Mission Report, December 16, 1991

Helmut Zemo’s mission is complicated. It depends on dozens of moving parts, and on the Avengers making precisely predicted decisions. Zemo claims to have studied the Avengers closely, so his place in the narrative is as much a scorned antagonist as it is an invisible, meta-textual hand (Your mileage may vary). His scheme feels improbable in the real-world, but guiding the Avengers to these specific outcomes feels less like plot contrivance and more like catalyzing that which was already narratively inevitable.

Every decision Zemo orchestrates is rooted character, set up not only during Captain America: Civil War, but across multiple films. He convinces Tony Stark, with his newfound sense of authority, to believe he’s the only one who can stop a dangerous fugitive. He also makes Steve Rogers believe his friend Bucky Barnes (the very mention of whom blinds Rogers’ decision-making) is in grave danger. He makes Captain America’s side of anti-establishment, gung-ho freedom fighters believe their actions will stop terrorists, while making the establishment itself, Iron Man’s team, believe they’re stopping future catastrophe by coming down hard on their own people.

In effect, Zemo magnifies and accelerates what was already under the surface, bringing the Avengers to conclusions that feel like logical outcomes of who they are.

But Barnes is not the real terrorist, and Zemo has no plans to re-awaken the other Winter Soldiers. As complicated as the Avengers’ security debate is — and as harrowing as it may be to see heroes placed at such fundamental odds — Zemo takes advantage of predictable, one-track American military heroism (the way Aldrich Killian did in Iron Man 3), a self-aggrandizing modus operandi, rooted in emotional instincts to shoot first and ask questions later.

The two sides clash at a Leipzig Airport because they have each been made to believe a different terrorist narrative. They are placed predictably at odds because even their differing outlooks are merely sides to the same fundamentally violent, militaristic coin. Team Iron Man retaliates without complete information. Team Captain America fights on the false presumption of future threat. Destruction ensues.

Zemo has personal motives for this mayhem: his family was killed in Sokovia during the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron. To ensure Captain America and Iron Man’s fuses are lit, Zemo lures them to the isolated facility of Barnes’ Siberian origin. Here, he reveals the truth that Arnim Zola hinted at in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (an admittedly blink-and-miss setup, makings the “twist” feel sudden to those not in-step with continuity). Bucky Barnes, while under the influence of H.Y.D.R.A., murdered Tony Stark’s parents to prevent them from assisting American war efforts. The man Steve Rogers has been protecting was the very person responsible for Stark’s deepest wounds, a truth Rogers has been aware of for years.

The political specifics are stripped away by this point. Both sides have come to realize the lies that brought them here, but the personal perspectives driving them have now been magnified. Tony Stark, who has spent years trying to regain a sense of order and control, is now faced with the man who destroyed his sense of equilibrium, Bucky Barnes. Steve Rogers, who has spent the entire film doing what he thinks is right, has to both protect Barnes from what may well be righteous vengeance, and face retribution of his own, now that his unwavering moral outlook has caused irreparable harm. Stark is right, Rogers is right, and they tear each other apart.

With the question of Barnes’ guilt or innocence hanging in the balance — How accountable, and to whom, is a brainwashed soldier for crimes he believed righteous? — the selfishness driving each hero’s ideals comes to the fore. What good is Rogers’ desire to do right by Barnes when it’s hurting Tony Stark? What good is Stark’s newfound adherence to law when he breaks it himself?

What good are these debates on security when they’re being had by wounded individuals driven by selfish ideology, rather than by common good? Individuals whose sole focus is deciding on the means by which to attack, rather than the means by which to curb their violence altogether?

The Long Game

Apart from Black Widow, who’s woefully short-changed after two stellar appearances, every character in Civil War gets a coherent story arc. Sam Wilson/The Falcon, a former military airman who’s witnessed American governance be twisted, sides with Rogers. James Rhodes/War Machine, an Air Force recruit whose 130+ missions have prevented catastrophe, follows Stark. They each side with friends who represent their personal worldviews, despite the conflict’s complicated political dimensions. And they each pay a physical price.

Wanda and The Vision battle on opposing sides, despite their common and mysterious origin (the Mind Stone). Wanda, having been at the receiving end of military conflict fights to make a difference. She escapes her confines despite being held back by her guilt (Hawkeye, once again, convinces her to stand up for herself). The Vision however, knows Wanda is volatile, and claims an objective, unemotional stance in protecting people from her. He throws mathematical equations at the Avengers and calculates what decisions they ought to make “for the greater good.” However, the realization of his own humanity — that his perspective is informed by emotion, and that he’s prone to human error — makes him retreat from the fight. As a creation of the Avengers themselves, he is, once more, a microcosmic representation of a conclusion they must arrive at: that neither side is “objectively” right.

Even newcomers Spider-Man and Black Panther receive their due. Young Peter Parker is recruited into battle by Tony Stark, and delivers a version of his uncle’s “With great power comes great responsibility” line from earlier films. Where The Vision’s “objectivity” is built on the false presumption of emotional distance, Parker’s moral outlook is vital precisely because he’s removed from the conflict. He likely doesn’t know about Sokovia Accords (we see him learn about them in school in subsequent films), yet his perspective applies to either side. When you have the power to prevent catastrophe, and you don’t, the resultant harm is your fault. This holds true for both warring parties, who find themselves locked in debate about what power to lean on in the first place: the power to legislate when to act, or the power to act without legislation.

Black Panther on the other hand, while involved deeply in the political turmoil, turns his gaze toward personal vengeance. His mission is to kill Bucky Barnes, the man he thinks responsible for his father’s death. However, he comes to his senses once he sees his vengeful quest reflected back to him — both in Zemo, whose obsession has led him to madness, and in Rogers and Stark, who descend into senseless violence over Barnes. Black Panther chooses justice instead of revenge, capturing the man responsible rather than leaving him to die.

The narrative driving Civil War — Captain America and Iron Man switching places and perspectives before finally butting heads — is a payoff that could only exist in long-form storytelling. The film finally confronts the series’ haphazard politics, imbuing the franchise with a new reason to be political in the first place. Marvel’s muddled approach to militarism can no longer simply be a backdrop for the heroes to respond to; in stories that question the use of power, political outlook must be an extension of ethos itself, just as it is in the real world.

Granted, the political perspectives here remain just as abstract as in previous films. At no time are there specific examples that parallel real-world intervention, but the film leans hard on the personal biases that often drives these decisions. Changes of heart aren’t enough when they exist alongside lies and unconfronted histories. From this point on, the series begins to dramatize this need to investigate the past, in films like Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther. Come Avengers: Endgame, the past will likely hold the key to the Avengers’ future.

It hurts to see your heroes fall, and it hurts that it may take a global annihilation to bring them together. Their failures in Captain America: Civil War tear them apart, revealing the fragile, paradoxical nature of even the most powerful interventionist forces, setting the stage for a dramatic reunion.

The original Avengers, including Steve Rogers and Tony Stark, are among the few heroes left standing in Avengers: Infinity War. Moving forward, a question the series might need to answer, if it hopes to close its loop, is whether the Avengers will settle on a way to wield their powers responsibly.

***

Expanded from an article published April 18, 2018.

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