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05/27/2016 01:35 pm ET Updated May 27, 2016

Phasing Forward: 'Captain America: Civil War' Proves a Smashing Departure in Marvel's Big Novel for the Big Screen

Maybe it's not a totally ADD media culture after all. Captain America: Civil War, a critical smash, is proving to be a massive popular hit here in the US and around the world. And it's doing it by imaginatively knitting together elements from the dozen earlier films in the so-called Marvel Cinematic Universe in ways far more reminiscent of classic long-form television series such as Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The West Wing, The Sopranos, and The X-Files than anything previously seen in theatrical films.

The film went over a billion dollars in worldwide box office -- the fourth Marvelverse film to do so, joining The Avengers, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Iron Man 3 -- last weekend, popping into the all-time Top 20, and is swiftly powering its way toward the all-time Top 10. Cap 3 will likely emerge from Memorial Day weekend in the top dozen films of all-time in worldwide box office. With significant contemporary political overtones for the post-9/11 era, the film, third in the Captain America trilogy, is a huge hit here at home as well, garnering the fifth largest opening weekend of all-time at the domestic box office.

It's the latest and arguably, according to many, greatest of superhero movies.

The second trailer for Captain America: Civil War.

In the post-9/11 era, the superhero movie is what the Western was in the Cold War, a way to explore our identity in a deeply troubling time, to pursue allegorical solutions and examine potential pitfalls.

The Marvelverse, which is geared to a hyper-technological era just an order of magnitude more advanced than our own in its otherwise immediately recognizable milieu, has done this since the first Iron Man film introduced us to the greatness and guiltiness of Tony Stark. But the themes of national identity and the meaning of security and liberty have been most coherently explored in the Captain America films, most notably the anti-surveillance state Captain America: The Winter Soldier, directed, like this film, by the Russo brothers and written by the Markus and McFeely duo.

How does Cap 3 measure up? Quite well. It's a bit too busy to be my favorite, and not as strong a drama as the best of the "New Hollywood" golden age of the 1970s, but it is a more compelling, entertaining, and simply better film than the vast majority of the Oscar-bait dramas of today.

Back in Phase One of Marvel's Cinematic Universe, at the beginning of the first Captain America film, the future Cap's childhood friend Bucky Barnes rescued the then puny Steve Rogers from another beating by a bully and brought him along on a double date on Barnes's last night in New York before shipping out to the fighting in World War II.

"Where are we going?," asked Rogers, then a lion-hearted 98-pound weakling, as the duo set off to meet the ladies. "The future," replied Barnes.

And so they did.

A wonderfully rendered re-imagineering of the epochal 1939 New York World's Fair became the movie's 1943 "World Exposition of Tomorrow." It featured the young Howard Stark (future father of Tony Stark) and his almost flying car. The retro future we wish we'd had, cast in beautiful Art Deco and Streamline Moderne, replete with a certain good-hearted German scientist out to beat the Nazis by finding one truly good man to become the world's first super-soldier.

The Marvelverse all flowed forward from these moments, so it makes sense that Barnes, now a recovering brainwashed super-assassin, should be at the pivot of events in the very eventful film which kicks off Phase Three of the MCU. And it makes just as much sense that Howard Stark -- played circa 1991 once again in the mature version by, in perfect casting for the brilliantly snarky Tony Stark's dad, Mad Men star John Slattery -- should cast such a shadow over events in the present day, 25 years after his death.

Early on in the first Captain America picture, Bucky Barnes takes Steve Rogers to "the future," New York's 1943 World Exposition of Tomorrow, where they encounter Howard Stark and his flying car and Steve meets his fate by at last getting his chance to join the Army. Bucky's girlfriend, incidentally, is played by English actress Jenna Coleman, who went on to stardom in Doctor Who.

For Howard Stark, that sane version of Howard Hughes (a fascinating figure who stood at the intersection of high technology and hidden history and was an early pioneer of Hollywood besides) has cast his shadow over the entire series of Marvel films since Robert Downey, Jr. emerged so brilliantly in the first Iron Man back in 2008. It was Howard Stark who helped create the first Avenger, the stalwart Steve Rogers/Captain America, built Cap's iconic shield, fathered the brainiest Avenger, Tony Stark/Iron Man, and co-founded SHIELD, the globe-spanning espionage/security agency that gave rise to the assemblage of superheroes and was brought down in spectacular fashion in the second Captain America film by, ironically, Howard's old friend, Cap himself.

Last year was a slightly off year for the Marvelverse. Though the second Avengers film was a massive hit, it was also either overstuffed or undercooked, a classic candidate for the larger director's cut that early industry signs, and director Joss Whedon, indicated, as I wrote last summer. There might just be a pop epic in there somewhere, I suggested then. But the director's cut did not materialize and Whedon moved on, leaving dangling threads and a general feeling of bloat.

That Marvel was able to end Phase Two with a new franchise character (two, actually, counting the about-to-be Wasp) in the warm and delightfully quirky Ant-Man -- which boasted a terrific cast in Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly, and Michael Pena among others -- was a definite surprise plus. And it added what looks like crucial new quantum tech to the Marvelverse courtesy of Douglas's Stark-distrusting Dr. Hank Pym, revolutionary tech which I suspect will be needed in the upcoming Infinity War. But, though it was a hit, Ant-Man didn't set the box office and fan imaginations ablaze the way that 2014's wild Guardians of the Galaxy decidedly did.

So a lot was riding on the ending to the Captain America trilogy, including a face-off with DC/Warner Bros. rival Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

That competition turned out to be no competition at all. Cap 3 has blown past the ballyhooed and bloated Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, stalling out below Spectre, the "disappointing" follow-up to the Bond classic Skyfall. Batman v Superman will end up just below $880 million in worldwide box office. Meanwhile, Cap 3, massive around the world -- in fact, strikingly so for a picture with the formerly corny and still controversial moniker of Captain 'America' -- will end up in the vicinity of a proper Avengers picture, a great deal over $1 billion.

The past is preclude. Both Steve Rogers and Tony Stark bring complex and interrelated histories to their confrontation in the third Captain America picture.

The key to it all is character. The MCU has taken its time to develop relatable characters, even turning Captain America, a longtime favorite of mine I worried was too corny to be popular in this cynical age, into a true popular icon. (Just check all the Captain America t-shirts around.) Chris Evans has proved to be an outstanding superhero actor, imbuing the character with a strong ethical base and enough humor to make him charismatic in the bargain.

The inimitable Robert Downey, Jr., of course, kicked the whole MCU off with his breakthrough performance as Tony Stark/Iron Man back in 2008. In Downey's hands, Stark is arguably the coolest and most interesting character in big movies -- in fact, he's the topic of an upcoming piece -- though I am very much Team Cap with regard to the "civil war." (Not because he has the real answers. His answers are simply less flawed than Tony Stark's.)

In a host of outstanding characters in Avenger world who are not the twin towers of the epic, Scarlett Johannson's Natasha Romanov/Black Widow is easily the most essential. A wonderful actress from her young performer breakthrough in Robert Redford's The Horse Whisperer on, she nonetheless filled me with a bit of doubt when she was cast as Black Widow back when she was rather annoyingly being hyped as the hottest woman in the world. In fact, in my relative pan review of Iron Man 2, I said she was only the third hottest woman in the picture.

That was mainly because I disliked the media hype, not because of Johannson herself. Now she is absolutely essential, a fabulous, powerful character who should have her own movie ASAP even as she continues to play major roles in most of the other big Marvelverse pictures.

In the Marvelverse, character as much as anything drives action. As the pictures make plain, and I've noticed this often in political life, character often drives ideology. The pictures are very well cast, with important beats for everyone. Perhaps a reason why there are seven Oscar nominees in the cast of Captain America: Civil War.

While Ant-Man and the new Spider-Man make big impressions in the film in what are essentially large cameo roles, it is a brand-new character, Black Panther, who moves events along nearly as much as Cap and Tony and the very sophisticated and subtle villain Colonel Zemo, played by Daniel Bruhl.

Without indulging much in spoilers, Black Panther, the Wakandan political leader played by Chadwick Boseman, star of the recent biopics on James Brown and Jackie Robinson, has a fascinating and very consequential arc in this picture, which sets him up as one of the most powerful and sophisticated members of the Marvelverse going forward and, of course, its first person of color character to have his or her own movie. It's going to seem a long wait till early 2018 when Black Panther hits the big screen.

In the classic Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the unmasked fascist SHIELD/Hydra Agent Sitwell's confession reveals how our digital age might provide a surveillance state with the tools to target not only present but future potential opponents.

It's character, and fate, just as much as politics, which drives the conflict between factions headed by Steve Rogers/Captain America and Tony Stark/Iron Man.

Although this is very much a Captain America picture, in which the dynamic largely revolves around the First Avenger and his choices and relationships, it is nonetheless filled with other Avengers. And it is the showiest and most charismatic of Avengers, Tony Stark, who is most responsible for creating the conflict in the first place.

In a performance which is Robert Downey, Jr.'s best as Stark since the first Iron Man launched the Marvelverse in 2008 in such spectacular and surprising fashion, a performance which not only reminds that RDJ is a great actor but also is deserving of an Oscar nod for best supporting actor, the hero/anti-hero in the shiny armored-suit and slick designer suits is a barely controlled mess. Though it's a Cap-led mission gone awry that triggers the call for regulation of the Avengers, it was Stark's antics in Avengers: Age of Ultron -- in which he unilaterally created, without any mention to Cap, a guardian artificial intelligence which comes close to destroying the human race -- which set the stage for "the Sokovia Accords."

Stark is a frequently erratic, endlessly self-involved hot mess. His genius allows him to recover from mistakes but his reliance on it drives a tremendous hubris which merely takes new focus after he eschews the weapons business midway through the first Iron Man. Wracked by unresolved daddy issues around the brilliant, ruthless, and still overshadowing Howard Stark, Tony Stark can't leave well enough alone. Newly split from Pepper Potts, and desperate to impress her with his sense of responsibility (and neatly avoid his own greater culpability in the process), he pushes the team to accept not just consultation with the United Nations -- the appropriate relationship -- but UN command and control.

Steve Rogers, the fundamentally good man selected on account of his character for the World War II super-soldier project co-directed by Tony's dad, is having none of it. The young New Deal aficionado (Tony's final try at inducing Steve's signature on the Accords comes with the offer of the pen, retrieved from Howard's archives, used by Franklin D. Roosevelt to sign the Lend-Lease Act) who went into the Army because he didn't like bullies, ultimately sacrificing himself when Howard wasn't around to think up another way to save New York, has learned the hard way to fear hidden political agendas. That realization came in 2014's brilliant Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which ends up taking a dramatic stand against a pervasive surveillance state and secret drone strike program. It's not the Obama program, obviously, but Robert Redford's character illustrates how a good intention can become deeply perverted.

Captain America: Civil War isn't so clearcut in its politics. Tony Stark is wrong overall, though right about the need for more accountability. And Steve Rogers is right in his ideals and skepticism about the politics, but wrong in being too binary a thinker.

Steve Rogers is no Dick Cheney or Don Rumsfeld or George W. Bush. But it would be foolish to give China and Russia veto power over deployment of the Avengers. It's also foolish to imagine the Avengers can continue without making concessions to accountability. But it's a foolhardiness that flows from a strong ethical base forged in a better era, the 1940s, rather than today's post-9/11 insistence on a dumb unilateralism.

Frankly, the team would have been better off with a process placing Ms. Romanova at the center of its decision-making. Black Widow, one of the best spies around, is a subtler and more worldly thinker than either Cap, the premier soldier, or Tony Stark, the premier technologist.

But things get personal very quickly between the twin towers of the Marvelverse. Too personal. Rationalism slowly but surely flies out the door.

Again, this revolves around Howard Stark.

In one sense, there is something of a sibling rivalry between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers. Howard Stark is Tony's not infrequently disapproving dad, but he's also co-creator and old friend of the First Avenger. Tony makes it plain in this and other pictures that he got sick of "my old man never shutting up" about what a great guy the great hero Captain America was.

For his part, Cap has had to work to get over his first impression of Tony as the egomaniacal spoiled brat son of his trusted old friend, the friend who gave him pointers on how to romance the lissome and very formidable Agent Peggy Carter back in the day.

Cap makes a hard choice to sacrifice himself for the common good at the end of Captain America: The First Avenger.

When Cap finally loses Peggy again, there is nothing left for the man out of time from the world he knew and fought so hard to preserve other than his old friend-turned-brainwashed assassin, Bucky Barnes, the aforementioned Winter Soldier.

The tragedy of Barnes's life, altered so dramatically by advanced technology, points up the Marvelverse's increasingly ambivalent view of high tech in our own highly technologized age.

If the conflict in Civil War does not track mostly along stereotypical left and right lines, and it does not, except in the most surface of ways, that's been the case throughout the Marvelverse films, from their 2008 inception on.

The MCU is decidedly "up-wing." Not so much conventionally left-wing or right-wing but oriented to the future rather than the past in terms of looking to uplift civilization through new technologies and social innovations. Which in the skew chart with left/right and future/past axes developed decades ago by my old friend and boss Senator Gary Hart runs upward along the future/past axis.

The dark side of advanced technology has always been there -- see Tony Stark's arms dealer past -- but in the more brightly-hued scifi version of today's world that is the Marvelverse, technology developed for good purposes may be glitchy (like Howard Stark's flying car), but it is not the cause of societal problems. Avengers: Age of Ultron did much to change that.

Captain America: Civil War leaves us in an ambiguous place. Technology threatens, but may yet hold the keys to salvation.

Not unlike the situation in our own increasingly troubled and science fictional world.

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