Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. On the one-year anniversary of Avengers: Endgame, we look back at the Marvel Cinematic Universe and how it changed the face of superhero (and blockbuster) cinema forever. Read the rest of our MCU coverage here.
Don’t blame yourself if you get the title wrong for Captain America: Civil War… or maybe it’s just me who sometimes mistakenly believes the real title is Avengers: Civil War. It’s difficult to chastise myself too much, since the movie is far more than the titular character’s story; it’s about a team that slowly breaks apart over the course of the movie, despite the bonds they’ve formed. Certainly the timing was uncanny, as 2016 was a good year for a story about a makeshift family coming apart over politics.
This is the Marvel Cinematic Universe though, so it’s under less mundane circumstances than arguments over the dinner table, even if it begins with what passes for mundane with the Avengers. They assemble more covertly than usual in a foreign country to recover a dangerous stolen weapon, but what begins as a routine operation ends in tragedy when multiple civilians are killed.
In response, the United Nations announces the creation of the Sokovia Accords, which would provide legal oversight and authorization for the team’s missions. Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is in favor of more control, but Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) is opposed, convinced that political interference will only make the world even less safe.
Things quickly escalate, but Civil War takes a less familiar route to its big finish. Even if the movie may not delve too deeply into the concepts it raises, acknowledging the collateral damage of what has quickly become a cultural juggernaut feels novel, even somewhat radical for its time. Far more grainy (but still polished) POV videos are even briefly employed just to hammer home how terrifying it would actually be to experience the flashy explosions and action sequences from the ground rather than the safe distance we’ve previously viewed and relished them from.
This personal perspective is where Captain America: Civil War really succeeds, and even somewhat differentiates itself. Marvel has generally shown great care in how it’s plotted and built its universe, and here directors Anthony and Joe Russo are smart enough to give audiences a big explosive battle (away from civilians!) without making it the climactic one.
Sure, the airport showdown may seem a lot smaller after Infinity War and Endgame, but this was the first time superpowered heroes who weren’t officially part of the core Avengers team, such as Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and the new Spider-Man (Tom Holland), showed up to meet their wider world. Also, who didn’t immediately adore Holland as the new webslinger?
But the big finale was the one between Captain America and Iron Man in the middle of nowhere, and it didn’t even end up being about their political differences, even though the film’s villain, Zemo (Daniel Brühl), was not only present, but meeting the good guys for the first time. He may have been another one-note bad guy with a diabolical plot to destroy the team, but Zemo always had a different kind of plan in mind. He was just a man with no superpowers to speak of, yet he came the closest anyone ever had to achieving his goals until Thanos arrived on the scene.
It’s a lot for a comic book movie, which Civil War always remains. It’s also still solidly escapist, given what our politics have become, which now has a body count due to its sheer incompetence.
Even more remarkable for a franchise which had already brought its brand to galaxies beyond our own in Guardians of the Galaxy two years prior, Zemo achieved what he set out to do without ever once threatening the existence of the universe, or even the world. There was no army of disposable henchmen, no big light in the sky threatening to engulf everything in its path, no stakes whatsoever… except the fate of nearly every character we’ve come to care about over the course of about a decade. Those characters had also undergone changes which not only made their antagonism believable, but the direct result of its central duo arriving in opposite places they’d begun from, with the two men basically switching sides.
Steve Rogers became Captain America to fight for the country he takes his name from, while in the past Iron Man was the freewheeling loose cannon who bragged that he’d “privatized world peace.” Where Stark’s guilt over the creation of Ultron and the havoc he wreaked led him to bow to the very authorities he once disdained, the events of The Winter Soldier led Rogers became more and more distrustful of a world order which seemed to only grow more corrupt and complicated by the day. He was the true believer who became a rebel, while Stark was a rebel who became a believer. Their teams were divided accordingly, with Captain America’s mostly consisting of outsiders, while many on Iron Man’s represented the elite.
It’s a lot for a comic book movie, which Civil War always remains. It’s also still solidly escapist, given what our politics have become, which now has a body count due to its sheer incompetence. In our isolated state, a world where relations between superheroes have deteriorated doesn’t seem quite so bad when standing closer than six feet of each other is a major risk.
Shrewdly, the movie saves its best trick for last, wherein it allows us to have our cake and eat it too. (What else are you going to do with a cake though?) By the credits, post and otherwise, Tony Stark may remain invested in keeping the peace through rule of law, but we still have Captain America as our patriotic rebel to ensure that authority doesn’t overreach.