*This WHOLE article essentially includes spoilers.
As my mom always said, there’s no point making a sci-fi movie without a greater societal criticism (my mom most definitely has never said that). Whether it be the dual critique in the original Planet of the Apes on both racism and anti-intellectualism (and maybe how they’re functionally the same thing) or the subtle attack at religion and supernatural belief in Mad Max: Fury Road, all movies about cultures not our own must ultimately be about the culture that is our own. Marvel movies have never sought a different purpose for themselves.
Marvel movies have always had commentary
The largely overarching theme in the Iron Man and Avengers movies is the social responsibility of large organizations for the good of the common people, seen most aptly in Stark’s move in the first film to end his weapons manufacturing division, trying to see his corporation do only good and not a mix of bad and good. The Russo brothers, who directed Civil War, saw in their Marvel directorial debut of Captain America: The Winter Soldier a solidly unabashed attack at the NSA and other government programs that steal privacy and freedom from the American people. This is seen in their look at the Project Insight program and Zola’s algorithm for detecting how and when people will break the law. The Russo brothers seemed to attempt to make another uniquely apt commentary in their humor-and-superhero-packed sequel to their 2014 hit, but somehow lost sight of this noble goal. The end of the film abandoned the initial ideological struggle for a more elementary and adolescent emotional struggle.
What Civil War seemed to try to say
In both the comics bearing the same name and this long film of humble budget (sarcasm, obviously), we see a theme stand out and take us to American democratic philosophy, making us look inside and search our hearts for which side of this ideological struggle on which we land. This soon-to-be-iconic film asks this question most pertinently: Would we rather have freedom to make the choices we deem correct and not be overcome by the will of a larger and sometimes unethical authority, or would we rather have oversight and control over more aspects of society in order to further the collective good through organization and accountability? The fight, then, is this: freedom or control over consequences. Captain America’s side and Iron Man’s side, respectively.
This blog post will not be dedicated to explaining why one side is correct or why one side is wrong, but rather this merely wishes to address the issue facing this movie’s final act—that it altogether abandons this ideological and thematic struggle in favor of a simpler conflict that more easily portrays Captain America in the “right” and Iron Man in the “wrong”.
From the beginning of the film, with the explanation of the Sokovia Accords, to Stark’s sweet emotional appeal about the young man killed by their actions, to Captain America’s plea that the “best hands are still their own” and how he worries that the panel structured in the Accords would make wrong decisions regarding the Avengers’ deployment, the theme is almost explicitly stated. Iron Man’s side is summed up best when Vision, at the airport, tells the other team to surrender to help the collective good (where, seemingly without thought, property is utterly destroyed. If this doesn’t seem to give credit to the idea that they (both sides) do whatever they want, I don’t know what will. But how could we have a superhero movie without Ant-Man as Giant-Man tearing off half of an airplane to throw around?). Captain America’s side is summed up earlier in the film when young agent Carter explains at the funeral to look society in the eyes and say “No, you move” when they are wrongly telling you to move. We see this ideological fight, however, never reach fruition as a climactic fight. The great airport fight scene (where Spider-man and Ant-man steal the show) is the last lingering thought of this conflict that so drove the marketing and fanboys to the theater.
(Let me briefly interject here that I loved the movie in most respects and would have easily given it a solid 8/10, with two points being knocked off, one for this issue I see here and one for the soundtrack. I have seen all the last 4 Marvel movies at their premier at my local theater and forced my friends to come with me, so, while critiquing this aspect, I am very much still a fanboy. I also just finished seeing the film for the second time this week as I write this.)
Vengeance takes over, both Iron Man and the film
Freedom vs Control is replaced, sadly, by the emotional theme of vengeance. Once Captain America and Bucky leave to follow Zemo to Siberia and Black Panther follows, vengeance is the only theme left on the table, as Zemo seduces Iron Man to give into his passionate vengeance, Episode-2-Anakin style. Zemo is revealed to be only after vengeance, and so becomes Iron Man, as he loses all sense of reason in his quest to kill Bucky. I do concede here that the theme was always barely there in the role of Black Panther and so it is not completely out of the blue, but when this consumed Iron Man, it was not characteristic of his cinematic role nor his attitudes of guilt and regret in the film up to this point. Iron Man and Cap’ form a shaky truce in Siberia to fight an army of super-soldiers they think are coming, but when it is revealed they are no longer the enemy, Zemo uses vengeance to turn the two friends against each other. They started off being very driven by ideological fervor for the sides of freedom or control/oversight, and ended up fighting because of uncontrollable vengeance that consumes Iron Man.
This seems to be a cop-out and a move in the screenplay that makes Iron Man the obvious villain. Vengeance is ingrained in our society to be foolish at best and evil at worst, and so when Iron Man adopts this as his reason to fight, the suddenly extremely reasonable-sounding, noble, and merciful Captain America becomes the clear choice to root for. This nullifies the ideological struggle that drove the film for the first two thirds and neuters the effects of the film on an audience who can now walk away to their comfortable 4-door luxury hybrids feeling fully justified to be on Captain America’s side. The film fails giving the audience a commentary to chew on. It only succeeds in giving vengeance a bad name, a theme so repetitive and used that it feels cliché and boring.
Why can we not have seen the original struggle between the two friends as the main fight? It must have been hard to find a way to reconcile the two sides, so rather than do that, we arrive at a film that avoids the question and ends without resolution.
To me, sadly, this shift in thematic struggle from the great American democratic question to the question of vengeance makes the ending very unsatisfying. It makes me upset with Iron Man, and ultimately makes the character of Zemo seem very dull and insignificant to the overall film. It forces the end of the film to feel more like an epilogue than the ending of a film, a briefly thought-out sequel rather than a culmination of conflict and friendship and their passionate intersection.
Could Captain America have been wrong on his views of complete freedom for the Avengers? Maybe. Could Iron Man be wrong on his views of control and oversight for the Avengers? Maybe. But by the end of the film this wasn’t even the question this film begs to ask. Rather, we are simply told that Iron Man has a teen-angsty spirit and contains a flaw of vengeance.
Do you think Iron Man should have been upset about his parents as the final conflict between him and Captain America or do you think he should have remained thematically against the absolute freedom that Captain America stood for?