I caught a bit of Captain America: Civil War recently and started seeing things in it that I hadn’t before. A recent conversation came to mind about the complexity of both Marvel’s comics and the MCU. As I keep telling my students, analysis (and literature) is all about layers and digging beneath the surface.
On the surface level, the movie is a bunch of attractive people with powers (or tech or insane training) and tight suits blowing stuff up. We dig slightly deeper and we see that the movie is about checks and balances, reining in power, and ensuring that the “little guy” is not harmed, or trying to.
Deeper still, and I’m probably not the first to see this, the movie is about how we deal with death. In that, I think it both gets somewhat more interesting and serves as prelude for The Avengers: Infinity War. This aspect, I think, focuses on Wanda, Tony, Steve, Zemo, and T’Challa. The others get left out for various reasons:
- Natasha, as an assassin and spy, has dealt with her response to death long ago. In this, she mirrors Sam and Rhodey.
- Vision’s only family and friends are Avengers, whom the writers were not ready to kill.
- Sam and Rhodey, as soldiers, came to terms with death long ago.
- Clint, Peter, and Scott are “unimportant” in that they all let Tony and Steve call the shots.
Wanda spends a good percentage of the movie working through her role in the accidental deaths of the Wakandans. As the cause of the accident (which Steve also shoulders), she remains focused on guilt long enough to support the Sokovia Accords. In this, I think she sees herself in the role Tony played for her at the beginning of Ultron, the hated enemy who destroyed her life. Her response here mirrors and feeds Tony’s reaction. When confronted with being a cause of death, Tony becomes obsessed with fixing the problem. To that end, his reaction, as in Ultron, is to attempt to bubble-wrap the world. He bolsters this response with the logic “for your own protection”, which ultimately drives Wanda away from his cause.
Tony and his parents are, as always with Tony, a key element. At the beginning, we see that Tony, as is his wont, turns to technology for therapy. And he seems to have come to terms with the deaths of his parents. Of course, when he learns the deaths were not an accident, he goes full offensive, as he did with Happy’s near death. All logic and reason flees, as we see when Steve, familiar with losing loved ones, states, “This isn’t gonna change what happened.” Tony replies, “I don’t care. He killed my mom,” before continuing his offensive against Bucky.
Steve, of course, is an old hand at dealing with loss. Or ought to be. But, here, he loses the love of his life to old age. In response, he fixates on Peggy Carter’s words as related by her niece, “Compromise where you can. Where you can’t, don’t. Even if everyone is telling you that something wrong is something right. Even if the whole world is telling you to move, it is your duty to plant yourself like a tree, look them in the eye, and say ‘No, you move.’” These words, spoken by his deceased love, become his guiding principle, something he lost after the clarity of WWII and the betrayal of SHIELD. Steve turns Peggy’s death into his new moral center.
The entire plot revolves around Zemo’s response to the death of his family. Like most people, Zemo wants someone to blame. Unlike most, he has the Avengers to fill that role. So, his response is to use his knowledge and intelligence skills to seek revenge. In the process, he becomes that which he claims to hate and fight, as he leaves a trail of innocent bodies in his wake.
T’Challa takes the final role with the death of his father, at Bucky’s hands through Zemo’s machinations. Initially, he follows in Zemo’s footsteps, as Zemo anticipates. The murderous revenge angle gets played out for most of the movie, and drives the plot. That is until T’Challa and Tony discover the truth. Then, eventually, T’Challa, perhaps recalling what he told Natasha about his people’s beliefs regarding death, accepts his father’s passing. With acceptance comes wisdom. That wisdom brings his to comfort and advise Zemo to end the continual cycle that vengeance inevitably becomes.
With all that in mind, I think the treatment and response to death are important aspects to the movie, and an important prelude (for the character development at least) to Infinity War.