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Captain America: Civil War: 5 things to know about one of Marvel's best movies yet

This is so much more than an Avengers side quest.

Captain America: Civil War
Captain America and company head into battle.
Marvel Studios
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Captain America: Civil War won't open in the US until May 6 (though it will open in many other countries on April 28, a common tactic for studios trying to combat the effect of piracy in foreign territories), but Disney lifted the review embargo weeks before its release.

The reason for getting reviews out there so early is simple: This movie is good! Often really good. Occasionally tremendous. And for at least one scene, it's the best movie Marvel has ever made.

Vox will have a more complete review from our superhero expert Alex Abad-Santos closer to the film's release. But for now, here are five things to know about Civil War.

1) The movie Civil War most reminds me of is Spider-Man 2

Captain America: Civil War
Captain America and his friends rush into battle.
Marvel Studios

That's high praise. Spider-Man 2 is still my pick for the best superhero movie ever made, because it's a surprisingly weighty film about the consequence of great power that never forgets it is also about a teenager who swings around on webs he shoots out of his wrists.

What Civil War cribs from Spider-Man 2 is twofold. First of all, it makes sure to ground every bit of its story in personal relationships. And in that regard, it has a bit of a leg up over Spider-Man 2, because it has more than a dozen Marvel Cinematic Universe movies to build on.

In many ways, Civil War is the fullest expression of Marvel's idea of essentially creating a giant TV show that we all tune in to every six months or so. As the latest "episode" of that show, the movie shifts relationships in interesting ways and offers several major payoffs, while also laying track for movies to come (much more gracefully than, say, 2015's Avengers: Age of Ultron did).

The second aspect of Civil War that reminds me of Spider-Man 2 is that it contains a lot of setup. Seriously, the first hour is filled with scenes where Captain America and Iron Man jockey for position, or investigate new leads in the story's central mystery, or hang out and snipe at each other. And it's never immediately clear where either character is headed. A similar problem befell Batman v Superman (a film to which Civil War bears more than a few similarities), so it's not unusual for fans to worry just a little bit.

But just like in Spider-man 2, that setup pays off substantially as the movie goes along. The end of Civil War is surprisingly complex on an emotional level, while remaining broad and pulpy. Yes, those emotions are somewhat shaded in primary colors, rather than more nuanced hues, but for a movie about two superpowered dudes hitting each other, the personal stakes feel earned and real.

2) Chris Evans might be the best performer Marvel's got

Captain America: Civil War
Chris Evans is a terrific superhero actor.
Marvel Studios

I'm actually not a huge fan of Evans's past work. When it comes to "Chris Evans roles I have enjoyed," it's pretty much Captain America and his character in Snowpiercer.

But boy does he make a good Captain America. So much of Civil War hinges on the audience believing Cap would sacrifice anything for his friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), who was brainwashed by the evil organization Hydra and is now trying to fight off his evil conditioning to resume something of a normal life. That Evans is able to pull off this feat is proof that his square-jawed charm is at the center of what Marvel's doing.

Watching Evans work opposite Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man only further underlines the effective subtleties of his performance. Marvel's films bring together characters who shouldn't coexist in the same film — an all-powerful god here, a billionaire with cool toys there — and it succeeds in doing so because it has a strong stable of performers. Civil War's themes center on questions of the thin line between moral righteousness and selfishness; that both Evans and Downey Jr. play on both sides of that line so ably is a testament to their strengths.

3) Civil War is definitely a Captain America movie, not an Avengers side quest

Captain America: Civil War
Including some super-neat fight scenes for Cap and Cap alone.
Marvel Studios

The presence of seemingly everybody from the Avengers movies, outside of Thor and Hulk (who are far, far away when the movie begins), could suggest that Civil War is sort of an Avengers 2.5, an installment between installments that hangs out with the characters at a time when they're not beating back hordes of space aliens.

And in some ways, it is that. But for the most part, Civil War is about Captain America and Bucky's friendship, which means it directly follows The Winter Soldier, the last Captain America film and the first Marvel film directed by Joe and Anthony Russo, who also handled this film and the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War (and are quickly becoming integral to Marvel's success). That clarity of focus gives the film a personal through line that prevents it from feeling cluttered.

I still think Age of Ultron is a terrific movie, and one of Marvel's most interesting releases on an artistic level. But Civil War nicely reveals how concentrating on just one character can alleviate some of the overcrowding problems Ultron suffered from. It's a big movie with a big cast, but it never feels like anybody's presence is unnecessary, or like any story threads were dropped in from another movie entirely.

4) The movie really isn't that similar to the comics

Captain America: Civil War
Here's Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson)! Everybody loves Black Widow!
Marvel Studios

I've avoided discussing the plot directly, so as to protect you from spoilers (though I'm sure they're out there). But that's also because the movie's main storyline is "Captain America and Iron Man fight," and it doesn't need much more in the way of plot than that.

That said, Civil War touches on the arc of the same name from the comics, though it's less of a direct adaptation than you might be expecting. Elements of the story — in which the government demands some degree of oversight over superpowered beings — are still present, but the events of the movie are rooted much more in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date, as well as the collateral damage suffered by civilians in those movies. (Yet another similarity to Batman v Superman, though Civil War handles those themes much better.)

However, Civil War also continues to function as an examination of post-9/11 America, just like the original comic and other Marvel movies have before. In this case, the story is about questions of ultimate power and how not to abuse them — and whether you can trust anyone, even someone who says he means only the best for you, with all of that power. It's refreshingly more ambivalent about the answer than most superhero movies.

5) Civil War also has a terrific action set piece that boasts great moments for two new characters

Captain America: Civil War
Does whatever a spider … well, you know.
Marvel Studios

There's a scene where all of the heroes in the movie fight each other, and it's everything your inner 10-year-old could want from a superhero movie. It's full of great action beats, superpowers going off all over the place, and huge laughs. It's giddy and joyous and fun, and it seems like it will never end (in a good way).

It's also a great highlight for the film's two major new characters: Black Panther and Spider-Man. Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) actually plays a semi-substantial role in the film, and he's a strong, regal presence, befitting the character's status as royalty of the fictional nation of Wakanda. He's also a more kinetic figure than many of Marvel's other heroes, darting and dancing around problems that, say, Iron Man might blast his way through.

Spider-Man's appearance is more of a glorified cameo — he's pretty much just in the big fight scene and one other — but as played by Tom Holland, he's back to being the punk-ass teenager he is in the comics and was way back in the first Spider-Man movie in 2002. It's fun to watch Holland and Downey bounce off each other, and fans of the character will likely breathe a sigh of relief that he's been rescued from the awful Amazing Spider-Man movies.

But if the promise of a massive superhero brawl isn't enough to convince you that Civil War is worth your time, you should know that this fight — so light and funny and fun — ends with a heavy emotional beat, one that hits hard and has far-reaching consequences for future films. The gigantic super franchise is still Marvel's game, and any challengers trying to play it are mostly flailing.

Captain America: Civil War opens in the US on May 6.

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