Before we get started, this piece will discuss the events of Captain America: Civil War. That being said...
First things first: The movie is very good. The Marvel machine was on point like always, delivering thrills, fun, charm, and genuine emotion consistently for two and a half hours. There is no comparison as to which is the superior film between this and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which was an overweight, senseless, joyless, nuclear-level mess. (I'm a DC guy, by the way; it's just that I also have functioning senses of sight and hearing.)
Having said that, I walked away a little disappointed. I felt like the movie left much on the table, and pulled a lot of its potential punches. I felt like this was the moment I finally got tired of Avengers movies, regardless of their inarguable quality. I felt like we might have hit the expiration date on "The Marvel Way."
Staying In Your Lane
Now to be clear: Up until halfway through Civil War, I was (and still kinda am) all about how the MCU handled the Avengers. They were deliberate, inspired, and — above all — consistent. Marvel had a plan, a playbook, that it ran to perfection: Their movies would be grand, exciting, and light.
That third adjective is the most distinctive; these movies would be breezy and easy — dessert fare. Which is neither bad nor good; it all depends on your own preferences. Some people like that, while others like dark and serious. This conflict is the root of the alleged cinematic rivalry between Marvel and DC (although it actually isn't one, for the same reason "fire does not have 'a rivalry' with kindling").
There is a phrase for this kind of dedication to a thematic/tonal approach:
The above definition is taken from the Urban Dictionary, and I believe it amply describes Marvel's approach to its "bigger tent" features. Both The Avengers and its sequel The Avengers: Age of Ultron delivered incredible action sequences and considerable stakes but, tonally, everything stayed nice and cheerful (outside of Quicksilver's death, which is, in every way, an outlier to their norm). It's never all that intense, the jokes/banter never stop, and nothing gets too dark. The machine keeps cranking out its tasty product.
But Marvel makes up for that uniformity in its individual stories. For instance, Captain America: The Winter Soldier wasn't just a superhero movie, because it was also a global espionage flick. Just like Ant-Man wasn't just a superhero movie; it was a caper flick. So "Avengers" movies function as the tentpoles under which the more nuanced, varied films get to operate, and with tremendous success all around.
It's just that any formula, after awhile, gets stale. Ultron took us to the brink of that light breeziness by recycling much of its predecessor without much innovation, and we were now primed for a well-earned shift. It was right there for the taking, especially in a movie titled Civil War. But it didn't happen.
Cap 3 or Avengers 3?
So this is the root of my disappointment: Marvel had the opportunity to make this a third installment to its "Captain America" series of movies, but it went more for another chapter in "The Avengers" saga instead. And this matters because a Cap movie, on its own, would've had the space and opportunity to do some different things (like Cap 2 and Ant-Man), which this set of characters sorta desperately needed at this juncture, after staleness started setting in.
In short: Things kinda needed to get dark here; it would've been beneficial to branch out from the formula. During the airport fight, as events were playing out in that fun and breezy way, I kept thinking "Man, when this thing turns, it's gonna suck." I was preparing for innocence to be lost, pain to be felt, the world to change... and it never did.
The same thing then happened with the final fight between Bucky & Cap vs. Iron Man; I was ready for something to finally break; we were primed for that drastic tonal shift that would let in some fresh air on this now slightly played out world, just in time for the final chapter when The Avengers: Infinity War rolls around (i.e. break up the family, so they can get back together again). Only, once more, it didn't happen. We got taken right up to the brink, and then were let off the hook, so all could stay as it always is. The machine keeps rolling.
Keeping it 100 Is Great... Until It Isn't.
Please don't misunderstand me: I have nothing but the deepest respect, appreciation, and admiration for what Marvel Studios has accomplished with these movies and the universe they created for them; they've taken characters people said wouldn't work, and placed them in an ambitious set up even more people said wouldn't work... and then absolutely crushed it.
They achieved all this by having a plan — a way of doing things — and sticking with it so their audience and fans could (and did) better engage/connect with what they were seeing. This commitment to staying in the lane they themselves paved was wise beyond measure; they clearly made the right call.
But all things come to an end; even the best successes run their course. I think we hit that moment in Civil War. I think these movies are now in desperate need of freshness, of a kind of "rebirth" for their universe. I really hope we get it in the slate of movies coming up.
But I wallked out of Civil War wishing we already did.