At some point, it's going to be impossible to even pretend that whatever MARVEL Studio's latest comic book adaptation is somehow qualifies as a gamble. Make no mistake, some genuinely were (Can Iron Man carry a film? Will the Avengers even work at all? Who are the Guardians of the What Now? Is Ant-Man more than a joke?), but at this point, what was once a maverick operation is now the most well-oiled hit-making machine in Hollywood and has reshaped the entire film industry as we know it.
And yet, the fact that Captain America's third film comes as the "prestige" of the first genuine superhero movie hat-trick (the cap, if you will, to a legit back-to-front great superhero trilogy) still makes it seem like this outfit is pulling off miracles.
Here's the safest possible version of a "bold statement" - Chris Evans as Steve Rogers is the secret weapon of the entire MARVEL Cinematic Universe. Oh, Robert Downey Jr. is great - he so completely owned the role of Tony Stark when he stepped on-screen in 2008 that the current comics have reshaped themselves to match his affectations, and his own phoenix-like resurgence as a washed-up has-been to the highest-paid actor in the town, coupled with the journey Stark takes in his inaugural film to the meta-textual rise of Iron Man to the front of pop-culture consciousness is a level of synergy that you basically don't ever get to see play out. And Downey Jr. absolutely brings his A-game in Captain America: Civil War.
But Evans proves - for arguably the fifth time in a row - that he's the best casting decision that MARVEL Studios ever made. The man doesn't just effortlessly embody the "wholesome square-jawed goodness but still with actual human depth beneath" of Steve Rogers to a staggering degree, but he's putting in powerful performance work in studiously non-showy ways. There's a memorial scene early in the film where Evans is telling the audience pages with just his eyes, and when he stretches, he can break your heart as easily as make you want to stand up and cheer.
And make no mistake, both reactions will fall fast and heavy during Civil War. In the aftermath of the disastrous creation of Ultron and the destruction of Sokovia in the second Avengers film, the world's governments want to put Earth's Mightiest Heroes on a leash. And they're not the only ones - having come all the way across the spectrum from his devil-may-care irresponsible beginnings, Tony Stark also thinks the Avengers should be "put in check." Unfortunately, this comes with complications, ones that Steve Rogers - who lost his faith in higher sanction when the government agency he swore to serve turned out to be full of Secret Nazis (the worst kind of Nazis, by far) simply cannot allow to dictate his missions or stop him from lending aid where he thinks it's due.
Things get complicated when former Hydra sleeper agent (and Steve's childhood friend) "Bucky" Barnes, a.k.a. the Winter Soldier resurfaces after an attack on the United Nations. Among those grieving in the aftermath are newly-crowned King T'Challa of Wakanda, bearer of the mantle of the Black Panther. Tempers rise, punches are thrown, and Captain America and Iron Man find themselves on opposing sides of an ideological split that could leave the Avengers in ruin. Both men reach out for aid - Cap to help clear Bucky's name, Tony to help bring his friend in before things get worse - and so Ant-man joins Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch, Falcon, Bucky, and Cap against Spider-man, Black Widow, the Vision, War Machine, Black Panther, and Iron Man.
Fortunately, everyone sits down to talk things out, nothing goes wrong, the whole situation gets sorted out peacefully, and everything goes back to the way it was.
Ha. Ha. Ha.
What's mind-boggling about how Civil War works - and make no mistake, it works like a Swiss watch - is that it functions both as the final arc in the Cap's story begun in 2011's Captain America: The First Avenger, but also plays beautifully as the third chapter in the story of the team that formed in 2012's The Avengers without ever feeling like it's giving anyone the short shrift. Steve and Tony take center stage as primary protagonist and antagonist, but everyone else gets a moment to add meaningful weight to the film or flesh out the characters that have been developing across - for some - over a dozen films now.
It's the kind of movie that simply wouldn't work the same way without years of established fiction and growing characters to back it up, because when these characters talk about their fears and responsibilities and consequences (which actually happens a lot in this film) you're not just engrossed because the dialogue is smart and fun (though it is) or the actions accompanying the discussion are engrossing (though they are) or because you know there's a kick-ass action scene just around the corner (though there always is), but because you KNOW these people. The across-the-board commitment by the cast ensures that you believe in them. You understand their foibles and their feet of clay as well as their super-power skill-set. Even new arrivals like Spidey and Black Panther get real time to breathe and grow between (and during) set pieces.
(Sidebar: audiences are going to be clamoring for Back Panther and Spider-Man solo films from MARVEL basically as soon as the credits roll, if not immediately after the characters are introduced)
But all of it comes back to Captain America. As always, Steve is the catalyst hero, the man around whom the world must bend or break rather than the person who has a dynamic arc to call his own. That's not to say that Steve never questions anything or never learns anything - if The Winter Soldier was about him learning what it meant to be a force for good in a morally-compromised world, Civil War is about what he learns he'll have to give up in order to do the right thing. The film's structure itself contracts its own scope as it plays, using a shadowy villain pulling strings to throw a zig when audiences are set up for a zag, and unfolding to reveal itself as the most personal and character-driven MARVEL movie yet.
Captain America: Civil War is a film that doesn't just have characters talking about ideas that sound important, it's one wholly built around these very real themes of accountability and control and responsibility on the world stage, and its very title is revealed an indictment of the blind rage, grief and ego that override logic and reason to lead to actual war. It's thematically mature rather than vulgar and nasty. It's a movie that has seriously dark edges, but never wallows in misery, that has soaring spectacle and laugh-out-loud comedy but never feels slight. It's the crown jewel of the MCU and the best justification for why this goofy experiment was worthwhile in the first place.
It's very possibly the best superhero movie ever made.