Civil War is a hard movie for me to get my thoughts together on, and I’ve come to the conclusion that a large part of it is that, for me at least, the movie exposes what has come to be either a weakness or (more likely) an inevitability of a comic film franchise becoming as large as the Marvel Cinematic Universe: sooner or later, you will find that you only care about certain aspects of that fictional world. Of course, the trouble with this fissure is unlike comics, where multiple individual and group titles come out on a monthly basis, with movies – even in an oversaturated franchise like this – you do only get a small amount of time with these characters per year. Less, if you’re waiting for solo films. And if you’re a Captain America fan, like I am, there’s a chance you’ve been following the progression of Civil War with some amount of anxiety, watching the cast list fill up and wondering, as I did, what that meant for the characters you cared about. How much of them would you get? How much of Other Nonsense would fill up the screen? What would it all add up to, and how much just wouldn’t fit?
There are a lot of elements of Civil War that feel forced in. I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t the thing that stays with me the most after initial viewing. The cast could have been whittled down to roughly half of what it was without losing anything, really. And some of the more egregious elements – the introduction (again) of Doughy White-boy Spider-man 232245 being the utter worst, bringing the movie to an uncomfortable screaming halt so Tony could comment repeatedly on Aunt May’s awkwardly young casting – felt so tacked in I was left to wonder if they had even been part of the original script, or if they’d been shot and added in re shoots.
But Spider-man wasn’t the only character that felt unneeded. Ant-Man’s presence felt like a sad reminder to the portion of the audience that (inevitably, given Ant-Man’s box office) didn’t see Ant-Man, that Paul Rudd exists and we will never be rid of him.
Poor Hawkeye’s appearance midway through the film was such an afterthought I kept waiting for him to break the fourth wall to comment on it. While the development of Vision and Wanda’s relationship was well-done, and I wouldn’t have removed it from the story, per se, the subplot of locking Wanda in a compound felt forced in to give weight to a “civil war” that had none. And oh, the Carters. The poor, abused Carters. Marvel did them so dirty I’m still angry about it. Not because of the kiss – I’ve never seen a kiss get belly laughs in a theater before, but the one between Sharon and Steve did. But because of the casual dismissal of how upset Steve was at her lies in TWS. At their dismissal of Peggy, fridging her for a romance between Steve and her niece. And at Sharon’s total disappearance from the narrative after she serves her ostensible (fairly failed) purpose of Trying To Make Steve Look Straight In The Face Of His Quest To Run Off With His Boyfriend.
(I’m not going to lie: one imagines Sharon getting a letter similar to the one Tony received at the end of the film, thanking her for her help, offering a burner phone, but explaining he’s gone to be with Bucky while they look for a way to help him. I picture her sitting in her apartment with a beer muttering, “Aunt Peggy told me about this.” It’s a good mental image.)
Overall my biggest plot issue with Civil War as a film is that its fault lines show. it becomes very clear very quickly that there are two separate things going on in this movie: the film that the Russos *wanted* to make — a story about grief, about ghosts, about being haunted by the demons of the past and about choosing love over ideology — and the movie Disney forced on them, a loud, aggressive attempt at selling off all of that failed AoU merchandise in an attempt to recoup the losses they took by putting so much faith in Joss Whedon. The movie the Russos clearly wanted to make had very little to do with Civil War: it was a personal drama, a tragedy that placed Steve and his love for his childhood friend against Tony’s guilt for having, in essence, created a new sort of weapon in the Avengers entity, and against his own unresolved issues with his father & the blood on his hands. For such a massively bloated movie, the emotion of the film is incredibly intimate — it’s between fathers and sons (T’Challa), between mothers and sons and long-term friends (Tony) — and for Steve, it’s between a man who woke up to nothing in this world, and the one person who represents everything to him.
Civil War hits its stride when it has the chance to finally acknowledge this: when the artificial “teams” break down, and the characters are left to follow their own hearts and appropriate characterizations back to the base camps that make most sense to them. There’s a moment on the tarmac, when Steve and Bucky are mere yards from the quinjet only to be blocked in by Natasha standing in front of the plane, and T’Challa, poised to attack on the other end, where the story had so many ways to go wrong — but then Natasha shoots T’Challa instead, and at that moment, everything is as it should be. Because Natasha’s hands might be tied by the accord, but she will always love Steve more than she cares about politics or posing; and even if Steve is making a mistake, trusting the shards of a man who used to be Bucky Barnes…this is Steve’s mistake to make.
And that, of course, leads us to the Final Showdown – so to speak. In all honesty, the ending of Civil War feels anticlimactic in a profound way — like they went back and did some major editing only to realize they had no climax. The fight between Steve, Bucky and Iron Man reminded me of the fight between Thor, Steve and Tony in Avengers in the sense that it’s there simply to be — to humor the eight year olds in the audience; to make sure they have something to sell t-shirts and action figure box sets. At its core, it certainly doesn’t leave much to “debate” when the film’s over, as T’Challa follows Steve and Bucky here largely for the purpose of narrating what is likely the closest thing the film has to a take-away message. Because there is no right and wrong, in situations as painful, torturous and horrific as those the Avengers face. Death will always follow them like a shadow — they’ve chosen this life, or it’s chosen them, and these are the terms of endearment. And yes, it’s unfair: it was unfair that Maria died; it was unfair that T’Chakka died. It was horribly, terribly unfair that Zemo’s family was killed. But it was equally unfair that Bucky Barnes was made to suffer as a prisoner of war for seventy years against his will. It’s unfair that Wanda was given powers that have made the world afraid of her, while she is still, ultimately, just a girl. it’s unfair that the “volunteers” for the sleeper agents were turned into weapons and discarded once inconvenient. Standing in the snow, listening to Zemo speak, T’Challa is the first to understand the truth that renders the Slovakia Accords pointless, that renders the idea of “revenge at all cost” a losing game — revenge never stops. It doesn’t heal; it doesn’t save. It tears, and it destroys, and ultimately, it kills. T’Challa’s refusal to let Zemo die isn’t a mercy; it’s the ultimate punishment. Meanwhile, he’s left staring up at the abandoned plant Tony just flew into, knowing Zemo is relying on the fact he believes Tony to be enough like him that the Avengers will tear each other apart.
Ultimately, I suspect what the fandom will spend its time arguing about is that last fight — the question of whether or not Tony was justified in how long he kept pursuing Bucky, and then Steve, with the intent to kill. Because this is what separates the final battle between Steve/Bucky and Tony from the fights before: as evidenced by the moment Rhodey is shot from the sky, and Sam dives along with Tony without hesitation, up until this point the fights between the Avengers have been the equivalent of cats fighting without claws. This last battle, however, there’s no question that Tony means to kill, sending repeated blasts directly towards Steve’s gut and chest, pursuing Bucky with violent intent long before he starts fighting back, and ultimately, cutting off Bucky’s arm in an effort to unman him before killing him. Even without turning that final scene back into a matter of “teams” or “fissures,” however, the message does seem fairly clear in light of what T’Challa’s discovered about Zemo. Much like the Joker in The Dark Knight, Zemo is an agent of deliberate chaos: his goal is to tear an institution apart from the inside, to show that order, that good, that love, is an illusion, and that at the core of it, everyone can be made to turn on each other — and the final fight proves Zemo’s point. It’s only once Steve picks Bucky off the ground and begins to walk away that Zemo is made into a liar. Indeed, the final moment of this fight may possibly be one of my favorite moments of the MCU to date, as Tony yells at Steve, “that shield belonged to my father” — clearly expecting a response, hesitation, argument, something. This, to me, is the truly tragic moment, far worse than the “so was I” line earlier in the scene. Because if Tony’s comment about Steve not having a dark side suggested a failure to understand Steve, then this confirmed it. To Tony — who himself grew up with the symbol of Captain America as much as anyone if not more — Steve Rogers and Captain America are interchangeable. The icon, the myth and the man are the same, and of course Steve Rogers would value his symbol; of course, Steve Rogers would value that shield.
And then he drops it. Without a second’s hesitation. Because ultimately Tony, like most of the Avengers, doesn’t know him at all. Steve Rogers and Captain America have never been the same person — and Steve Rogers’ shield has been the man lolling against his shoulder for far, far longer than it has that hunk of star-spangled metal.
There’s a theme, now, that ends every Captain America movie to this point: consciously or not, “I’m following him.” The First Avenger ended with Steve putting Schmidt’s plane in the water, inadvertently following Bucky down into the ice, into what Steve thought was death, but what really, meant following him into the 21st century. The Winter Soldier ended with Steve’s promise to track Bucky down somehow, with he and Sam setting out, quite literally, to follow Bucky’s trail. And Civil War is no exception. As we learn when Tony receives what can really only be described as a “Dear John” letter, attached to a burner phone and explaining why Steve had to break his fellow Avengers out of the underwater centrifuge prison of nonsense, Steve himself is nowhere he’ll be found soon — indeed, having presumably been intercepted by T’Challa after dragging Bucky out of Zemo’s base, he and Bucky are in Wakanda, where Bucky has decided to be put back under until Wakandan scientists find a way to deprogram him for good. Admittedly, I’m not sure how I feel about this particular decision. It’s so far beyond what Bucky’s comic equivalent would agree to that I struggle with it in the films, and Wakanda is canonically so far beyond even Stark Industries in technology, that I have trouble believing this isn’t something they can already do. I’ve seen a few readings of this decision that describe it as something like suicidal, or suggest Steve will leave Bucky in Wakanda, now, but honestly, I read it as neither. First, because I can’t see a universe where Steve leaves Bucky in Wakanda. On a practical level, Steve has nowhere to go. Certainly, if hell breaks loose and he’s needed, he’ll go where the fight is. But when the world isn’t falling apart? Steve is a wanted man internationally, at present, as much as Bucky himself. Moreover, on a practical level, Black Panther comes out before Infinity Wars I, a film that IIRC we aren’t positive Cap will be in. I could entirely see a brief cameo from Steve, still in Wakanda. It would also open up the possibility of Steve having another shield built, one that is entirely his own. And Steve’s presence on Wakanda, for me at least, helps to smooth out my issues with Bucky’s decision. Given Bucky’s (understandable) trust issues, and the fact that T’Challa did spend the majority of the film trying to kill Bucky, I can’t see him being comfortable with being left alone in a foreign country, with a king who only recently stopped wanting Bucky dead, unconscious and prone at the mercy of people he doesn’t know. It makes far more sense to me if Steve’s there as well, overseeing attempts to deprogram Bucky’s mind.
So — there we go. I think ultimately, the best thing this movie did for me was offer an acceptable exit from the MCU: as someone who is only now realizing just how small my pile of characters is, a film that ends on the suggestion that Steve and Bucky have quite literally run off together is an absolute gift to me; it puts me in the situation of not having to keep watching in order to imagine my happy ending. And for that, I’m incredibly grateful. So, no: this isn’t a movie on the level of The Winter Soldier; yes, many of the fandom’s fears regarding its bloating and excessive cast list were justified and realized. But there’s a very clear Real Plot, so to speak, in the messy attempt to re-do Avengers 2 in there — and that alone is worth watching once.