Countdown to Infinity War: Revisiting Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Before I dive into Captain America: Civil War, allow me to provide some background about the source material. Civil War was one of Marvel Comics’ landmark events, one that had been carefully set up to reveal the US government wanted to begin registering those with superpowers and to have greater control over how heroes conducted themselves. Iron Man/Tony Stark didn’t necessarily support the move, but figured fighting it was useless. Captain America opposed the move on purely idealistic grounds and was resolved to resist it with every fiber of his being.
The incident that allowed the Super-Human Registration Act to be passed into law was the super-villain Nitro using his powers of self-detonation near a grade school.
If you think maybe this was a little tasteless, well, that’s writer Mark Millar for you, a man who tries his damnedest to push the envelope whenever the editors let him. So lines were drawn and the entire Marvel Universe was now split into two camps, and while Millar tried to write Tony as a good guy, he just came across as an appeaser who was even willing to work with murderous super-villains enslaved by the federal government courtesy of the nanites in their blood. Oh, and then there was the Thor clone that Tony and Hank Pym Frankensteined together that got a little, well, out of hand…
On the other side, Steve Rogers/Captain America was portrayed as an idiot because he had no end game, and no means by which to beat what was now federal law. Mark Millar never seemed to get what makes superheroes work, and if you look at his material from that era, you might just shake your head and wonder what his appeal was. But Civil War sold like crazy, and led the way to an entire era of Big Events at Marvel, which have since proven to be an effective business model.
If you’re wondering why I’m bringing up the comic first, it’s because honestly, I didn’t see at the time how a motion picture adaptation could possibly work. Disney didn’t have the rights to the Fantastic Four or X-Men properties, so the number of superheroes and villains that had been introduced over the period of ten films was comparatively tiny. Leave it to the trailer to make a believer out of me.
I didn’t care what the logistical problems were; I so wanted to see Steve and Bucky beat the living shit out of Tony.
The plot: In the wake of years of Earth-shattering disasters, the world governments now want more control over Earth’s costumed vigilantes, seeing their actions as being partly responsible for the crises they try to prevent. Tony Stark, still haunted by the Ultron affair and the destruction of Sokovia, supports the measure, as he thinks the Avengers need oversight. Steve Rogers sees things differently, and thinks oversight means obstruction, and his distrust of modern authority makes him skeptical of the measure. What no one realizes is that another player, Sokovian survivor Helmut Zemo…
…wanting revenge on the Avengers for what happened to his country and his family, sets in motion a plot to destroy the team. To do this, he slays King T’Chaka of Wakanda, framing the Winter Soldier for the crime. This sets crown prince T’Challa, the new Black Panther…
…on a trail of vengeance to bring down the man who killed his father. With the stage set for disaster, and with Captain America trying to protect his friend while also trying to uncover the conspirator behind the scenes, and with Iron Man attempting to shut things down before things get out of hand and many of his friends are branded criminals, the battle lines are drawn.
This is about the most perfect superhero film made since The Dark Knight. You have amazing action, tremendous acting, and a spot-on script, all enhanced by Henry Jackman’s stellar soundtrack. What we have here is the culmination of eight years of motion pictures, and steady character development leading to this confrontation. On the face of it, you might think Tony should be the rebel and Steve the good soldier. After all, didn’t we see as far back as the second Iron Man movie that those in power had an inherent distrust of Tony, and saw him as a loose cannon? (An opinion which turned out to be justified when he hacked the helicarrier database in Avengers.) And as we’ve seen, Steve started out as the greatest soldier, and a man used to obeying orders.
But what happened over time? Iron Man got a glimpse of what’s waiting for Earth out there when he launched a nuclear missile to kill the Chitauri, which was a vision that haunted him throughout Iron Man 3. Also in Iron Man 3, Tony sees the consequences of his irresponsible actions from more than a decade ago and how it created Aldrich Killian. Finally, his inadvertent creation of Ultron was responsible for the deaths of hundreds and that’s no doubt weighing on him; by this point, Tony would love for someone else to be acting as a check to his impulses.
As for Steve, he slipped into the role of soldier but he worked for Nick Fury, a man who constantly used him as a tool in his Machiavellian plots, trying to justify questionable actions as being for “the greater good”. And then Steve discovered that SHIELD, Peggy Carter and Howard Stark’s legacy, was destroyed from within due to negligence and compromise. So it’s no surprise that Steve at this point finds modern authority less than trustworthy.
The roles have become reversed and this is handled masterfully, because at no point do we feel that any of Tony and Steve’s actions are out of character, based on what we’ve seen prior. Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr. have some great scenes together, and they’re so comfortable in their roles that you can feel how their growing unease and frustration with one another culminates in violence.
Black Panther was one of those Marvel movies I had no desire to see in theaters. It’s not that I dislike the character, it’s just that, like Ant-Man, I have no emotional investment in the character. I never bought Black Panther comics, and as an Avenger he just seemed like that guy with the same power set as Captain America. Then I saw Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther in this movie.
Boseman has charisma and acting talent to spare, and I was blown away by his performance. On more than one occasion, he almost stole the movie right out from under Downey and Evans—that’s how much screen presence he has. This movie is as much an origin story for his character as it is about the destruction of the Avengers, and he makes the most of every scene. One of the best moments in the film is when he confronts Zemo, his father’s murderer, and decides not to kill him. T’Challa can’t be the vengeful son any longer; he’s the future king of Wakanda and must be a statesman bringing in a war criminal despite his feelings. But at the same time, you can see that despite how much he might hate Zemo, he understands him. On one level, grief and loss can make brothers and sisters of us all, as we’ll see later on. With Black Panther, we have a man who can empathize with an enemy, yet it doesn’t stop him from doing what must be done. It’s a theme we see in his own film, and it shows the strength of focused producers who have a clear idea of who these characters are and can ensure a consistent vision across films. (By the way, I eventually did see Black Panther in the theater, and I’m so glad I did.)
Daniel Brühl’s Helmut Zemo made the top of our least-worst Marvel villains list and deservedly so. Zemo is well justified in his rage, seeing these heroes as men and women who cause as much damage as they prevent. All he wants to know is, when will the Avengers be brought up on charges of war crimes for Sokovia’s destruction? Who’s there to give his family justice? I don’t condone Zemo’s actions, but his motives are the most realistic we’ve seen of any villain in the Marvel movie-verse.
But Zemo isn’t the man who destroyed the Avengers. You know who is?
Yeah, that’s right: Steve Rogers, Captain America, destroyed the Avengers. Think back on what I said about character development regarding Steve and Tony. For all of Stark’s faults, he’s remained true to trying to be a better person, and to protecting the planet. But what about Steve? Rogers was once a man who valued forthrightness, honesty, and trust. And what did Steve do with the knowledge that Bucky had killed Tony’s parents? Did he tell Tony? Did he confide in Tony at that party in Age of Ultron, or did he sit on the information, and keep that knowledge to himself while acting all high and mighty?
Steve proved he had changed, too. He had become what he hated: a man who compartmentalized information and trusted no one. There’s no telling what Tony would have done with the information, but he deserved to know. The moment that bombshell was dropped, I was oh-so-firmly on Tony’s side. That’s how effective writing, acting, and directing all meshed together perfectly.
Finally, if you’ve been reading these reviews, you know how much I’ve gotten tired of hero-vs-hero fights, so maybe you’re thinking I’m engaging in some Captain America levels of hypocrisy myself when I say I loved the hell out of the airport fight. Look, the movie was billed as a fight between heroes, and it delivered. It was a glorious spectacle, with Ant-Man having far and away the best moment.
But that wasn’t the only great moment, by far. I enjoyed the debut of Frank Grillo’s Brock Rumlow as Crossbones…
…and Tom Holland’s debut as Peter Parker/Spider Man was handled with perfection.
As for the comics at the time, Marvel went for a shameless cash-grab and released Civil War II, in which Iron Man was now facing off against Captain Marvel AKA Carol Danvers. Because for some time now Marvel has really been pushing Captain Marvel as the Next Big Thing, but judging by her comic sales they’ve failed miserably. Maybe it’s the terrible new look, or the mediocre art, or lackluster writing, but nothing has ever managed to keep Captain Marvel’s sales afloat.
In Civil War II, Carol is the good guy, because she’s using an Inhuman who can see the future to prevent potential disasters. This leads to James Rhodes dying, She-Hulk falling into a coma, Bruce Banner being shot in the eye by Hawkeye and killed (but you know, comics, and Bruce is back), and Carol herself putting Tony into a coma. And let’s not forget that at this point, Steve Rogers’ history had been altered by a sentient Cosmic Cube into Steve being a member of HYDRA all along. (Nothing says “hero” like having the backing of a died in the wool fascist.) So we as readers are supposed to believe Carol is the hero in this comedy of errors, because apparently if everybody had just let her do her Minority Report bit in the first place, everything would have turned out okay. Do I sound bitter? It’s because I am. Is this really the best that Marvel Comics, the so-called House of Ideas, can do?
Next time: We witness the rise of a certain master of the mystic arts.