I have many thoughts about Captain America: Civil War. Many, many thoughts. First and foremost, however, I must put forward that this post will contain many spoilers. Many, many spoilers. Enter at your own risk. Caveat lector.
The first thing I should point out is that this movie should have definitely been the last movie in Phase 2. It is The Empire Strikes Back of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Don’t believe me? Not only does Spider-Man literally reference Empire Strikes Back, but the motif of someone’s arm being cut off is still there (Iron Man rips off Bucky’s metal arm) and it ends with someone frozen
But enough of that. I’ve come to bury the Marvel Cinematic Universe, not praise it. For yes, Captain America: Civil War basically dissects the average MCU movie and completely deconstructs it. Let’s walk through each of the ways it does this:
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has several recurring aspects to each of its films. Often times, this will lead to people saying that the Marvel films then look like they were built by assembly, a group of writers just fitting together tropes and jokes. This is never more evident with Avengers: Age of Ultron (which ended with a massive sky battle just like Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, and The Avengers) and Ant-Man (which gave Scott Lang the average Marvel “loser hero becomes better” story arc). Generally, the Average Marvel Cinematic Universe movie will include one or more heroes who quip and fight against a megalomaniacal supervillain who wants to unleash some sort of doomsday weapon and the hero and/or heroes have to stop them and will eventually kill them. If there is any conflict where our main hero may be wrong (Tony against the government in Iron Man 2, Captain America against SHIELD in Captain America: The Winter Soldier), the hero will inevitably be proven to be right and in the end, everything will be restored to how it was originally, with some things a bit changed.
Captain America: Civil War takes a rocket launcher to this structure and blows a goddamn hole right through it. Let’s take a look:
- Both Tony Stark and Steve Rogers have good points and both are making those good points for bad reasons. Tony Stark is letting his guilt at building Ultron lead him to signing the Sokovia Accords. It’s not unreasonable that the Avengers need some sort of oversight, something that will alert foreign governments when the Avengers are brought in and so forth, but the Sokovia Accords are being handled by General Ross, who isn’t the best when it comes to handling superpowered beings. In fact, the first thing Ross apparently did as Secretary of State was built an underwater gulag. Meanwhile, Steve Rogers is opposed to the Accords, because he believes that the Avengers can handle themselves. His reasoning comes from seeing the fact that SHIELD was infested Hydra — not an unreasonable fear, but also not one that is totally repeatable. And Rogers also refuses to see the other side, seeing any sort of oversight as needless bureaucracy.
- The escalation of violence is directly commented on. The MCU movies have slowly built up the final battles, from just Iron Man versus Iron Monger to Thor versus the Destroyer to the Avengers versus aliens to finally the Avengers versus a massive horde of robots and a potentially planetary extinction-level event. Why the escalation? Well, as the Vision puts it: “Our very strength incites challenge. Challenge incites conflict. And conflict...breeds catastrophe.” Just as Tony building Iron Man led to Obadiah Stane building his own bigger suit, so does the existence of the Avengers lead to bigger and bigger threats. (Wow, meta-commentary!)
- The main villain is just a man. The Avengers have fought against gods and monsters, metal men and enhanced weapons. But they are ultimately broken up by a single man, a nondescript man who doesn’t want to take over the world or anything like that. Helmut Zemo is a former Special Forces soldier, a man who lost everything just like Captain America. But unlike Captain America, all he wants to do is make those who took everything away from him pay. He wants to make an empire fall and he knows to do that, all he needs is time and patience.
- The final battle isn’t to stop a doomsday weapon, it’s not in the sky, it’s underground and intensely personal. The movie teases you with the final battle for a little bit: Bucky says that there are five more Winter Soldiers, not like him, but better than him, stronger, faster, smarter, five Winter Soldiers who can bring down a country within a day. But when they enter the compound in Sibera, Steve, Bucky, and Tony learn something unsettling: Zemo has killed all five soldiers as they slept. There’s not going to be some big battle with these soldiers to stop them. That’s not what Zemo wants. After all, he lost his family to such a battle. Why would he unleash more people like that into the world? And in any case, he knows that even those soldiers would lose against the Avengers. Everyone loses against the Avengers. So the best enemy...would be themselves.
- The final battle is fought because of the truth. Captain America is supposed to stand for truth. After all, he unleashed the truth about Hydra in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, didn’t he? He went up against them and their secrets. But, crucially, he kept a truth from Tony. The truth that not only had Hydra killed his parents, but Bucky personally killed them both. From the very first movie in the MCU, we’ve known that Tony has issues with his parents, issues with his father and his mother. This knowledge, this truth, breaks him. What this results in is a three-way battle that is perhaps one of the most devastating fights in the entire MCU. And here’s the thing: nobody wins. Yes, Steve eventually stops Tony from killing Bucky, but Tony yells out that his shield was built by Tony’s father and that it doesn’t belong to him...so Steve drops it and leaves it behind.
- The villain wins and lives. One of the main complaints about the MCU has been that they tend to both have a bit boring villains and their villains tend to die a lot, meaning they don’t have many opportunities to reappear. Not so with Zemo. Even though he tries to commit suicide, T’Challa prevents him and instead he is imprisoned. But he knows he still won. The Avengers are broken, half of them on the run, the other have tied up with the Sokovia Accords.
Sure, a lot of the film plays things straight: both the introduction of Spider-Man and Black Panther are tropes played straight, but they are done so well it’s not obtrusive. The giant battle at the airport is a massive set-piece, but one that works incredibly well because it acts exactly like a real comic book fight. These are all elements that the MCU needs to keep, because they are all elements that work.
But it’s the elements that Civil War rips apart that the MCU can do without, the massive ending battles and the villains with little motivation, who die too quickly. And Civil War tears them apart with such aplomb, making sure that the audience knows that, yes, nothing will be the same again.
Welcome to Phase 3. Hope you survive the experience.