One of the most rewarding things about living in an age where we see three to four big-budget superhero movies produced each and every year is that so much costumed content inevitably exhausts the easy stories to tell, forcing long-running franchises to dive into deeper narrative territory. What if right and wrong aren’t always the same thing to the same people? What if villains aren’t the most dangerous thing in a world of super powers, but it’s heroes? What if being somebody’s friend took a whole lot more than super powers? These questions and plenty more are what we come to fight over in Captain America: Civil War, the 13th installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and possibly the best hero vs. hero throwdown ever put on screen.
The story begins some time after the Avengers just barely saved the nation of Sokovia. After an Avengers mission goes wrong in Africa, the United Nations decides enough is enough and places all superheroes under its sole operational authority. Steve Rogers (Captain America) immediately sees a big problem with this, while Tony Stark (Iron Man) does not…in large part because he is the guy who created so much of the collateral damage the UN would like to minimize. Maybe Steve and Tony could have worked through their fundamental differences about all this, but soon a complication arises in the form of Bucky Barnes, Steve’s childhood friend. Long thought killed during WWII, Bucky was revived by the sinister group Hydra as a cybernetic assassin known as the Winter Soldier. Bucky is on the loose, and no longer under Hydra’s mind control. But when he is falsely blamed for a savage act of terrorism, Steve goes to Bucky’s defense, putting him in direct conflict with Tony. It’s all a step too far and soon the Earth’s two mightiest heroes square off in a battle that is about way more than who gets to call the shots for superheroes. Long-simmering tensions between Steve and Tony have finally hit the surface, and now a good chunk of the rest of the superhero community must choose sides.
With such a large cast of characters and winding storyline, Civil War feels more like an ersatz Avengers movie than a stand-alone project. That it succeeds so spectacularly, is primary evidence that what makes for a great superhero movie isn’t powers and punches. It’s characters we invest in. It is drama that we cannot bear to see inflicted upon those characters. And it is in earned moments that reward those willing to play a long game, narratively. For as big a story as Civil War is, it really comes down to an intimate, very finely aged conflict that we all knew was coming between a guy who must do what he feels is right versus a guy who must do what he feels is smart.
Much of this movie’s most astonishing moments come in its action sequences. A massive super-brawl between both sides of the Avengers at a German airport is almost criminally crowd-pleasing, especially because it involves the long-awaited introduction of a certain friendly neighborhood wall-crawler, who manages to win more fans in his short time on screen than most heroes do in an entire movie. And this, after an equally enjoyable introduction to a certain Wakandan feline. What did we do to deserve so much in one movie? It didn’t even come out at Christmas.
And yet, that scene holds nothing on the movie’s climax, which begins as a battle between Captain America and Iron Man and somewhere along the line becomes a declaration of war between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark. Sure, it is a thrilling fight sequence, but what gives it true power is the ferocity with which two good men spill the ocean of bad blood between them. It hardly matters if you are Team Cap or Team Iron Man in this one. Some fights are lost by anyone who decides to take part.
And that is where Civil War’s moment truly reveals is power: not in its spectacular action, but in a moment of quiet satisfaction enjoyed by our villain, Helmut Zemo, who puts this whole story in motion. He knows only too well that in a world of heroes and villains, both are united by their unusual ability to export how they see things upon others. On some level, good and evil are just details, really. Good guys are just a whole lot better at hiding it.
His plan to destroy the world isn’t what the movie would have us believe all along. It is, instead, something far simpler and sophisticated. It is an act of purest revenge motivated purely by one’s own personal wounds, and which seeks merely to make one’s enemies hurt worse on the inside than they ever will on the outside. Zemo doesn’t want to destroy the world he lives in. He’s already given up on his own world. No, he wants to destroy the world that the heroes live in. And by the movie’s end, we realize that he has succeeded. It might not be as dramatic as a certain snap of the fingers, but it burns on a far deeper level to realize that the tragedy of Civil War isn’t that we see beloved heroes come to blows with each other. It’s that there was zero chance it would never happen. It just that one of the bad guys saw it first.
Perhaps that’s why the moment of truth comes right at the end. When, after Steve and Tony’s chasm seems impossible to bridge, Steve reaches out with a simple gesture of solidarity, a frank admission that he was wrong, a sincere proclamation that he should have had more faith in Tony, and above all, a humble apology. That’s true heroism for you. And that’s why Steve Rogers isn’t Captain America. It’s why Captain America is Steve Rogers.