By chance or possibly fate, John Derrick saw his first episode of Doctor Who on the day he was born. The nerd has been strong with him ever since. When he’s not at work or telling people they’re wrong on the internet (especially Evan Dossey), he’s usually busy co-writing superhero novels with Rachael Derrick or training their 3 year-old sidekick, Verity.
Captain America: Civil War is the superhero version of the last online debate you told yourself you shouldn’t be wasting your time with but did anyway. Everyone who shows up has an opinion, and as the arguments fly back and forth you wonder: Is this conversation actually meaningful to anyone, or is everyone just here to show off what they already believe?
Ostensibly this is a Captain America movie, and it carries over several dangling plot lines from Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Yet it feels just as much like “Avengers 2.5,” picking up where Avengers: Age of Ultron left off, with Captain America and Black Widow leading a mostly new team consisting of Scarlet Witch, Falcon, War Machine and Vision. A mission in Nigeria goes south, civilian lives are lost, and soon the United Nations is demanding oversight of the Avengers’ missions. Tony Stark (Iron Man) is on board, arguing that if the Avengers can’t accept restrictions, then they’re no better than the bad guys. Steve Rogers (Captain America) rejects the idea, refusing to let bureaucrats determine when he can or can’t try to help people. The rest of the team splits down the middle, and the two sides soon come to blows over the fate of Cap’s intermittently brainwashed best friend, Bucky.
The massive comic-book crossover that inspired this movie, also called Civil War, was published in 2006 and 2007, near the end of the George W. Bush administration. The story was pointedly relevant to a post-9/11 America, furthering the national debate on freedom versus security. Yet most of the story’s real fun came from choosing Team Cap or Team Iron Man and arguing it with your friends. (Evan Dossey and I pick this fight with each other at least once a year … just because.) The comics themselves were wildly inconsistent, the work of a dozen or more writers with their own conflicting opinions about who was right. Iron Man is the voice of reason in one book, a wild-eyed fascist in the next. Here, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and directors Anthony and Joe Russo make every character’s point of view crystal clear.
But is anyone really changing?
Steve certainly isn’t. He questioned his superiors in The Avengers, rebelled against S.H.I.E.L.D. in Winter Soldier, and here he goes defying the system again. Somehow it never feels like a rehash, because Chris Evans’ performance layers doubt and regret through every moment. Paradoxically, he makes Cap’s immutability in itself a dynamic quality. Standing up to corruption is one thing; standing up to half your family is another. It’s a familiar feeling for many of us these days, even if our families haven’t literally gotten to the point of duking it out on an airport tarmac. Steve reminds us that commitment to any ideal worth fighting for isn’t just a single choice, but a constant, weary succession of them.
Which isn’t to say he’s necessarily right. Where’s the line between an unwavering moral code and plain arrogance? Should any one person with power be trusted to exercise it without regulation? The movie never assumes there’s an easy answer, but Steve argues superheroes need to be allowed to trust their own judgment because governments are “run by people with agendas, and agendas change.” The line plays a little differently today than when the movie premiered in May 2016, when Barack Obama was still President and no one knew who would come next.
Tony, meanwhile, seems to have come a long way from the guy who told off Congress in Iron Man 2. However, the Tony who insists his teammates give up their autonomy is very much the Tony of the original Iron Man, who insisted his company give up the weapons business. He might have given himself a superhero makeover, but he’s still haunted by young Americans killed by his toys and by the father who taught him to build them. At the end of Iron Man 3, he was struggling with PTSD and blew up most of the armors he’d built in a grand gesture meant to show Pepper that he’d stop using superheroics as an excuse to avoid dealing with his issues. But Tony’s new leaf didn’t stay turned for very long. As he tells Steve, “Then we had to mop up Hydra … and then Ultron. My fault. And then, and then, and then, I never stopped. Because the truth is I don’t wanna stop.” So Pepper left.
Tony accepts an external authority as the only means of forcing himself to be the person he believes Pepper wants him to be and, along with it, the argument that following the rules is all that separates the good guys from the bad guys. He attempts to convince Steve that by accepting oversight in the short term they can “put out the PR fire” and take back more autonomy later. Still, it’s unclear whether Tony really believes this is a more responsible way for the Avengers to operate or if he’s just trying to avoid having to choose between the woman he loves and the life of a celebrity superhero.
Tony’s paradox is that he chooses a different path for himself precisely because he no longer believes that he — or anyone, really — is capable of change. By contrast, Steve believes that by sticking to his own principles he can inspire change in others and that truth and reason will ultimately win the day. His ethos is perfectly summed up by Sharon Carter, quoting her Aunt Peggy: “Even if everyone is telling you that something wrong is something right, even if the whole world is telling you to move, it’s your duty to plant yourself like a tree and say, ‘No, you move.’ ” (A line lifted from J. Michael Straczynski’s Amazing Spider-Man #537, originally part of a monologue delivered by Steve himself.)
Regardless of who you think is right (it’s totally Steve), both Steve and Tony ultimately fail to convince one another of anything. Like many of us in those online arguments, at the end of the thread, each person believes the same things they always did. It’s Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow) who proves change really is possible, even in a sequel-driven franchise like the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
When Natasha turns on Tony’s team at the end of the airport battle, Tony accuses her of once again playing the double agent. “Must be stuck in the DNA,” he says. But Tony’s wrong. While Natasha’s ends tend to justify her means, not only are those ends and means no longer those of the Russian assassin she once was, they’re not even those of the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent we met in earlier films. Natasha’s guiding star is no longer atonement for the red in her ledger, nor even saving the world. It’s the team.
Discussing the team’s options with Steve, Natasha argues, “Staying together is more important than how we stay together.” Like Steve himself, Natasha recognizes that governments constantly change. But where Steve sees this as a reason to reject external oversight, Natasha believes in making the best of the situation right in front of her. Where Steve is bound by the ideal of self-determination and Tony by the limitations of the social contract, Natasha skips over the theoretical argument entirely.
Natasha initially sides with Tony because she believes it will lead to the best outcome for the most people, allowing the Avengers to win back the public’s trust after “some very public mistakes.” Black Widow never used to worry about such things; the last thing a spy wants is to be noticed, let alone famous. Then Natasha and her friends saved the world, and not long after that Natasha dumped all of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s secrets onto the internet — and many of her own along with them — in order to expose a conspiracy. After hanging around with Captain America and the other Avengers, Natasha has found that truth and justice matter to her.
When she turns against Tony, it’s because he’s no longer following a path that is most likely to make things better for their friends, or for the world as a whole. And even then Natasha doesn’t make her heel-turn coldly, like her old spy self would have. After helping Cap and Bucky escape, she tells Tony, “I said I’d help you find him, not catch him. There’s a difference.” Right through Scarlett Johansson’s wry smile, we can see that a woman who once out-lied the God of Lies is pained to be seen as dishonest.
If she had the time for social media, Natasha would be the type of person who is more than willing to walk back her argument if a friend gives her new info to consider. Through her, the filmmakers remind us how most change really happens — as a result of people’s connections to one another. At the same time, through T’Challa (Black Panther), they show how subtle those connections can be.
While Tony and Steve’s other respective new recruits, Spider-Man and Ant-Man, are desperate to impress their teammates, T’Challa is not here to make friends. He’s chasing vengeance for his father’s murder, which he believes to be the work of the Winter Soldier. Steve rightfully assumes Bucky is being set up, but the motive for the murder and the frame aren’t clear until the end of the film. The villain is revealed to be one Helmut Zemo, a man whose family was killed offscreen in Age of Ultron. Zemo has made it his mission to turn the Avengers on each other, and with a carefully timed revelation that a mind-controlled Bucky murdered Tony’s parents years ago, he seems to have succeeded. While Steve, Bucky and Tony beat each other to a pulp in a secret Russian lair, T’Challa quietly confronts Zemo outside in the snow.
Watching Tony’s thirst for vengeance tear the Avengers apart, even as it destroys Zemo himself, T’Challa makes a difference choice. Instead of killing his father’s killer, T’Challa prevents Zemo from committing suicide and turns him in to the authorities. It’s a decision that will quietly inform the Black Panther’s actions in his own movie, when he’s again faced with the choice between vengeance and justice.
Civil War never resolves its central argument. The movie ends with Steve and his team on the run, Steve and Tony’s friendship and the Avengers’ bonds seemingly broken forever. All too often, this is what “agree to disagree” looks like in the 21st century. We’ve all seen folks like Steve and Tony in our own arguments, who can go round in circles for days without ever altering their position. Many of us have been those folks; I have definitely been those folks. Intractability doesn’t make them wrong, but it doesn’t win over the other side or restore the public’s faith in the Avengers, either.
But as T’Challa reminds us, it’s not just the people actively engaged in an argument who may be influenced by our words and actions. Sometimes it’s the people watching. Your discussion with your racist uncle may not have changed either of your minds, but maybe it gave your cousin a new perspective on the issue.
The next time Someone Is Wrong On The Internet, consider:
Do I want to be like Steve, saying what needs to be said and letting every argument bounce off my mighty shield?
Do I want to be like Tony? (Don’t be like Tony. Sorry, Evan.)
Can I be more like Natasha, adapting my point of view to find the best answer for the people I care about? (And remember, you’re not a spy, you’re a superhero. Care about everyone.)
Or is it your time to be T’Challa — to listen, learn, skip the fight, and do something productive instead?
Midwest Film Journal will post new, weekly entries of “The Marvel Decade” until the release of Avengers: Infinity War on April 27, 2018. Each entry is written by a different writer — some familiar to readers of the site and some fresh faces handpicked by members of the group. Each writer chose a Marvel movie that inspires insights or personal connections that they will highlight in their piece.
The MCU is a franchise that’s popular largely because of what it means to so many people, and that’s something we aim to capture with “The Marvel Decade.”
Join us again next week as guest writer Joel Connell explores the multiverse of Doctor Strange.
PREVIOUSLY IN “THE MARVEL DECADE”
Iron Man (2008) — Evan Dossey
The Incredible Hulk (2008) — Nick Rogers
Iron Man 2 (2010) — Joe Shearer
Thor (2011) — Aly Caviness
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) — Sy Stiner
The Avengers (2012) — Craig McQuinn
Iron Man 3 (2013) — Rachael Derrick
Thor: The Dark World (2013) — Will Norris
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) — Salem
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) — Mitch Ringenberg
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) – Daniel Fidler & Evan Dossey
Ant-Man (2015) – Jeremy Cahnmann