Sure, it’s a cliché, but we know it’s true. We make our share of mistakes. But, as painful as those missteps can be, they’re rarely matters of life and death. If I’ve miscounted the swear words for this movie review, my editor may yell, but he won’t call for a Congressional investigation. I hope.
But if you’re an Avenger, the consequences of imperfection can be far greater.
For years, the Avengers—both separately and collectively—have saved the world time and time again. They’ve rescued thousands, millions, even billions of people from terrible fates. But their unsanctioned do-gooding has not come without cost. Innocent people are sometimes still inside those exploding buildings and falling cars. Sure, maybe the Avengers mean well, but that’s not much solace to the folks who’ve lost their husbands and wives, parents and children. And the world begins to wonder whether it’s such a good idea to let a handful of superhuman individuals—each one a frighteningly emotional weapon of mass destruction—to run loose across the earth without any safeguards.
And so the civilized world draws up the Sokovia Accords—an agreement between the planet and the superheroes who protect it. It curtails, essentially, any more unauthorized acts of heroism: If you wanna save the world, you’re gonna have to get permission. Heroes don’t have to sign, mind you. No one’s going to twist Hulk’s arm (because, really, who’d have hands big enough?). But for those who don’t … well, we’ll get to that soon enough.
Many heroes, including Iron Man, support the Accords. He believes that even superheroes—especially superheroes, perhaps—could use a little accountability. But others, including Captain America, aren’t so sure. Organizations, however well-meaning, have a tendency to foster their own agendas. Even the good ones may dither and delay, costing more lives. “We may not be perfect,” Cap argues, “but the safest hands are our own.”
The Accords will be passed, of course, whether the good Captain likes ’em or not. But during the signing ceremony, tragedy strikes: A bomb goes off, killing dozens. It’s not long before news agencies broadcast the picture of the presumed bomber: the Winter Soldier, aka Bucky Barnes, aka Captain America’s one-time best friend.
The world launches a worldwide manhunt and orders Accords-signing superheroes to stand down. Regular old soldiers will bring down the Winter Soldier, and they mean to do so quite literally. They have orders to shoot on sight—and shoot to kill.
Cap can’t let that happen to his old pal—especially not when he doesn’t think Bucky’s even responsible for the bombing. So he slaps on his suit, picks up his shield and dives into the fray once again. And while he believes he’s still fighting for truth, justice and the American way, this time that belief puts him on the wrong side of the law.
But how is that law going to bring Cap in? Seems like you’d need a man made of iron to even try.
As we can gather from the title, Captain America: Civil War pits hero against hero—a Technicolor battle centered around issues we struggle with today. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that most of these heroes still have the same basic goals in mind: to protect the innocent, bring the guilty to justice and make the world a safer place. Some, like Iron Man, believe that such a greater good can best be reached by submitting to a legal authority. Cap, for his part, is determined to save Bucky’s life, no matter the cost. And others just want to preserve this strange, oddly loving family that the Avengers has become.
But these supers are human, too, and emotions come into play. [Spoiler Warning] In that regard, here’s one example of how a bad beginning gets worked out in the end: King T’Challa (Black Panther) is introduced as a guy out for revenge, hoping to kill the man he believes killed his dearly beloved father. But as the dust settles, he comes to see that revenge is not the way forward. “Vengeance has consumed you,” he tells an evildoer. “It is consuming them. I’m done letting it consume me.”
Speaking of T’Challa, he talks about how his “culture” believes in an afterlife full of green meadows where the dead can run to their hearts’ content. It was something his father believed, T’Challa suggests—but then adds that he is not his father. A funeral takes place in a big, beautiful church.
Captain America smooches secret agent Sharon Carter—a kiss Cap believes is long “overdue.” (Says a guy who is technically close to 100 years old and once had a thing for Peggy Carter, Sharon’s now elderly aunt.)
Civil War is filled with scenes of frenetic, intense action—mostly on par with what we’ve seen in Marvel’s previous superhero movies overseen by Disney (which discounts the X-Men and Fantastic Four franchises, and, of course, Deadpool). There’s very little blood seen, but because the movie is predicated on describing the costs of fighting even righteous fights, it can feel more visceral and jarring. And while some of our heroes do their best not to kill anyone, not all Avengers (Natasha, we’re looking at you) have such a strict policy.
One man drowns while being suspended above a slowly filling sink. Another is found in a bathtub, dead. (We see the silhouette of his hand on the closed shower curtain.) Several people are discovered with bullet holes in their foreheads. Someone falls to the ground and is gravely injured. Someone else essentially blows himself up—killing several innocents in the process. We see footage from several deadly cataclysms, and the camera lingers on one young victim, her visible eye staring vacantly. Survivors share their grief and anger over who they lost.
Superheroes fight lots of bad guys and, often, one another, too. People are punched, kicked, battered, bruised, flung, crunched … and webbed. Sometimes these battles can feel light, almost like the adversaries are playing a football game and will share a soda at halftime. But there comes a point at which things get personal: Heroes look as if they want to kill.
Cars crash, sometimes in spectacular fashion. They fall from a garage, hurtling down toward the superhero dodging below. A super gets thrown through several floors/ceilings and continues to careen downward through much of the earth’s crust. We see floors strewn with bodies incapacitated by gas. A deadly biological weapon is nearly released.
Five s-words. Close to 10 uses of “h—,” six of “a–,” two each of “b–ch” and “d–n,” and one “p—.” God’s name is misused at least 10 times, twice with “d–n.” Jesus’ name is abused once.
Lots of laws are broken, and not even always for a greater good. Superheroes and others are denied due legal process.
By now, we all pretty much know what Disney’s Marvel movies look like. Sure, there are variances, with Captain America: The Winter Soldier swinging a bit darker, say, or Iron Man 3 more salacious. But for the most part, they follow a rather reliable template: frenetic action, lots of dead bodies but not so much blood, unfortunate smatterings of the s-word, and a welcome allotment of team-spirit banter to lighten the mood. And, of course, you’ve got lots of superheroes doing their hero thing.
Captain America: Civil War comfortably follows the CGI-enhanced template, but with one interesting change. Here, the superheroes fight one another—and without losing their heroic bona fides. Each one is doing what he or she believes is right while disagreeing vehemently over what right looks like. And that makes this superhero movie (a genre not exactly known for its depth) a potential springboard into thoughtful conversations.
“My faith is in people, I guess,” Captain America says. He believes that good people with good motives—folks like himself—can be trusted to do good things.
There’s a lot of America in Captain America’s philosophy—an appreciation for rugged individuality, an adherence to personal rights and freedom, a belief that people can usually be trusted to make the right decision when the decision matters most. But Christians can’t really share that sunny optimism.
Yep. You read that right. While Captain America would grant that nobody’s perfect, biblical teaching goes further: We are born sinners, and without Christ, we are inclined, without defense, to indulge our rotten nature. We fail. We fall. We need help to be good. And before the movie is over, the actions of some seem to prove this point.
Tony Stark, the Iron Man who’s struggled mightily with his own flaws, knows just how imperfect we can be. He believes that all of us, even superheroes, need to be held accountable for our actions. He believes that submitting to, in this case, the oversight of a governmental authority is the best way forward.
Iron Man is making a Plugged In kind of point in this. “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities,” Romans 13 tells us. And let’s face it: If you pull a Captain America-like move and shelter your on-the-lam Aunt Mabel because you’re sure she wouldn’t have knocked off that liquor store, you’d be rightly in trouble yourself.
Romans goes on to say that those authorities were “instituted by God,” but of course we know they’re not perfect, either. They can be petty. They can dither. And as Captain America learns in his previous movie, The Winter Soldier, they can be horrifically corrupt.
“Compromise where you can,” we hear. “But when you can’t, don’t.” When it comes to the idea of the government killing a potentially innocent man, Cap can’t compromise. He might even point to a Bible verse of his own (found in James 4): “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is a sin.”
We can love people, but we know they may fail. We should submit to authority, even as we know it can be deeply flawed. Both sapien and system can let us down. Nobody’s perfect.
Well, except for one guy. When it comes to faith, the solution isn’t to place it in people, as Cap would, or government, like Iron Man does, but in the capital Him. And Him alone.
Civil War doesn’t say that, of course. Which is why I already wrote about having those thoughtful conversations.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.