Phase 3 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe kicked off with a bang. All of the Avengers, minus Hulk and Thor, are present in what is basically Avengers 2.5, and they’re forced to face the music for all of the casualties that they may or may not be responsible for while they’ve been off superheroing. Similar to the start of Phase 2, we start this section of the MCU with the end of the trilogy of one of our major heroes. Despite Civil War being filled to the brim with returning characters, as well as a couple of new ones, it is still very much a Captain America movie.
When an Avengers mission in Lagos, Nigeria is botched and several civilians are killed, the United Nations comes together to draft the Sokovia Accords, legislation that would put the Avengers under government supervision, signed by 117 countries. Tony Stark, reeling from the consequences of his actions in Age of Ultron, and, well, every other film, is the first to sign up. Tony’s entire story has been about accountability and the dangers of unchecked power. “We need to be put in check. Whatever form that takes, I’m game. If we can’t accept limitations, we’re boundary-less, we’re no better than the bad guys.”
Steve Rogers disagrees. As someone who has seen firsthand the problems of government authority and oversight, he knows that the safest hands are their own. Steve views signing the Accords as a way of throwing in the towel and not taking responsibility for their actions. To Steve, the United Nations is still run by people with agendas, and agendas change. “If we sign these we surrender our right to choose. What if this panel sends us somewhere we don’t think we should go? What if there’s somewhere we need to go, and they don’t let us?”
There’s no real right or wrong answer here (though I’m Team Cap, all the way). Both sides of the argument have strong legs to stand on. Steve and Tony’s stances are directly influenced by their previous experiences and ideals throughout multiple films, and this is what makes Civil War the first real payoff for Marvel, for all of those years of storytelling. We know both characters like the back of our hand at this point, so we understand where both are coming from and why they choose the side they choose. This journey through eight years and twelve films have left us with quite an emotional investment, so the tragedy of what Steve and Tony’s disagreement turns into resonates strongly with any fan of this universe.
While the plot of the film is a direct response to ending of Age of Ultron, it also is a continuation of the story that began in The Winter Soldier. Bucky Barnes has been on the lamb since the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D., but when he is framed for bombing the U.N., he becomes the number one target around the world. Steve buries his former love Peggy Carter, and now the only remaining part of the life he once had is Bucky, and he will do anything to save and protect his best friend, even if it means becoming an international criminal by assisting him.
The final chapter of the Captain America trilogy seeks to explore the man behind the shield, and we finally learn how Steve Rogers may not be so perfect after all. Steve Roger’s flaw, and weakness, is Bucky. Steve is thrown off his game and hesitates at the mere mention of Bucky’s name during the mission in Lagos, which leads to the death of innocents. He forfeits his position as leader of the Avengers to find and protect Bucky, and is labeled as a war criminal in doing so. In the end, he gets half of the Avengers team hurt and imprisoned, and loses the friendship and respect of Tony, all in his quest to protect Bucky. Steve loves Bucky more than anyone. No matter how close he’s become to his friends like Sam and Natasha, they pale in comparison to his relationship with Bucky. Bucky was there for Steve when he had no one else in his life, and protected him through it all. Now their roles are reversed, and Steve cannot sit idly by while others seek to kill his friend, even if the consequences for doing so are steep. “How nice to finally find a flaw.”
Zemo is a different kind of villain. He never directly engages the Avengers, nor do they ever fight him. He has no plans for world domination and he never attempts to kill a single one of the Avengers. Zemo is a manifestation of the mistakes of The Avengers, a consequence of their negligence, and it forces Tony and Steve to see one of the results of their heroism. Zemo lost his entire family in the destruction of Sokovia, and naturally wants revenge. “It took me two days until I found their bodies. My father still holding my wife and son in his arms. And the Avengers? They went home. I knew I couldn’t kill them. More powerful men than me have tried. But if I could get them to kill each other…”
Zemo’s plan is to tear the Avengers apart from the inside, fueling the fire made by the Accords, until they can no longer function as a team and collapse. “An empire toppled by its enemies can rise again. But one which crumbles from within? That’s dead. Forever.” Zemo poses no physical threat to our heroes, challenging them instead strictly through scheming and manipulation. He has no ties to Hydra (in fact, he kills a Hydra agent during his quest) or any other evil organization. Throughout the film it even seems as if he’s questioning what he’s doing, having to listen to the final voicemail left by his wife over and over to remind himself why he’s on this mission. And once his plan is complete, with the Avengers splintered, imprisoned, and their two leaders fighting to the death below him, there is no glory in it for him, and little satisfaction. He listens to the voicemail one last time, deletes it, and then attempts to put a bullet through his brain. Zemo’s plan may be a bit convoluted, with too many moving pieces that are required to go exactly right at the exact right time, but he’s a fresh take on what a villain can be in a superhero film, and I think he’s a wonderful addition to the MCU.
The many years and films that Marvel Studios spent world and character building are what makes Civil War work so well. It’s a film that you really do need to have seen the previous films to understand, and it takes all that’s come before to turn in a film that’s both a huge spectacle (the airport battle was the entire selling point) and an emotional gut-punch. The Russo’s are firing on all fronts. Between Winter Soldier and Civil War, they show that they truly understand each character in the MCU roster, and can deliver personal stories within a large cast. I struggle in deciding which film of theirs is the superior one, but both are the best of the best that Marvel has had to offer, and it’s why they’ve been entrusted with Infinity War and Avengers 4.
Black Panther and Spider-Man are fantastic additions to the Marvel universe. T’Challa instantly became one of the coolest heroes with one of the coolest suits, and even with all that’s going on in Civil War, gets his own character arc centered around not allowing vengeance to consume him, as it consumes everyone else around him. Spider-Man just being in this movie is a miracle in itself, a pipe dream that I didn’t think I’d ever get to see. Tom Holland is tremendous, showing us in his first scene who Peter Parker is what he’s all about with his own version of “with great power comes great responsibility”. He and Ant-Man bring the fun and the laughs in an otherwise somber film.
The Russo’s continue to show off their gift for crafting action sequences; the airport battle is the most fun and thrilling set piece since the Battle of New York in the first Avengers, and Tony and Steve’s fight is brutal, becoming the most violent and bloodiest conflict we’ve seen in the MCU thus far. Would Civil War have been better, more impactful, if one of the heroes had died? It would have definitely been more dramatic, but I like the Russo’s response to this: “Civil War is about the separation and divorce of a family. If we had killed someone off it would have turned into being about a death in the family instead, which wasn’t what we were going for.” Of course, that’s not to say that there are no consequences in the film, there are plenty.
Phase 3 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is about the end of what we know and what’s come before, as well as the birth of the new generation and the heroes they have to offer. The Avengers as we know them have to end and make way for the new, no matter how much it pains us to witness it. Iron Man’s trilogy ends with him choosing to always be Iron Man, even without his suits and weapons and gadgets. Captain America’s trilogy ends with him tossing his shield aside, and with it, the title and mantle of Captain America. The government he fought for has betrayed him, and the rest of the world has branded him a traitor and a criminal.
Steve’s choice to stand firm in his beliefs against almost everyone else is solidified in Peggy’s death and hearing her words at the funeral. “Compromise where you can. Where you can’t, don’t. Even if everyone is telling you that something wrong is something right. Even if the whole world is telling you to move, it is your duty to plant yourself like a tree, look them in the eye, and say: No, you move.”
Steve Rogers chooses to be himself, to operate under no orders but his own, and to protect the world and its people without a banner. “You wear a flag on your chest and think you fight a battle of nations.” The Red Skull says to him at the end of The First Avenger. “I have seen the future, Captain! There are no flags!” These words carry ominous weight all these years later. Steve’s identity is no longer tied to his country, nor is it even tied to the Avengers. Yet he is still the hero the country and the rest of the world needs. Even after their fight, Steve leaves Tony with a way to contact him if he ever needs him. And we know he will always answer the call, because he is what he promised to be to Dr. Erskine, the man who gave him his life and power. A good man. “If I see a situation pointed south, I can’t ignore it.” And he doesn’t wish he could.
Captain America: Civil War marks a change in the entire dynamic of the Avengers and the MCU as a whole. It was the first satisfying reward for all of the time and years spent invested in these characters and the world they live in. The conflict is fascinating (I could watch an entire film of the characters just debating the Accords) and the personal stakes between Steve and Tony are heartbreaking. The team is split and scattered, leaving Earth wide open for catastrophe. That catastrophe is arriving in a big way very soon, and unless our heroes can reunite, they won’t be able stop it.