Rating: ***1/2 (out of four) - spoilers abound
Aside from the antagonist's master plan being a little too convoluted to have unfolded so perfectly, Cap III is nothing less than a masterpiece. Everything about this film works and fits together seemlessly.
The established characters are great but their story arcs from previous MCU films have credibly and believably continued, while the newer ones like Sam Wilson/Falcon, Scott Lang/Antman, Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch, and Vision, fit in perfectly and are delightfully true to their previous depictions. And the newbies - T'Challa/Black Panther and, of course, Peter Parker/Spiderman, are introduced in ways guaranteed to thrill comic book geeks as well as instantly establishing them as fleshed out, three-dimensional characters for their respective standalone MCU films.
The numerous action sequences are off-the-charts insane, especially the penultimate babyface-on-babyface battle at Leipzig Airport. But what makes this installment everything Avengers II: Age Of Ultron wasn't is the polemics, the internal philosophical and personal disagreements that test the Avengers, and most of all, the fact that this movie, at its heart, is all about consequences. Of actions, of inactions, the actions those consequences compel, and ultimately, just how far a man can be pushed before he just plain doesn't care anymore.
A Soviet installation in Siberia. The year is 1991, after the fall of the Evil Empire. A Hydra handler takes Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier out of cryogenic suspension, revives him, activates his brainwashing with conditioning code words, and sends him on an assassination/recovery mission. His targets: Howard and Maria Stark, the parents of Tony Stark/Ironman. His objective: Five bags of supersoldier serum similar to the one that transformed Steve Rogers into Captain America. This is the actual depiction of the newspaper article shown in Captain America II: The Winter Soldier. The mission is successful, and will be the triggering factor in the story's climax.
Lagos, Nigeria, present day. The latest version of the Avengers - Cap, Black Widow, Falcon, and Scarlet Witch (Vision must have stayed home to wash his cape) is tracking Brock Rumlow/Crossbones, the Hydra infiltrator last seen battling Falcon in Cap II when one of the Project Insight helicarriers smashed into S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters, leaving him seriously injured and severely burned. He's now a mercenary, and he and his gang are in Lagos to steal a weaponized virus from the Institute For Infectious Diseases. The Avengers don't figure out Crossbones' true objective until too late, allowing his gang to penetrate the building and grab the virus vial. CB tells his men to scatter, making them easier for the Avengers to pick off one by one, which they do, but not before Scarlet Witch levitates Cap into the building, a nod to the comics.
It comes down, of course, to a showdown between Cap and Crossbones, which Cap, of course, wins. But then CB tells him that he's seen his lifelong friend Bucky (aka Winter Soldier), for whom Cap and Falcon have been searching for the previous two years after the events of Cap II, and that Bucky remembers him. Cap hesitates, giving CB the opening he needs to detonate a suicide bomb. Scarlet Witch contains the energy of the explosion and tries to direct it harmlessly upwards, but she loses control of it and it blows out the side of a highrise office building, killing and injuring dozens.
In more climactic fight foreshadowing, Tony Stark relives, through one of his holographic gadgets, the final time he saw his parents alive in December of 1991 for an audience of students at MIT that might have including alumni like Howard Wolowitz. In this reimagined version, he says the goodbyes to them, especially his mother, that he wished he'd known to do at the time. He announces a blanket, conspicuously guilt-driven project grant to all the MIT students worth over six hundred million dollars that doesn't prevent his getting accosted in a hallway by the mother of one of the Sokovia casualties (played by Alfre Woodard) who blames Stark for the death of her son. We also get the first inkling that there might be an estrangement between him and Pepper Potts.
The Lagos debacle proves to be the last straw for the "international community". Under the auspices of the United Nations, 117 countries promulgate the Sokovia Accords, essentially the global "mutant registration act" from the comic books, named after the country that got devastated in the Avengers' final battle with Ultron. As "enhanced" people themselves, they are required to sign the Accords and subordinate themselves to international oversight and control.
The hammer is dropped by now-Secretary of State Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross, last seen in the first MCU installment The Incredible Hulk as the army general responsible for trying to create supersoldiers using Dr. Bruce Banner's gamma-ray-derived research on the topic. He appears initially to be reasonable, but as the plot unfolds it becomes increasingly clear that he hasn't changed his spots, and may still retain his military connections and clout.
Ross plays videos, complete with civilian death counts, of the Battle of New York in Avengers I (an alien invasion and not the Avengers' fault - Ironman prevented Manhattan from being nuked, in fact), the Project Insight melee in Washington, D.C. from Cap II (which, if anything, was on S.H.I.E.L.D., which was officially abolished, though a clandestine version endures), the Sokovia battle with Ultron (which was Stark's fault and why he convinced Ross to offer the Avengers the chance to voluntarily sign as opposed to arresting them all), and the recent disaster in Lagos.
This is where the rift opens that eventually becomes an all-out war.
For the record, I sided with Stark on this issue, and I can almost guarantee that my friend the Director will come down on the side of Cap. You can see it without even opening your eyes.
For Rogers, it's a matter of principle. After seeing how Hydra infiltrated and gutted S.H.I.E.L.D. (a premise that I never took seriously, despite how otherwise strong a film Winter Soldier was) he doesn't trust government and its "shifting agendas". He worries that the UN might send the Avengers on wild goose chases or bar them from moving quickly against a real threat (Yes, we know that in real life the UN would order them to wipe out Israel and guard Iran's nukes, but let's stay within the MCU for now) - S.H.I.E.L.D. overriding Nick Fury and ordering the nuking of New York (doubtless Hydra-inspired) is a good example. "The best and safest hands are still our own".
For Stark, part of his motivation for "putting us in check," making the Avengers accountable, was driven by his aforementioned guilt over unleashing Ultron on the world. The other part of it, and the one with which I saw eye-to-eye, was the reality that, as he argued, "If we don't agree to this, they're going to force it on us." (Not quite as sure about "If we won't accept limitations, we're no better than the bad guys", although that could be an admonition against lawlessness). Compromise or be crushed, in essence. The world, in other words, wasn't giving the Avengers a choice other than how they would capitulate. One way or another, they were going to be drafted. Stark was getting them the best deal available, and commonsensically thought and expected his comrades to take it.
Some of them did. James "Rhodie" Rhodes/War Machine (naturally, being "Stark's black friend" as Falcon is to Cap). Vision, who convincingly recounted the escalation of "enhanced" conflicts since Ironman came on the scene eight years earlier and the understandability of the international community's concerns. And, surprisingly, given her much greater affinity for Cap than Stark, Black Widow - though of course you knew that she would fink out on Stark before the flick was over. And, initially, Scarlet Witch, whose mistake in Lagos gave her a guilt trip to rival Stark's.
But Cap remained resolutely opposed (as did Tonto, er, Falcon), which was true to his character, even though, as the remainder of the film showed, it was a disastrous mistake.
The hypothetical question of "The best hands are still our own" vs. "We need to be put in check," of course, did not stay hypothetical for long.
The Sokovia Accords signing ceremony was to take place in Vienna. King T'Chaka (John Kani) of Wakanda, which we learned in Avengers II has pretty much the entire global supply of vibranium, is giving the keynote address when a media truck outside the venue explodes, wiping out many of the dignitaries, including King T'Chaka, but not his son, Prince T'Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman). Black Widow, who was also in attendance, offers BP her condolances. When the video of the media truck from just before it detonated indicates that Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier is the bomber, he vows to avenge his father's murder.
When Cap and Falcon see the news of the Vienna bombing, along with his new girlfriend, now-CIA agent Sharon Carter (introduced in Cap II and canonized as Peggy Carter's (great) niece at the latter's funeral, played by Emily Van Camp) and the video footage indicating that Bucky was responsible for the attack, Cap, true to his character, opts to "go rogue" to try and find his lifetime friend before the authorities (who have kill-on-sight orders) do. Black Widow tries to talk him out of it, to no avail.
Cap locates Barnes in Bucharest, Romania, just minutes before German special forces burst into Bucky's apartment. He fights his way past them and escapes, with Cap and Black Panther in hot pursuit, forcing Rogers to try and keep up with his friend and keep BP off his tail at the same time. Falcon and War Machine eventually join the fray as well. Countless car crashes and explosions and mayhem later, Cap, Falcon, BP, and Barnes are arrested, their weapons confiscated.
Cap is positive that Barnes is innocent, despite the clear video evidence, based on nothing but his anecdotal recollections and the denials of a brainwashed man. Stark informs him that he's talked Ross out of jailing them all and Barnes being extradited to Wakanda in exchange for Cap signing the Accords. Rogers reluctantly agrees until he learns that Scarlet Witch is under house arrest at Avengers HQ under Vision's supervision, which pisses him off all over again and causes him to renege on signing the Accords, which pisses off Stark for Cap's pigheadedness and ingratitude for all he's trying to do for them all. "You know, I always hated you," Stark rages, a reference to Howard Stark's idolization of Rogers, and an indication of the rising tensions between the two that have always been there beneath the surface going back to Avengers I. Basically Rogers thinks that Stark is a sellout and Stark thinks that Rogers is an ingrate and an extremist who's going to get them all tossed in the hoosegow. And once again, Stark is right.
This is also the scene in which it is fully disclosed that Stark and Pepper Potts are separated - a traumatic turn of events for him, harkening back to the scene earlier in Ironman III when he told her that she was the one thing without which he could not live. Throw that on top of his multiple guilt trips and you can see a man, who never had an overabundance of patience or charitable nature to begin with, reaching the end of that patience.
Meanwhile, Barnes is ostensibly given a psyche evaluation by the same man that, in an earlier scene, water-tortured an ex-Hydra operative, demanding access to a report from December 16th, 1991 - the date of Howard & Maria Stark's murders. He didn't get that report, but he did gain access to the brainwashing code book with which to control the Winter Soldier. Here he imparts those code words and sends Barnes on another destructive rampage, overpowering Stark (who didn't have a full Ironman suit with him) and Black Widow, and making his escape in a helicopter from a building roof, which Cap manages to stop by grabbing the edge of the building with one hand and the helicopter with the other and pulling it back down. Probably the most jaw-dropping "HOLY BLEEP!" scene in a movie crammed to bursting with them.
The man who activated Barnes' brainwashed persona is found to be a Colonel Zemo (Daniel Brühl), a high-ranking member of Sokovian intelligence, who manages to escape in the latest fracas. His destination? The same Siberian installation where Barnes was activated twenty-five years before.
After Cap and Bucky fell off the building in the "hulk" of the helicopter into the Spree River, and Cap returned the favor Barnes did him at the end of Cap II by dragging his unconscious form to shore, he and Falcon take him to an abandoned factory where Barnes' bionic arm is immobilized. After he comes to, and the brainwashing persona has abated, he tells Cap and Falcon where Zemo headed - and that there are more Winter Soldiers there where he came from, implying that the Sokovian spook may be trying to put together an army.
Evidently figuring "in for a penny, in for a pound," Cap decides to go rogue again and assembles a team of superheroes sympathetic to his point of view on the Accords: Clinton Barton/Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch (who is persuaded to escape Avengers HQ by Barton based upon the mentor-protege repore they established during the Battle of Sokovia, and does so by literally telekinetically burying Vision several hundred feet into the ground)....
....and Scott Lang/Antman who, as an ex-con, is accustomed and amenable to going outside the law (and hence the brief fight scene between him and Falcon in last year's Antman.) to go along with Falcon and Winter Soldier.
Meanwhile, Stark begs Secretary Ross a third time to back off and let him bring in the renegades, which Ross agrees to do, but only for thirty-six hours. The genius, billionaire, playboy, and philanthropist brings in Rhodie/War Machine, Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (the fink), Vision, Black Panther, and one of his MIT grantees....Peter Parker/Spiderman (Tom Hollande), who in this incarnation really is a kid and remains one for the rest of the movie, and is given an upgraded Spidey-suit with the latest Stark-tech. Indeed, this is a close analog to the comics, in which Stark and Parker - both orphans and tech geniuses - establish a close mentor/protege relationship of their own.
Team Ironman manages to move faster, intercepting Team Cap at Leipzig airport before they can leave for Siberia. They face off; Stark tells Cap to stand down and surrender; Cap refuses and tells his team, "We fight!" And the battle is on.
In my Battlestar Galactica reviews, I often used the term "metastasizing insanity" to describe the many plot developments that sent the characters in crazy and yet plausible in-context directions. The Battle of Leipzig is that in spades. Both sides pull their punches at first, but it isn't long until they sure give the appearance of trying to kill each other.
If you're a fan of the comics, this scene will make you jizz yourself. I can't begin to describe it in toto. I'll just mention the high points:
1) Before the fight starts, Ironman yells, "UNDEROOs!" which is Spiderman's cue to snag Cap's shield and handcuff him in webbing.
2) Spidey takes on and holds his own against Falcon and Winter Soldier ("You have a metal arm? That is awesome dude!"). Falcon and WS develop a nice comrades-in-arms chemistry.
3) The Hawkeye-shoots-Antman-on-his-arrow" gimmick from the comics is included. Antman also becomes GIANTman, where he's trying to stomp Team Ironman to death, Vision phases through him, and Spiderman makes an "Imperial walkers on Planet Hoth" Empire Strikes Back reference (like it was ancient) while tying Antman's legs together with webbing while Ironman and War Machine knock him over, where he falls through a 747.
And then, to quote Martin Lawrence from Bad Boys II, "Shit got real".
GIANTman creates a distraction to enable Cap and Barnes to escape. Inside the hanger they find Black Widow and Black Panther standing in the way....until Romanoff double-crosses BP and covers Rogers' and Barnes' escape. Seeing the quinjet taking off, Ironman and War Machine pursue, with Falcon right behind them. Vision, who had been tending to an injured Scarlet Witch, looks up, takes aim, and tries to vaporize Falcon. But Falcon gets out of the way, causing the beam from the Mind Stone to nearly cut War Machine in half, destroying his suit's arc reactor and sending him into a freefall all the way to the ground before either Stark or Falcon could reach him in time.
No, Rhodie wasn't dead. But he was paralyzed from the waist down.
Picture Tony Stark's frame of mind at this moment. He's lost Pepper Potts. He's wracked with guilt over Ultron. In his mind, one friend has turned on him and effectively almost killed his best friend, all because he was trying to save all of them from a far more draconian fate than just signing a piece of paper. Wouldn't you be about to snap and go postal? He certainly is.
And yet he still tries to go to bat for his (in his mind) misguided friends. Falcon, Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch, and Antman are all captured and taken to a special undersea maximum security prison where they are being held, essentially, Gitmo style. Secretary Ross not only won't listen to any more of Stark's intercessions, but threatens to jail Stark as well after the Leipzig battle laid waste to the entire airport. But on the way there, he makes a stunning discovery: It wasn't Bucky Barnes that bombed the Sokovia Accords summit in Vienna, but Colonel Zemo in a Winter Soldier disguise.
Cap was right. Bucky was innocent after all.
So now Stark goes rogue as well. He shares this revelation with Falcon and convinces him to reveal where Rogers and Barnes went. Embarking on the helicopter on which he flew in, he re-suits and blasts off for Siberia, and what he doesn't know will be the final showdown.
Ironman arrives at the now-abandoned Winter Soldier facility right after Cap and Barnes. Agreeing to an uneasy truce, they case the place, eventually finding Zemo hiding behind a protective barrier than none of the three can penetrate. And that is when the Sovokian operative drops his nuclear bombshell: a videotape showing the Winter Soldier causing Howard and Maria Stark's car crash, and then murdering them both in cold blood.
The emotions roiling across Stark's face at that moment were vivid and incredible. With all his other problems and losses and frustration and emotional turmoil, now he's just seen his parents murdered, and the man who did it is standing right next to him.
The grief, the memory of never having gotten to say goodbye, overwhelms Stark, and instantly morphs into boiling rage. He blasts Barnes through a nearby concrete wall and charges after him. This is not protecting the innocent or saving the distressed or anything superhero-ish; Tony Stark fully intended to "avenge" his parents by slaughtering their killer - and Cap's best friend.
And then Cap holds him back.
"Did you know?" Stark asks Rogers, biting off each word. "I didn't know it was him," Cap replies. "DON'T SHIT ME, Rogers! Did you know?" Cap, reluctantly and quietly, says, "Yes"....
....and the number of "avenging" murders Tony Stark intended to commit doubled.
The only reason, in the context of the scene, that Stark didn't succeed was because of the close-quarters nature of the combat, and the fact that it was a handicap match. Still, he blew off Barnes' bionic arm and after his on-board AI analyzed Rogers' fighting pattern, he was about to terminate Captain America....when a single frayed cord of sanity reconnected.
"Stay down, final warning". "I could do this all day".
A throw of the shield later, Cap tore off Stark's helmet, was atop him, ready to deliver the decapitating blow....and drove his shield through Stark's arc reactor instead.
Dragging himself up, Cap limped over to help up Barnes and make another escape. Stark grated out, "You don't deserve to carry that shield. MY DAD GAVE YOU THAT SHIELD!" Cap looks down at it, drops it on the floor, and departs.
Absolutely epic tragedy from beginning to end....except for Colonel Zemo's overcomplicated plot. I can buy that he wanted revenge on the Avengers for losing his entire family in the battle with Ultron, and that he knew he couldn't directly take them on, and there is a poetic justice in duping them into destroying each other. Maybe, as an intelligence operative, he could have unearthed who the Winter Soldier orignally was, and that he and Cap were virtually brothers growing up, manipulating the latter into going rogue to save his best friend when he might not necessarily have done so otherwise (he probably would have anyway - Cap gotta be Cap - but it's possible he might have shown some restraint). But there's no way that he could have ensured that it was Stark, Rogers, and Barnes who followed him to the abandoned Winter Soldier warehouse - where, incidentally, he had terminated the other ones in their cryogenic storage containers. That's just a little too convenient to the plot.
But that's akin to griping about having one too few chocolate sprinkles on your Vermonster. The whole story was one cataclysmic consequence after another, each one compounding the last one, the situation deteriorating into all out....civil war, until the warring main protagonists pulled back and remembered who they are at the last possible moment.
Like the best stories, it was believable and credible (even with antmen and GIANTmen) and real. And maybe inevitable.
In the epilogue, Stark creates an exoskelton for Rhodie to enable him to walk again, Black Panther, once he realized that he had been about to murder an innocent man, forswore vengeance and took Zemo into custody, and Cap broke his team out of Secretary Ross's "oceanmax" prison and was granted political asylum in Wakanda, where Barnes decided to go back into cryosleep until a way can be found to de-brainwash him.
Cap sends Stark, back at Avengers HQ, a mea culpa letter, admitting that he should have told him about Bucky and who he was and what happened to him and what he was forced to become and do, but thought he was "proetcting" Stark from the truth. Which is another way of saying he ducked it, figuring it would never come up. And it didn't....until it did. Rogers cops to that as well, and apologizes....but doesn't back off of the principles that wouldn't let him sign the Sokovia Accords.
So what's left of the Avengers? There's Ironman and Vision and Spiderman and maybe Black Widow. Team Cap is in exile under Black Panther's protection. And Thor and Hulk are on Asgard preparing for Ragnarok. So can it not be said that if Zemo didn't get everything he wanted, Secretary Ross did?
Good thing there are two (or maybe three) years to "get the band back together" before Thanos arrives with the complete Infinity Gauntlet to destroy the universe or whatever. If the Russo brothers are directing it, I'll be camping out in front of Regal Tall Firs Ten-Plex right now.
It's not like I have anything better to do, anyway.