Warning: may contain spoilers.
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
I have to admit that the Captain was never one of my favourite super heroes – I thought his costume and shield were naff, never quite believed in his ability to defeat much stronger opponents, and was put off by the whole patriotism malarkey. Conversely, I seem to enjoy the CA films more than any other super hero franchise, even the much greater one of which they are such a small but significant part. This first film gives us the origin of the character set against the background of World War II, showing how an unfit for military service has been by the name of Steve Rogers is transformed by the super-soldier serum into Captain America. At the head of an elite squad of soldiers, with advanced weapons courtesy of Howard Stark (father of the more famous Tony), the Cap sets about dismantling the strongholds of Hydra, a rogue organisation sheltering under the Nazi umbrella and headed by his nemesis, the Red Skull (a high ranking Nazi officer whose exposure to a variant of the super-soldier serum had unfortunate side effects). In an attempt to prevent the Skull using weapons of mass destruction against the mainland US the Captain is apparently lost, ditching his plane into the Arctic sea, but we know better of course. In the two present day episodes that top and tail this movie we learn of the recovery of the Captain’s frozen and perfectly preserved body and witness Nick Fury recruiting him to serve in S.H.I.E.L.D. That’s pretty much an action oriented precis, omitting a lot of the personal stuff that helps to make this film special, such as Rogers’ friendship with Bucky Barnes, the bromance between the two characters that makes the latter’s death and all that follows so painful, for both Rogers and the viewers, and of course the relationship with Agent Peggy Carter that we, but not Rogers, know is doomed to fall by the wayside of the time stream. There are lots of subplots that have been included to move on the greater story unfolding in the Marvel Universe, as with their introduction and use of the Tesseract and the existence of Hydra itself, while the main strand with CA tackling the Red Skull powers the film through to its end. Best of all it made me, for the first time, believe that this star spangled super hero was actually a credible figure, somebody who wasn’t as ridiculous as his costume makes him appear, and could hold his own in battle against far more powerful villains. The character became interesting, a fully rounded individual with depth of emotion, something I had never got from the comics, where he seldom seemed like anything more than a walking, talking patriot with too many muscles, and a lot of the credit for that must go to Chris Evans for his nuanced portrayal of the character.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Briefly, Hydra has infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. at all levels and is planning to use a new weapon to eliminate all those who might oppose it. Nick Fury, who could have prevented this betrayal, reaches out to Captain America but is killed by a super assassin known only as the Winter Soldier, and Cap himself is declared a rogue agent by traitors heading up the organisation. Allied with the Black Widow, the Falcon, and S.H.I.E.L.D. loyalists led by Agent Hill, the Captain sets about foiling the Hydra plot, but to do so he has to go head to head with the Winter Soldier, who turns out to be his old best friend Bucky Barnes. The scene is set for a climactic showdown aboard a trio of S.H.I.E.L.D. heli-carriers. Yep, this is an exciting, action packed film on all levels, with some superb set pieces, all culminating in the final battle to prevent Hydra prevailing. While the Captain remains central, the others characters get to do their bit in the fight scenes, with Fury, Black Window, and the Falcon all strutting their stuff and making a good impression. We delve deeper into the world of international espionage, with an opening scene and aftermath in which the Captain realises that even Fury isn’t to be trusted totally, that he has his own agenda, and Natasha Romanoff is his agent more than she is the Captain’s friend. Part of the story involves the Captain learning to function in the modern world, taking time out to learn the ropes, and yet it is something from his past that drives the plot. Bucky Barnes has been subjected to a similar super-soldier treatment and brainwashed to the point that he is a ruthless killer, but for Cap he is still an old friend, the one he failed to save, regarding which he continues to carry a burden of guilt, and it is these feelings that complicate his response to this film’s titular nemesis. It isn’t so much about beating Bucky as saving him, and in a way by doing so Cap also has to save himself, to satisfy his, some might say outmoded, sense of what is right. Even more than its predecessor, this is a film that successfully marries the action side of super heroics and the personal issues that the characters have to deal with, along the way presenting the viewer with moral choices, allowing us to wonder how we might act in such circumstances. While I have some minor quibbles about the nature and credibility of the Hydra super weapon, overall this film is a splendid addition to the Marvel franchise.
Captain America: Civil War (2016)
This has been described as a third Avengers film and yeah, aside from big hitters Hulk and Thor, all the gang is here, but the central conflict, as the poster makes clear, is between Cap and Iron Man. When a mission in Lagos goes disastrously wrong, with loss of civilian life including Wakandan aid workers, the UN proposes an accord by which the Avengers will be placed under their oversight. Tony Stark, who feels responsible for Ultron, supports the initiative, but Cap who has no reason to trust governments opposes it, and the other Avengers are divided right down the middle. Matters reach a head when the Winter Soldier attacks the UN, killing Wakanda’s king. Cap doesn’t believe that his old friend Bucky is responsible and certainly won’t let security forces execute him without a trial. The stage is set for a showdown between the two groups of Avengers, with guest stars Ant-Man and Spiderman showing up on opposing sides. And then subsequent events reveal that the Winter Soldier was innocent, at least of the UN attack, but other actions in his past see Iron Man wanting to kill the Soldier and willing to go through Captain America to do so. Friends and allies have irrevocably fallen out, as the mastermind behind all these events had planned. Yep, definitely an Avengers movie in all but name, with the introduction of new characters, and on that score it was great to see Ant-Man cutting loose as his Giant Man alter ego and tearing up the scenery, though I wasn’t quite so happy with the introduction of the new (and rebooted) Spiderman – the character seemed almost apologetic for his actions and, while that rings true for a teenager, it didn’t sit well with my personal conception of the character, and we didn’t really get an explanation for how he was recruited anyway, though I guess the forthcoming film will explain all. Also seen for the first time, and making an impressive impact, was the Black Panther, who appears motivated by anger, but ultimately lets a cooler head prevail. The divided loyalties of the other team members, and the ways in which they are forced to fight against friends, holding back but also determined to win, were put over well, especially in the case of Wanda, whose attempt to save lives went so disastrously wrong and was the impetus for much of what followed, while touching on questions of the greater good. Cap is meant to be the conscience of the film, acting out of the most admirable of motives, but at the same time with enough wriggle room that the viewer can question if he is right to behave as he does. The final showdown with Iron Man was edge of the seat stuff, though I found the result of their fight, satisfying as it was aesthetically, to be unconvincing given Stark’s superiority. I still have a sneaking preference for The Dark Knight but won’t argue too hard with anyone who wants to claim that this was the best super hero movie yet to come down the pike. Like TDK it had plenty of action but never lost sight of human concerns in among all the super heroics. And I’m so glad that I got to see it on a big screen.