‘Captain America: Civil War’ and the Unforgivable Sin of Steve Rogers

13 Weeks into our MCU Rewatch, and we recoil as an empire is destroyed from within.

Steve Rogers doesn’t mean to make things difficult. For him, there is right, and there is wrong. It’s not complicated. It’s not murky. It’s clear. Do the right thing.

Captain America is more than a costume. Rogers straps on the mantle of a nation and leads the charge so that the rest of his countryman can follow behind. He’s more than a good guy. He is good.

Tony Stark has an insatiable desire to redeem past sins through tin can heroism. He will always find one more patch, or one more fix to course correct. He may have all the money in the world, but Captain America leads the Avengers because no one questions his path. Tony is all doubt while Steve is absolute conviction.

That confidence, however, is rooted in a dead past. America, good. Nazis, bad. Steve Rogers goes into the ice a righteous patriot but thaws out on a planet incapable of operating without compromise. Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a punishing revelation for Rogers, but by that film’s climax he thought his good nature could right the sinking ship. S.H.I.E.L.D.’s cold calculation of humanity allowed Hydra to squirm inside, but Captain America’s Avengers would never waver, and would never allow such diabolical concession.

Uh…

Captain America: Civil War is the result of Steve Rogers refusing to bend to the popular vote. As he puts his lost love, Peggy Carter, into the ground, her words cement his principle. “It is your duty to plant yourself like a tree, look them in the eye, and say ‘No, you move.’” The entire world could turn on Captain America, and his resolution would never teeter. As the personification of good, the job is on him to convince us of what is and is not right.

So, #TeamCap?

In the wake of Ultron’s assault on the planet, the Fox News team is ready to annihilate The Avengers on the PR front. If you thought Bill O’Reilly was peeved in Iron Man 2 when Tony promoted Pepper Potts to CEO of Stark Industries, just watch as the media machine practically hits DEFCON 1 after The Avengers open fire in Lagos, Nigeria. Four years have passed since aliens filled the skyline of New York. The rubble has been swept up, society’s wonderment of super beings has transformed into banality, and the television is screaming for justice.

Wherever Earth’s Mightiest Heroes land collateral damage seems inevitable. How can you weigh the life of the 11 Wakandans caught in The Scarlet Witch’s containment of Rumlow’s autodestruct against the possible countless lost lives of those who would have suffered under Hydra’s planned biological attack? You can’t judge what might have been; you can only judge what has happened. Captain America and his Avengers are responsible for the loss of life.

For a soldier who found his legacy on the battlefields of World War II, that collateral damage is part of the job. He attempts to ease The Scarlet Witch’s conscious by explaining, “We try to save as many people as we can. Sometimes that doesn’t mean everybody, but if we can’t find a way to live with that then next time maybe nobody gets saved.” An audience member who returns to the MCU year after year can probably get in line with that thinking. We watch cities obliterated routinely, but the globe keeps spinning, and that’s a win for the home team, right?

Now, let’s jump universes for a second. Man of Steel climaxed with Superman nearly razing Metropolis to the ground using Zod’s skull as a scythe. Apparently, we did not like seeing our boy in blue so casually make-out with Lois Lane in the crater of the once great city, and Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice was an attempt to reconcile with such post-9/11 destruction. Zack Snyder levied our disgust on Bruce Wayne’s rage and rang the fight bell.

Captain America: Civil War is also a response to the line crossed by Man of Steel. Our heroes can no longer simply kick ass and look good doing it. The faceless who parish under a collapsing skyscraper deserve our empathy as much as Quicksilver falling under the strafing fire of Ultron. We must acknowledge the loss of life or concoct a silly conceit to remove them from the blockbuster equation (see Pacific Rim: Uprising and the bunkered people of Tokyo).

After nearly ten years of rubbled buildings, the MCU had to concede to the horror of casual comic book devastation. The former general turned Secretary of State Thunderbolt Ross follows the blood trail detailed by the media straight to the doorstep of The Avengers. He’s barely dusted off the debris from The Incredible Hulk’s rampage through Harlem, and he’s happily ticking off the ghost towns birthed from their catastrophic heroism. “New York, Washington DC, Sokovia, Lagos” plus the unnamed battlegrounds of Culver University, London, Malibu, New Mexico, South Africa, Seoul, Tennessee, and oh yeah, Asgard.

As a World War II veteran, Steve Rogers can rationalize the demolition he was unable to prevent against the horror that he did. As the black ops tool who witnessed the shattering of S.H.I.E.L.D., Rogers can now only trust himself. “The safest hands are still our own.” That response may be seen as dangerously arrogant, but that conviction is literally all he is left in the world. Until The Winter Soldier is unmasked as his pal, his buddy, his Bucky.

James Buchanan Barnes is Steve Rogers’ great failure. The man he left behind. Not just to die, but to be experimented upon, perverted, and damned into a monster. The Winter Soldier is the chink in Captain America’s armor, and he will be his undoing.

Captain America: Civil War has no real need for a villain. Thunderbolt Ross asks a few questions, makes a few suggestions. Tony Stark is barely holding his psyche together, reeling from the responsibility of a lifetime of good intentions backfiring. Steve Rogers wants to be left alone to the business of heroism while also failing miserably in gifting his empathy for The Winter Soldier to the rest of the world. The dominos are stacked. Helmut Zemo, the enraged husband, and father of Sokovian casualties, tips them over with the lightest of touches (in MCU terms anyway, what’s another bombing at this point?).

Frankly, it’s nothing the team couldn’t sort out later. At several points in the story, the Civil War could have been averted. If Peggy Carter didn’t pass away mid-argument. If Captain America showed up to Bucky’s Bucharest apartment a few moments earlier. If Stark rephrased his internment of The Scarlet Witch a little differently. And…if Rogers had come clean to Stark the moment, he learned of The Winter Soldier’s involvement in his parents’ murder.

That’s the great sin. It’s not even that Rogers thought Stark couldn’t bear the weight of the terrible knowledge. Rogers loves Bucky. He loves him more than he likes, or even tolerates Stark. The egomaniac underneath Iron Man doesn’t have a right to Bucky’s pain, and Rogers couldn’t stand another person having one more reason to hate the friend who was with him when no one else was.

The Bucky of 1942 may be dead, but so is the 1942 version of Steve Rogers. The Captain America who keeps mum on the incriminating videotape is desperately trying to maintain a memory of simpler, happier times. Cap fails himself in that moment.

Remove that leverage from Zemo and Civil War would have concluded twenty minutes earlier. The debate surrounding the Sokovian Accords would have been argued, revised with safeguards put into place. The Avengers would have evolved into another government-sanctioned peacekeeping organization. It is another rationalization that Captain America could have learned to live with.

Steve Rogers tells Stark that he can’t help but intervene at the first sign of trouble. “I see a situation pointed south; I can’t ignore it.” When presenting himself to others, Rogers is a proud moralist. He eagerly wants to be the good man Professor Erskine once labeled him as. Toss Bucky into the mix, the selfless Avenger crumbles.

Before Thanos drops Hulk on Doctor Strange’s Sanctum Sanctorum in Avengers: Infinity War, Captain America: Civil War reveals the fallibility haunting all our saviors. Marvel’s villain problem finds its solution through its heroes. They all suck. Even the altruist in the spangly outfit.

Civil War drags them to their rock bottom. That is where Marvel heroes thrive. Let them get back on their feet and then kick them down again x infinity.

What Captain America: Civil War Contributes to the MCU:

  • Black Panther – I rant and rave about Captain America: Civil War for nearly 1600 words and I don’t mention Black Panther once!? I got a little hung up on Steve Rogers, ok? Please forgive me. Especially since T’Challa is such a crucial figure at the climax of this film. The death of his father propels him into a vengeance quest, but in witnessing how such dark emotions tear at Rogers and Stark, T’Challa is freed from the pain of such pursuits. He’s the one character at the climax who rises above their ego.
  • Spider-Man – Miracles do happen. Thanks to some really disappointing Amazing adventures of Spider-Man from Sony, Marvel Studios is granted creative access on their quintessential character. I had pretty much given up hope on seeing the comic book Peter Parker on screen until Tom Holland stumbled into frame. He’s the perfect combination of awkward spazz and super-powered crimefighter.
  • Giant-Man – The airport brawl is the action highlight of Civil War. Where Joss Whedon pushed his Avengers films to replicate the splash page, The Russo Brothers achieved a full 22-page fight comic as their centerpiece sequence. To cap it all off, they let Paul Rudd’s geeked out Ant-Man go macro as Giant-Man. Give that behemoth all the orange slices he desires.
  • Everett Ross – We don’t need Agent Coulson when we have Deputy Task Force Commander, Everett Ross. Ok, so he doesn’t have much to do here, but Black Panther will eventually reveal the potential for this sidekick.
  • The Raft – The supermax prison built to hold the worst of the worst (do you think Tim Roth’s Abomination roams these halls?), but also The Avengers when they get out of line. A staple from the books, I’d like to see this weird little set explored further at some point.

What Captain America: Civil War Withholds From the MCU:

  • Crossbones – A great Captain America henchman reduced to a catalyst foil. Frank Grillo’s Brock Rumlow is a cantankerous jerk jealous of the attention thrown his former colleague’s way. A Hydra loyalist is looking to continue their global domination through minor bouts of catastrophe. All he wants in life/death is to send Rogers spiraling into misery by pushing his Bucky button.
  • Helmut Zemo – Black Panther spares the bad guy’s life because he’s just a few killings away from being in the same headspace as Zemo. Is this the case of saving a character for another outing? What else can we expect from the man who tore The Avengers apart?
  • Hawkeye – Where o where is poor Clint Barton? He’s nowhere to be found in the trailers or posters for Infinity War. Maybe he’s finally settled into the family life. Maybe he’s holding out for that solo adventure. Think happy thoughts.

Further Reading:

Avengers: Time Runs Out” by Jonathan Hickman – If you bother to read Mark Millar and Steve McNiven’s actual “Civil War” comic series, you’ll discover a story that bears almost no similarities to the film. So, if you’re looking for the most epic throwdown between heroes then “Time Runs Out” is the tragedy for you. Yes, it does come down to Captain America vs. Iron Man again. These guys will never see eye to eye. When our universe enters its last days of existence, The Avengers have to determine the proper way to confront the end of all things. What is Tony Stark willing to sacrifice to save the day? How does that differ from Captain America? The answer will leave you questioning your fandom.

Read more from our series on the Marvel Cinematic Universe:

PHASE ONE

PHASE TWO

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Brad Gullickson :Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.