Note: Do NOT read if you wish to avoid spoilers for Captain America: Civil War
Captain America: Civil War is a frustrating, cleverly engineered disaster. The writers knew what story they planned to adapt, the reaction it would spark from the comic book and the Marvel Cinematic Universe fans. They knew that we would get either angry or thrilled, for various reasons. They knew we would watch because the previous Captain America films had a narrative progression that ensnared the empathetic viewer. I just watched the film last Thursday as a graduation present, and felt very blown away around midnight.
To be honest, I don’t know much about Civil War, the comic saga, except that it sucked because the writers couldn’t find a common ground, and thus heroes and villains alike made many idiotic decisions. In the series, a fatal school bombing caused by a hero team’s carelessness leads to the government creating a Superhero Registration Act, forcing supers to surrender their secret identities and powers to become part of an army. Iron Man, an authoritarian, clashes with Captain America, who believes in personal freedom, as they take the sides of pro and anti-registration. The TV Tropes page for the comic is a useful summary of the saga, which covered many Marvel titles and ultimately led to only the company having to clean up its image.
With such controversial roots, I wasn’t sure a movie adaptation of Civil War could work. Captain America and Tony Stark had already gotten off to a bad start in the first Avengers film, only burying their differences for the greater good. Having them fight for serious reasons felt redundant, and counter-intuitive.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe started with most of the main characters in a bad place. Tony Stark was an orphaned, alcoholic genius playboy who recently found his narcissistic behavior costing him friendships and possibly innocent lives. Black Widow joined S.H.I.E.L.D. after a career as an assassin. Steve Rogers failed many doctors’ examinations to become a soldier and serve his country, only to survive what he assumed was a fatal plunge into the ice and enter a modern world what moved on without him. Thor strutted as an arrogant prince with little regard for life and exited his movie with grief for his brother and for Jane Foster. Bruce Banner fought for a normal, fugitive life while having another guy inside of him that the military wants to use. Hawkeye was the only character with no apparent issues, and even he gained them soon after Loki brainwashing him. Joining the Avengers in the first film helped these characters overcome their past failures and successes by teaming up against Loki.
The screenwriters’ evil genius then enters the scene. Over the course of their team-ups and solo acts, Cap and Iron Man have been undergoing different, parallel journeys. Tony finds that all his powers cannot stop antagonists from coming after him and his loved ones, and his actions have long-term consequences, even the ones with the best intentions. Cap’s willingness to serve his country interferes with his constant encounters with corrupt bureaucracy, arrogant men who think they can stop war, and villains that want to either enforce tyranny or destroy humanity. If the two had time to think over these issues, especially in light of Tony creating Ultron in the second Avengers film and Captain America tracking down the remorseful, reclusive Winter Soldier, the two men might have resolved their differences by viewing an objective perspective. Instead, they take stances after having one or two meaningful conversations, and each refuses to bend to the other’s will in the beginning.
For about half the film, I agreed with Tony’s decision to allow for accountability, and have the United Nations govern the Avengers. Given what happened with Ultron, the Avengers seem on the surface to have too much power when dealing with external conflict. They may account for a good portion of collateral damage, like their strategy in Sokovia, but they cannot account for all of it. Civil War addresses this concern by having the innocents who watched their families die rail against Stark and the Avengers for their actions, both the bystanders and the resulting villain.
For the second half, I started taking Cap’s side. Captain America believes that his friend Bucky was framed for a terrorist attack on the United Nations after man impersonates a psychiatrist and triggers Bucky’s brainwashed, murderous side. He decides to give Bucky the benefit of the doubt, while breaking the law, because he believes that the world needs to know the truth and how often governments will lie for their selfish purposes. Tony takes what he believes is a necessary stand, and yet when faced with crucial evidence goes back on it to help Captain America. He finally takes impetuous action on learning what a brainwashed Bucky did to his parents, and Captain America despite his mistakes comes off as the rational one. Cap also apologizes for his mistakes, while Tony doesn’t. Yet the two heroes reverse their roles, and end the story with bittersweet regret.
I exited the theater around 1 AM; disquiet overcame me. The movie didn’t feel like a complete story, more of a long chapter than a novel. All the friendships, all the victories and all the hope for a reunited Avengers team lie in tatters by the time Tony reads Steve’s apology letter. Yet by the weekend I could reconcile with the unrest after mulling it over and reading about the comic saga. I cared too much about the characters to watch them fall apart, physically and emotionally. Being able to distance myself allowed me to appreciate the story for what it was, to give both Tony and Steve an opportunity to voice their differing opinions before they fail to find middle ground. Other characters get to make their stances known, villain and hero alike. The few that have a line to spout their stances- Scott Lang and Hawkeye- require a bit more thorough analysis on multiple viewings.
The writers have taken a risk by undoing about eight years’ worth of character building, but the risk pays off in the viewers’ minds due to the focus on consequences. No one gets off Scott-free except maybe Black Widow and even she has to go into hiding, and there are more questions with the answers the ending and two end-credits stingers provide. Officially the Avengers are defunct, and Zemo sits smugly in jail about his revenge. We know that the Avengers will come back, but we don’t know how or why, and if the team fugitives will receive pardons for their work.
I recommend Civil War for those who can handle the end of a short, heroic era as well as any preconceived notions challenged. For those who cannot, and I have to admit I was one of those up until watching the trailer, I would say stop watching the franchise at Ant Man and pretend that the world pardoned the Avengers for Sokovia, and for the collateral damage that Marvel’s bystanders must endure.