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The action-packed and daring "Captain America: Civil War" is the most game-changing chapter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe since — well, since "Captain America: The Winter Soldier."

In that installment of the MCU, Captain America, aka Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), learned that the butt-kicking government agency he worked for, S.H.I.E.L.D., was infested by agents for Hydra, the evil cabal he fought back in World War II. He also found out his old Brooklyn buddy, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), has been turned into a mind-controlled super-soldier.

Cap's friendships with Bucky and with his current comrade-in-arms Tony Stark, aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), feed the fire in "Civil War." There's also political intrigue, vengeance and a boatload of new and returning characters. That's a lot to pack into one movie, even one that's 148 minutes (the longest in the MCU to date), but brothers Anthony and Joe Russo (who directed "Winter Soldier") make it worth the time.

The first hour is spent laying the land mines that detonate spectacularly later. It starts with a solid action sequence, another mission to stop a bad guy. During the chase, there's a misfire that causes innocent deaths.

Such collateral damage is getting all too common, declares Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt, reprising his "Incredible Hulk" role). Ross cites the Avengers' battle with the Chitauri in New York, the time Cap destroyed S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Washington headquarters and the fight against Ultron that leveled Sokovia. (It's also a fair comment about PG-13 action movies that ratchet up the body count in pursuit of bigger thrills.)

Ross tells the Avengers they have to be reined in and put under the watchful eye of a United Nations panel under terms of a treaty, the Sokovia Accords, signed by 117 nations. Stark, feeling guilty about too many innocent deaths, agrees the Avengers need oversight. Rogers disagrees, believing that when it comes to superpowers, "the safest hands are still our own."

But while Stark and Rogers argue, and their superhero friends choose up sides, the movie's attention turns to another character: Zemo (Daniel Brühl), who has another agenda that springs into action when the U.N. meets in Vienna to sign the accords. Things go badly, and all signs point to the Winter Soldier as the culprit — leading Cap to go rogue to save his friend and learn the truth.

How that plays out, in a sharp script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (collaborating on their third "Captain America" movie), leads to some of the more intense passages ever put in a Marvel movie. It also turns former colleagues Stark and Rogers into bitter enemies.

Not to give away more than what's in the marketing campaigns, but there are some hellacious action set pieces that bring in a slew of Marvel characters. Along with the returning heroes — Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and Vision (Paul Bettany) — are two new heavy hitters: Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland).

That's a lot of balls to juggle, providing the necessary fan service and teasing future movies (Black Panther and the new Spidey have movies on the production schedule). The Russos do the juggling act masterfully, providing small moments for each character while keeping the central narrative moving.

Unlike DC's attempt at staging a superhero battle, "Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice," the fight between Captain America and Iron Man is based on something more than a silly misunderstanding. It's a real, and timely, disagreement on the limits of power and the trustworthiness of governments. Ultimately, I'm on Team Iron Man, because Cap is wrong about a superhero's capacity for self-governance, and his choices prove it. Here, unlike in the real world, the arrogant skirt-chasing billionaire has the right idea.

It's that even-handed treatment that is the most audacious aspect of "Captain America: Civil War." In an era when Hollywood blockbusters telegraph every emotion they want audiences to feel, it's refreshing to find a movie that puts two heroes against each other and lets the audience decide who's right.

Twitter: @moviecricket —


'Captain America: Civil War'

A disagreement between Cap and Iron Man leads to intense action and thoughtful dialogue in this smart installment of the Marvel saga.

Where • Theaters everywhere.

When • Opens Friday, May 6.

Rating • PG-13 for extended sequences of violence, action and mayhem.

Running time • 148 minutes.