Let’s take a look through the Marvel Cinematic Universe, shall we? With so many films, there’s a lot to cover, and the most recent slate of movies introduced some interesting, cosmic problems for our heroes to contend with. I’ll go back and cover Phase One and Two, but let’s see what we have with Phase Three right now.
By the time the Marvel Cinematic Universe had truly hit its stride, it was when they started to push out Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man, and Doctor Strange, all of which were foretold to be films that featured content that wouldn’t “mesh” with the MCU as it stood. At that point, I was already slapping down those comments and anticipating each new release (often with a critical eye that has reexamined them all over time). So, by the summer of 2016 (mid-spring, really), I was prepared to see Captain America Civil War with my friends, eager to see how they adapted one of the more controversial storylines to have ever been produced in comic book history. Civil War met those expectations because I wasn’t outlandish in my hopes (Phase 4 has pushed those expectations even higher). I didn’t expect dozens upon dozens of characters to participate in the title event, so I was ecstatic with the teams we got. I still feel that Emily VanCamp deserved more, but that would come years later.
As the first post-Age of Ultron film, and the start of Phase 3, this movie had a lot riding on it to catapult the franchise built on “big is good, bigger is better” to new heights. Let me just tell you that it delivered on that promise and then some. Led by Chris Evans as Captain America, his films after The First Avenger tend to feel like “mini-Avengers” films, but never at the expense of its title character. With Robert Downey Jr. returning as Iron Man/Tony Stark, his emotional reaction to a mother’s comments about the fallout in Sokovia strike a narrative beat that will determine his side in the titular fight. The Sokovia Accords is the Super-Hero Registration Act in all but name, a politically based list of rules, regulations, and restrictions that are supposed to prevent collateral damage and, in practice, are used to control those who cannot be controlled to do the whims of governments.
The crux of the plotline is the (now) more important role of Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and how she connects to the greater themes of the MCU, accidentally causes the deaths of several Wakandan delegates in Lagos when she moves to save Captain America’s life from a suicide bomb set off by Brock Rumlow (Frank Grillo). Obviously devastated, Wanda spends most of the film on the sidelines, knowing that she is the cause of the schism (see what I did there) between the two leaders of the Avengers. Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Vision (Paul Bettany), and Falcon (Anthony Mackie) are the current lineup of Avengers alongside the aforementioned Captain America and Wanda Maximoff, tying into my major complaint for the film that until recently could never be properly addressed.
This new team of Avengers had almost no time to shine. In Age of Ultron, the team is assembled at the very end. In Ant-Man, we see Anthony Mackie and the compound. Then, by the beginning of Captain America Civil War, the team is fractured and promptly disbanded by the time the credits roll. That would throw us into the Secret Avengers lineup, which gave no true time to breathe in any currently released property outside of Infinity War. Despite having 28 films and counting, the MCU took until after the release of Endgame and Spider-Man Far From Home to further expand the world with Disney+. That means that by the time of the 22nd and 23rd films, they began to explore the greater world with more time to let its storylines breathe and unfold. Obviously, the films strike the beat of “big events,” and with around one hour and forty-odd minutes to two hours and forty-odd minutes, they have only so much time in which to introduce us to the core characters, concepts, and themes before it’s thrown into the plot.
This is a film that, had it been released in the 2020s, would have had a television show set before it (hopefully) to show us some of the adventures that the New Avengers went on before unceremoniously falling apart. Sure, we can fill in the blanks here and there, but in the era of “show, don’t tell,” films that come out that cover a handful of days in the life of the characters and then go unseen for months, or even years at a time, we miss out on a lot of important details.
With the material it was given, Civil War had the monumental task of concluding Chris Evans’ Captain America trilogy, starting off another slate of films that thematically linked together with the fracturing of the Avengers at the absolute worst time in its universe’s history, introducing several brand new characters (Black Panther – may he be forever remembered – and Spider-Man – thanks, Sony, for handing him over), and telling a powerful story in and of itself. Despite not having a Disney+ show to bolster it up, Civil War succeeds in almost every regard. The relationship between Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes is front and center, as their camaraderie is integral to this trilogy. The Winter Soldier’s “birth, death, and rebirth” is intimately tied into almost every character’s major subplot.
From the moment Wanda accidentally sets off the plot by deflecting the bomb into the Wakandan delegation, to the intentional framing of Bucky Barnes for the bombing of the U.N summit wherein the King of Wakanda is assassinated, to the explosive revelation that there were other Winter Soldiers created to fill the void left in Bucky’s wake, it is nonstop action. One set piece leads to the next in a stunning tale built entirely on ideological differences centered on one question – Who can hold superheroes accountable when they are essentially walking superweapons.
Black Panther and Spider-Man both play important roles in Civil War, though the former has a larger, more pressing storyline compared to Spider-Man (whose late inclusion doesn’t so much show as it grants the audience an extended introduction to a soon-to-be-important character).
But the real MVP, albeit in the background as they were in Age of Ultron, are Wanda Maximoff and Vision, whose relationship (based on the comic books and thus built up off-screen, like the team they serve on, though Wandavision would later provide more clarity and screen time to give gravity to their love story) form a more emotional tie between the opposing teams despite not having as much longevity as Iron Man and Captain America.
Do not misunderstand; Tony Stark and Steve Rogers’ fraught relationship has been a cornerstone of the franchise since they first crossed paths in the first Avengers film. The shocking revelation (already revealed some films back, mind you) that Bucky assassinated Tony’s parents carries narrative weight but is little more than a plot device to blind Tony to the greater threat in the film. How can we blame somebody for actions they committed when they had literally no control over their own free will? This question has been greatly mishandled throughout the franchise again and again. Bucky Barnes, as a person, was under the coercion of others (literal mind control), and while his body pulled the trigger, it was not him. This detail is noted by Steve and instantly dismissed by Tony to create the kind of fight that the Sokovia Accords never could.
While some relationships developed off-screen and were given time to shine here and later on, that is not a bad thing in and of itself. Wanda’s relationship with Captain America plays like a “big brother little sister” dynamic, giving her the kind of connection that she drew from Pietro. And while the pain from his death is downplayed, it is still evident, such that an entirely new scene in the later-released Wandavision could show some of this time again and highlight that grief, that pain. Where this development between Steve and Wanda occurred over the two-year period between Age of Ultron and Civil War, we were blessed with the foundation of the frenemy relationship between Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) and Sam Wilson, who would go on to co-star in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier because of their playful/bitter, back and forth banter. Every time they shared a scene, you could feel the tension as they all but fought over Steve. How this should be taken completely depends on how you view their relationship with Steve – as Captain America or as a friend.
How these relationships play off of one another, makes the ultimate showdown between certain characters all the more powerful. Like Wanda, you can tell that Hawkeye was pulling his punches while he fights Black Widow. You can see the pain, the betrayal in Vision’s eyes when Wanda fights him to leave with Hawkeye and join Steve, and the fallout when they are reunited after the titular battle. You can see how each side stands out for their respective stance, regardless of the greater implications or even the real reasons they are fighting. They are heroes, after all. At the end of the day, they are all only doing what they think is right.
Throughout the MCU, it has rarely been mentioned about the destruction left in the wake of the heroics by the Avengers – and yet now, it is time for the film and the franchise to acknowledge that this does exist and is a problem. The problem with that, something the film dances around but is forced to contend with in the end in order to get to that all-important battle, is that no project before and few projects since have focused on this point. Even in the film itself, when the Accords are first presented, only the Lagos incident can be readily laid at their feet, and even then, it was a split-second decision that had drastic, unknowable consequences (Wanda stopped the bombing of a crowded street market and flung it up, accidentally hitting the upper floors of a hotel). The other instances named were caused by figures outside of the Avengers’ control (New York was the handiwork of the World Security Council, after all), the Washington D.C. incident (wherein Hydra had infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. due to the U.S. government’s incompetence – hey there, Dr. Zola, glad you got the invite!), to Sokovia (admittedly Dr. Banner and Tony’s screw up – you got one), but the Secretary of State notably left out the time he set Abomination loose.
A point that is made, and remade, is where would the world be without the Avengers. Each incident was solved by them, sometimes at great personal cost. This is why, when push came to shove, it had to use the murder of the Starks to cause the real fracture between the Avengers.
By that point, enough damage had been done to both sides that the enmity was more real than it ever would have been had the Accords not been foisted on them, had they stopped and listened to reason about Bucky Barnes, and, perhaps most importantly, if they had asked themselves what they would do if the Avengers had to wait for a government sign off.
Thanos will see you now.