There were plenty of reasons to worry about Captain America: Civil War. Leading up to its wide release today, the movie has been called The Avengers 2.5 because it features what feels like the entire Marvel Universe cast; meanwhile the plot, at least on its surface, is Batman v Superman déjà-vu. Sure, it’ll do well at the box office, as Marvel movies so often do, but it still seems a bit like filler before the next Avengers film. Even with the relatively positive reviews that have been rolling out in recent weeks, one might well expect mediocrity at best.
Against those odds, Civil War nevertheless succeeds. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo’s wit and charisma have a lot to do with it, as do Robert Downey Jr.’s on-point delivery as Iron Man and Anthony Mackie (Sam Wilson/Falcon) and Sebastian Stan’s (Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier) uncanny odd-couple chemistry. But its real triumph is far more surprising: Civil War is a parable of the ways inequality and privilege shape individual worldviews.
A little context as to why this is worth any discussion at all: Superhero comics have a long history of claiming to be more progressive than they actually are, and their movie adaptations have hardly improved upon this. In the mainstream, franchises like X-Men were built almost exclusively on issues like racism and anti-Semitism — their superpowered characters not-so-subtle stand-ins for whatever marginalized group was most oppressed at the time of their publication. But even X-Men’s central characters are almost exclusively straight white men, proof that creators have barely understood the ideas to which they’ve been paying half-assed lip service. (In recent years, some creators have managed to produce intelligent, moving correctives to these caricatures, but they’re all still comics, not major motion pictures riding on decades of canon.)
Few mainstream superhero movies have accurately portrayed the concrete, real-life mechanics of inequality and privilege.
The films they’ve inspired are no different: in transitioning to the big screen, neither Marvel nor DC has done much to update their comics’ social commentary. The X-Men franchise still sidelines its characters of color; Spider-Man is still lily-white (despite having been the half-black, half-Latino Miles Morales in the comics since 2011); Scarlett Johansson is somehow a big enough name to sell Ghost in the Shell, which originally called for an Asian actress, but still not a Black Widow movie. And no matter Civil War’s surprising subtext, let’s be clear: this is still a movie made almost entirely by white men — in the end, you’re still choosing between two of them. But few, if any, mainstream superhero movies have accurately portrayed the concrete, real-life impact inequality and privilege have on individuals and communities. Civil War does.
Spoilers for Civil War and Avengers: Age of Ultron follow.
The titular “civil war” stems from a simple question: Forced to face the collateral damage of their world-saving endeavors, do the Avengers — functionally a private American company, with no obligation to follow international laws — agree to government oversight to placate the United Nations (not to mention all the people who lost a home/limb/family in their crossfire)? Obviously it isn’t great for super-startups to cause death and destruction without consequence, but it seems more or less equally unappealing to offer oneself as a walking biological weapon to the government — which, even in this fictional universe, utilizes drone strikes to similar effect. The issue of whether to sign U.N.-drafted accords that would limit their crime-fighting abilities gets even more complicated when they must decide whether to surrender Bucky Barnes (aka the brainwashed-and-weaponized Winter Soldier, aka Captain America’s lifelong friend) to the American government, which has all but promised to execute him for crimes they believe he’s committed.
The team ends up evenly divided between those in favor of U.N. regulation and turning Bucky over (Iron Man, Black Widow, War Machine, Vision, and a recruited-at-the-last-minute Spider-Man) and those against (Captain America, the Winter Soldier, Falcon, Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch, and an also-newly recruited Ant-Man). When they finally assemble to beat the living bejesus out of each other, the Avengers division makes for some gorgeous fight-scene choreography. But the most fascinating element of the conflict is why each superhero chooses their side.
Just like in the real world, when it comes to important issues like government control or criminal justice, whatever privilege or comfort each superhero has enjoyed or been denied in their lives will decide where they stand.
Captain America’s suspicion of power is entirely informed by his penniless past. He and Bucky both grew up in poverty, and have remained close in large part thanks to their Depression-era childhood experiences — they’ve had each other’s backs even when they had nothing else. Couple that with Captain America’s encounters with Hydra’s government moles, and it becomes obvious why the USA’s golden boy (and his tortured, exploited, now-hunted BFF) might have second thoughts about trusting the government. Falcon may be ex-military, but he’s also got PTSD and doubts of his own about whether the powers that got his Air Force buddy Riley killed are entirely well-intentioned. Scarlet Witch/Wanda Maximoff (she and her late brother were raised as secret Hydra weapons) and Ant-Man (an ex-con — need I say more?) have also been abused and exploited by the authorities. Hawkeye doesn’t quite fit the mold, but he’s here after supposedly retiring in Avengers: Age of Ultron anyway — and he’s always been a bit of a mercenary.
By contrast, those in favor of oversight have every reason to believe in the system: Tony Stark has always been rich beyond belief, and rarely considers opinions other than his own; Rhodes is Stark’s best friend, a colonel in the Air Force, and continued liaison between the Avengers and the military; Spider-Man is a starstruck teenager who would do anything his billionaire genius hero Stark asked of him; Vision is literally a computer program made corporeal by magic, so he has every reason to value law and order. Natasha Romanov, on the other hand, has been working through a lifetime of conditioning — as a bred spy, she is accustomed to deferring to authority — and while she initially sides with the establishment, she second-guesses that loyalty at the last second and takes a leap of faith by helping the other side.
But in Civil War, it’s clear-cut: Just like in the real world, when it comes to important issues like government control or criminal justice, whatever privilege or comfort each superhero has enjoyed or been denied in their lives will decide where they stand.
Most remarkably, Civil War refuses to choose a side. No one character is responsible for “breaking up an empire,” not even the villain — who masterminds the rift after his family is killed by the havoc wreaked in Age of Ultron. (It should be noted that both Marvel and DC superhero movies and shows of late ) The strongest case the movie makes is for compromise: an elegant “fighting is bad” message, if you will. So the marketing campaign, asking fans to “pick a side,” is deeper than probably intended: the less you’ve suffered at the hands of power, the more likely you are to believe authority is inherently good. If you’ve already chosen a side, it could say something about you beyond whether you look better in red or blue.
Devon Maloney is a culture writer living in Los Angeles whose work has appeared in Wired, Vanity Fair, Grantland, Vulture, and The Los Angeles Times, among others.