As of May 2018, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is 10 years and 19 films old. In celebration, we’re talking about the deeper elements of the MCU, mostly film-by-film. We’ve already talked about how Iron Man is about finding truth, why Incredible Hulk might not be in the MCU, that Iron Man 2 is the true beginning of the MCU, how Thor does the work to make the Avengers great, why Steve Rogers was alone BEFORE he fell in the ice, why the Avengers weren’t the Avengers until they beat the tar out of each other, how Iron Man 3 exposes the hidden symbolism of Tony’s life, that no matter what the advertisements say, Marvel TV isn’t connected to the MCU, that Loki’s greatest illusion is Loki himself, that the Winter Soldier represents Steve’s darkest fear, how Peter Quill didn’t know who Star-Lord was, my crazy fan theory about the Infinity Stones creating Ultron, that Ant-Man is the unfortunate casualty of the greater MCU, and why Steve Rogers had to sacrifice the Avengers for the good of the world.
Captain America: Civil War
For a studio that has a reputation for sticking to a formula, Marvel sure loves to take risks. Maybe it’s the fact that these movies are generally so entertaining that we take it for granted that they wouldn’t have even been a possibility 15 years ago.The “massive superhero team-up” genre is a relatively new concept and Marvel is responsible for three of the six in existence with two more of theirs on the way very soon.
Ant-Man, which preceded this movie, was forced to change directions a full year before it hit cinemas but didn’t quite stick the landing. Captain America: Civil War, however, changed over and over and over again and still hit the ground running in a way that resounded with general audiences. You don’t make over a billion dollars at the box office unless audiences love your movie.
Part of that might have been from rampant fan speculation. The production of a third Captain America movie had retool after retool as the writers scrapped their first drafts involving the classic Cap storyline of the mad bomb to make way for the inclusion Robert Downey Jr appearing as Iron Man. We were getting Civil War. More rumors surfaced and Marvel revealed that Chadwick Boseman had been cast to play Black Panther on the same day that Marvel announced an unprecedented nine MCU films would be released in theaters over the next four years.
We all thought that the Marvel Cinematic Universe was at maximum hype, but looking back we now know that Marvel was working on it’s biggest acquisition yet. Two months before principal photography on Captain America: Civil War began, the heavens opened and the stars aligned. Marvel Studios and Sony had mended fences and made a deal allowing Spider-Man himself to join the MCU. Those nine films over four years became eleven.
Okay, maybe now we were at peak MCU? With all of these franchises and properties coming together, the question then became how it would affect the film. Most importantly, what effect would it have on the story of Steve Rogers? Once again, it would give Steve Rogers a choice to make.
After a brief intro involving the Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War brings us back to a Steve Rogers who has found something he hasn’t truly had since he came out of the ice: a home. Even without a war, Captain America and the current roster of Avengers (minus Vision) are a high-functioning tactical team with Steve at the head. Even though just two members of the team have inherent superpowers, the opening mission shows us that they work well together to easily take out threats across the globe.
That is until things go wrong.
The Lagos, Nigeria mission is world-saving as usual until Crossbones, a kamikaze psychopath with an axe to grind against Captain America gets Steve to drop his shield long enough to detonate an explosive vest at close range. That would have been the end of Steve Rogers if Scarlet Witch hadn’t redirected the blast elsewhere.
Captain America, who has been trying to get himself killed to save others since 1942 is saved at the cost of a dozen innocent lives he wanted to protect.
Elsewhere, we see Tony Stark. He’s still licking the wound to his pride from Age of Ultron and he’s not doing so hot. Tony and Pepper are split up and he’s off on his own reminiscing on past sins, and not just the obvious one where he helped awaken an artificial intelligence that dropped a city out of the sky. When we see him, he’s reliving the last moments he spent with his parents through holographic imaging.
In a continuity callback, we see that Tony was true to his word when he told us in Iron Man that he never got to say goodbye to his father Howard before Tony’s parents died. “You know, they say sarcasm is a metric for potential. If that’s true, you’ll be a great man some day” Howard tells Tony, showing pride in his son the only way a father of Howard’s era knows how.
When Tony’s wishful false memory fades, we see that Tony is actually speaking to an auditorium full of students at MIT. As Tony looks out on the audience, he sees that same potential his father saw in him. In the kind of gesture that only Tony Stark is capable of, Tony leverages his fulfilled potential to ignite theirs as he funds every research project this room of geniuses has submitted. Tony Stark is being very generous and it’s only once we’re taken backstage that we get another perspective on what’s going on.
“They say there’s a correlation between generosity and guilt” Miriam Spencer says, catching Tony in the hall, echoing the thoughts of his father still ringing in Tony’s head. Miriam’s son Charlie Spencer was full of potential too. Charlie Spencer was in many ways the same as the students of MIT that Tony just funded. Charlie Spencer had landed a job at Intel but was taking some time helping others in Sokovia before his potential was cut short in the collateral damage of Ultron’s final assault. She stares Tony down as she asks him a question he can’t answer.
“Who’s going to avenge my son?”
So as the introduction to Captain America: Civil War ends, Steve Rogers and Tony Stark are both living with the guilt of innocent lives taken because of their actions.
Self-described as “not a joiner,” Tony is now looking for absolution. While Tony is officially off-duty as and Avenger, he’s still there in a consultant capacity. He’s seen what’s on the other side of space and he knows we’re not ready. He’s done his best to protect the world on his own by creating Ultron, but the results were disastrous. Thor is gone and Hulk has disappeared. All that’s left is the second string team. Tony knows that if the world is going to survive it needs the Avengers, but that guilt keeps gnawing at him, causing him to reach out for a solution that keeps the Avengers intact, but puts the collateral damage in check.
As a testament to the character development of the MCU, Steve Rogers is on the opposite path. While Tony Stark mocked Steve Rogers in The Avengers for his star-spangled outfit and unwavering commitment to following orders, the Steve Rogers of Captain America: Civil War has lived through not only a global war, but also an alien invasion of New York that could have ended very differently if the commands of the World Security Council to detonate a nuclear missile in Manhattan had been successful. Even before you discuss the infiltration of SHIELD by Hydra, the Steve Rogers we see now knows the dangers of just following orders.
“The safest hands are still our own” he tells Tony.
The significance of the Winter Soldier soldier’s presence in Civil War goes beyond Steve’s connection to Bucky. I’ve covered the idea of what Peggy Carter and the Winter Soldier mean to Steve Rogers in the MCU in other articles so I will try my best to be brief here. If you want to know more of my thoughts, I recommend you check those out.
As the Avengers debate the Sokovia Accords internally, Peggy Carter passes away and Steve is reminded of the person he used to be and the hopes he once held for a normal life. In Civil War, Peggy’s death represents the inevitable death of that hope. The Winter Soldier, however, represents a fear that is much more tangible to the the Sokovia Accords.
In the story of Captain America: Winter Soldier, Steve was struggling to find his place in an army that wanted to conform him to the new United States Military Complex. Steve was wrestling with the idea that if he compromises himself, how was he any better than the mindless tool of the state Hydra has turned Bucky into? If he just follows orders, how is he not the Winter Soldier? So, when the Winter Soldier resurfaces in Civil War, it serves only as a reminder to Steve Rogers that he can no longer find comfort in allowing others to choose on his behalf.
The through line of the greater MCU in Civil War is Tony’s struggle to keep the Avengers together. He’s finally seen the light he could not when he helped to create Ultron. The same Tony Stark that convinced Bruce Banner to go behind the team’s back to create artificial life twice is now the one calling for resolution. The same Tony Stark that resisted the idea of joining the Avengers in the first place is now calling its leader back into the fold.
After Steve violates the Accords by interfering with government takedown of the Winter Soldier, Tony is the one who offers Steve the olive branch in the form of an artifact from Steve’s time. Tony presents Steve with two pens that FDR used to sign the Lend-Lease Act of 1941, which allowed the United States to provide food and supplies to its allies during World War II in exchange for the use of land for military bases.
In order to prepare for the coming war, America was offering what its allies needed. In the same way, Tony Stark is preparing for what’s coming by offering Steve aid.
“We need you, Cap.”
Tony starts by praising him and offering him a road to redemption for what he’s done. Because Tony knows that Captain America would never make this decision just to benefit Steve Rogers, Tony goes deeper. “Barnes gets transferred to an American Psych-center instead of a Wakandan prison.” Tony is offering Steve everything he needs to make all his problems go away if he loosens his principles a tiny bit and “just signs.”
Of course, he could never do that. Steve Rogers has never been capable of abdicating his responsibility. From facing down Ultron by himself in Seoul, to refusing to fight back against the Winter Soldier, even to facing down bullies as a sickly kid in Brooklyn, that’s just not something he does.
So even when Tony completely loses it in Siberia, Steve pulls his punches. If it weren’t for Bucky, Steve wouldn’t even fight. So when Steve does enough damage to the Iron Man armor to stop Tony in his tracks, he walks away. He drops his shield, officially ending his claim to the name of “Captain America.”
In the last moments of Captain America: Civil War, half of the team is in prison, a handful are nowhere to be found, and a few are physically broken from the fight. Nick Fury’s dream of a team of extraordinary people is in shambles, but still Steve Rogers doesn’t give up his responsibility as he sends Tony the olive branch.
“No matter what, if you need us, if you need me. I’ll be there.”
Next up: Doctor Strange.