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen).
Team Iron Man is War Machine (Don Cheadle), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Vision (Paul Bettany) and, most nerdshartly, Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Spider-man (Tom Holland).
Then everybody fights and, for anyone who has ever before loved a comic book, we see the face of God.
To say that Boseman and Holland “reinvigorated” the franchise is a horrifyingly irresponsible understatement. The Rock was once called “franchise Viagra,” injected as an actor into sequels to give some more pep. Boseman and Holland are like giving Viagra some Viagra. From squeal-inducing moments like watching Spidey web up Captain America to hilarious asides like Iron Man macking on Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) to the Black Panther shrugging off .50 caliber bullets fired from a helicopter and being treated as, inarguably, the most important supporting character in terms of plot and consequence, everything works. Everything.
This is the true culmination of the grand Marvel experiment. It’s not over, as the ending still leaves wounds and unanswered questions. But two major missing elements (Spider-Man and a superpowered person of color) helped finished the mythical mosaic they’ve been slowly, artfully and playfully crafting for a decade. It’s perfectly acceptable to not like Captain America: Civil War. It simply means you care not for this particular genre, because in any way I can think to analyze, it represents its zenith.
This review first appeared in The Reader of Omaha, Nebraska.