With this site now catering towards other areas of media, I think it’s appropriate to start off with one of my favorite franchises of all time. Here’s a take on the Marvel Cinematic Universe written by my good friend @Ziggy Starscream On Twitter and Instagram
American Cinema has reached a point in this age of mass information that the storytellers seem to feel a sense of responsibility to present narratives that not only reflect our world but compel us to shape it but to make us think critically. Robert Ray’s “Thematic Paradigm” acts as a framework for these storytellers to wrap their ideas around so it appears comprehensible to the public despite the normally difficult topics associated with the movie’s narrative. This brings us to the topic of this paper; Captain America: Civil War. This movie’s overall theme is that of the trade-offs between civil liberties and “national security.”, with each ideology embodied in the form of the “outlaw hero” in Captain America and the “official hero” in Iron Man. With this movie existing in a crossing web of franchises, this is actually an interesting development in these two characters. Captain America in all the movies he previously appeared in is very clearly represented the “official hero” just as Iron Man was the “outlaw hero” in each movie that he had appeared in. In the earlier movies, scenes with these two characters (who are teammates and friends) routinely had Captain America act as an “official hero” to keep the “outlaw hero” Iron Man in check. Returning to the “Thematic Paradigm”, this is central to the main point of the movie.
Captain America: Civil War is a movie that exists in a “universe” of crossing franchises that have been produced by Marvel Studios in association with Disney since 2008 with the release of Iron Man. With each movie having repercussions that affect other movies that exist in this web of movie franchises, each film released expands on a continuing narrative that allows many characters to be more thoroughly fleshed out in their motives, ideas, actions etc. By having a large amount of background information, this allowed the storytellers behind Captain America: Civil War much more creative freedom with characters as they do not have to entangle themselves with introducing characters and producing an origin story that would take up too much time in the film. The audience can go into the movie already knowing who the characters are, what their ideology is and why they act the way they do. As a result of this, the writers can focus on the real narrative, using these characters that represent different schools of thought and place them into positions that force us to see them act on hard decisions. The Marvel Studios movies function in a unique way in that regard. As they continue to add more movies to the pantheon they only have to make a single movie to introduce a character and establish their ideology. After that, they become a representation that can be used in crossover movies to develop the story. This develops a multi-level narrative that continually folds in on itself which gives the creative minds behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe a huge degree of creative freedom Captain America: Civil War is an especially unique case, however; the ideologies of Captain America remained the same but Iron Man had an ideological shift and their roles in the “Thematic Paradigm” in the film are reversed. Why is that change important? To answer that question, we must first establish each character.
Captain America has appeared in seven movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Captain America: The First Avenger, Avengers, Thor: Dark World, Captain America: Winter Soldier, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man, Captain America: Civil War). First introduced in Captain America: The First Avenger, the cinematic version of Captain America is established. Steve Rogers was an orphan in Brooklyn of small physical stature who had a very tough and stubborn mentality with an empathetic heart. Along with his friend James “Bucky” Barnes, he decides to enlist in the army during World War II. Rogers struggled with the physical aspect of the army but he was spotted for his temperament and behavior as the perfect subject to receive the “supersoldier serum.” Captain America becomes a symbol of American strength as he was taken around to boost the morale of troops. Realizing his potential to do much more for the war effort, Rogers leads a solo rescue mission and frees over 400 allied prisoners of war, including his childhood friend James “Bucky” Barnes. Upon returning to base, Rogers, Barnes and several of the other freed POWs formed the elite military group the “Howling Commandos” whose focus was on dismantling HYDRA operations in Europe. On a mission to recover a weapon from a train that that becomes compromised, Barnes falls and presumably dies which a distraught Rogers refuses to believe. Rogers leads another mission to the main HYDRA base to try and find Barnes as well as dismantle HYDRA once and for all. Rogers destroys the HYDRA weapons base he infiltrated and battled with the HYDRA leader, Red Skull, in a plane before crashing into Antarctica where he was frozen in ice until the present day, preserved and alive thanks to the supersoldier serum. Rogers was discovered by S.H.I.E.LD. and after talking to Nick Fury, the Head of S.H.I.E.L.D he takes his place back as the leader of The Avengers Initiative.
In Captain America: The First Avenger, Steve Rogers/Captain America’s ideology is firmly set early in the film. He is a representation of the “good” pieces of the. Rogers comes from modest beginnings, has a dislike of bullies and is willing to step up to them. He fits the archetype of the David vs Goliath/”The Underdog” very easily before the supersoldier serum is given to him. His main goal was to join the military and fight on the front lines against fascism and for the founding ideals behind America, which in itself is a very goal. Selflessness led him to risk himself to save his fellow brothers-in-arms. In his appearance, he is a handsome and clean cut and rarely seen outside of his military uniform. Rogers was never very lucky with women as he admitted he was “just waiting for the right partner” which he found in Peggy Carter, having her picture in his pocket watch as the plane plunged into the water. Steve Rogers was built in character to be not only the man you would want to introduce to your daughter but also the man that you want leading your son into battle. Through the lens of the “Thematic Paradigm” it is easily established how Steve Rogers is an “official” hero based on the character traits he exudes and his course of action. However, it is very important to note that Steve Rogers is very locked into his shape of the world and of the behavior of people. His moral compass has very little room for a gray area as there is typically either a right or a wrong to Cap’s assessment of a situation. This actually leads to Steve Rogers becoming somewhat of a static character since his actions are typically more predictable than that of his counterpart; Tony Stark. Captain America’s shift from “official hero” to “outlaw hero” does not stem from a change in his ideology but a to force him to switch to the “outlaw hero” paradigm.
For a civil war to occur, there must be a unity of parties that then disagree. The “official hero” has walked on stage but now we are waiting for the gunslinger, the rock star, the “outlaw hero.” But this is a movie about superheroes. The clean-cut military man whose body is pushed to human limits starts and the “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist” in a “suit of armor” follows. The world was introduced to Tony Stark in Iron Man. Brilliantly played by Robert Downey Jr, Tony Stark has appeared in seven Marvel Cinematic Universe films (Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, The Avengers, Iron Man 3, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America: Civil War). Tony Stark was a prodigy. The son of a scientific mind and weapon empire, Tony Stark was not someone to fit the cookie-cutter image of a “man of science.” Stark was arrogant, brash and entitled. Living off of a weapons fortune he continued to push the boundaries of warfare. On a trip to Afghanistan to introduce his new “JERICHO” missile, his transport convoy was attacked. Stark woke up a prisoner, and with an electromagnet surgically installed in his chest by a fellow captive to keep the shrapnel from reaching Stark’s heart and killing him. Stark realized that using his ARC reactor technology, he could feign building missiles for his captors but actually build a power source for a suit of armor that could be placed in his chest where the electromagnet is; an escape plan. After a successful escape and rescue, Stark discontinues the production of weapons for his company as he witnessed what his weapons can do in the hands of the wrong people. In secret, he continued to develop the Iron Man suit. Stark’s decision to discontinue the development of weapons caused a rift inside his corporation as a result of the massive stock hits that were a direct result of the decision. Stark Enterprises board of directors led by longtime associate Obadiah Stane, wished to remove Stark from his own company with causation due to financial loss in the company. After a fight with Obadiah Stane who built his own suit with the help of the terrorists that originally attacked Stark in Afghanistan that resulted in Stane’s death, Stark held a press conference publically announcing himself as Iron Man.
Iron Man was also the launch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The writers had no constraints to write in as far as the overarching universe they were knowingly the launch point for, however, they did have to make a good movie to boost confidence in the future movies. To do this, they had to establish Tony Stark as an ideal “outlaw hero” as vigilantes typically are by nature. The plot of Iron Man was rather straightforward. The “outlaw hero” had a revelation and changed his ways that had negative repercussions that he had to deal with. The major point of the film was to establish who Tony Stark was ideologically and this is only truly achieved through the mastery of the character by Robert Downey Jr.
Downey plays Stark with a flair for theatrics and a sarcastic wit that is sharp as it is spontaneous. While he himself may not be the billionaire, genius, playboy, philanthropist but he captures every part of the character as a reflection of his own personality. As much as Stark is a loose cannon in the Avengers, there are stories that during production Downey would hide food on set that he would pick up and eat while filming without the rest of the production crew knowing. Some of these shots are in the final cut of the films as it flows seamlessly with the spontaneity of the character. Tony Stark represents intellectual advancement, science and the power of technology while all being wrapped up in a narcissistic, alcoholic and rebellious shell that cracks at the seams. Tony Stark is an arrogant character by design. He is a genius that towers in intellect over most other human beings and lives in a monument to his wealth and ingenuity that bears his name across the Manhattan skyline. For the man who has everything, what does he pursue? Stark chose to pursue progress. However, during Iron Man he states that he realizes the power of his weapons in the wrong hands, but develops the Iron Man suit anyways stating that he alone is the right person to wield that power responsibly. With science and engineering at his side, there is little that Tony Stark believes that Tony Stark cannot solve. The static characterization of Captain America is the opposite of Iron Man. Tony Stark is an extremely dynamic character throughout his presentation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Iron Man had him believing that he was the only one responsible to control this type of power. In the aftermath of The Avengers he began the necessity of unity of people of this power in defense of humanity. Iron Man 3 had Tony reconsider the amount of suits he was creating after urging of Pepper Potts for the sake of their romantic relationship. Avengers: Age of Ultron had Tony create Ultron as a way to step away from the suit to only have it cause mass devastation to millions of people in the nation of Sokovia. Finally in Captain America: Civil War Stark concedes that he among everyone else in the Avengers cannot be solely responsible for the power they possess. This crossing film narrative of the development of Tony Stark shows a character who slowly feels the weight of responsibility crush him. Tony’s dynamism comes from his arrogant attitude as much as his ignorance of the world. After years of problems, fights and disasters “The Invincible Iron Man” realized that everyone needs to be held accountable by someone. The “outlaw hero” conceded to the wills of the governing body by abdicating his arrogance and through that ideological shift has become the “official hero.”
With the founding of the Avengers and the unity of the “outlaw hero” and “official hero” among other supporting members that all have firmly established origins and relationships to one another, the main focus of the later films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe become the story itself. Captain America: Civil War is not a story about Captain America and Iron Man because all the work to make the story about them was done in previous films. This film is an allegory on the argument of public safety versus public freedom using Iron Man and Captain America as the representation of each respectively. The “Thematic Paradigm” gave a skeleton of structure for a way to present this issue to the public in a way that is easily presentable. The natural affinity for the heroes in Iron Man and Captain America has been established in mainstream American culture for almost a decade thanks to the success of these movies. The audience already knows what has happened to Tony Stark and to Captain America so there is no need to waste story development on the past events that the audience is assumed to already be aware of. Captain America: Civil War is a film that is entirely based on its world’s present time. Iron Man and Captain America merely react to the events of the narrative and the audience coherently follows as a result of the intimate relationship the audience has developed with these characters over the years.
Just like in the real world, an issue rarely sees the public light until something drastic happens. At that point, a public dialogue on a proper response is ignited. All issues need a catalyst and in the storytelling of Captain America: Civil War is no different. After the Sokovia Incident in Avengers: Age of Ultron and the opening scene in Captain America: Civil War, a global outcry for some form of control on the superbeings becomes the major object of discussion. “The Sokovia Accord” was introduced. This act would place the control of the Avengers in their deployment and actions under the control of the United Nations and any Avenger who chooses not to sign would be labeled an international criminal for failing to comply. Named after the country in which the Avengers battled Ultron and the fallout of the battle destroyed an entire city and surrounding metropolitan area, the Sokovia Accord was signed by 117 countries of the United Nations and was to be ratified in Vienna three days after its introduction. At this point in the narrative, the Sokovia Accord is a point of only discussion among the Avengers. The line had been drawn in the sand that Captain America believes that taking away the Avengers rights to choose then lets them be held to the agendas of people where Iron Man believes that the power they hold can no longer be solely their responsibility when innocent lives are at stake. The villain in the film, Baron Zemo, acts as a theatrical tool to push the right buttons to generate the schism between Captain America and Iron Man. At the ratification meeting in Vienna, Zemo poses as James “Bucky” Barnes aka The Winter Soldier and attacks the United Nations meeting and kills the king of Wakanda as collateral damage.
As the world begins to change, Captain America holds to his ideological view of freedom, loyalty, and defense. The attack on the meeting in Vienna takes the conversation and turns it into a powder keg. Captain America’s fierce loyalty to his friend and insistence on Barnes’ innocence in the attack forced Cap to turn rogue against the Sokovia Accord. To Tony Stark the attack on Vienna proves that there is no longer any argument than to enforce the Sokovia Accord and on orders of the Secretary of State, he leaves to apprehend Captain America as an international criminal.
The title does emphasize (rather obviously) that the real conflict of the film’s narrative is the internal struggle between the Avengers that embody different ideological perspectives. Baron Zemo as the villain takes a backseat but does an excellent job of progressing the plot. He appears in smaller chunks of screen time with each appearance being a manipulation of some sort to push Captain America and Iron Man farther apart. As a villain manipulating a situation instead of standing at the forefront Zemo functions perfectly for the narrative to not direct the plot but merely guide it. In doing this the audience is forced to think on the issue between Captain America and Tony Stark, almost forgetting that Zemo is a factor at all. Only through Zemo’s actions though was Captain America able to not only go against the Sokovia Accord but also prove it’s manipulative origins. Zemo was living in Sokovia when the city fell. His family was killed and revenge is his motivation. With known characters representing distinct schools of thought and a villain whose motivation is simple and actions subtle, the audience continues to focus on the main narrative’s issue.
The second half of the movie is largely the battle between the two sides of the civil war. Captain America and his team are fighting to prove Bucky’s innocence and expose corruption while Iron Man and his team are fighting to uphold the international law. Here Zemo plays another vital role. His ulterior motive is the development of more “winter soldiers” by finding Bucky’s holding cell in Siberia. With Captain America proving that Bucky was innocent in the attack in Vienna outside of the jurisdiction of the Sokovia Accord, Cap also shows how the freedom of restraint is necessary to some degree for the Avengers to function in the way that they must to protect the world while Iron Man, working within the law, is incapable to stop Zemo because of the bureaucratic handcuffs the Sokovia Accord had placed on him.
These connections are much easier to draw in this extended narrative as the characters are known qualities. The audience already knows everything they need to know about these characters and the events that develop are what makes the audience want to watch their reaction. Each event at this point is only additive to the characters as individuals and to the overall plot in not only the individual film but to the continuing narrative of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The audience is now left with a choice going into a movie based on the title alone. There would be a split among the team that they have learned to love over years of anticipation and more than a handful of movies. The audience knows going in that the real battle is within and the villain is inconsequential. The audience knows going in that they all have their respective favorites. The audience knows that they will choose sides just like the heroes themselves. But the audience does not know who will win or if there is really a victory at all. The importance of this film is that while this movie shifts American cinema farther into the realm of spectacle more than almost any cinematic event in history, the audience almost feels participatory. The uneasy feeling that is developed seeing both paradigms of heroes identified and then reflected onto each other as there is no real villain to fight leaves the audience watching in astonishment. As the credits roll and the last secret scene is shown, the audience is left pondering the split and who actually was right or who even won. There are two things for certain though. First that this film will start many conversations about many topics that many people did not think to really discuss. Secondly that the audience cannot wait to see what comes next.