Since the beginning, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has maintained a continuous subtext on American wartime politics. Tony Stark’s lineage of weapons development leads to ground-level horror in the Middle East, a factor he ignores for most of his adult life by hiding behind unimaginable wealth and towering arrogance. Before he’s faced with those affected by his murderous merchandise, everything he does is in the name of good-hearted American capitalism. But when he’s captured by enemy forces and ordered to replicate a blueprint for a weapon of mass destruction he himself has designed, he recognises the danger of such weaponry falling into the wrong hands, and becomes alert to the careless ways in which the American military are misusing his wares. By creating the Iron Man suit, Stark attains responsibility, sidestepping the government altogether and taking out terrorist threats in ways that allow his conscience to rest easy.
The anxiety of godlike weaponry falling into enemy command is covered from The Incredible Hulk (2008) onwards, and is often manifested in deadly games of Capture the Flag. After all, the MCU takes place in a post-9/11 landscape (as much of its imagery reiterates), but it also explores the kind of nuclear threat that was supposed to have died with the Cold War. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) ups the ante considerably, redirecting the threat inwards by having an American businessman serve as the leader of the terrorist group Hydra. It calls to mind the disclosures on warrantless surveillance by the National Security Agency, who in 2013 were accused once again of compromising the rights of the American populace; the climax of The Winter Soldier tellingly forces a whistleblowing of S.H.I.E.L.D and Hyrda data and practices in tandem.
The Avengers’ watch list was thus expanded to include the powers governing their own nation, and now, with Captain America: Civil War, that list has grown again, turning inwards once more to focus on each other. Stark’s action plan to fight terrorism without incurring vast swaths of casualties has gradually slipped out of focus as the Avengers’ roster grows, and as the battles for planet Earth become more and more desperate. After the sheer chaos of Age of Ultron (2015), the United Nations decides that enough is enough: they draw up an act called the Sokovia Accords, which seeks to prohibit the Avengers from mobilising without government consent.
Dissent begins to plague the ranks, with Stark in favour of ratifying the act to soothe his burdensome conscience, and Steve Rogers rallying against it in order to savour the Avengers’ autonomy. The way Rogers sees things, the Accords would only submit the team to a government that, in The Winter Soldier, they learned was not guaranteed to be trustworthy; they also could be sent into battles they don’t agree with, or held back from the ones that truly matter.
Crucially appearing during US election year, Civil War arguably redirects the MCU’s political subtext inwards as well, with the Sokovia Accords recalling not so much American foreign policy and nuclear deterrence, but the historic debate over gun control that divides presidential candidates more stubbornly than any other issue. The topic is a contentious chicken-and-egg situation; firearms have long permeated American society for various reasons, but increasingly, they’re being used to commit small-scale acts of genocide.
The issue continuously pivots around the Second Amendment, which defends the right of an individual, or a militia, to own weapons. Indeed, the amendment was legislated at a time when the individual and the militia were culturally viewed as the same thing; it was in the individual’s rights to serve his country. The Avengers can therefore be argued to symbolise this crossover, as until now they’ve operated as a militia, serving their country individually, free from government control.
Civil War, then, sees them falling into that all-too-familiar argument that splits real-life Republican and Democratic parties down the middle. Republicans argue that the best policy is to allow ‘regular Americans’ to have free access to guns in order to defend themselves against those who use them to commit acts of terror. (Curiously, it’s Steve Rogers that supports the film’s version of this angle, vouching for the retaining of independent status that the Avengers have always operated under). Opponents, however, would argue that the proliferation of firearms would inevitably lead to more of the mass murders that the nation is presently trying to combat. Were it not for Stark’s reckless experimentation in Age of Ultron, after all, none of the events of that film would have happened, and countless unnecessary deaths would have been avoided as a result.
Democrats, on the other hand, have historically called for firearms to be regulated and made difficult to obtain, thus aiming to prevent disaster in advance. (Stark stands for the Civil War equivalent, arguing towards a reformation of the Avengers’ strategies in order to eschew the unnecessary wastage of lives). But likewise, counter arguments suggest that it may be better to have and not need, rather than to need and not have: for instance, if Steve Rogers had never defied government orders in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), there would have been no defence against the tyranny of Johann Schmidt after he harnessed the power of the Tesseract.
Many decisions are made when Vision analyses that acts of terrorism have grown exponentially since the formation of the Avengers; he argues that terrorist factions see the Avengers as a challenge, and that the team’s very presence amplifies the likelihood of insurgence. Instead of simplifying the matter, however, this information only complicates it. Terrorism was always there in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it always will be. Regardless of the cause, the problem is that it persists nonetheless, and so it must be combatted with every semblance of power the Avengers can muster; and, as the film allegorises specific American issues by repositioning the conflict to within the Avengers itself, it suggests that the solutions to all a nation’s problems must certainly begin at home.
Civil War wisely avoids directly contributing its own argument to the issue, but in constantly alluding to it, it provides a strong sense of cultural intimacy that significantly bolsters its resonance. As with The Winter Soldier, writers/directors Anthony and Joe Russo have elevated the contemporary Hollywood action flick beyond commonplace visions of 9/11 and the War on Terror, and together, they turn Civil War into a truly modern American blockbuster, a well-crafted big screen spectacle powered by a burning sense of now-ness.
The same thread of ethical complexity is shared with the film’s other motivating factor: the return of Bucky Barnes, a.k.a. the Winter Soldier. By nature, he’s the same Bucky that Steve Rogers knew and loved in childhood, but aspects of his past as a Hydra sleeper cell (hinted at in the opening sequence) are gradually revealed in ways that drive the Avengers into chaotic, irrational infighting. As King T’Chaka of Wakanda prepares to pass the Sokovia Accords, he is assassinated in a targeted explosion, and Bucky is witnessed at the scene of the crime. T’Chaka’s son, T’Challa (Black Panther), goes after Bucky seeking blood, but Rogers, sensing that all is not as it seems, goes after him seeking answers.
Due to this, the conflict in Civil War is never merely political, but also deeply emotional; Bucky’s involvement in the plot engenders many deciding factors in the allegiances the respective Avengers take. It all builds to a staggering set piece in which Team Stark and Team Rogers – with six Avengers joining either side – face off in an extended, explosive battle sequence that manages to find room for further character development in between the blows.
So while Civil War is a potent election year allegory for a country poised to tear itself apart in one sense or another, it’s also a potent cinematic experience full stop. That makes for considerable praise given the directors’ relative inexperience with big-budget action cinema: the Russo brothers’ first and only other production of this magnitude is The Winter Soldier.
Besides a few smaller features in the early 2000s, their credentials are largely comprised of sitcoms, particularly Arrested Development (2003) and Community (2009); however, this practice has clearly prepared them for wrestling with as many characters as Civil War has to balance. In 147 minutes, they manage four enormous and highly memorable set pieces, with the masterstroke being that each one is genuinely more emotionally charged – and tougher to stomach – than the last.
The script, which easily matches the previous benchmark set by Avengers Assemble (2012), is fat-free and structurally intricate, using the space in between action sequences wisely and giving the ensemble cast a great deal of material deal to work with. Robert Downey Jr., in particular, turns in his strongest performance since his wisecracking and depressive role in Zodiac (2007), and Chadwick Boseman makes a sea parting entrance into the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Black Panther, seething with calculated rage from the get-go, but with oodles of class and an effortless control over his own physique. (Too bad the same can’t be said for Tom Holland, who is equally as annoying as Andrew Garfield in his thankfully brief appearance as Spider-Man).
Moreover, the Russos have proven themselves as stunning visual stylists, aided invaluably by Neill Blomkamp’s go-to cinematographer Trent Opaloch, reprising his successful role from The Winter Soldier. As such, Civil War feels constantly deliberate in its construction, and feels much more striking than the other most recent MCU entries, particularly the underwhelming Age of Ultron. What helps is that there is less emphasis placed on computer-generated mayhem, and more of a focus on hand-to-hand combat. The battle scenes, aided by the team behind John Wick (2014), are choreographed and edited to make sure that each blow is felt, as opposed to descending into the audio-visual flurry that constitutes far too many digital era Hollywood blockbusters.
Certainly, the Russos seem more impervious to the downfalls of big-budget filmmaking than the majority of other directors; the editing techniques during the battle sequences recall those seen in John Woo’s Hong Kong crime thrillers, and the character development isn’t just good for a superhero movie, it’s good full stop. In interviews and behind the camera, they seem to enjoy and value the process of filmmaking, and Civil War is all the better for it, looking less like an invoice for all the millions of dollars being thrown at it, and more like a big screen narrative spectacle laboured over by two filmmakers eager to prove their mettle.
This all generates excitement at the prospect of the enormous Avengers: Infinity War, which is to be released over two instalments in 2018 and 2019. Blockbuster fans have recently had little reason to anticipate such endeavours, with The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 (2015) failing on the strength of the first part, and with the Hobbit films (2012-2014) barely working in general. Presuming they deliver on the promise of Civil War, though, it’s scary to imagine how good Infinity War will be if the Russos continue to develop their confident technical style in such a fashion. But even if Civil War remains the greatest moment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe when it’s all over and done with (assuming it ever will be), then at least there will be one film to look back on where the limits of the superhero formula were thoroughly transcended, and where, even despite the oversaturation of superhero films in today’s cinematic climate, anything seemed truly possible.