The Personal Behind the Political

Per the words of the late Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), Steve Rogers must remain an uncompromising protector, and respond to those telling him to move with a resounding “No. You move” (a line taken straight from the Civil War comics). When Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) tells Rogers to move in Germany, he refuses. When Iron Man tells him to move in Siberia, he refuses once more.

In either case, Rogers is protecting his best friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), whose crimes, both recent and in the past, may not be his own. Rogers’ uncompromising loyalty to Barnes, however, is a character flaw that functions the same way blind nationalism would. Captain America may no longer serve the stars and stripes, but he’s shackled by the same emotional instincts.

Rogers knows that people need to be protected, and he refuses to wait for their safety to be debated by committee. This is his overarching political outlook as it pertains to the Accords, but it’s rooted entirely in personal bias. He took similar unilateral action to save Barnes during World War II, and he carries this lesson forward in a more complicated world he doesn’t fully understand. He could be right about circumventing approval to save lives, but he may be right for all the wrong reasons.

For Tony Stark, a man trapped by traumas and past mistakes, the guilt of his actions has become too much to bear. No matter how many times re-lives the past through virtual reality — like his final conversation with his parents — he’s unable to change it. The only results of his obsession are a broken relationship, and an electromagnetic headache that he nurses with pills. When confronted by the mother of Charles Spencer, who blames him for her son’s death, he has no choice but to try and fix the future. Though, his reasons aren’t so forward-thinking.

The Accords aren’t just a political document for Stark. They’re a means for him to prevent more damage to his soul. Not long ago, Stark was America’s military industrial complex. Now, he’s a protector unable to move past his own destruction.

Getting the Avengers to sign the agreement may not prevent future tragedy — as Rogers rightly asks, what if the Avengers aren’t where they need to be, or intervene somewhere they shouldn’t? —  but it’s a step that shifts the responsibility away from Stark and his team. It’s selfish, but it’s exactly what Stark needs, though he’s unprepared to admit it. Wanda Maximoff’s (Elizabeth Olsen) civilian casualties in the name of protection would have been equally tragic if the mission were approved by a governing body, but at least Stark would have a clear conscience.

Where Steve Rogers’ political outlook is rooted in attachment to the past, Tony Stark’s is grounded in his desire to detach himself from it.

The Plot

When Steve Rogers is close to signing the Accords, he’s forced out of his decision by factors that feel like personal affronts, whether Tony Stark imprisoning Wanda at the Avengers’ compound, or military forces going after his wrongly accused friend, Bucky Barnes. Rogers knows Barnes to be innocent, both for prior crimes in which he was denied autonomy, and for the recent U.N. bombing that killed Wakanda’s King. Signing the Accords, at first, could result in Rogers being sidelined, and in lethal military force being used on Barnes instead.

If Rogers waits to be taken in, or if he waits for a committee to decide on whether to intervene in Zemo’s apparent plan (the re-awakening of more Winter Soldiers), the world could be at risk. If Stark doesn’t stop Rogers from his reckless mission, the unstable, malleable Barnes could cause further harm, and the Avengers could be shut down for good.

This rift is why the massive airport fight ensues, between those loyal to Captain America — Barnes, Wanda, The Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Hawkeye (Clint Barton) and Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) — and those who have fallen in line with Iron Man and the Accords — Black Panther, War Machine (Don Cheadle), The Vision (Paul Bettany), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland). Both parties are “right,” in that they’re justified from their own perspectives, which makes the ideological conflict between the two factions engaging. Additionally, Captain America is the film’s protagonist, and so we, the audience, have the same information he does about Zemo’s plan — information Iron Man’s team does not.

This lapse in information adds stakes to the narrative, over and above the enjoyable cognitive dissonance of good guys squaring off. However, the set-piece itself, while a fun reprieve from the conflict (and some of Marvel’s most enjoyable action since The Avengers) remains disconnected from the rest of the film. Light-hearted though it may be, it feels half-hearted too. It’s laden with Marvel’s signature quips and rip-roaring action beats, but dramatizing interpersonal conflict through action might have been a more suitable choice. The Avengers fight, but nobody really seems in danger — Hawkeye and Black Widow even joke about pulling their punches — which works in opposition to the film’s own premise about the consequences of these battles.

The scene does eventually shift toward a more serious tone while setting up the climax — an untrained Vision accidentally injures War Machine, thus solidifying Stark’s position — but the scene lacks any real emotional punch until that point. The airport sequence, fun as it may be, is at odds with what follows. It’s immensely rewatchable on its own, but in-context, it’s lacking.  

The film’s ensuing rug-pull reveals that both sides were factually wrong. In effect, they aren’t fighting for the people anymore. They’re just fighting, as they were in the Civil War comics, though their battle on the page carries far more weight than their battle on-screen. The futility of their violence in the film is overshadowed by the fact that it feels like an enjoyable field trip.

Thankfully, the film proceeds to foreground its emotional heft in the scenes that follow, as the story is re-framed in a manner that makes the next battle between heroes — Iron Man and Captain America — feel appropriately harrowing. By shifting its major set-piece to the middle of the film, Civil War also sidesteps a climax steeped in Marvel’s signature pre-visualized action, the kind often divorced from story. Instead, the film narrows its spotlight to focus on a tale of deeply personal conflict.

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