Last week, Marvel surprised us all by dropping the first trailer for Captain America: Civil War and everyone was predictably abuzz about the first glimpse of the adaptation of one of Marvel’s most iconic storylines. Fans were pumped and it continued to trend on social media well into a long Thanksgiving weekend.
The scene that got most people right in the feelings was the very end: Tony Stark and Steve Rogers face off over Bucky Barnes, and suddenly find themselves not as allies, but on opposing sides.
Steve: “I’m sorry, Tony. You know I wouldn’t do this if I had any other choice. But he’s my friend.”
Tony: “So was I.”
The bewildered, hurt look on Tony’s face at that moment said it all.
But not everyone was impressed or moved by the moment. The criticism boils down to, “When have Tony and Steve ever been friends in the Marvel Cinematic Universe?” Some feel the depth of their friendship hasn’t been established enough throughout the movies to make the idea of them fighting one another emotional and poignant.
And that is an understandable assessment from someone expecting an on-screen friendship to be one of incredible closeness and time spent together. Audiences erroneously believe that it’s only lifelong friendships, like that of Steve and Bucky, or easy, fist-bumping bro-ships like that of Steve and Sam Wilson or Tony and James Rhodes that warrant any sort of emotional investment if the dynamics were to change.
But the reality is that there are various levels of friendship, and not all of them are easy to maintain. Steve Rogers and Tony Stark have a complicated friendship, but it is no less real or meaningful than the ones mentioned above. The reality is that once you reach adulthood, you form friendships with people for a number of reasons, and the concept of a professional relationship or friendships with coworkers enters the equation.
From the start, Steve Rogers and Tony Stark have personalities that don’t quite mesh. That’s been clear from the first Avengers movie by design. Even back then, the seeds of their opposing ideologies were already being planted, and it was necessary. The Civil War storyline of them suddenly not being able to see eye-to-eye would have been too abrupt, too unbelievable, had Steve and Tony laughed and kicked it with beers and always gotten along well.
That’s not the type of friendship they’ve ever had, and they were never supposed to. The analog Rogers and digital Stark are just too different as people to ever be best friends. They butt heads too much for that.
But here’s the important bit: challenging relationships are just as vital to our growth and well-being as our best friends are. It’s important that we don’t always surround ourselves with like-minded people, people who never challenge us to move outside our comfort zone.
Sam Wilson and James Rhodes are incredible friends, loyal, supportive, and brave. Falcon has Captain America’s back, and War Machine has Iron Man’s every single time they go into battle together. But there is a lingering sense of hero worship that keeps them from fully pushing the two to be the best they can be. In the end, Sam and Rhodey will always defer to Steve and Tony. How could they not? Captain America is a literal living legend, and Tony Stark is the most famous face in the world.
But Tony and Steve are true equals; neither is particularly intimidated by the other, and that’s a good thing. Fans who don’t yet understand this don’t because they’re only looking at the surface. They disagree all the time; therefore, they don’t get along; therefore, they must not like each other very much; therefore, they are not friends.
To get it and accept their friendship requires an in-depth understanding of that cornerstone of any solid relationship, respect. The bickering and baiting that happens between them is the type that can only happen with two people that have deep respect for one another but are often frustrated by what they see as the other not reaching their full potential. Their arguments are the sort of competitive banter of two alpha males pushing one another, testing each other to see what they’re truly made of. It’s Steve and Tony saying, “I may not always agree with you or even like you sometimes, but I respect you a hell of a lot and I know you’re a good man – now show me what you’ve got.” Each recognizes a worthy opponent in the other.
When Tony needs a science problem solved, he turns to Bruce Banner. Sometimes the two debate the best way to approach a scientific problem, but, just like Rhodey, Bruce always defers. When Steve needs a logistical problem solved, he turns to Natasha, who will do the things that Steve won’t. But it’s the moments that Steve and Tony have locked horns that have led to their greatest internal growth. Steve has always called Tony out when he’s skirted too close to unconsciously crossing the line between hero and future villain. Likewise, Tony has always called Steve out for his Boy Scout, black-and-white approach to everything being unrealistic in the modern, cynical world.
They challenge one another. They keep each other in check. And they’re better men for it. They’re better leaders. They’re better Avengers. Their friendship isn’t always easy, but it is vital. Whether either of them wants to admit to it or not, deep-down, both Steve and Tony know they need the opposing balance they provide for each other. They need their complicated friendship. If that’s not grounds for emotional devastation now that that balance has broken, I’m not sure what is.