Today, Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War will hit theaters—to which the world will witness an all-out brawl among Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. On one side of the battlefield, we have Steve Rogers. As Captain America, Rogers has seen the good that has come from being a hero. Without government interference, Rogers had the freedom to use his best judgment and his own moral compass. He doesn’t have to take into account whether it is practical to save a life, or whether a mission’s importance outweighs the lives of the innocent. Rogers can act on his own behalf and that’s a right that he’s not willing to give up.
On the other side, we have Tony Stark. Stark has been nothing short of reckless over the course of his tenure as a superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While Stark has good intentions, his ego and arrogance have gotten the better of him. It was his own pride that led to the creation of Ultron, an artificial intelligence program meant to safeguard humanity, but that backfired when it became sentient and decided the best way to ultimately bring about peace would be to wipe out mankind. With the amount of destruction that he has witnessed and himself caused as Iron Man, it should come as no surprise that Stark is open to the government overseeing the activities of the Avengers and all superheroes.
Both characters have their flaws, but they also have considerable qualities that make them great leaders. Unfortunately for the Avengers, each member must now choose a side. With Captain America and Iron Man each representing polarized, yet respectable sides, the lines are blurred as to who is right and who is wrong. While the film will likely deal with events that have transpired only in the Marvel Cinematic Universe itself, it is worth knowing where this massive storyline comes from.
Marvel's Civil War, the massive comic book crossover event that the film is based on, dramatically changed the playing field of Marvel stories when Steve Rogers and Tony Stark went head to head. Not only did it fracture the superhero community, it also redefined what it truly meant to be a hero, as well as set new standards when it came to freedom and security for the superheroes of the Marvel comic universe.
Civil War opened with a group of young, mostly untested superheroes known as the New Warriors scouting the hideout of a group of supervillains in Stamford, Connecticut. The New Warriors weren’t your traditional heroes, but rather, part of a superhero reality show in desperate search of ratings. Their leader, Speedball, noticed the villains they were scouting are on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, and naively believed that apprehending them, the ratings boost would give the New Warriors the momentum to be viewed as real heroes. Unfortunately, being young and inexperienced as they were, the New Warriors were in way over their heads and it led to tragedy when villain Nitro, who had the ability to create explosions, exploded, leveling multiple city blocks and resulting in the deaths of 600 innocent civilians, 60 of which were children in an elementary school. Only Speedball and Nitro himself survived.
The Avengers, along with other heroes, later came to Stamford, where they aided local firemen in rescue efforts. Wolverine was disturbed to see a Sentinel, a robot created to protect humanity from mutants, watching over him despite him volunteering in a federal emergency. Goliath remarked to Captain Marvel that the mutants won’t be the only ones watched over after the Stamford incident. Unfortunately, he was right.
With the superhero public image tarnished and overwhelming public outcry, the government successfully implemented the Superhuman Registration Act, a bill that required all superhumans to register as “living weapons of mass destruction.” Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man, who had originally been against the bill when he caught wind of its rumored proposal, had a change of heart thanks in part to the Stamford explosion, and particularly Miriam Sharpe. Miriam was the mother of one of the children that died in the explosion and became a public crusader. She blamed Stark for her son’s death, as well as the mindset of the heroes who thought it was okay to work outside the law.
Realizing that the Superhero Registration Act would be passed with or without their approval, Stark tried to sway his fellow superheroes to his side in support the bill. From his typical practical standpoint, he knew it would be good PR for superheroes to publicly support the bill even if they didn't agree with it. In a roomful of heroes, he explained that the bill wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, arguing that it would make them legitimate heroes to work under the government. Stark also brought up the point that as heroes, they should be better trained to handle unprecedented situations, which would result in them regaining public trust once again.
Naturally, not everyone felt the same way. Falcon claimed that the bill would open all sorts of troubles should their identities be exposed; the only way many of them were so effective was because they operated in anonymity. New threats would come knocking on not just their doors, but those of their friends and families. Luke Cage directly compared the mandatory registration to slavery. Others had their own reasons for supporting or denying the bill, heroes and villains alike. The superhuman community was split down the middle.
Onboard a S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier, Commanding Director Maria Hill made a play for the pro-registration side and asked Steve Rogers, Captain America, if he would lead the Avengers in arresting rogue heroes and those who refused to sign the Superhero Registration Act. Rogers shut her down and informed her that he would not help her in her quest, nor would he turn on his friends and teammates. Rogers was against the bill, arguing that with heroes under government control, the government would dictate whether or not The Avengers would be utilized, as well decide who the enemy was. It brought too many politics into the act of being a superhero. Rogers, who had seen firsthand soldiers ordered to commit awful acts during the course of war, wasn't comfortable with the slippery slope the Superhero Registration Act and government oversight presented. Hill, of course, wasn’t thrilled to know Rogers opposed the bill, resulting in her ordering the First Avenger to be arrested.
Rogers escaped, and to avoid further confrontation with S.H.I.E.L.D., went into hiding, but he didn’t go alone. He was joined a by a group of other heroes who were against the bill. Stark, however, saw the problem in having Captain America himself publicly opposing the bill. In an attempt to turn the tides for those supporting the bill, Stark managed to talk Peter Parker into revealing his identity in a nationally televised press conference. Having Spider-Man reveal his identity to the public was the ultimate endorsement in support of the bill as Spider-Man had always been the one superhero so adamant about safeguarding his identity.
In an attempt to end the war before it really began, Captain America and his team led Iron Man and his group into an ambush. Captain America played dirty, disabling Iron Man’s armor and sucker punching him. But while Captain America’s team initially had the upper hand, the tables turned as soon as Thor joined the fight. Unknown to all at the time, it wasn't the real Thor, but a clone, and its rage got the best of him, killing Goliath. As the Thor clone prepared to kill the remaining faction of anti-registration rebels, Invisible Woman, who was pro-registration, stepped in and helped Captain America and his team escape.
Goliath’s death was the turning point in the story, a moment for all those involved to really ponder on what they are fighting for. Despite the heroes being in battle, neither side had contemplated using extreme force to get a victory over the other. None of them had predicted that there would be actual death of friends involved and by one another's hands. Heroes on both sides examined their part in the war and whether or not they were making the right choice. Spider-Man, who had played such a big role in convincing other heroes to be pro-registration, found himself questioning if he was on the right side. He soon made a shocking discovery that saw him turn on Tony Stark and ultimately switch allegiances to Captain America's anti-registration side.
Unknown to Peter Parker, Stark, and fellow super-scientists Hank Pym (the first Ant-Man), and Reed Richards (Mister Fantastic) had completed a prison to hold those who opposed the bill in the Negative Zone. Up to that point, Stark had been a sort of mentor for Spider-Man, but Parker lost his faith in Stark and the pro-registration side as a whole when he discovered that the arrested superheroes, their friends and former teammates, were being held indefinitely and without trial in the prison dubbed Project 42. It was simply something he could not condone or support, and, after a physical fight in which he broke Stark's arm, Parker sought out the underground base of the anti-registration movement.
Seeking to end the war once and for all, Captain America and his side devised a plan to spring the arrested anti-registration rebels from the prison using a pair of schematics that the Punisher had obtained. With such a swell in numbers, there would be no way the pro-registration side could defeat them, and the fight would have to come to an end.
Everything seemed to be going according to plan until it was revealed that Tigra, formerly a pro-registration supporter who had switched sides following the death of Goliath, betrayed Captain America and his team. Fortunately, the team had already known of Tigra’s betrayal, thanks in part to their own mole on Iron Man’s team. The Hulking, who had taken over Pym’s identity with his ability to shapeshift, released the prisoners from Prison 42, and with those heroes free from captivity, the opposing sides engaged an all-out brawl.
The battle was intense. While Captain America relied on his team, as well as newfound allies, Iron Man and S.H.I.E.L.D. had struck deals with villains to help them achieve their aim. Cloak, who had been one of Captain America's imprisoned teammates, teleported the fight from the prison to the streets of New York City. With both heroes and villains thrown into the mix, massive property damage soon spread. As the battle progressed, it seemed that Captain America and his teammates would be victorious, thanks to interference from Vision, who had compromised Stark’s armor. But as Stark taunted Rogers to end the war by delivering the finishing blow upon him, a group of civilians held Captain America back. They wanted the fighting to end.
Taking a look around at the damage they had caused, Captain America realized that even if they won the battle, they would ultimately lose the real war, the one of the public's trust and support. In any case, he knew he could no longer continue a war in which innocent civilians could be harmed. Captain America removed his mask, and surrendered himself to the authorities as Steven Rogers.
Rogers' surrender marked the end of the war. While many of his teammates given amnesty for their participation in the war, Rogers himself was imprisoned. Two weeks later, the Fifty State Initiative was implemented, providing each state with their own respective superhero team. Stark became the new Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. as a thank you from the President of the United States.
Obviously, the film itself won't follow the exact events of the comic books, but with this overview, you hopefully go into the movie with a better understanding of what transpired and why the heroes chose the sides they did.