MCU Retrospective: Captain America: Civil War

Written by Anna Harrison

In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. Hey, who took the last donut?

85/100

Thus far, the MCU has done precious little introspection. The arrival of aliens on Earth, the collateral damage our heroes cause, international laws and politics, all of that has been either swept under the rug or acknowledged only with the wave of a hand, but Captain America: Civil War is here to rectify this. Like Captain America: The Winter Soldier before it, Civil War attempts to be a different breed of Marvel film; while the MCU would crumble if it spent too long looking inward and figuring out the mechanics of its world, it can certainly pretend to do so, and pretend well. If you are looking for an erudite, soul-searching movie about the costs of combat, look elsewhere, but for a theme park ride superhero movie, Civil War does a bang-up job of positing some serious problems, even if its answers don’t quite live up to the questions. 

Its title is a bit of a misnomer. Really, it should be Avengers: Civil War, or at the very least Captain America and Iron Man: Civil War, because it’s really a twofer between Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers and Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark. Marketing revolved around “Team Cap” or “Team Iron Man,” and the hype around this movie was perhaps even stronger than for Avengers: Age of Ultron. It was more than just a Captain America movie, it was an event that wouldn’t change just one character, as was the case with most other non-Avengers Marvel efforts, but whose effects would reverberate through the MCU at large.

The Civil War comic only features the barest similarities with its movie counterpart (it relies heavily on the existence of secret identities, which have very little presence in the MCU, and in the aftermath, a brainwashed Sharon Carter kills Captain America and then stabs her own womb to get rid of her unborn child, so there is quite a lot more going on here), but the showdown between Captain America and Iron Man is integral to the plot (this shot from the film is based off this comic cover), and to attempt an adaptation without Iron Man, or to have Iron Man’s presence lessened, would be nigh impossible, yet that was what our favorite interfering overlord Ike Perlmutter sought to do. 

Initially, Tony was going to have a smaller role, but Downey and his team lobbied for a bigger one; this apparently angered the famously frugal Perlmutter so much that he ordered Iron Man to be written out of the script entirely over fears of a ballooning budget. Kevin Feige, hell-bent on making Civil War the spectacle it should be, became so upset that he apparently toyed with quitting, and it was this kerfuffle between Perlmutter and Feige that finally caused Disney CEO Bob Iger to restructure Marvel, shunting Perlmutter to the side and centralizing Feige’s power. This move would ease restrictions on cast and crew, opening the doors for films such as the female-led Captain Marvel and the zany Thor: Ragnarok; since Perlmutter moved and his Creative Committee was disbanded, Marvel has allowed much more creative freedom or has gotten much better at making its talent keep their mouths shut. Either way, it’s hard to view Perlmutter’s departure as anything other than a success—as I have discussed, his outdated and offensive views on gender and race hampered Marvel, and it’s easy to see how (by and large) the MCU has only gotten better since it escaped Perlmutter’s clutches.

Once the dust settled, Robert Downey Jr. emerged with screen time nearly equal to that of Civil War’s titular Captain America, and while this may seem incongruous with the fact that this is supposed to be a Captain America movie, Downey does such tremendous work here, and Tony has such an interesting arc, that it’s hard to be that mad at returning directors Joe and Anthony Russo or Marvel veteran screenwriters Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus. 

After the catastrophic events of Avengers: Age of Ultron (flying city, hordes of murderbots, etc.), public scrutiny has been turned on the Avengers. It becomes especially critical when what should have been a routine mission in Lagos—aka downtown Atlanta with a yellowish filter slapped over it—goes horribly wrong and winds up killing 23 civilians. This, coupled with a confrontation with a grieving mother (the immensely talented Alfre Woodard, who would go on to play Mariah Dillard in Netflix’s Marvel offering Luke Cage) whose son was killed during the events of Age of Ultron, sends Tony Stark spiraling as his ever-present guilt and self-loathing rear their heads again, and so when Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt, who is the first actor from The Incredible Hulk to reprise his role and prove that Marvel doesn’t want to sweep it entirely under the rug) approaches with the UN-sanctioned Sokovia Accords, which would put the Avengers under the oversight of a UN panel, Tony is the first to sign.

It’s quite a remarkable turnaround from the man in Iron Man 2 who said such things as, “You want my property? You can’t have it!” and “I’ve successfully privatized world peace” at a Senate hearing, yet it fits seamlessly into his arc. The arrival of aliens and the existence of threats such as the Chitauri completely altered Tony’s worldview, saddling him with PTSD and resulting in the creation of Ultron, because Tony believed that no one else would be better equipped to protect the world than himself. When that backfired spectacularly, giving Tony proof that, contrary to what Steve Rogers may believe, the safest hands are not his own, and that he can’t be trusted on his own because everything he touches turns rotten. And, as always with Tony, there’s an intensely personal element to this as well now that Tony has pushed Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) away again: “A few years ago I almost lost her so I trashed all my suits. Then we had to mop up Hydra. Then Ultron, my fault. And then, and then, and then. I never stopped. ’Cause the truth is I don’t wanna stop. I don’t wanna lose her. I thought maybe the Accords can split the difference.”

Steve’s ideology, on the other hand, has always been consistent. He is an embodiment of our anxiety over the post-9/11 surveillance state (where Iron Man represents a very different post-9/11 American chutzpah and desire for a swift end for terrorism and safety), and his faith in institutions has understandably grown thin: first he’s a dancing monkey for the United States government, then a pawn for S.H.I.E.L.D., then learns that S.H.I.E.L.D. has secretly been his old enemy Hydra the entire time. Steve has never gone through a true character arc like Tony has, because his strength of moral character is already such that it’s hard for him to improve, and so to make his character dynamic you have to throw him in hot water and place him among those whose moral compasses might be a tad shakier: it was Hydra in Winter Soldier, and here the Accords present the conundrum. Steve refuses to sign, and thus the Avengers’ Civil War begins. To the film’s credit, it really does try to focus on the MCU’s internal politics and lays out decent arguments for both sides of the Accords debate (even though it is ostensibly Captain America’s movie), avoiding condemnation as best it can. 

Read More of Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series Here

The real trouble doesn’t begin until there’s a bombing in Vienna at the signing of the Accords, and everything points to one James Buchanan Barnes (Sebastian Stan) as having been the perpetrator. This prompts a worldwide manhunt: Steve and Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) race to get Bucky before the authorities do so Steve can protect his oldest friend, the UN wants to bring him in for questioning, and a certain Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) of Wakanda wants to kill Bucky as revenge for the explosion that killed his father, T’Chaka (John Kani). There is a very fun chase scene in Romania that involves Steve, Bucky, and T’Challa all handily outstripping the passing cars and Bucky flipping onto a motorcycle in a way that captured the minds of many a teenage girl around the world (myself included), but it ends with the three heroes apprehended by the UN. 

Remarkably, this is the first big action sequence in the film and it doesn’t come until about 45 minutes in, which has got to be a record for Marvel. Civil War is perhaps the least action-heavy MCU entry so far, only having three notable fight scenes (four if you count brainwashed Bucky vs. everyone else), none of which are against more than six people; for being all but an Avengers movie in name, it certainly bucks the trend of fighting innumerable faceless foes, and that’s a welcome change of pace. 

Boseman, of course, nails his introduction as T’Challa. Both he and the character he plays would go on to become revered figures, not only due to the cultural impact of Black Panther finally arriving on the screen, but because T’Challa, through Boseman’s performance, is such a commanding presence from the first: he’s a powerful and regal king, but still a fallible human being battling with grief and a desire for vengeance. His quiet scene with Zemo at the end is a beautiful moment that, despite his little screentime, cements T’Challa as iconic far before the release of his solo movie. “Vengeance has consumed you. It’s consuming them. I’m done letting it consume me.” (And he gets to run fast and beat up fellow superheroes to boot. What’s not to love?)

Back in UN custody, things seem to be going alright—Tony even almost convinces Steve to sign the Accords until he lets slip that he’s keeping Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), the inadvertent creator of the destruction in Lagos, under lock and key with Vision (Paul Bettany) at the Avengers compound—until the psychiatrist assigned to analyze Bucky speaks the trigger words implanted in his brain by Hydra and sics him on the rest of the Avengers after drilling him about a mission report from December 16, 1991. Turns out this psychiatrist is actually Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl), a former member of the Sokovian military whose family was killed during Ultron’s attempt to drop a city-meteor on the world in Age of Ultron. Zemo will go on to become a fan favorite in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, but here he is all cruel and cold calculation setting out to topple the powers that killed his family, and the personal nature of his issues with the Avengers gives his actions more weight than most Marvel villains. He is also the only villain besides Thanos to succeed at his goal. (Of course, the threat of Thanos eventually brings the gang back together again, but Zemo’s villainy certainly has more repercussions than, say, Malekith’s evildoings.)

And topple the Avengers do. Determined to exonerate the last remaining thread connecting him to his old life, Steve goes after Bucky, accompanied by Sam. When Bucky reveals that other genetically enhanced Hydra soldiers exist, Steve assumes that Zemo means to wake them from their cryogenic sleep and use them to destabilize the world’s governments, and so the three set out to stop him. They enlist Wanda, Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), but find the path barred by those who supported the Accords: Tony, Rhodey (Don Cheadle), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), T’Challa, Vision, and some kid with web shooters called Spider-Man (Tom Holland). 

The ensuing fight in an empty German airport is simply an excuse to show off all the characters’ cool powers and acts as little more than fanservice, though if you’re like me, it’s certainly enjoyable fanservice, though the reasons for its existence are flimsy at best. But Ant-Man becomes Giant-Man, Spider-Man swings around and does backflips, Black Widow and Hawkeye duke it out, et cetera, and it provides a good deal of fun. Marvel has finally gotten their hands back on some of their most valuable IP, dammit, and they’re not going to let it go to waste.

Spider-Man, of course, has a long history on our movie screens, starting with Sam Raimi’s original trilogy in the early 2000s, continuing with two Amazing Spider-Man movies with Andrew Garfield before that endeavor was aborted, and finally winding up here in the MCU proper. Having sold off their rights to Spider-Man before the MCU, Marvel was forced to make do without him at first while Sony continued to try and pump the character for money; with the recency of The Amazing Spider-Man duology (2012 and 2014, respectively), not to mention the Raimi trilogy (Spider-Man 3 was only 2007), it seemed unlikely there would be a third reboot of the character within less than two decades.

That is, until the infamous Sony email hacks from 2014 revealed that… maybe? But then talks broke down and people forgot about it, though some were hopeful that, given Spider-Man’s prevalence in the Civil War comics, he would be a presence in its adaptation. Rumors continued to swirl, though as some rightly pointed out, Civil War the movie could work just fine without Spider-Man. The rumors were tantalizing nonetheless: the MCU had been built off the back of lesser-known heroes, but what would happen when they finally got their hands on Marvel’s most iconic character?

Well, it turns out the speculation didn’t last long, and Sony and Marvel reached a deal to share Spider-Man, with Peter Parker’s first appearance in Captain America: Civil War

The Sony/Marvel relationship has been very contentious, and Sony’s desire to expand into their own Spider-Man universe confuses things immensely. While everything seemed to be going smoothly at first, things broke down in 2019, after Spider-Man: Homecoming and Spider-Man: Far From Home had already come out, and it seemed like Tom Holland’s Spider-Man would be no more, and Peter Parker would be relegated to Sony’s Marvel Universe—not to be confused with the MCU at large—which so far only consists of 2018’s critically panned but financially successful Venom. This caused a brief meltdown among fans (myself included) before another agreement was reached, which pulled Spider-Man back into the MCU, but also allowed him to visit some of Sony’s other offerings. Probably. 

It’s all very vague, but Sony’s upcoming Morbius—which looks just absolutely dreadful—features Michael Keaton’s Vulture, who first appeared in Spider-Man: Homecoming. All in all, it’s a very confusing deal, one which will only continue to muddy the MCU canon upon the release of Morbius and Sony’s upcoming Spidey-related slate. Disney and Marvel’s steady amassing of IP is concerning from an artistic standpoint as they continue their stranglehold on the entertainment industry, subbing recognizable IP for capital-A Art, but, you know… there’s something to be said for simplicity and streamlining. At the very least, some clarity would be appreciated. (Yes, if it must be said, I vote in favor of axing the Sony Spider-Man Universe and folding it all under Marvel and continuing the agonizing death of independent cinema. Yes, a not-insubstantial chunk of this desire is the fact that I do not want certified creep Jared Leto to be in the MCU proper.)

Despite the treacherous road to his MCU debut, Spider-Man shines in Civil War. It helps that Tom Holland actually looks like a high school student, unlike Tobey Maguire or Andrew Garfield, and this Peter Parker radiates a charm that is decidedly boyish in energy. This is just a kid—a very strong and a very smart one, but a kid nonetheless. Even though Spider-Man could have been excised from the Civil War plot with no consequences (he’s really just there because it’s all about increasing that Marvel brand, baby!), his presence gives an infectious jolt of energy to the proceedings and provides a great source of humor in a film that, for Marvel standards, is practically dour. 

But where Spider-Man gets some great moments in Civil War, you know who doesn’t? Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp). I have previously lamented Sharon’s wasted role in the MCU, and it continues here. Judging from concept art, she was supposed to have been a part of the big airport battle, but in the finished product does exceedingly little. The kiss between her and Steve doesn’t work because Markus and McFeely spent so little time developing Sharon as a person that it reads as a character beat they were forced to hit rather than something that came about organically, so of course fan response would be tepid (at best, and harassment at worst—take a gander through the fandom side of Twitter or Tumblr and you will find some truly vile and downright misogynistic takes about Sharon, though the “stan” corner of the internet is mind-numbing to begin with). And yes, I will continue to pick this bone until it snaps, because it is frankly infuriating. Sharon’s writing in the MCU has been and continues to be lazy, though—as with Winter Soldier—it seems the easiest thing in the world to slot her in on “Team Cap” and give her a more substantial role other than “designated love interest” who gets “strong woman” qualities such as fighting prowess so Marvel can pretend they’ve written a good female character. I will, in fact, stay mad. (If you think this is bad, wait until Avengers: Endgame.)

After the two sides, sans Sharon, fight it out, Steve and Bucky escape to Siberia to catch Zemo and those who didn’t sign the Accords get shipped off to the underwater prison known as The Raft. Rhodey, having been inadvertently injured by Vision, gets over his paraplegia very quickly with the help of fancy Stark technology. The brief disability representation was nice while it lasted, though it never really got started. Tony realizes that Bucky has been framed for the UN bombing, gets Steve and Bucky’s whereabouts from Sam, and goes rogue, ignoring Secretary Ross’s wishes.

Yet when the three of them arrive in Siberia, they discover that Zemo hasn’t let out Bucky’s fellow superhuman assassins. In fact, Zemo has killed them all while they were in cryosleep. He never intended to unleash them on the world, only lure Tony, Steve, and Bucky here so he could end the Avengers that ended his family. “An empire toppled by its enemies can rise again. But one which crumbles from within? That’s dead… forever.” 

But how to topple an empire full of superheroes? You can’t beat them physically, so you appeal to their emotions. Tony has never been entirely emotionally stable even at the best of times, especially when it comes to his latent feelings of guilt and even more so when it concerns his relationship with his parents, and Steve has shown that he’s willing to go to the ends of the earth to protect Bucky, so the revelation that Bucky not only killed Tony’s parents on December 16, 1991, but that Steve purposely withheld this information from Tony, is the perfect storm that throws these unshakeable Avengers into a tailspin. The ultimate showdown isn’t about the Accords themselves, but Tony’s grief over his parents, his guilt over his failure to express his love for them, Steve’s drive to protect the only old friend he has left, and the clash that these conflicting desires cause. 

Civil War is perhaps Marvel’s most personal movie. In the end, it’s just Steve, Bucky, and Tony, duking it out in an abandoned Hydra base in Siberia. That’s about as personal a finale you can get at Marvel, and it anchors the final confrontation in frighteningly understandable human impulse: it’s not the world ending, it’s just yours, and sometimes that can feel even worse. There are no Chitauri or robots, there is no Hydra or Mandarin, just two friends (and a brainwashed assassin) that hurt each other in different ways.

While it certainly makes for an affecting climax, the pivot to an intensely personal battle means that the political nuance that Civil War set itself up for gets left by the wayside: Tony and Steve’s differences on the Accords become forgotten in the wake of the revelation about Tony’s parents, and so any true ethical examination of said Accords gets tabled for another day. Civil War discards that which made it unique in the first place—attempting to address the ramifications of its predecessors—in favor of a more personal approach that, conversely, makes the film more unique than standard MCU fare, so we are at net zero. Both impulses are welcome in the MCU, but perhaps they would have worked better in separate films, rather than one replacing the other. Still, in a somewhat homogenous cinematic universe, you get credit for trying, and Civil War uses its solid performances and character beats to elevate itself to the upper echelons of the MCU.

The effects of Civil War are all but gone after the first act of Avengers: Endgame, and the existence of the Accords has, so far, barely changed a thing about how these heroes operate, but Civil War almost makes the illusion of change real. It certainly affects Avengers: Infinity War, where our heroes’ divisions keep them apart and ensure their loss, but otherwise, while the Accords’ existence makes Civil War one of the more compelling Marvel movies, they remain largely inconsequential. Marvel was never going to seriously examine the political ramifications of its heroes’ existence because the foundations of its universe would collapse, but it was certainly nice to pretend for a while.

Groundwork: Marvel has no big master plan; rather, they plant seeds wherever they can in the hopes that some of them might one day germinate. None of these were planned from day one, lest the whole ship sink, but the seeds germinated nonetheless:

  • This marks the first appearance of The Raft, which will pop in and out of the MCU whenever they need a place to store a villain for a while in case Marvel wants to reuse them.
  • Certain Avengers: Endgame set photos sent everyone into a tizzy about how Tony’s B.A.R.F. (binarily augmented retro-framing) technology would come back into play and help the team find hints about the Infinity Stones or whatnot. This did not happen.
  • Natasha says, “You could at least recognize me” when fighting Bucky, leading some fans to speculate that future MCU movies could expand on their relationship—in the comics, they have a storied romantic history that begins when Natasha was first in the Red Room and Bucky was brainwashed by the KGB—but alas, this never happened, and so Natasha was only referencing The Winter Soldier. If Marvel had gone down this route, though, it would have been easy to elaborate on this.
  • It’s hard to think of specific groundwork/easter eggs when the whole movie is basically setting up what’s to come: it introduces Black Panther and Wakanda, Spider-Man, Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), reintroduces Thunderbolt Ross (no relation to Everett), splits the Avengers for Avengers: Infinity War, sends half of the team on the run, etc. There aren’t that many offhand references to things that will come down the line: they’re all in plain sight.

Anna’s Favorite Scene: “Can you move your seat up?” “No.” That’s not really a whole scene, though, just a couple lines, so my favorite scene might be T’Challa stopping Zemo from killing himself. It wonderfully encapsulates T’Challa’s arc in this movie, and is an affecting and quiet moment before the big Cap vs. Iron Man beatdown.

MCU Ranking: 1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, 2. Captain America: Civil War, 3. Guardians of the Galaxy, 4. The Avengers, 5. Captain America: The First Avenger, 6. Iron Man 3, 7. Iron Man, 8. Ant-Man, 9. Thor, 10. Avengers: Age of Ultron, 11. Thor: The Dark World, 12. Iron Man 2, 13. The Incredible Hulk

Captain America: Civil War Trailer

Captain America: Civil War is currently available to rent and purchase on most digital storefronts, and is streaming on Disney+.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

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