With its second film, the Captain America franchise outgrew its original period trappings and launched Steve Rogers headlong into modern day by successfully melding a Marvel superhero movie with the paranoia of a 1970's political thriller. Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo (Community), Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a game-changer for Marvel, not just for demolishing S.H.I.E.L.D. and revealing it was under the thrall of HYDRA since its inception, but for proving a Captain America film can successfully work as a mini-Avengers movie.
With other superheroes in supporting roles - Natasha Romanoff/The Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Sam Wilson/The Falcon (Anthony Mackie) - The Winter Soldier still maintained its focus squarely on Steve Rogers and his struggle to redeem his lifelong best friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), who was revealed to still be alive as the mind-wiped Winter Soldier. With this sequel, Captain America's true arc emerged: Steve Rogers - a man from the sepia-toned past trying to fit into a tenuous present day - would cling to his need to save Bucky, who represents that past, eventually to the detriment of his new family the Avengers. Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a new high for Marvel Studios, and it stands proudly as one of the very best films in the MCU.
Iron Man 3 was also a new high for Tony Stark while setting him on a personal low. It was a billion-dollar global hit and one of the MCU's first examples of a film driven by the personality of its director, Shane Black (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang). Iron Man 3 is perhaps best remembered for its controversial reveal that the villainous Mandarin, teased as the Big Bad since the first Iron Man, was just an actor played by a loopy Sir Ben Kingsley. Otherwise, Black explored the darker reaches of Tony Stark's psyche as Tony grappled with PTSD following his near-death experience when he saved Manhattan from the Chitauri invasion fleet at the conclusion of The Avengers. This ultimately led to his catastrophic mistake of creating Ultron in the second Avengers movie. The Iron Man films, which were about an arrogant billionaire who found a spark of heroism, concluded with a redemption of sorts for Tony Stark, who now felt obligated to build "a suit of armor around the world".
Stark's struggles with mental illness would carry over into the third Captain America film, which was in every way but name a third Avengers movie missing only Thor and the Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). Stark's guilt over Ultron and Sokovia would push him in the opposite trajectory, from the man who grandstanded in defiance of the US Government in Iron Man 2 to a man who argued for the Avengers to become accountable to the United Nations and submit to the oversight of the Sokovia Accords. After all of his failures, Stark no longer trusted his own judgment, and he needed Steve Rogers to remain the Avengers' moral compass. However, Steve was resolute in his belief that not only were the Sokovia Accords wrong for the Avengers, but that Bucky was innocent of killing the king of Wakanda, which drew T'Challa/The Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) into the wilds of the MCU on a quest to avenge his father.
Captain America: Civil War is one of the greatest third acts in movie trilogy history. The Russos juggled a dozen superheroes battling each other over differing ideological opinions while retaining fans' rooting interest in every superhero, plus they successfully introduced two more, the Black Panther and the Amazing Spider-Man (Tom Holland). While it could be unfair to call Civil War a Captain America film with so many Avengers in it, the central character of the narrative remains Steve Rogers, who rejects Tony Stark's overtures for a truce in favor of defending his lifelong friend Bucky. The revelation that Bucky murdered Tony's parents made the rift between Stark and Rogers permanent - but not insurmountable. The MCU continues to reel from the seismic upheaval caused by Civil War. Meanwhile, someone who is (still) blissfully unaware of the Avengers' disassembly is Thor.
- Black Panther (2018) release date: Feb 16, 2018
- Avengers: Infinity War / The Avengers 3 (2018) release date: Apr 27, 2018
- Ant-Man & The Wasp (2018) release date: Jul 06, 2018
- Captain Marvel (2019) release date: Mar 08, 2019
- The Avengers 4 / Avengers: Endgame (2019) release date: Apr 26, 2019
- Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019) release date: Jul 02, 2019