Captain America: Civil War is the 13th movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has also tacked on an additional nine seasons of television, between four series, with more on the way. If nothing else, it’s an incredible feat to keep producing quality stories, and Civil War may even top everything that came before it.
The movie has considerable moral and philosophical heft, which it accomplishes by asking difficult questions about right and wrong. What makes it unique, especially in the current media landscape, is that it achieves this without turning its protagonists into antiheroes. We’re not asked to accept a series of atrocities in service of the greater good, or weigh the need to tamp down our emotional attachments to do what needs to be done. Simultaneously, we’re not asked to see goodness as simple and self-evident.
Instead, we get a smart, nuanced contest of ideas between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark, with a conclusion that’s ultimately ambiguous. Despite the high stakes and increasing violence between their factions, the audience is never asked to see either superhero as corrupt or shortsighted or evil. Neither is brainwashed or deceived or misunderstood. The audience sees both as they see themselves, and as they see each other: as good men who have reached incompatible conclusions about how to do the right thing, who are heartbroken by their conflict.
Spoilers for Captain America: Civil War after the jump!
The United States Constitution reflects similar conflicts in Anglo-American history, perhaps best summarized in two figures from English folklore: King Arthur and the Sheriff of Nottingham. These two icons occupied roles in the culture now increasingly filled by superheroes and supervillains: larger-than-life repositories for the hopes and fears of the people. We want to live in a society where a clear moral leader like Arthur can assemble the Knights of the Round Table without being held back by petty disagreements and malicious scheming. At the same time, we need to keep arbitrary authority out of the hands of scoundrels like the Sheriff, so that the Merry Men aren’t forced to fight against their own king.
Steve Rogers is so moral, honest, and upright, he makes King Arthur look like Petyr Baelish. Cap not only believes in Camelot’s ethos of Might for Right, he believes he’s capable of making it happen. So far, he’s never been wrong. He carries the shield to Arthur’s sword—he will defend the innocent and the downtrodden against all enemies, foreign or domestic. Nothing can stand in his way.
Tony Stark is no less righteous than Steve, but he lacks Cap’s moral clarity. He can’t trust himself to always be able to distinguish right from wrong, at least not in time: after all, he’s the one who thought Ultron would save the world. And while young Steve was ready to serve as soon as war broke out in Europe, Tony remembers his younger days as a billionaire playboy, uninterested in humanity’s greater good. He is also keenly aware of his own mortality: for much of his life, each beat of his heart was a technological miracle. But while the Super Soldier can’t outlive Steve Rogers, the Iron Man suit can be worn by anyone, and inevitably, Tony will lose the ability to decide who that is. Ultron was the Sheriff of Nottingham in the Iron Man armor; Tony feels the gravity of this risk, and is willing to sacrifice his own power to secure against it.
This is the fundamental conflict that comes to a head in Civil War—a conflict which requires neither hero to be selfish or vain, much less evil. It’s two well-considered visions of the best and safest possible world that happen to be fundamentally at odds.
Tony’s proposed solution is the Sokovia Accords, an international agreement which will put the Avengers under the jurisdiction of the United Nations. The movie leaves the exact terms of the Accords somewhat vague, but their purpose is straightforward: no longer will the Avengers act on their own directive. Instead, they will be held accountable to the UN, which will approve or order their missions.
For him, this brings the Avengers within the rule of law. He makes no promises that the UN will always or even usually make the right decision; instead, he argues that this is the way for the Avengers to step back and return the imperial authority they usurped by the fact of their powers. When lives are lost, it will be because the world decided it was necessary. Tony bears the sole blame for Ultron, because nobody elected Tony Stark.
Steve is, of course, outraged. He’s deferred to institutions before: the United States Army, the Strategic Scientific Reserve, the World Security Council, and S.H.I.E.L.D. They all let him down; they wouldn’t listen to him. They wouldn’t do what was right when it was necessary, either because they were compromised, or just because they were shortsighted or distracted. They made him sell war bonds when he could have been fighting Hitler, they told him not to rescue his comrades, they tried to nuke Manhattan to defeat an invasion, or they were infiltrated by HYDRA. The UN—founded after Steve was frozen—has no claim to superiority over those organizations. Its list of failures is long. The UN cannot be counted on to do justice, and Captain America can’t stand down while they work it all out.
After the UN conference is attacked, apparently by Bucky Barnes, both Cap and Tony see proof of their philosophies. The UN orders Bucky’s arrest and Cap rushes to his friend’s side, believing him (correctly) to be innocent. Cap’s instincts remain infallible, and he sees this as discrediting the UN. Tony is more circumspect. He’s willing to accept that Bucky might not be guilty, but he can’t ask the world to go off of Steve Rogers’ gut, no matter how reliable it might be. Bucky is to be captured and tried, and he doesn’t have a right to resist and endanger lives. When Steve intervenes, it causes only a greater loss of life. Tony wants law, Steve wants justice.
Bucky eventually escapes captivity, aided by Team Rogers. Bucky’s innocence has been proven regarding the UN attacks; it was a false flag attempt by Zemo, designed to provoke the kind of struggle among the Avengers that would bring down their Empire. He delivers the coup de grace before being captured by Black Panther: he shows Tony a recording of the Winter Soldier killing his parents. Bucky isn’t culpable—he was mind-controlled when he murdered the Starks—but Tony snaps, unable to separate to distinguish the mind from the body which robbed him of his family.
Tony’s fears about the Avengers are realized in a flash: he throws law away, to pursue a moment of justice, or at least, satisfaction. But—like everyone else—he lacks Steve’s moral resolve. Bucky is innocent, there would be no justice in his slaughter, and again, Steve and Tony are forced to fight.
Captain America prevails, but makes sure that Tony survives the fight. He forgives and pardons Tony for the attacks against Bucky, and Steve and Bucky go underground, while Tony returns to the Avengers. Both heroes end the movie convinced of the other’s basic goodness: they tacitly agree to keep a line of communication open. But neither has been convinced. Steve won the day, yes, but Tony’s fears are not assuaged, all the more so after Cap himself disappears.
This movie doesn’t give an easy answer. Neither Tony nor Steve realizes the other’s rightness in a flash of insight, nor are we left to wish a pox on both their houses. Their fundamental disagreement may, in fact, continue. But even with the ambiguity, it’s a breath of fresh air in an increasingly grimdark world. It’s a lot more compelling to be asked to evaluate two good choices instead of two bad ones.