Review: The Captain America trilogy comes to an amazing close with ‘Civil War’

My first political memory is of Watergate. I was too young to truly understand what was happening, but I was aware that the President of the United States had done something wrong, and the country was upset because of it. That may be why I”ve grown up with a healthy sense of skepticism towards authority, particularly when it comes to the idea that authority is always right. I”ve never believed that, and that attitude has served me well.

Truth be told, I wish that was not the case. I wish I could believe that our elected officials have our best interests at heart. I wish I believed that all policemen truly wanted to serve and protect our entire population equally. I wish I believed that the banks were designed to help us all financially. I wish I believed that the system was set up to allow all of us the same chances in this world, and that hard work was always rewarded and that making the right moral choice meant good things would happen. It is a constant effort to teach my children about the world without allowing my own cynicism about things to bleed through, and if anything, they have given me some hope that things can and will be better for them. One of the reasons I am excited to share Captain America: Civil War with my own kids is because I think it fully embodies the struggle I've dealt with my whole life regarding my feelings about authority and government, and it does so in a way that challenges the viewer without offering up easy answers.

Most mainstream superhero films have been fairly simple affairs in terms of moral complexity, and for good reason. When you”re writing a movie that builds to a bunch of people in rubber costumes beating the hell out of each other, there”s not a lot of room for nuance. The longer this cycle of films continues, though, the less satisfying that approach becomes, and one of the things that the Captain America films have done so well so far is show genuine growth from movie to movie, not only in the character, but in the filmmaking itself. Joe Johnston”s Captain America: The First Avenger is both the most elegant of the Marvel origin story movies and a crackerjack adventure movie that proved that Marvel could do more than one thing. Joe and Anthony Russo gave the action a totally different feel in the crisp, efficient Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which did a great job of setting up the growing discomfort Steve Rogers feels as a man whose moral compass was set in place in a totally different time. The common thread between all three films creatively is the writing team of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, and these films deserve credit for being thematically sound and genuinely complex every single time. They”ve written three totally different films in this series, and they”ve managed to turn these films and this particular trilogy into the most soulful and emotionally resonant films in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe.

What makes Captain America: Civil War such a terrific accomplishment is the way it takes what could have been the most crass and overcrowded story to adapt as a film and instead transforms it into an examination of just who these heroes are and what impact they”ve had on the world around them, and vice versa. The Tony Stark in this film is not the guy we met in Iron Man back in 2008. The reason it”s so powerful to see Steve Roger stand, bloodied but not broken, saying, “I could do this all day” the same way he did when he was just a skinny kid with a big heart is because we”ve seen everything that”s happened to him in-between, and we”ve seen how Steve has reacted to it all. He is the most selfless of the Marvel heroes, the most genuinely heroic deep down in his bones. He wasn”t like Tony, undergoing some moral awakening late in life, and he”s not tortured by his powers like Bruce Banner. He asked for this. He wanted to become Captain America so he could do the right thing as many times as he had to do it in order to make this a good and safe world.

But what does that mean? It”s a question that haunts us in the real world. What role do we play in the world community? When is it right to step in to right a wrong, and when it is unwarranted aggression? How much are we responsible for evil that occurs if we know about it but do nothing to stop it? We are not, by anyone”s definition, the world”s policemen, but we use our military muscle to shape the world into what we want it to be. I think that”s the other thing that is so interesting about this series. Steve Rogers is the real hero here. Captain America was a propaganda tool created by the US government. He is a blunt-force subtle symbol of America as the best and the brightest. And when he was created, America was a very different country than it is now, in a world that is just as different. Wearing that name today is a very different thing for Steve Rogers, and in this film, he comes face to face with the limitations that are inherent to the way he”s lived his life so far. He finds himself in a fight with no right solution because everyone involved in the fight is genuinely driven by moral certainty. No one is fighting out of simple self-interest. There is no real villain here.

One of the strongest choices that was made involves Daniel Bruhl”s character. In the original comics, Baron Zemo is a Nazi mad scientist with some truly ridiculous backstory. In each of the movies so far, the Captain America films have been very careful in the way they”ve translated the sort of big broad bad guys of the original comics into living breathing movie characters. The Red Skull is a comic book villain, and Hugo Weaving played him very well, finding some humanity in something so outrageous. The way they brought Toby Jones as Zola back in Winter Soldier was potentially ridiculous, but it ended up feeling creepy and sad, and the Winter Soldier himself was a formidable opponent, relentless and every bit Cap”s equal in terms of combat. In the comics, there were two Zemos, a father and son, and the son ended up working with both the Red Skull and Zola at different times. The character that Bruhl plays is nothing like that. He”s a regular human being, and his plan only becomes clear in the film”s final stretch. Bruhl plays him very real, even when he”s tracking down a Siberian base full of frozen evil Super Soldiers, and it is a real testament to how well-done everything about this film is that by the end of the movie, he comes across as a man driven by a righteous and horrible anger, not as a “villain” in any typical sense of the word.

There”s no question that different people will take different things from this based on how much any of this matters to them. Casual viewers will still likely walk away with a full, rich experience, because the film is incredibly clear about where the characters and story begin, and where everything ends. You could easily watch this removed from any other film in the entire Marvel filmography and you”d still get a complete film. But for audiences who are invested in these characters and this world, it is almost preposterous how well this all comes together. Take the way this film handles Peggy Carter. Even if you don”t know the other films, it”s pretty clear that she”s someone important to Steve, and it”s also clear what she meant to her niece Sharon (Emily VanCamp), who really comes into her own as a character after a mysterious appearance in The Winter Soldier. If you just watch this film, you”ll get it, but for me, someone who has come to really love the character Peggy, the film carries a hefty emotional punch that surprised me. It”s precisely because of that investment.

The same thing is true of Tony in this film. I think Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark and Iron Man is one of the greatest pieces of superhero casting of all time. There is no doubt in my mind that Marvel owes an eternal debt to Downey for what he did to bring the character to life, and that Downey owes them equally for betting big on him after his earlier public turbulence. The work he does here is refined and honest and more emotional than he”s been in earlier films. This has all taken a huge toll on Tony. If there”s ever been a perfect moment for Demon In A Bottle to really work, this is it. After all, Iron Man 3 was essentially a film about a superhero dealing with the PTSD that comes with saving the world from an alien invasion. Since that moment, Tony”s been trying to get out of the Iron Man suit for good. It”s the impulse that led to the disastrous events of Avengers: Age of Ultron, and this time, Tony”s ready to hand over the responsibility for his actions and for all the people they couldn”t save to anyone else. He can”t take any more blood on his hands. He can”t take failing his friends again. And when Captain America refuses to go along with the Sokovia Accords, refuses to register as a superpowered being who will only act on the sanctioned word of the US government, it is shocking to him. Steve Rogers is no mere mouthpiece, and Captain America is no longer a symbol, but merely a man making his own choices. Tony has become what he thought Steve would want him to be, and it”s upsetting to him to be left holding this particular bag. He thought this would be an automatic yes from Cap, an easy choice. And instead, the events we”ve seen in The First Avenger and The Winter Soldier easily explain why Steve makes the choices he does in this film without excusing them.

One of the many things the film does well is the gradual escalation of events, starting with an unfortunate accident during a confrontation with Crossbones (Frank Grillo) that ends in tragedy. Every scene, we can feel the heroes being pulled into this moral quicksand where every choice they make feels like the wrong one, no matter how right the reasons. The film ably juggles appearances from supporting characters like Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Rhodey (Don Cheadle), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), and Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), all of them playing key roles in the events without overpowering the scenes they”re in. It”s impressive because we”ve had enough history with these characters that when they”re used here, it”s all about watching these personalities collide. When we laugh, it's not because of easy punchlines, but more because we know all of these people well enough now that these interactions feel both real and inevitable.

It”s even more impressive to see how they introduce two brand new characters here, because both of them feel essential to the story they”re telling and to the themes of the film. T”Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is introduced as the prince of Wakanda during a special session of the United Nations, but when tragedy strikes again, T”Challa suits up as the Black Panther and sets out to find and kill Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan). When Tony Stark finds himself confounded by Captain America”s actions, he reaches out to someone he”s been watching, and from the moment Tom Holland enters the film as Peter Parker, he”s exactly right. In fact, there”s a moment about halfway into Captain America: Civil War when I suddenly wished that my good friend Aaron was sitting there in the theater with me. Aaron”s one of my favorite people on the planet, and a longtime friend, and one of the things he loves most is Spider-Man. He adores the character, and while he loves any number of geek properties, I think it”s safe to say Spidey is at the very top of the stack for him. When he sees this film, he”s going have an out-of-body experience because of just how right they get not only Spider-Man but Peter Parker as well. Having seen dozens and dozens of movies with him over the years, I could imagine how he”s going to react when he sees Spider-Man swing into action in this film, and I”m sorry I won”t be there when it happens. What makes his appearance in the film more than just fan service or a commercial for another franchise is the impact he has on the characters in the film. He has a heartfelt scene with Tony where his own personal drive serves as a reminder of just how important what they do really is, and it”s beautifully played by both Holland and Downey. It also gives us a glimpse of his relationship with Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), and I look forward to getting to know them in their film next year.

By the time the dust settles at the end of the film, things have changed for everyone in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and there”s no easy reset button offered up. Even the now-expected mid-credits scene is looking forward at a very different status quo for these characters. I”m curious where they take Vision (Paul Bettany), who emerges as a much stranger character this time with a hilarious penchant for sweaters, and even the references they drop to the nature of his Infinity gem feel like they fit in this story, not like teasers for something else. Performances in the film are great across the board, and it”s fun watching different combinations of these actors get to play together. The “splash page” action sequence that takes place at a German airport is one of the finest examples in any film of superhero action done right, with each character serving some vital role in the way things unfold. Overall, what the Russos do best in these films is make superheroic powers look like something real while remembering just how visceral and exciting the best superhero action can be. There”s an impact to this action, but it never feel gratuitous. Each character has their own way of handling a situation, and there are tons of amazing individual gags in the film that spotlight each of these different power sets. Nothing feels thrown away. Nothing feels perfunctory. It feels like each beat of the film is carefully considered and crafted.

My only complaint is one that I”ve had for most of the modern Marvel cycle, and it”s almost pointless to complain about it at this point. I wish they had built memorable and distinct musical themes for each of the major Marvel character so that these scores became a sort of call-and-response between those themes. As it is, I think Henry Jackman”s score is fine. It works. But it would have been wonderful if the musical side of things was working on as sophisticated a level as everything else is at this point. It feels greedy to want more from a film that works as well as this, though. That”s just me as a film score nerd wishing things had been perfect.

Overall, Captain America: Civil War is an example of how these films are more than just simple good guy/bad guy power fantasies, but only if you treat the characters and the audience with equal respect.

Captain America: Civil War arrives in theaters on May 6, 2016.