(Welcome to Road to Endgame, where we revisit the first 22 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 by injecting politics with personal impulse.)

The Marvel Cinematic Universe tries to re-invent itself every few years, albeit within a limited narrative formula. From scrappy “real world” solo films, to fun, landscape-shifting crossovers, to alien family dramas, the series has been laying track for its two-part finale — Avengers: Infinity War and the upcoming Avengers: Endgame — for quite some time.

A decade of narrative investment in the superhero genre, especially in a series that aims to be so political, can’t be achieved without a feeling of loss. Last year, after having been scattered by the events of Captain America: Civil War, the Avengers were finally defeated.

While no Avengers lose their lives in Captain America: Civil War, the team tears itself apart from within; they may as well have lost their identity. The series’ long-term personal and political narratives finally boil over, clashing with one another for reasons both idealistic and petty, opposing impulses that are (rightly) framed as a continuum. It’s a harrowing watch at times, despite building on its predecessors’ confused politics. Debates about military intervention rage on in the real world, and as of Avengers: Age of Ultron, the Avengers’ legacy finally began to stand in for America’s. That legacy is complicated, and Civil War finally grants the series an element it had been missing for nearly a decade: deeply personal drive behind political ideology.

The Soldier

In Civil War, Captain America’s (Chris Evans) journey away from blind nationalism comes full circle, though it leads him to an unsettling place: now a self-appointed interventionist, he represents American militarism once more. It’s a fine line for a narrative to walk, one the film acknowledges by positioning its well-meaning, destructive protagonist at odds with his equally well-meaning-yet-destructive teammates. None of them are particularly wrong, and for once, a Marvel film being unable to draw a singular conclusion about military power feels textually justified.

After a botched mission resulting in civilian causalities, the Avengers are put on notice by a returning General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt), now the U.S. Secretary of State. Ross, who was last seen in The Incredible Hulk, is all too familiar with the dangers of unchecked power. He hands the Avengers the Sokovia Accords, an agreement signed by 117 countries that would place Steve Rogers and his team under U.N. supervision.

The Accords makes sense, at least in theory. A U.S.-based private military outfit has no business running unchecked missions on foreign soil, especially when they’re half the reason these villains crop up in the first place. Like several other films in the series, Civil War differentiates between the American government and a fictional group meant to stand in for its faults. However, it articulates the retaliatory element of geopolitical conflict that’s often ignored in western cinema, especially in the Marvel series.

Military-funded Marvel movies like Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain Marvel were each made from scripts approved by the U.S. Department of Defense. In the first three of these films, global military conflict was framed either a status quo for American forces to respond to, or as flames stoked by outside actors for selfish motives, rather than something America had a hand in. In Civil War however, the first villain the Avengers face has a personal grudge against Captain America. From the perspective of Brock Rumlow, a suicide bomber, Steve Rogers is the reason he’s scarred, and exists without a country. Later in the film, primary villain Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl) is revealed to have a similar vendetta against the Avengers; Zemo’s family was collateral damage to the Avengers’ reckless interventionism.

Captain America isn’t keen on being supervised. Not out of some vaguely jingoistic notion of “freedom,” but because he’s seen the American agenda change over time, both in The Avengers and in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. This leaves him in an interesting position. He is, at once, opposed to the U.S. government’s idea of militarism, as well as its very embodiment, ready to go to war at a moment’s notice.

Rogers opposes the corruption and duplicitousness that often drive foreign intervention, while still adhering to its core methodology. In prior films, Steve Rogers was never given a clear ideological enemy, and so his own outlook was never allowed to grow beyond the broad strokes of power. Here, as if to finally course-correct this omission, the series uses his divestment from ideology as a dramatic question: who does Captain America truly fight for, if not interests he, and he alone, deems worthy?

The Futurist

Like Steve Rogers, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), a former arms supplier, comes back around to embodying an element of the U.S. military apparatus. But where Rogers represents interventionism, Stark now represents the government control to which he himself was once so thoroughly opposed.

Time and time again, Stark has seen his technology misused. In his previous appearance, Avengers: Age of Ultron, he created an antagonistic A.I. that nearly destroyed the world. Ultron was defeated, but not everyone got out of Sokovia alive. When confronted with the death of one such individual — Charles Spencer, a young American on a mission to build affordable housing — Stark’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 placed? The group wouldn’t be needed in an ideal world, the kind of world that has been Stark’s objective since Age of Ultron, but the old world of war and misery is one he helped create in the first place.

For Steve Rogers, doing the right thing means refusing to compromise on his moral outlook. For Tony Stark, doing the right thing means correcting his mistakes. The overlap between these objectives is where the film’s conflict is born. Both men were reminded of their missions by their dying mentors — Abraham Erskine in Captain America: The First Avenger, Ho Yinsen in Iron Man — and those missions, which now form the core of who they are, have finally collided.

Rogers, once loyal to the structures of western government, has been forced to turn against the very idea of structured power. Stark, once a man obsessed with his own unchecked might, now believes it’s time for governments to take charge. Not only have Rogers and Stark seen the folly of their ways — having faced the most dangerous parts of blind loyalty and deregulation respectively — they now see the worst parts of their own past decisions within one another.

Continue Reading Road to Endgame >>

Pages: 1 2 3Next page

Cool Posts From Around the Web: