captain america civil war revisited

(Welcome to Road to Infinity War, a new series where we revisit the first 18 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask “How did we get here?” In this edition: Captain America; Civil War pays off years of build-up with a painful bang.)

The Marvel Cinematic Universe seems to re-invent itself every couple of years. From big, fun crossover action to space-set family soap opera, it’s been laying track one way or another for the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War, but a decade of narrative investment can’t be achieved without a feeling of genuine loss. This year’s culmination re-introduces us to the scattered Avengers, a family at its most discordant after tearing itself apart.

And while no Avengers lost their lives in Captain America: Civil War, the team as a whole may have lost its sense of identity. It’s a film where the long-term personal and political narratives boil over, conflicting with one another for reasons both idealistic and petty, and by the end of it, the Avengers implode. It’s a difficult watch at times, even and especially two years later when debates about military intervention rage on. And while it may seem like folly to view a film from 2016 strictly through a lens of America’s 2018 bombing of Syria, this particular real-world intervention isn’t something new. It’s part of a long-standing and long-intervening military apparatus that makes a film like Captain America: Civil War relevant in the first place.

The Avengers’ legacy is America’s legacy. And it’s mighty complicated.

The Soldier and the Futurist

In Civil War, Captain America’s journey away from blind nationalism comes full circle, leading him to an unsettling place where he represents American militarism once more. It’s a difficult scenario, one the film acknowledges as such by placing this well-meaning protagonist in a predicament against his equally well-meaning teammates, none of whom are particularly wrong.

After a botched mission that results in civilian causalities, the Avengers are finally put on notice by the American Secretary of State – a returning Thunderbolt Ross (William Hurt) from The Incredible Hulk, a man all too familiar with the dangers of unchecked power. 117 countries come together to sign the Sokovia Accords, placing Steve Rogers and his team under U.N. supervision. It makes sense; in theory, a U.S.-based private paramilitary organization has no business running unchecked missions on foreign soil, especially when they’re half the reason these villains crop up in the first place.

Captain America, however, isn’t so keen on being supervised. Not out of some vaguely jingoistic notion of “freedom,” but precisely because he’s seen the American agenda change in The Winter Soldier, leaving him at a complicated nexus. He is, at once, opposed to the U.S. governmental idea of militarism as well as its very embodiment.

In Avengers: Age of Ultron, Tony Stark created the antagonistic A.I. that nearly destroyed the world. Time and time again, he’s seen technology like his fall into the wrong hands, and when confronted with the death of an individual in Sokovia – Charles Spencer, a young man on a mission to build affordable housing – a death that came at the hands of the Avengers’ own battle with Ultron, Tony’s guilt finally forces his hand. No more private militarization. No more unilateral intervention. The Avengers need oversight, but under whose authority should they be? The group wouldn’t be necessary in an ideal world, the kind of world Stark has been trying to create after scaling back his weaponry, but the old world of war and misery is one he helped create.

For Steve Rogers, doing the right thing means staying a good man. For Tony Stark, doing the right thing means correcting his mistakes. Both men were reminded of these missions by mentors on their deathbeds – Abraham Erskine in Captain America: The First Avenger and Ho Yinsen in Iron Man – and those missions have finally collided. Steve, once a man loyal to the structures of Government, has been forced to turn against the idea. Tony, once a man obsessed with unchecked power, now believes it’s time for Governments to take charge. Not only have these men seen the respective follies of their ways, rubbing up against the most dangerous parts of Governmental loyalty and unregulated power respectively, but they now see the very worst parts of their past decisions within each other.

The Personal Behind the Political

Per the words of the late Peggy Carter, Steve must remain an uncompromising protector, responding to those telling him to move with a resounding “No. You move.” When Black Panther tells him to move, he doesn’t. When Iron Man tells him to move, he still doesn’t. He knows that people need to be protected, and he can’t wait for their safety to be debated by committee. This is a lessons Steve carries forward in a strange new world he doesn’t understand, and it comes from the last remaining connection to his past outside of Bucky, a man who may not remember him.

But for Tony Stark, a man continually trapped by trauma and past mistakes, the guilt of his actions has become too much to bear. No matter how much he re-lives the past – like his final conversation with his parents, via his virtual reality technology – he’s unable to change it. When confronted by the mother of Charles Spencer, who blames him for her son’s death, all he can do is look to the future.

The Accords aren’t just a political document. They’re a means for Tony Stark to prevent more damage to his soul. He was America’s military industrial complex, and now he’s a superhero unable to find a way to move past the destruction he’s still causing. Getting the other Avengers to sign the document may not prevent future tragedy – as Steve rightly asks, what if they aren’t where they need to be, or sent somewhere they shouldn’t be? – but it’s a step that shifts the responsibility away from him and his team. Would Wanda’s civilian casualties in the name of protection have been any less tragic if, say, the U.S. Congress had approved their mission to Lagos?

Similarly, even when Steve might consider signing the Accords, he’s forced out of his decision by external factors that feel personal to him, whether it’s Tony imprisoning Wanda at the Avengers’ compound, or military forces going after his wrongly accused friend, Bucky Barnes. He knows Bucky to be innocent, both for his prior crimes in which he was denied autonomy, and for the recent U.N. bombing that killed Wakanda’s King T’Chaka, in which Bucky was impersonated. Signing the Accords at first could lead to military forces shooting to kill his friend. Following the Accords later could mean the manipulative Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl) re-awakening half a dozen other Winter Soldiers in Siberia before the Avengers can stop him, leading to a destructive force far deadlier than Bucky had ever been.

If Steve waits to be taken in, or waits for a committee to decide on whether or not to intervene, the world could be at risk. If Tony doesn’t stop Steve from his reckless Siberia mission, Bucky could cause further harm and the Avengers could be shut down for good. This is why the massive airport fight ensues, between those loyal to Captain America (Bucky, Falcon, Wanda, Hawkeye and Ant-Man) and those who have fallen in line with Iron Man and the Accords (War Machine, The Vision, Black Widow, Spider-Man and Black Panther). While both parties are “right” from their own perspective, each self-justified in their various actions even though the audience knows Team Captain America to be “in the right” at this point (and knows Iron Man & co. to be wrong about the terrorist attack attributed to Bucky), the film’s ensuing rug pull reveals both sides to be factually wrong.

In effect, they aren’t fighting for the people anymore. They’re just fighting.

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