When last we left the Avengers, reformed warhawk Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), aka Iron Man, was cleaning up his own militaristic mistakes—namely, the creation of a sentient super-robot-gone-psycho named Ultron (James Spader)—by designing a better, more morally conscious machine in the form of Vision (Paul Bettany). That plot gave Avengers: Age of Ultron a schizoid political dimension in which go-it-alone techno-warfare heroism was seen as both the cause of, and solution to, the world’s problems. It was a shrewd tack that allowed the film to appeal to both sides of the aisle to the tune of $1.4 billion at the global box office. And likely to the chagrin of Clinton and Sanders backers during this heated election year, it’s mostly absent, it turns out, in Captain America: Civil War.
Helmed by Captain America: The Winter Soldier directors Joe and Anthony Russo, Marvel’s latest picks up shortly after Ultron, with Iron Man, Captain America (Chris Evans), and the rest of their superpowered crew facing criticism from both a public and a government—led by Hulk nemesis Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt), who’s now secretary of state—convinced that the damage left in the wake of their missions, when coupled with their autonomy, makes them a threat.
In response to the destruction of Sokovia at the end of Ultron, 117 nations come together to concoct the Sokovia Accords, placing the Avengers under the control of a U.N. council. Iron Man is for this legislation, largely because he continues to be guilt-ridden over the collateral damage produced by his armored ass-kicking. Captain America, however, sees it as a terrifying shackle that could be exploited by untrustworthy politicians—a paranoia clearly born from his Winter Soldier revelation that covert agency S.H.I.E.L.D. was actually controlled by Nazi-esque villains HYDRA.
Tensions come to a boil when Captain America’s long-time buddy Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), aka the brainwashed, metal-armed killer Winter Soldier, is framed for a bombing at the U.N. during the signing of the Sokovia Accords. That terrorist act further convinces the world that the Accords are necessary—including King T’Challa (Chadwick Bosman), aka Black Panther, whose father died in the explosion—and it sends Cap off on an insubordinate mission to protect Bucky, whom he’s sure is innocent because, well, Cap is borderline in love with his old childhood pal. In doing so, he finds himself on the opposite side of a war with Iron Man.
Before long, the two testosterone-fueled superheroes are facing off, each with their own cadre of superpowered supporters.
Like their more general action-movie brethren, most superhero fantasies are inherently conservative in nature, positing independent vigilantes as the surest way to peace, justice, and the American Way. While famed New Yorker critic Pauline Kael’s censure of Dirty Harry as fascistic (a “right-wing fantasy [that is] a remarkably single-minded attack on liberal values") may have been going a tad too far, her overarching point—that the violent protagonists of such movies derive their might and virtue from their disobedience to the law, and their confidence in their own unassailable moral compass—still holds true for today’s crop of costumed do-gooders, whether they hail from Marvel or, as evidenced by this past March’s similarly themed Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, rival DC Comics.
As with its predecessor, Civil War wants to paint both sides of its politicized argument as reasonable (if only because those stances are taken by its two most popular characters). And yet here, that line-straddling feels strained to the point of disingenuousness.
Convinced that the American superpower has reaped more bad than good, and thus must be checked by both the government and the U.N., Iron Man—no matter his love of weaponized suits of armor—comes to embody the more self-critical, dove-ish, nanny state-advocating Left. Meanwhile, Cap’s opposition to imperious federal oversight, and his belief that he knows best and should be allowed to act accordingly in whatever international jurisdiction he sees fit, marks him as a figure of the Right—replete with a sidekick, Falcon (Anthony Mackie), who performs both surveillance and tactical strikes with his own personal aerial drone.
The fact that these characters once held opposite positions—Iron Man the armament-loving bad boy free agent (decked out in Republican red), Captain America the dutiful by-the-books soldier (outfitted in Democratic blue)—lends the film some dark irony about the way global conflicts warp deep-rooted convictions. But make no mistake about it: Civil War is the moment at which the Marvel Cinematic Universe most clearly embraces its conservative ethos.
While Iron Man’s attitude seems practical, it’s also ultimately demarcated as wrong. The outside-the-law Captain America is this film’s unqualified hero from the start, when he’s presented as the righteous alternative to Iron Man’s collaborative cowardice. And it’s solidified by its conclusion, when his conspiracy theory hunches are proven correct—thereby proving he’s more trustworthy than Iron Man, Thunderbolt Ross, the U.N., or any other administrative body. Furthermore, Bucky, the friend he’s driven to protect, is a case study in what happens to superbeings when they’re controlled by governments: they’re transformed into murderous, amoral assassin-slaves.
As such, Civil War's liberal inclinations feel far more half-hearted than in its precursors—although Marvel’s ideological confusion remains ever-present. Captain America may be a right-leaning rogue, but his tacked-on romance with blonde beauty Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp) feels like a feeble attempt to counterbalance his homoerotic bond with Bucky. And Iron Man’s sudden pro-parameters attitude seems so at odds with his self-determination character—as evidenced by a finale in which he lets his hunger for vengeance outweigh all other concerns—that his Sokovia Accords support comes across as a narrative device engineered to instigate some chaotic superhero-on-superhero mayhem.
Civil War is thematically too all-over-the-place to be reduced to facile political equations (Captain America does not equal Trump; Iron Man is not a proxy for Hillary Clinton). Nonetheless, in its celebration of lone-wolf heroes brazenly acting on their own (unassailable) whims, unfettered by pesky bureaucratic authority, it stands as an example of Marvel’s evolution toward a fundamentally more conservative philosophy.
At least, that is, until Spider-Man: Homecoming, whose nerdy wall-crawler—now firmly established as a member of regulation-loving Team Iron Man—may very well yet turn out to be a millennial superhero who Feels the Bern.