Just a few years ago, it would have been hard to imagine a big-name Marvel character less destined for movie-stardom than Captain America. In a comic book universe full of coolly vengeful mutants and relatably angsty teen heroes, the World War II-era do-gooder has always seemed almost defiantly square—a throwback to the firm-jaw, firm-handshake era in which he was created. Cap’s earnestness and discipline meant he’d never be sleekly persnickety, like Iron Man; nor empathetically emo, like Spider-Man; nor morally murky, like the Punisher. And while his colleagues were gifted with Adamantium claws and clobberin’-time credos, Captain America had no super-cool powers or memorable catchphrases. Instead, he had a best friend named Bucky, a helmet with teensy ear-wings, and a patriotically charged uniform that even Anita Bryant would have found a bit much. He’d always be a little bit corny, and as a low-budget, 1990 Captain America movie proved, that corniness could quickly mutate into something garish and klutzy on the big screen.

Yet as evidenced by this weekend’s Captain America: Civil War—which earned $181.8 million in North America alone—the titular patriot is not just become the unlikely anchor of a successful franchise; he’s also the most valuable soldier in the Marvel big-screen universe. The Captain films, starring Chris Evans as the spangled hero, may not be the most giddily self-enthralled modern Marvel series (that’d be the Iron Man movies), nor the most narratively epochal (that honor, as occasionally dubious as it might seem, belongs to the Avengers films). But Cap’s franchise has evolved, surprisingly and satisfyingly, into the most essential of all the Marvel entries: A malleable, genre-shifting series of movies in which character connections are deepened, wandering storylines are recalibrated, and grown-up thrills are drop-kicked into a universe that can sometimes get bogged down by high-stakes threats and low-grade depression.

This is largely thanks to the fact that, instead of giving their hero a modern makeover, the Captain America films treat Cap’s innate blankness as an asset, one that’s explored and exploited throughout the series. When we first meet him, in 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger, he’s still just Steve Rogers, a scrawny, scrapping Brooklynite who’s struggling to get enlisted in the Army in 1942. Both of Rogers’ parents are dead—a fact that DC joy-felcher Zack Snyder would use as an excuse to stage a 45-minute fist-fight with some patricidal maniac in rotunda, but that First Avenger director Joe Johnston and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely never linger upon. Rogers is no moody brooder driven by revenge. Instead, he’s a kid who simply wants to do his part and fight the bad guys, and maybe get a smooch from Agent Carter (Hayley Atwell). It’s the kind of movie in which a character yells “Let’s hear it for Captain America!,” without an inch of sarcasm.

That straightforward spirit imbues much of The First Avenger, which is a Möbius strip throwback of a movie when you think about it. It’s an adventure flick about 1940s politics and face-melting plundered artifacts and sharp-dressed militants that feels closest in spirit to Raiders of the Lost Ark, a 1980s adventure flick about… 1940s politics and face-melting plundered artifacts and sharp-dressed militants. And while some of First Avenger’s dialogue could surely have benefited from a coat of Kasdan, the movie’s earnestness and hard-G romance makes it one of the most pleasingly unfussy Marvel movies in recent memory, as does Evans’ appropriately straight-faced performance (he may smile, but he never winks). The only hint that there are bigger things in store for Cap (aside from an appearance from the Tesseract, that gleaming cube of plot-propulsion) is Rogers’ slow realization that the very military he admires—which at one point sends him on a rah-rah dog-and-pony show for the troops—might not have his best interests at heart.

Those suspicions come full-circle in 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, one of the best comic book films ever made, and a top-tier conspiracy flick in its own right. By now, Rogers has been thawed out of the ice and dropped into circa-now Washington, DC, where he struggles to keep up with not just popular culture—resulting in an excellent shout-out to Marvin Gaye—but also the machinations of both modern-day realpolitik, and the Marvel universe in general, what with its loyalty-shifting S.H.I.E.L.D. operatives and Hydra-heads. Evans, crucially, plays Cap-as-unfrozen-caveman-lawyer with just the right amount of bemusement and wait, what? bewilderment. In some ways, he’s a stand-in for Marvel-movie viewers, some of whom must be just as overwhelmed by these stories’ splintering allegiances and intergalactic MacGuffins as he is.

Winter Soldier was directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, whose years helming NBC’s Community no doubt taught them a thing or two about brisk pacing, unapologetic genre-jumbling, and multi-thread storytelling. These are all skills that come into play in Winter Soldier, which manages to pull off its don’t-trust-anybody storyline via numerous nifty action sequences (including an street shoot-out that recalls Michael Mann’s Heat) and moments of light comedy (hail Shandling!).

But the movie’s real strength lies in the way it examines the kind of character dynamics that tend to get lost in these sort of overstuffed escapades: Cap and Falcon (Anthony Mackie) maintain a pleasing, never-forced, buddy-cop-comedy back-and-forth; Cap and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), both outsiders, develop a mutual respect that’s at once deeply respectful and innocently flirtatious; and Cap and Bucky (Sebastian Stan), old pals turned new foes, somehow realign their friendship, or something like it, despite beating the crap out of each other for much of the film’s downbeat third act. By the end of Winter Soldier, everyone—including the audience—knows each character better. And Cap himself is all the more uncertain of where his priorities lay—a fascinating turn of events for a guy who, just one movie and 70 years ago, was willing to fight for a team that initially didn’t even want him.

This is all a perfect set-up, of course, for Civil War, a mostly delightful, Bourne-like travelogue that picks up shortly after the events of last summer’s destructive Avengers: Age of Ultron. Once again directed by the Russo brothers, the latest Cap movie lacks the clean execution of Winter Soldier, mainly due to some Paul Greengrass-style herky-jerky camerawork and its deficit of one-on-one time between characters, but it maintains that movie’s ensemble caper sensibility. In fact, with its huge supporting bench and far-reaching locales, there are long stretches in which Civil War barely feels like a Captain America movie at all.

But it is a Captain America movie, in the sense that it keeps with the franchise’s tradition of establishing a new vibe with each new installment, and in that it takes a blank-slate of a character and builds a compelling world (and story) around him. Even now, three movies in, Captain America and Steve Rogers are such slowly evolving, emotional works-in-progress that you can put them in any narrative environment—from an old-timey serial homage to an ensemble geopolitical thriller—and not worry about them getting lost. And though Civil War (which is based on the landmark 2006 comics series) has long, enjoyable detours devoted to establishing Spider-Man and Black Panther—further proof of how important this series is when it comes to brokering new storylines—the movie is still anchored by Cap, who finally allows the doubt and distrust that have been stewing for years to surface.

How those feelings specifically play out in Civil War are best left unmentioned, so as to keep any twists intact—though anyone who’s walked by a poster (or a pizza box) won’t be surprised to learn that Cap finds himself at-odds with both the country that empowered him and the team that embraced him, nor is it a shock that the film contains several grin-coaxing fight scenes. But suffice to say that, by the end of the movie, all of the traits that once threatened to make Captain America a total drip on the screen—his team-player mentality, his blinkered devotion—have been subverted. He’s now the center axis of a remarkably renewable franchise, one that feels both part of the bigger Marvel universe and rooted in its own separate cosmos. Few superhero franchises are as as adventurously dexterous as this one, not too mention as fun. Let’s hear it for Captain America.

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How Captain America Became Marvel’s Big-Screen Secret Weapon