One of the biggest events in Marvel Comics in the early part of the millennium was “Civil War,” a storyline that ran through almost all of its superhero comics, as well as the Civil War miniseries by Mark Millar & Steve McNiven. It pitted hero against hero as a battle in Stanford, Connecticut that kills 600—including most of the hero team the New Warriors—turns public opinion against heroes. This led to the passage of the Superhero Registration Act.
Heroes were divided in terms of support of the SHRA, with Captain America against and Iron Man for, and various other heroes taking sides. The Marvel Cinematic Universe followed suit for Captain America’s third film, with Iron Man facing off against Cap in the wake of the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron.
The comic-book story was polarizing, but popular. Personally, I could never get my arms around it, because superheroes were so well established and the friendships that were sundered were so well rooted, that I couldn’t bring myself to entirely buy it. It’s the sort of story that works if superheroes are relatively new, but not when they’ve been around for at least a decade (given the sliding scale of comics time, but we’re still talking about forty-plus years of stories).
However, that makes it a perfect fit for the MCU, especially given the destruction that has been wreaked on New York (in both Incredible Hulk and Avengers), Puente Antiguo, New Mexico (Thor), Los Angeles (Iron Man 3), Washington, D.C. (Captain America: The Winter Soldier), Johannesburg, and Sokovia (both in Age of Ultron). There is no deep abiding friendship between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark that the comics have—hell, the MCU versions can barely stand each other.
And so the same team that wrote the previous two Cap movies, as well as Thor: The Dark World, Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely, tackled the script, working it both as a sequel to The Winter Soldier and to Age of Ultron. The Russo brothers returned to direct.
Three major comics characters make their first MCU appearance in this film.
T’Challa, the Black Panther, was introduced in Fantastic Four #53 by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby in 1966, the first African superhero in mainstream comics. A sometime member of the Avengers, the Panther starred in Jungle Action, with some great stories written by Don McGregor in the early 1970s, then he got his own title in 1977 written and drawn initially by Kirby. Writer Christopher Priest wrote the character in his own title that debuted in 1998, and which leaned into the Panther’s status as a head of state, creating many aspects of the character that have remained central. In the twenty-first century, Reginald Hudlin, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Nnedi Okorafor have been among the Panther’s chroniclers.
Baron Helmut Zemo was introduced as the son of Baron Heinrich Zemo, a Nazi operative established in Avengers #6 by Lee & Kirby as the one responsible for sending Captain America into suspended animation and seemingly killing his sidekick Bucky (later revealed as surviving and being brainwashed into the Winter Soldier). Zemo survived to the post-war period and formed the Masters of Evil that harassed the Avengers on many occasions, before dying in Avengers #15. Helmut, his son, showed up initially as the Phoenix, fighting Cap and the Falcon, in Captain America #168 by Roy Thomas, Tony Isabella, & Sal Buscema. He seemed to die in a vat of super-adhesive, but was instead merely disfigured, his insulated uniform protecting him. He returned in Captain America #275 by J.M. DeMatteis & Mike Zeck, interested initially not in ruling the world, but revenge on Cap. Later he would form a new Masters of Evil, and still later form the super-team the Thunderbolts, a long con designed to win the world’s trust before taking it over, as the team was made up entirely of villains posing as “new” heroes (Zemo was Citizen V).
Finally, the abject failure of Amazing Spider-Man 2, the Sony hack of 2014, and a growing desire among fans for Spider-Man to be part of the greater tapestry of the MCU led to Sony and Disney agreeing to have the web-swinger appear in the MCU continuity, starting in this film. The character would also be in the next two Avengers movies. Any solo movies must also feature at least one major MCU character—it’ll be Iron Man in Spider-Man: Homecoming (which we’ll cover next week) and Nick Fury in Spider-Man: Far from Home (which we’ll get to down the line).
Back from Ant-Man are Chris Evans as Steve Rogers, Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes, Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson, Paul Rudd as Scott Lang, and John Slattery as Howard Stark. Back from Age of Ultron are Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff, Don Cheadle as James Rhodes, Jeremy Renner as Clint Barton, Paul Bettany as the Vision, Elizabeth Olson as Wanda Maximoff, and Kerry Condon as the voice of F.R.I.D.A.Y. Back from The Winter Soldier are Emily VanCamp as Sharon Carter and Frank Grillo as Brock Rumlow. Back from The Incredible Hulk is William Hurt as Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (now Secretary of State). Introduced in this film are Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa, Tom Holland as Peter Parker, Marisa Tomei as May Parker, Daniel Brühl as Helmut Zemo, Martin Freeman as Everett K. Ross, John Kani as T’Chaka, Hope Davis as Maria Stark, and Alfre Woodard as Miriam Sharpe, the mother of a person who died in Sokovia.
Holland, Downey Jr., Tomei, Evans, and Condon will next appear in Homecoming. Boseman, Freeman, Kani, and Stan will next appear in Black Panther. Johansson, Mackie, Cheadle, Bettany, Olson, and Hurt will next appear in Avengers: Infinity War. Rudd will next appear in Ant Man & the Wasp. Renner and Slattery will next appear in Avengers: Endgame. Brühl is said to be appearing in the forthcoming Falcon & the Winter Soldier TV show on Disney+.
The holographic technology used by Stark early on will return in Far from Home. The reverberations of the Sokovia Accords will primarily be seen on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
“For the record, this is what making it worse looks like”
Captain America: Civil War
Written by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely
Directed by Anthony & Joe Russo
Produced by Kevin Feige
Original release date: May 6, 2016
In 1991, we see the process by which the Winter Soldier was activated: he was taken out of suspended animation, and his current Hydra handler—Vasily Karpov—activates him with a series of key words, then sends him on a mission to retrieve an item. He crashes a car and takes the item from the trunk.
Present day, Lagos: the Avengers are going after Brock Rumlow, who has become a mercenary since Hydra’s fall. He and his team put up a good fight, and almost get away with a biological weapon, but the Avengers do finally stop him. However, Rumlow gets under Steve Rogers’s skin by mentioning Bucky Barnes, and then tries to take him out with a grenade that will kill them both. Wanda Maximoff manages to levitate Rumlow off the ground so the explosion doesn’t kill everyone on the street, but it goes off before it can get above the buildings, and there are still casualties.
The backlash is considerable. Public opinion turns against the Avengers, and it was already shaky after Sokovia.
At MIT, Tony Stark is giving a speech and announcing a scholarship initiative, and also demonstrating holographic technology that is based on thoughts and emotions and memories. He shows an entire auditorium full of people his last night with his parents before they went on a trip, during which they were killed in a car crash. After the speech, he’s confronted by a woman whose son died in Sokovia.
Stark then brings Secretary of State Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross to the Avengers Compound. The United Nations feels there needs to be a control on the Avengers, and 117 nations have signed the Sokovia Accords. Secretary Ross wants the Avengers to sign it, and be beholden to a UN council that will dictate what missions they can go on. (One of the arguments the secretary makes is to rhetorically ask where Thor and Banner are, and then to remind them that if he lost two thirty-megaton nukes, there’d be hell to pay.)
Rogers and Sam Wilson are completely against it. Rogers doesn’t want to be subject to political whims. When Stark says that he stopped making weapons when he saw what they were being used for, Rogers reminds him that that was a choice. If they sign the Accords, they lose that choice.
The argument goes on for some time, with Rogers, Wilson, and Maximoff—who feels guilty for what happened in Lagos—against signing, Stark, James Rhodes, and Vision for. Natasha Romanoff argues that they should sign because having one hand on the wheel is better than nothing, while Stark points out that if they don’t do this willingly, it’ll be forced upon them before long.
Rogers gets a text that Peggy Carter has died, and he ends the argument and flies to London for the funeral, where the eulogy is delivered by Sharon Carter (a.k.a. Agent 13, Peggy’s niece). Afterward, Romanoff shows up offering friendship and support—and also urges him to come to Vienna, where the UN is meeting to ratify the Accords.
One of the speakers is King T’Chaka of Wakanda. Several Wakandan citizens were killed in Lagos when Rumlow went boom. Romanoff has a pleasant conversation with T’Chaka’s son T’Challa. During T’Chaka’s speech, T’Challa notices something and tells everyone to get down.
But it’s too late—a bomb goes off, killing several, including T’Chaka. T’Challa is devastated—and so is Rogers, when he finds out. Carter is part of an anti-terrorist unit of the CIA and flies to Vienna immediately, with Rogers and Wilson joining her secretly.
In Cleveland, a man named Helmut Zemo captures, interrogates, and eventually kills Karpov, who has been in hiding. Zemo retrieves the Winter Soldier codebook, having learned of it from the Hydra files Romanoff released on the Internet in The Winter Soldier.
The prime suspect in the bombing is the Winter Soldier, as Barnes has been captured on surveillance as being in the area. Rogers and Wilson realize they need to find him first, as the various international forces all have orders to shoot on sight. And T’Challa wants very much to kill the perpetrator as well.
Barnes is in Bucharest, knowing nothing of any of this. Rogers and Wilson show up just ahead of the Bucharest police—and T’Challa, who is wearing the suit of the Black Panther. A merry chase through Bucharest ensues, with Rhodes arriving to punctuate the point that they’re all under arrest.
All four are taken into custody by the CIA, in the person of Everett K. Ross. He sends for a psychiatrist, who arrives and starts asking Barnes questions.
Meanwhile, Rogers and Wilson are brought to Stark and Romanoff, who have managed to convince Secretary Ross to not put them in a cell. (T’Challa isn’t either, but he has diplomatic immunity.) Stark almost convinces Rogers to sign the Accords—and then discovers that Maximoff is being kept in protective custody in the Avengers Compound by Vision. Rogers is livid; Stark points out that she isn’t even an American citizen, and they have to play ball. Rogers refuses.
An employee of Zemo’s delivers an EMP device to the power station in Bucharest, which takes out all the power in the city—including the facility where Barnes is being held. With the power out, we see that the psychiatrist questioning Barnes is actually Zemo, who starts to read the key words that will activate the Winter Soldier.
A brutal battle follows, as Wilson, Rogers, Romanoff, and Stark (who doesn’t have his full Iron Man armor) get their asses kicked by Barnes, but Rogers and Wilson manage to escape with an unconscious Barnes after Rogers finally takes him out.
When Barnes wakes up, he tells Rogers and Wilson what Zemo asked him: the location of the Hydra base in Siberia, where there are five more Winter Soldiers in stasis. They need to get to Siberia, and they’ll need help. Rogers calls upon Clint Barton, and Wilson suggests recruiting Scott Lang. Barton picks up Maximoff after the pair of them take out Vision, and then they and Lang meet up with Rogers, Wilson, and Barnes in Leipzig/Halle Airport. From there, Barton has arranged for a plane to get them to Siberia.
However, Stark and Romanoff have some recruits of their own. T’Challa has joined them, at Romanoff’s suggestion, as has Rhodes, obviously, and Stark also conscripts a young man from Queens he has seen YouTube videos of: Spider-Man, a powerful, athletic young man who is really Peter Parker, a high school student who lives with his aunt. Stark brings him to Berlin, giving him a fancy new costume.
The heroes confront each other. Stark says he has to bring Barnes and the rest of them in. Rogers won’t let him. The fight goes on for some time, with several of the heroes getting hurt. Barton and Wilson declare that they are willing to let themselves get captured so Barnes and Rogers can get to Siberia. Lang grows to giant size to distract everyone, though Spider-Man comes up with the idea of taking him down the same way the AT-ATs were taken out in that “really old” movie The Empire Strikes Back.
Even with Lang’s distraction, Rogers and Barnes only get away because Romanoff lets them, holding off T’Challa, because she knows that Rogers will never stop.
Stark and Rhodes fly after the quinjet that Rogers and Barnes have taken, but so does Wilson. Stark orders Vision to take Wilson out, but he misses and hits Rhodes, whose armor is trashed. Both Stark and Wilson try to catch him, but fail.
Wilson, Barton, Maximoff, and Lang are taken to the Raft, a supermax for super-criminals. Meanwhile, F.R.I.D.A.Y. has found evidence that the psychiatrist who questioned Barnes was not who it was supposed to be, that the real psychiatrist was found dead in a hotel room, where they also found a kit that would disguise someone to look like Bucky Barnes. Secretary Ross isn’t interested in hearing anything Stark has to say, so he goes to the Raft and wipes out the security feed long enough to ask Wilson where Barnes and Rogers went, as he now belatedly believes Rogers. Wilson isn’t thrilled, but tells him as long as he’ll go alone and as a friend.
Rogers and Barnes arrive in Siberia, as does Stark—and, unbeknownst to all of them, T’Challa, who followed Stark. Everyone thinks that Zemo’s going to activate the other five Winter Soldiers, but instead he’s killed them. He’s not interested in conquest, he just wants revenge on the Avengers. Turns out Zemo is a Sokovian, and his entire family died during the battle against Ultron.
He also finds video footage (on VHS!) of the Winter Soldier’s mission from 1991 that opened the movie. Turns out that Howard and Maria Stark were in that car, and the items he was retrieving were the serums used for the five other Winter Soldiers. Barnes killed Stark’s parents with his bare hands.
Stark is devastated, especially when it turns out that Rogers knew (from his time in S.H.I.E.L.D.) that his parents were assassinated. Until that moment, Rogers didn’t know that Barnes was the assassin, but Stark doesn’t care about that, or that Barnes was brainwashed. A brutal fight ensues among the three of them, and in the end, Barnes’s artificial left arm is ripped off and Stark’s armor is trashed. As Rogers and Barnes walk away, Stark says that his father made the shield and Rogers doesn’t deserve it.
So he leaves it behind.
Meanwhile, T’Challa finds Zemo, lamenting that he killed the wrong man. T’Challa originally intended to kill the person responsible for the death of his father, but he sees in Zemo—and in Stark—what the cycle of vengeance does to someone. He won’t succumb to that. He also doesn’t let Zemo kill himself—he doesn’t get off that easy.
Zemo is put in the same type of tiny cell that Barnes was put in. Rogers breaks into the Raft to free the prisoners. At Avengers Compound, Rhodes is rehabbing his shattered legs, and then Stark gets a package delivered by a FedEx guy who looks just like Stan Lee.
In it is a letter from Rogers, saying that the Avengers are Stark’s, as he prefers to trust people over institutions. He also includes a cell phone, and says to call if he’s ever needed.
Rogers takes Barnes to Wakanda, where they put Barnes back into stasis, as it’s safer for everyone as long as the key words still work.
In Queens, May Parker gives Peter ice for the black eye he received, which he says he got in a fight with a guy named Steve from Brooklyn. He’s also enjoying the new toys Stark gave him, including a spider-signal…
“I don’t know if you’ve been in a fight before, but there’s usually not this much talking”
Certain movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe are focal points, major events that are either led up to by previous movies or have major consequences after the movie, or both. Avengers was one such, as were the Infinity War/Endgame two-parter, but Civil War is one as well.
I despised the comic book “Civil War” storyline for reasons I outlined in the intro above, but it’s really perfect for the MCU because superheroes have only been in the public eye since 2008, so it makes sense that the governments of the world would be twitchy and want to exert some form of control.
And unlike the deep friendship in the comics, the movie versions of Rogers and Stark don’t entirely like each other. They butted heads in each of the two Avengers movies prior to this, and as Stark points out in this very movie, he had to grow up listening to his Dad go on about the great Captain America, so Stark was predisposed to be annoyed by him. The conflict between the two of them is completely believable.
This is totally a Captain America movie, as Rogers is the center of the story, and it picks up on a great many themes from Cap’s previous two films (Barnes, the Carter family, Romanoff’s making Hydra’s information public, etc.). But it’s also very much the next Avengers movie and the next Iron Man movie, as well as doing superb work setting up the forthcoming Black Panther and Spider-Man: Homecoming.
Like Avengers, which similarly served several storytelling needs, Civil War balances all its various story and thematic bits very nicely, and unlike Age of Ultron, it doesn’t feel overstuffed. We never get away from anything long enough to forget it, and the diversions are all brief and impressive enough to work. (Tom Holland does more to sell the notion of “with great power comes great responsibility” just from his facial expressions talking to Stark than either Tobey Maguire or Andrew Garfield were able to do in entire movies.)
As an Iron Man movie we continue the theme of Stark’s attempts at heroism swimming upstream against his narcissism. He knows he can’t control himself—it’s why he and Pepper Potts are taking a break from each other (which also nicely explains the disconnect between him destroying the armors at the end of Iron Man 3 and being Iron Man again with no explanation in Age of Ultron)—and so he is willing to cede that control to someone else.
But Rogers has always been on his own, and he can’t trust institutions. The institution of the U.S. Army wouldn’t let him enlist. The institution of Hydra tried to take over the world, twice. S.H.I.E.L.D. was compromised by Hydra, and the Avengers could easily be compromised as well. And he has always been guided by what he thinks is right.
Just last week, I dinged Thor: Ragnarok for trying to re-create a sequence from the comics and not doing it justice. This time around, Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, and the Russo brothers do likewise, but they absolutely nail it, taking one of Captain America’s best speeches (given to Spider-Man in Amazing Spider-Man #537 written by J. Michael Straczynski) and giving it instead to Peggy Carter, as told by her niece at her funeral: when everyone is telling you to move, you should plant yourself like a tree on the river of truth and say, “No, you move.”
And everyone has their own truth. Stark knows he’s a screwup and needs oversight. Vision agrees, citing logic and mathematics to make his point. What’s especially interesting is the disagreement between Rhodes—a colonel in the Air Force, career military—and Wilson—a sergeant who did his bit and is now a civilian again. Rhodes is much more amenable to a chain of command (which he’s currently at the top of), while Wilson, a grunt, is less sanguine.
Then there’s Romanoff. As usual, she’s the only grownup in the room, as she is a realist. She knows that this needs to happen in order for the Avengers to do their job—but when the chips are down, she’s not going to hurt her friends. She signs without hesitating, but she also knows that Rogers won’t stop, so she lets him go. (I also love that she and Barton are on opposite sides but don’t actually hurt each other.) And in the end, she winds up on the outs with the government, because the path of least resistance hasn’t worked. Romanoff embodies part of what Carter said at the funeral: “Compromise when you can.” She’s the only one who isn’t rigid, who is trying to make the best of a crappy situation.
What I love about the script is that both sides get a good hearing, and both sides have value and merit. I honestly think that both Stark (for reasons mostly articulated by Rhodes and Vision) and Rogers (for reasons Rogers himself gives quite eloquently) have good points.
But the best argument for Rogers’s side comes from the plot of the movie itself, when—solely on the basis of one shitty surveillance photograph—Rogers’s childhood friend has a kill order placed on him. And when he’s taken into custody, Rogers’s query as to whether or not Barnes will get a lawyer is met with laughter by Everett Ross. This is the authority that wants to control the Avengers, and Rogers can’t abide by that—and, honestly, neither can I. It’s a completely realistic set of circumstances in a world that postdates both 9/11 and the Chitauri invasion, but still. The evidence against Barnes is incredibly flimsy, and the leap from “we think this guy did it” to “shoot on sight” is too far and too fast, and is exactly the kind of abuse of power that Rogers fights against.
With all that, however, the heart and soul of this movie isn’t the guy whose movie it is, nor is it the “special guest star” who gets second billing. Yes, the Iron Man-Captain America fight is the spine of the film, but the theme is truly seen, not in Rogers or Stark, but in Prince T’Challa. Because in the end he sees that the endless cycle of vengeance accomplishes nothing except adding to the body count. It’s destroyed Zemo, it’s destroyed the Avengers, and he won’t let it destroy him. When it matters, T’Challa is a hero.
Best of all, though, is that this is an Avengers movie that includes some excellent stuff with the Avengers just being the Avengers. The opening with Rumlow is the kind of superhero battle that’s part of the everyday life of being Avengers, much like the takedown of Hydra at the top of Age of Ultron, and I honestly wish we had more of that before the status quo got blown up here. I really hope the next Avengers movie after the Infinity two-parter just focuses on actual superheroing, as the needs of big-ass blockbuster movies keep necessitating big-ass stories that lose sight of what they’re actually doing. (Just as an example, the Avengers were likely the ones to deal with the mess made by Ego on Earth during Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Would’ve liked to have seen that.)
The movie is not perfect. Two rather important facts are never mentioned and should have been. For starters, while the public perception that Maximoff caused tremendous damage when she lifted Rumlow into the air is understandable, the reality is that her doing so saved lives, too. A lot more people would’ve died if Rumlow hadn’t been airborne, and at the very least Rogers should have mentioned that to her during his pep talk early on. And also, Sokovia was entirely Stark’s fault. He created Ultron, and everything that happened in Sokovia was a direct result of his hubris. The undercurrent of guilt is there in Robert Downey Jr.’s performance, but it should have been more overt. Sokovia happened because of Stark, not because of the Avengers. Plus, of course, in the end it all goes to shit not because of the Accords or because of Sokovia or because of the need for oversight, but because Stark can’t get past the fact that Barnes killed his Mommy, and he refuses to even listen to reason. A hero understands extenuating circumstances, and once again Tony Stark has failed his saving roll versus heroism. As with the previous Avengers movie, one of the villains here is Stark’s ego.
This movie is brilliantly acted—everyone brings their A game. I’ll talk more about Tom Holland and Chadwick Boseman when we get to their solo movies over the next two weeks, but they are magnificently introduced, and it’s especially fun to finally get a live-action Spidey who banters! The quips and commentary are part of what makes Spider-Man such a great character, and it was so very much missing from prior versions.
The returning folks are all equally brilliant. It’s fun to see Paul Rudd’s earnest Lang, Scarlett Johansson’s rock-solid performance as Romanoff, Anthony Mackie’s casual excellence as Wilson, Sebastian Stan’s anguished turn as Barnes (and the Wilson-Barnes dislike and banter speaks well of the upcoming Falcon & the Winter Soldier series with Mackie and Stan), and especially Evans and Downey Jr., who perfectly embody the irresistible force and the immovable object.
I also love Daniel Brühl’s understated performance, and I especially like that Markus & McFeely went back to Zemo’s return to Cap comics in 1982, where he was focused entirely on revenge rather than the usual world-domination that we’ve come to expect from our super-villains.
Finally, this movie gives us some of the best superhero action ever committed to film, from the opening against Rumlow to the hero-on-hero fight in the airport to the brutal confrontation among Stark, Rogers, and Barnes at the end.
Over the next three weeks, we’ll be looking at movies whose events are a direct result of what happened in Civil War, starting next week with Spider-Man: Homecoming.