As promised, here’s a more in-depth look at Captain America: Civil War. If you’re interested in reading the review, feel free to click here and peruse it. I tried to keep spoilers out of that piece and, if I’m honest, it feels a bit undercooked because of it. Hopefully by adding this piece, I’ll hit more concrete and full thoughts on the movie. That will mean that there will be SPOILERS in this piece. So if you haven’t seen it and want to go in unspoiled, back away slowly now and return once you’ve had a chance. So, once again, SPOILERS follow the picture of Scarlet Witch warping reality. Got it?
It all started with a man in the ice. Actually, that’s not correct. Chronologically, it all started with a man in the ice. But we began our tale with a man in the desert. A man who made a choice to be something different than what he had been before. A man who had been drowning his sorrow and regret in drink and fun until he came face to face with the consequences of his actions. A man choosing to be a hero and the world reacting to his decision.
Through the various movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we’ve seen the fallout of the decisions made by the different members of the Avengers in fighting the various foes they’ve come across. And they’re particularly present for Tony Stark. From enemies like Obadiah Stane and Aldritch Killian trying to destroy him or the Stark legacy to his decision to accidentally unleash Ultron, the specter of his past misdeeds or noble mistakes haunt him. Compare Tony where he was in Iron Man 2, defiantly standing up to Congress to keep Iron Man an independent agent, with where he is here, ready to sign on to the Sokovia Accords and let the United Nations tell him where to go. Tony Stark is a man ready to hand off the responsibility of his actions to someone else.
On the other hand, you have Steve Rogers, who was following the orders of S.H.I.E.L.D. after being found aboard the crashed Hydra bomber and fighting the Chitauri in New York City. His life had been one of seeking to serve a greater cause than himself. He had found that as Captain America, leading the Howling Commandos and battling the Red Skull during World War II. And he had found that again with S.H.I.E.L.D. alongside Black Widow and the STRIKE teams. Until he found the insidiousness of Hydra within S.H.I.E.L.D. and he was forced to bring it all crashing down (literally and metaphorically). Even so, alongside the Avengers, he still has much of the same place as he had in World War II. He leads a team of special people against all kinds of new threats. However, with that memory of hidden danger fresh in his mind, Captain Rogers appears less willing to surrender his moral compass to others who may want to use him or not use him for their own nefarious reasons.
I touched briefly before on how Civil War is more effective when it brings its arguments to a more emotional level than an esoteric one. That’s not surprising given the amount of cast members who each need an arc but also because the comic story that they’re adapting had problems with this big question they’re trying to ask. At its core, “Civil War” was pondering the “freedom versus security” debate that’s been so prevalent in our post-9/11 world. For superheroes that debate boils down to “who is the right person to determine what they do? Themselves or some greater power?” This is where the divide comes. For Tony, Rhodey, Natasha and Vision, the power they wield requires the consent of the public to be used. For Steve, Sam and Wanda, they work best as independent agents that are not beholden to a political agenda or reason to help people or stop villains.
That debate, however, is anchored by the decisions that Tony and Steve have made since the beginning of the MCU. For one, he is living his purpose. For another, he’s desperate to prove himself a better man. Both seek to help people but for different reasons: one to atone and the other to protect. The esoteric element of the “freedom vs security” debate gains greater traction because it is tied into who these characters are and what they have done in the various movies that came before. We see both sides of that debate in front during the opening action scene in Lagos, as the Avengers battle Crossbones (Frank Grillo) and his henchmen. Cap is right that, if they had waited on permission from the U.N., Crossbones would have escaped with the biological agent he was after. Tony is also right that, had they done it under official channels, the fallout of the battle and the dead that went with it would not be placed at the feet of the Avengers. Great conflict comes not from one side being right and another wrong, but both sides being right and both sides being wrong.
This debate is also embodied by the film’s villain, Col. Helmut Zemo (Daniel Bruhl). The Russo brothers along with Stephen McFeely & Christopher Markus make a smart choice with the character of Zemo — they don’t adapt the classic Marvel villain, Baron Zemo. That character was a German aristocrat/Nazi loyalist who uses his scientific genius to continue the fight his father started against the Star Spangled Avenger. Here, the movie refashions Zemo as a Sokovian special forces operator who loses his family to the battle between the Avengers and Ultron. This causes this highly-trained and capable soldier to blame his losses on the heroes and seek to destroy them. And his plan is insidious and daring: to splinter the Avengers from within by pitting them one against the other.
Now, was he aware of what exactly the Winter Soldier knew or did back in 1991? He seems to know that Bucky means a lot to Cap and, thanks to Natasha’s info dump at the end of Winter Soldier, that Bucky was involved in a secret mission. However, it’s not until he comes face to face with Bucky while he’s being held that he manages to find the deep secret that could split the Avengers: that the Winter Soldier murdered his old friend, Howard Stark, and his wife to retrieve samples of serum to create more agents like he. So he begins to slowly move the core leadership of the Avengers into an eventual fight against one another. Could it have been solved by a sit-down chat between Tony and Cap? Maybe. This is where the stress of the Sokovia Accords comes into the equation.
For some, the way Zemo maneuvers around and about the rest of the world seems a tad impossible to accept. After all, he’s not a genius billionaire playboy inventor. Nor is he a king to an advanced nation with all its resources at his disposal. He’s just one man. A highly-trained man, but just a man nonetheless. To steal a line from Big Sean, “one man can change the world.” And Zemo has given himself wholly to his crusade against the Avengers. He uses his espionage and military background to stalk, impersonate, assassinate and slowly climb towards his goal. And he smartly identifies Bucky Barnes as the weapon he can use to destroy the Avengers at their foundations. That’s in keeping with the world of espionage and secrets that the Russos have built with Winter Soldier.
It also wouldn’t work, however without the other main theme running through the movie: the idea of family. How you protect family, how its loss impacts people and how people forge new ones — runs throughout the entire movie. In a sense, both Tony and Steve have built families around their new super-powered friends in order to compensate for the ones they’ve lost. Tony Stark opens by showing the last memory he has of his parents before their fateful accident. Helmut Zemo and T’Challa are each propelled by the loss of their respective families to seek vengeance against those whom they hold responsible. Clint Barton comes out of retirement and everyone asks him why he’s not with his kids. When Tony visits Peter Parker, Peter’s only concern is the safety and relative ignorance of his Aunt May — not his own life.
At every instance, we see these characters turn to one another, ask one another what their plans and feelings are and hope that they can remain united. They’re living in a world that is afraid of their power and looks at them differently — Scarlet Witch voices this better in her scenes with Vision — but they’re allowed normalcy with one another. It’s this sense of belonging — this sense of family — that Captain America is seeking to protect and that Tony Stark is counting on to push the Accords through with them all.
Therefore, when they end up splintering over the Accords, it plays rights into the hands of Zemo’s schemes. He’s then able to maneuver Steve’s love for Bucky into a wedge between Steve and Tony.
I’ll end on this idea: comic book movies are often morality plays. There’s a bad guy or girl seeking to do wrong and there’s a good guy or girl in the way. First Avenger plays down that path: The Red Skull is the bad guy, seeking to conquer it all, and Captain America is the person in his way. Most Golden Age- and Silver Age-era comics fell in step with such concepts – Fantastic Four vs Doctor Doom, Superman vs Lex Luthor. Winter Soldier took the idea to the next step: that hidden within the good guys, there was a potential for evil and that the good guys wouldn’t necessarily win at the end. This is akin to stories we saw in Bronze Age-era comics, like the Death of Gwen Stacy or Iron Man’s alcoholism.
Civil War is an child of the Modern Age of comics and the natural continuation of this exploration of good guys vs bad guys. Only that, in this instance, it’s good guy against good guy, where both good guys have a valid point and the clear and easy path that was so present in times past isn’t available. Because Tony is right: the superheroes cannot just go about the world without concern for what their actions create. But Steve is also right: to surrender their autonomy in order to appease others is to start down a path where they might be called to ignore the greater good. This is the issue at the heart of the movie. Unfortunately, Civil War has no resolution or answer for this dilemma. It punts on it and leaves a world where the Accords exist, but Cap and his Secret Avengers can continue to fight against evil.
It all started with Captain America lost in the Arctic snow. And with Bucky, kept asleep in the Siberian wastes. And with Tony choosing to become Iron Man after years ignoring the pain caused to him by Bucky’s killing of his parents. A cycle of heroism and of violence that eventually crashes against all the heroes in the aftermath of Lagos. Captain America: Civil War brings all their actions to bear on them and makes them accountable for what they’ve done. This is important in the larger MCU not only for what it does, but for what it means. For these movies to continue to be popular, they have to be more than fantasies. There have to be repercussions to their actions.
What those are, we will find in the next movies.