WASHINGTON, May 31, 2016 – In our previous article on ‘Captain America: Civil War,’ we looked at the way this film was rolled out, wondering whether we’re now dealing with individual superhero films or whether franchise-character rollouts are taking precedence. We also began to wonder just who exactly is in control of the Avengers these days. Today, we’ll examine the moral dilemmas these Marvel superheroes are confronting.
As with most of the choices he’s made since the first Iron Man film, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), aka Iron Man, confronts in this film how those choices have affected and injured others both directly and indirectly as a result. Tony seems to be continually making up for both real and perceived mistakes, always tightening his grip on matters of security. For a big picture character, his reasoning tends to be insular. He tends to believe only in things he can physically affect, and tends to reject outside perspectives.
Steve (Chris Evans), aka Captain America, on the other hand, has been betrayed time and again by larger institutions including the U.S. Government, also finding out his former employer was being run by the villainous organization with Nazi origins that he battled in his original film. As such, Steve puts his faith in the small group of people he knows he can trust with his life, and would prefer to believe that those individuals can continually make the best decisions regarding their environment.
It’s in this film where the whole problem starts becoming a major issue for Steve. With military precision, he’s made his decision about who is reliable and who stands for what. Regardless of how much that might cost him personally, he’s comfortable with where he stands.
Tony on the other hand, because his motives are so rooted in his own self-loathing and inability to make things right, finds that the same dilemma weighs heavily on him throughout the movie. Steve knows he’s standing on his own moral code, but Tony is never quite sure if he even has a compass. This is why Tony is able to pivot so easily when the movie reaches its climax because all of this is personal. For Steve, it’s more a matter of logic, guided by experience and trustworthiness.
Before either character gets to reach an ultimate conclusion, however, both of them have to deal with Bucky (Sebastian Stan), the near-robotic “Winter Soldier” Steve first encountered in the previous Cap solo movie. How well the current film’s narrative works depends on how the audience approaches the matter of Bucky who, as Steve recognized in the last film, is a deadly, re-enforced and re-programmed edition of his protective childhood best friend, the one he thought he’d lost back in World War II.
It’s easy to make a case for pursuing Bucky after he becomes the likely suspect for bombing the Accords Summit in Vienna. From that point on, it seems as if this film is all about the Accords. But that might be too simplistic a way to look at the issue.
For Tony, the primary importance of the Accords is most definitely on the front burner, but that doesn’t apply for Steve, since it involves his old friend Bucky. Steve has left the conversation on the Accords because all that matters to him is making sure his friend doesn’t get killed; whereas Tony sees the whole situation as a clear extension of what the Accords are trying to protect the world against, regardless of the actual accuracy of his opinion.
As for Bucky, his character is a bit of a black hole. For the over all Accords narrative to have maximum weight, Bucky needs to be more of a fully formed character to pose the personal vs. moral dilemma. But much like his presence as the Winter Soldier, this still programmatic and largely indecipherable Bucky is a fairly blank slate, given that most if not all memories of his previous self appear to have been erased.
For that reason, Bucky acts more as a foil to various characters in this film. That mostly includes Steve, of course, but also Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and T’Challa (Chadwick Bozeman). That’s because Bucky still never really expresses emotion on his own. There are moments, yes. But they come too infrequently and occur without much depth, as these scenes tend to happen as he’s sandwiched between action scenes.
Bucky’s character doesn’t seem to have agency here. His character, or at least what we’re able to see of it, needs to be pulled by something other than the plot and that never quite happens.
This lack of clarity is compounded as T’Challa is introduced in association with the Vienna bombings, an introduction that greatly complicates this narrative blemish. The reason for introducing a T’Challa at this point – a character who will eventually appear as the lead in a film devoted to Marvel’s Black Panther– could have boiled down the need of the Marvel franchise to give him an introductory cameo.
That’s similar, in a way, to the manner in which DC’s film franchise tacked on a relatively functionless introduction of Wonder Woman in “Batman v Superman.” Unlike the ineffective Wonder Woman cameo, however, audiences to the current Marvel installment were arguably introduced to the man who becomes the strongest character in the Captain America movie.
In pre-release discussions on this film, its directors, Anthony and Joe Russo, noted how T’Challa offered a completely different point of view in comparison to Tony and Steve. This is essentially true, but not in the way it appears.
After his father is killed, T’Challa’s goal isn’t to side with either Tony or Steve in their philosophical battle, but instead to kill Bucky. His vengeance consumes him but never dulls his outlook or his intelligence, however. That’s an important distinction and makes his story arc not only more compelling. His ultimate decision at the end of the film is all the more organic because his decision process, unlike Tony’s or Steve’s, is fully and logically played out on screen.
When Tony and Steve stage their final showdown at the end of the movie, T’Challa’s entire arc is actually on display, as he initially sides with Tony’s impulse to act, yet ends up reinforcing Steve’s need for preservation. In a movie that focuses so heavily on the relationship between Steve and Tony, having T’Challa even tangentially involved with their dispute balances the narrative when it could have tipped by giving it a more objective point of view.
Even so, this film’s over all story arc and narrative gets muddled since it’s so overstuffed with ensemble characters, a fact that leads to some fan disappointment. For example, for as prominent a character as Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) has been throughout the series, she’s yet again relegated to playing the role of Jiminy Cricket toward both Tony and Steve. Natasha (and Johansson) deserve far better than that.
Also frustratingly introduced but not much more were the developing characters of the Vision (Paul Bettany) and Wanda, and what is most likely their blossoming romance. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) and Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) do get their moments, however, though Sam Wilson fares the best when acting as Steve’s wingman.
Within the scope of this film, the multiplicity of characters and introductions was almost guaranteed to be a problem. But how much baggage this problem carries for audiences will depend on how much they care about their own favorite characters getting limited screen time. It’s a problem that could have been mitigated at least a bit had some aspects of this film been handled more adroitly and with more ambition than the development of the story line itself.
Next: In our final installment, we examine the question about whether the ongoing Marvel franchise films are getting more formulaic and predictable.