Captain America: Civil War is a two-and-a-half hour-long excuse to see your favorite superhero fight your other favorite superhero. But between all the richter scale-shaking punches, filmmakers Joe and Anthony Russo managed to portray a heartbreaking rift between the Avengers that goes far beyond their superhuman brawling. And while his name is on the marquee, it just may be all Captain America’s fault.
Warning: There are spoilers below.
The division between the two sides of the Avengers, who line up alongside Iron Man and Captain America, is ostensibly over the Sokovia Accords, a UN sanction that essentially turns the Avengers into a peacekeeping regiment overseen by a government body. Tony Stark thinks it will bring much needed oversight, and cut down on superhero-sized collateral damage, while Steve Rogers believes that it will turn the Avengers into a tool that could be misused by nefarious governments.
Both of these rationales are solid and well-reasoned, especially in light of the previous Marvel films, which saw the Avengers play a large part in global chaos. Stark’s justifications are backed by the damage we’ve seen in the first Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron, while Rogers is right to be wary of any political organization after the fallout of Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
The film’s justifications and moral ambiguity falls apart when the fight starts to become less about the Sokovia Accords, and more about Steve’s best friend-turned-cyborg-assassin, Bucky Barnes (a.k.a. The Winter Soldier). Ultimately, the conflict at the center of Iron Man and Captain America’s epic showdown isn’t about the Accords at all, but about Stark discovering that Bucky killed his parents.
This is a problem. The Sokovia Accords is a contentious document, and legitimize the combat; the Avengers battling over real world consequences to myriad of political and philosophical differences. The film needs the Accords to make the conflict this big. There is no reason other why the Avengers, who fought alongside each other, should be broken apart so easily. That it all becomes about Bucky in the end negates all of that, and makes the conflict between Stark and Rogers a petty, revenge brawl.
The hero who is supposed to stand for the defense of mankind leads a parade of destruction on behalf of a deranged, brainwashed childhood friend. His relative disregard for the destruction left in the wake of the Bucky hunt, coupled with his opposition to the Sokovia Accords that were meant to mitigate such tragedies, creates the unfortunate implication that he really might not actually care about the safety of the public.
Rhodes is left paralyzed by the end of the film, Black Widow is on the run, and essentially half of the Avengers are wanted fugitives. Their lives are destroyed to various degrees, and few of them even understand that it stopped being about the Accords by the end. Bucky’s involvement brings the conflict to a close on a personal level, but on the larger scale, the Avengers were broken apart by a man defending a murderer.
This isn’t a deal breaker for Civil War. I understand on some level that in order to justify the final battle, it would need to be personal between Cap and Iron Man, or else there wouldn’t be the emotional heft for such a brutal duel. But the fact that Earth’s Mightiest Heroes break up over personal spat and Cap’s obsession with an old friend is not dramatically rewarding, either.
Besides, there is probably an easier way to solve the Bucky conundrum, anyway. A lot of blood was spilled in search of The Winter Soldier, when Steve could have just turned him in and then worked to broker some sort of understanding about his brainwashing. Captain America was forged in a black and white world, but the past two films have been about him adjusting to the 21st century’s many shades of gray. His absolute devotion to his murderous best bud is an absurd example of his old school morals conflicting with the modern world, and causing countless deaths and billions of dollars in destruction.