There are SPOILERS for Captain America: Civil War throughout this article. - editor
When I was doing my degree at Fuller, I tended to gravitate toward classes that explored popular culture and art for signs of grace. It’s probably because I’m an avid consumer of film and television, and I have also always felt a call to seek God. I guess it just made sense to do both at the same time. But often I found that the discussions around theology and film were happening around films that not very many people were actually seeing. Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life remains a popular example of this. It’s a beautiful, rich, and endlessly rewarding film, that maybe 5% of people have seen. I found myself wondering, a bit tongue-in-cheek, that if God were reaching through film to bless the world with moments of grace, that God might be more efficient in doing so through more popular movies. Sure, one might encounter the divine more through a more spiritual, theological film like The Tree of Life. But a movie like Avengers, which smashed box-office records faster than the Hulk smashes a horde of aliens, might be able to offer a smaller moment of grace to significantly more people. Though admittedly already a fan, I latched on to this series as a project to understand theologically. I haven’t been disappointed.
Captain America: Civil War recently opened worldwide and represents the largest culmination of the franchise to date. While most of the bigger Avengers films in this series are made to work independently as well as part of the larger whole, Civil War operates as a sequel to nearly every Marvel entry thus far – while it’s technically Captain America 3, it could very easily be recut to become Iron Man 4, Avengers 3, or even Ant-Man 2. For this reason, it seems ripe for exploring just where this Marvel series has taken us, whom it elevates as its heroes for us to admire, and where it all might be headed. We have come to follow these characters for so long, perhaps we can begin to see ourselves in them and their struggles, their tensions, and their flaws.
The Civil War Within
In Civil War, Tony Stark/Iron Man and Steve Rogers/Captain America find themselves on opposing side of the “Sokovia Accords,” a new initiative by the U.N. to supervise and oversee the Avengers, named after the setting of the disaster from Age of Ultron. Iron Man supports this system of U.N. oversight. Captain America does not. This difference leads to a divide amongst the Avengers, as well as recruitment on both sides. The movie takes extra care to show why each character chooses their respective sides, and what makes the story most compelling and believable is the ways that each character’s arc has already led them there.
For those who follow the Marvel Cinematic Universe closely, it’s not hard to see why Iron Man and Captain America fall where they do. Marvel has been developing the Civil War between Iron Man and Captain America, their two biggest tent-pole heroes, since the beginning. In fact, just about every scene these characters are in together over the years that isn’t an action scene finds them in conflict or at least tension. This movie escalates the tension by raising the stakes on their differences and playing up unsettled pieces of their pasts.
Iron Man's Character Arc Is More Than the Reactor in His Chest
The Iron Man trilogy, from beginning to end, is a story about redemption and fall-out. Tony’s transformation in the first Iron Man film comes early, and the rest of the movie shows him dealing with the outcome of his new worldview. He goes from profiting off war to trying to stop it, and this has consequences with his business partner who isn’t impressed with this sudden change of heart. In Iron Man 2, Tony continues to decide what his new legacy will be, when he is suddenly confronted by the legacy his father left him: an enemy seeking revenge for his father’s sins and an unfinished project his father left behind for SHIELD. In Iron Man 3, Tony has to deal with one of his own ghosts, some people he wronged in his past that have come back to hurt him, as well as the PTSD he has acquired since becoming Iron Man. Not only is his past haunting him, but he can’t even seem to do right in the present.
In the Avengers movies, we see how this plays out in a team setting. In the first Avengers, he struggles to be a team player, but ultimately is able to defer to Captain America’s leadership, and is even willing to sacrifice his own life to save New York City from nuclear destruction. In Age of Ultron, we see how his fear and his PTSD, escalated by Scarlet Witch’s manipulation, cause him to create Ultron – meant to be a guardian for earth, who ends up almost destroying it. Tony’s story thus far is of constant attempts to reinvent himself and reconcile with the past and present, but he always comes up short.
In Civil War, we first see Tony at MIT presenting a hologram of the past, a key moment he wishes he could change, before telling a room full students to “reshape the future.” He is confronted by a woman whose son died in the events of Age of Ultron, and she definitively blames him. Being the self-deprecating, martyr type, he takes this blame without hesitation, and it eats at him. He supports the Sakovia Accords because he sees nothing but the ramifications of his jaded past and continues to search for peace in trying to change the future.
Captain America's Punch-Out
Captain America’s trajectory is quite different. Rather than going through a character transformation, Cap’s is merely physical. He is chosen to become Captain America, actually, because he already has the type of character and heart needed to be a hero. He simply lacks the resources. (Read: the opposite situation of Tony Stark at the beginning of Iron Man.) The serum that turns him into Captain America augments everything, he is told, including his resolve and goodness. The Captain America story is actually something of a tragedy, because he was born to be a hero and then loses everything – after sacrificing himself to save the world, he wakes up 60+ years later without the world he knew, the woman he loved, and his best friend.
In The Winter Soldier though, Cap starts to reconcile with the past, which he actually might wish he could go back to. America has become a very different place, being willing to give up their freedom for the illusion of protection, and as Cap discovers, it’s being given up to his old nemesis, Hydra. This is embodied by the return of his best friend Bucky, who against his will has become a villain. Captain America wants nothing more than to save Bucky and bring him back to the side of good.
In The Avengers, Cap first has to reconcile himself in the present world, where good guys and bad guys are hard to differentiate between. He finds himself contending with some of SHIELD’s weapons stockpiling before getting thrown into a battle where he is able to organize a team around him to save New York City. In Age of Ultron, we see his leadership tested as he witnesses Tony Stark do the very thing that he fought against in Winter Soldier – creating a weapon to save us that turns out to be villainous. In a very telling scene between him and Stark, Tony argues that the reason they fight is to end the fight, so that they can go home. Cap replies by ripping a log in half and saying, “Every time someone tries to end a war before it starts, innocent people die.” Cap doesn’t run from the past. The past is something he lost, and can never get back to despite his best efforts. He has a hard time imagining the future, but lives in the moment with his optimism and faith.
Therefore, in Civil War, we find Captain America defending his friends and his ideals above any guilt or burden that the past may bring to bear. He opposes the Accords, because he remains suspicious of organizations with political agendas—Can you blame him?—and because he has never been defined by what’s going on around him but rather by his own resolve, convictions, and heart. But these alone do not make a person justified, or even right.
Because this is not “Marvel’s Civil War,” but actually Captain America: Civil War, the movie leans heavily into resolving Cap’s larger arc – it is the final film of his trilogy, after all. The action centerpiece, where the Avengers battle on an airport tarmac, gives way to a more intimate and brutal fight at the end of the film between Cap and Iron Man. Cap defends his friend, stands up and fights for what he believes in no matter what the cost, to the last punch, recalling a memorable line from the beginning of the first Captain America: “I can do this all day.”
Unfortunately, because it is his movie, Civil War never successfully calls Captain America into question or really imagines him as potentially wrong or even flawed. Many fans believe that Cap may be a bit of a war-monger, unable to operate without a black-and-white moral battle to physically fight, or as Black Widow puts it, “punch your way out of.” The film might have benefited from calling into question that Cap’s first instinct is always to fight even when it pits him against his friends, and to recognize the Vision’s warning that conflict breeds catastrophe. Instead, the film seems to portray Captain America as right at several key moments. While you understand why Tony Stark is doing what he is doing, he is the one forced to compromise and “come around” in the end.
Both characters actually fail to come to terms with how their past actions and former lives should dictate their actions in the present and their imaginations for the future. In fact, every character in this movie is dealing with this, even the villain. Some characters handle it better than others. How does one reconcile the past with the present and future?
The ideas of forgiveness and reconciliation have inspired and fascinated Christians for 2000+ years. The idea that the past can be truly forgiven and that the future is open to new possibility has always been and remains the foundational tenet and hope of those who follow Christ.
In this film, we see that both Iron Man and Captain America have a flawed sense of what forgiveness and reconciliation are supposed to be. Iron Man operates from a position of immense guilt. He has spent the entire time we’ve known him trying to reconcile the sins of his father and his own and constantly makes mistakes and rash decisions out of a genuine desire to atone. He remains unable to experience a true letting-go of the past and is therefore also unable to be set free himself from those ghosts. Captain America, on the other hand, operates from a sense of not needing to be forgiven, believing this his ideology and good intentions make his actions always justifiable. While he is willing to admit mistakes and even apologize for them, he never shows a self-awareness to believe that he himself may be flawed and that he needs to change.
In Christian life, we see examples of both these camps: whole groups of Christians who idealize the evil nature of humanity and live and preach guilt, shame, and penance, unable to accept that forgiveness can truly set us free and open up new possibilities. On the other side, we see whole groups of Christians who believe that because of their faith, they are incapable of doing wrong because of their “superior” Christian values or status, co-opting the idea of forgiveness as a get-out-of-jail-free card. They never truly come to terms with the hard realities of reconciliation. The film, while probably favoring one side, shows that these two opposing viewpoints of shared life are both flawed. Perpetual guilt and shame is not a way forward; neither is cheap grace.
For us, the hope of course is Christ, who dealt with the repercussions of sin by taking them on himself, and who by resurrecting opened the world to the possibility of new life free from sin. This is why our best prayers of confession are so thorough. We confess not only for what we have done but for what we have left undone. We confess the sin that we don’t even knowingly commit. These prayers orient us toward a fuller understanding of the consequences of our actions, confronting any mistaken notion that we are impervious to mistakes and that we need to reconcile. The prayers also move us toward mercy, not letting us wallow in our depravity, but invite us into God’s forgiveness.
For Marvel, the hope and joy of this film and for “Phase 3,” are two new characters who both “get it” more than Iron Man and Captain America. Spider-Man and Black Panther are introduced at the perfect moment in this universe. When the two central heroes of the old guard have begun to polarize around their biggest flaws, two new heroes arrive to live in the tension, forge new ways forward, and have a blast doing it. Spider-Man doesn’t get another origin story, much to this audience member’s relief, but we understand that his story involves pain, loss, and regret. (Any regular superhero cinema-watcher knows by now that he unwittingly allowed a killer to go by out of pettiness, and that killer later killed his uncle.) And yet, Spider-Man is able to learn the appropriate lesson from this mistake. In other iterations, this lesson is: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Here, it’s simply, “Stand up for the little guy” because if you can, and you don’t, then it’s your fault when the bad things happen.
Black Panther gets the most compelling character development in the movie, as he seeks vengeance against his father’s killer. When he comes to realize that his vengeance almost led to killing the wrong man, and further, that it was vengeance that drove his fathers killer, he decides to break the cycle of violence and actually save, rather than kill or to even allow the villain of the story to die by his own hand. While at this point in the story we may be distracted by the final showdown between Iron Man and Captain America, we should not miss the profound moment where a hero goes out of his way to save a villain.
Between Spider-Man and Black Panther, “Phase 3” belongs to new heroes who deal with their guilt and pasts and character flaws in meaningful and helpful ways. It goes a long way to show there is still mileage left in this Marvel series. We get to see these new leaders in their own films, as they perhaps emerge as the new leaders of a new age of Avengers. Against all odds, it’s still an exciting time to be a fan of superhero movies, and to explore the ways they teach us about ourselves.
Kevin is an alumni of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA. When he is not being passionate about theology or film, you can find him being overly passionate about coffee. He works full-time as a barista in West LA, and is also a licensed minister in the Church of the Nazarene. He blogs about theology, film, coffee, and the intersections of them all at revkevnye.com. You may also connect with him via Facebook and Twitter.