As the Marvel Cinematic Universe continued its dominance of the box office with unexpected hits such as 2014’s late summer surprise Guardians of the Galaxy, audiences the world over were treated the following year to the much-anticipated sequel to 2012’s smash The Avengers, entitled Avengers: Age of Ultron.  Despite massive financial success once again, the film was seen by many as an underwhelming follow-up, one that resulted in director/Avengers architect Joss Whedon effectively parting ways with Marvel in the wake of the film’s release citing a variety of creative differences and overall burnout.

Luckily, still riding a spectacular high following 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, directors Anthony & Joe Russo stepped into the now-empty shoes left behind by Whedon and assumed control of the next Avengers installments, in addition to the already in-production Captain America: Civil War.  Due for release in 2016, the film faced some competition with DC/Warner Bros.’ Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice hitting theaters two months earlier, but unlike the tepid response to nearly every trailer and poster related to Dawn of Justice, Civil War appeared to be setting up a truly unique showdown, one similar to that presented between Batman and Superman but with many more superheroes forming ranks.  Furthermore, the tone of Civil War appeared bright and exciting, as opposed to the dark and moody Dawn of Justice.

I’m not here to knock Dawn of Justice, as I actually really enjoyed it, but when it came to a contrast in style of film and marketing chutzpah, Captain America: Civil War clearly seemed to know exactly what it was doing.  With every trailer and clip that showcased two or more Avengers going head to head, Marvel was able to marvelously (see what I did there?) display their ability to peer into the minds of its fans and show them precisely what they want.

This type of thinking effortlessly carries over into the film itself.

 Captain America: Civil War takes a page from the eponymous Marvel comic arc while injecting some new and different elements the MCU is known for with roughly every live-action adaptation of their beloved characters.  The film picks up one year after the events of Age of Ultron, and sees the majority of our intrepid Avengers put into a position of not only being held accountable for their actions thus far, but also placed under the supervision and control of the United Nations thanks to some newly-drafted accords.  With Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) against the idea due to his fear of losing said control and Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) behind the plan thanks to his own personal issues, a line begins to form down the middle of the team, with a mysterious villain played by Daniel Bruhl hiding behind the curtain and everyone’s favorite Winter Soldier, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) returning to throw even more fuel onto a fire that’s already beginning to spin wildly out of control.

It is here that the movie hits the gas pedal, with every beautifully filmed moment of action superbly balanced by scenes that give each character enough screen time, especially the new ones-Chadwick Boseman leaps into the MCU as T’Challa/Black Panther, armed with a vendetta of his own against the Winter Soldier and siding with Stark/Iron Man to fill out that team’s roster.  Furthermore, the long-awaited debut of Peter Parker/Spider-Man, at long last mostly extracted from the possessive hands of Sony following 2007’s mediocre Spider-Man 3 and two dismal Amazing Spider-Mans in 2012 and 2014, fits into the MCU effortlessly and with an excellent performance by newcomer Tom Holland.  His version of Parker/Spidey sees his secret identity loaded with plenty of adolescent awkwardness and his superhero persona adding the snark & witticisms we’ve come to expect from the character.  His inclusion in Civil War feels natural, unforced and a welcome addition, even if seeing him in battle may not showcase anything we’ve haven’t already seen in previous portrayals of Spider-Man.  Similarly, Chadwick Boseman does play T’Challa/Black Panther somewhat safe at times, with a stereotypical African accent and a fighting style that mostly works.  While neither trait suffers too dramatically, and Boseman is a capable actor who fills the role well, this version of Black Panther overall has the feel of someone from Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter that you’d skip over on the Character Select screen in favor of Liu Kang or Chun-Li.  Black Panther is this movie’s Blanka.  Poor Blanka.

Moreover, the supporting Avengers continue to demonstrate their ability to play their parts well while bringing little to nothing new to the table.  Aside from the aforementioned Evans and Downey, Jr., returning to the fold include Jeremy Renner as Clint Barton/Hawkeye, Anthony Mackie as Steve Rogers/Captain America sidekick Sam Wilson/Falcon, Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow and Don Cheadle makes his full-fledged Avenger debut as Tony Stark’s best friend James Rhodes/War Machine.  All do well, as expected.  Paul Rudd’s underdog-y Scott Lang/Ant-Man is also present after last year’s Ant-Man, in a setting which gives some unexpectedly breathtaking exhilaration in his fight scenes while still clearly validating how Rudd needs to get used to the character a bit more.  I’m still pulling for him.

However, the proverbial gold stars must be awarded to a number of actors, such as Paul Bettany as Vision, who gets more screen time than he received in Age of Ultron to show his adjustment to humanity and prove how perfect this casting choice was, especially in his interactions with Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch, again played by Elizabeth Olsen.  Olsen herself does a fantastic job, also proving how she doesn’t need a flashy sequence to show how good she is in the MCU.  Both characters acquire new life when played by these wonderful actors.  Sebastian Stan’s role as The Winter Soldier is also given more depth, allowing Bucky Barnes to finally begin to surface, and Stan plays the part in outstanding fashion.  In doing so, he delivers something of a Jekyll and Hyde routine, one that the Russos know when to reign in and ensure scenes of him aggressively fighting any one of several Avengers are complimented by a rather low-key demeanor that especially shines when paired with Chris Evans.  Lastly, while Evans is still a reliable Steve Rogers/Captain America, it’s Robert Downey, Jr.  as Tony Stark/Iron Man who deserves equal billing alongside Evans.  It may be one of his greatest appearances in the MCU, drawing from the darkness he exhibited in the Iron Man sequels and dialing down his on-point comedic chops, as well as when Iron Man starts kicking ass.  By working together, the Russos and Downey, Jr.  have taken the MCU’s central character and made him a true member of a larger ensemble.  2012’s The Avengers pulled it off impeccably, as does Civil War.  In essence, Stark/Iron Man tends to take on the role of another villain, but in a very different way, one that still gives Captain America the spotlight while letting the true villain (Bruhl) lurk in the shadows like any classic cinematic bad guy.

Oh, and I can’t forget Martin Freeman as the mysterious Everett Ross, Emily VanCamp returning from The Winter Soldier as Agent 13 and, interestingly, William Hurt making his second appearance as Thaddeus Ross since 2008’s underrated The Incredible Hulk.  Despite limited screen time, all perform admirably, with Freeman and VanCamp at the front of the pack with well-developed performances of their characters that I honestly would have liked to have seen more.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe, while widely regarded as a success, is to me consisting of only a handful of great films, with the rest falling into the average or below-average category.  2008’s kickoff Iron Man, The Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier are all safely at the top of the list, with titles such as 2010’s drab Iron Man 2 and 2013’s bewildering Thor: The Dark World scraping the bottom.

Captain America: Civil War, however, deserves a spot at the top, for topping what The Winter Soldier was able to accomplish and giving the audience a thrill ride unlike many MCU entries up until now.  With another solid script by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely, another score by the ever-promising Henry Jackman, fights that gracefully move along while still keeping filmgoers on the edge of their seats, and a finely-executed balance between cast members, Captain America: Civil War succeeds in more ways than one, injecting life into a shared universe of films that was starting to show its age.  Future follow-ups are set up well, and even if this represents the peak of the MCU’s quality department, I’m not complaining.

Full speed ahead!