What Was That All About? – Captain America: Civil War


Finding the conceit By M.Schinke

Time to go to war, Opinionnerds!

Due to all the feedback my Sour Patch Kid infused brain cells feverishly imagined I received on my article Losing, Finding and Keeping The Faith, where one of the main features was discussing what Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is, “about”, I’ve decided to add an as regular as I feel like feature called, “What Was That All About? This feature will cover what I believe the narrative conceit of a given movie is, how to find it and hopefully discover how it’s threaded through the body of the film. I’d like to start this series with a film I’ve been meaning to tackle by asking:

What is Captain America: Civil War about?

Captain America: Civil War is a 2016 Marvel/ Disney film starring Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Chadwick Boseman, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner and a whole bunch of other folks. The film focuses on Captain America, his old best bud Bucky Barnes and more recent bestie Tony Stark as they come to blows in a world quickly cracking down on what it sees as rampaging super heroes running unchecked. With all that’s happening in the movie it’s fair to ask; what’s it all about?

It’s a simple question. It’s a question we ask of a lot of the entertainment we consume. It’s a question that can take on a couple of different forms. Are we asking because we simply want to know what the story is? Or do we ask because we want to know what the movie is about? What is the movie trying to communicate, if anything? When all is done, the broken popcorn kernels have been swept aside and the last empty nacho tray has been binned; did the movie have anything to say?

What Is About; About?

The question of whether or not movies should be, “about” anything is the same as the question of whether or not art in general should be, “about” anything. Most artists come at the work they do with a purpose; they have something inside them they need to get out. It might be an image they have in their heads, words that need paper to live, a melody that screams to be heard, an idea waiting to be given form or a feeling that needs to be shared. Van Gough wanted people to see the world the way he did. John Woo want’s to show people the ironic beauty in violence. Not every piece of art has a message or a moral but they all want to accomplish the same goal; to communicate. We, as the audience, then have the task to take this work and examine it to find if it has anything to say and if so, is it anything worth hearing.

I’m pretty hard on the MCU, or Marvel Cinematic Universe, the multi billion dollar franchise starring most of Marvel’s well know comic book characters. I started out as a huge fan just like everyone else. Iron Man hit me hard and I really enjoyed what there was in The Incredible Hulk that didn’t just feel like fan-wank. I like Thor as a piece of film making and Captain America: The First Avenger was a fun for being little more than a perfunctory stop on the march towards The Avengers. I really liked The Avengers and I saw it in the theater multiple times. I was blown away by what they put together as bringing in all those characters was a huge event for any comic book nerd. I’ve continued to attend every MCU release since then like one attends a lecture series where the speaker decided to start sending tapes instead of showing up in person. The most recent films have left me with what I feel has been, unfortunately, diminishing returns.

It’s been said that every movie is, “about” something (except Ghostbusters. As has been said, “It’s perfect; but it isn’t about anything”) and this is true of all the Marvel films, the ones that I can remember anyway. It’s at least true in the sense that it’s very easy to understand what the characters need to overcome for their arcs.

  • Tony Stark learns to take responsibility for what he creates (but i have questions about the actual conceit there).
  • Bruce Banner learns to make peace with The Hulk as part of himself; at least until he doesn’t.
  • Thor learns to be humble and put others before himself. (EDIT – Currently re-evaluating this, 4-2018)

Most of the films are like this, and the question of how deeply enmeshed into the functioning of the movie these themes are is up for debate; but the ideas are there. The question I would ask of the films, and us as an audience is; is the message that’s present there only for the characters or is it there for us? Is Iron Man telling us to be responsible for the things we create? Is Thor telling us that’s it’s important to put others before ourselves? I question this when I look at how the ideas are threaded throughout the films. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is probably the MCU film that is the most explicitly, “about” something outside of the characters arc; that being the morality of pre-emptive strikes in warfare. But aside from that, I’m not sure I would say the MCU films are really using their platform to communicate anything beyond the necessities of the characters arcs. This is only a problem in the eyes of the individual that sees it as such, and not a systemic failing of the franchise or it’s creatives.


What’s So Civil About War Anyway?

Captain America: Civil War seemed, on the surface, to be different than the typical Marvel film has become. People began to write articles about the different facets of the film. It was either pro -security or pro-freedom, your point of view depending on whose side of the Civil line you fell on. Who was right, who was wrong, what would be the correct approach in reality and what you believe in were all topics of conversation among the interested parties. The Russo Brothers themselves offered an overall narrative for the film, stating the movie was about a family going through a divorce. I’m not one to argue with a film makers point of view on a piece but while this seems to be a valid point of view in reference to the characters, I’m a little lost as to how it threads throughout the film as a means of narrative resolving the story.

I had read a while back a suggestion as to what the movie was actually about based not on the advertised plot but a smaller portion of it, and it seemed very obvious in retrospect. At the time the movie was released I wasn’t working evaluations the way I do now, so I didn’t have the tool set in place to work through the film that I have now. Looking back on the film, and using the tool for determining narrative conceit that we’ve discussed previously (what choice is made that leads the characters to overcoming their story and completing their character arc) and looking at the elements that make up the overall story, not just what concerns Steve and Tony, it can be said that the message the film is conveying is about the toxic nature of revenge. From this perspective, while Zemo remains the primary antagonist and villain, the true hero of the film is actually T’Challa; the Black Panther.

The situation in the film is motivated by Zemo’s desire to get revenge on the Avengers for the death of his family. This revenge comes in the form of a plan to get Iron Man and Captain America to come to blows over Bucky’s involvement with the death of Tony’s parents. During this quest for vengeance, Zemo (impersonating Bucky) sets off an explosion that kills T’Challa’s father; the king of Wakanda. From here, T’Challa will undertake his own quest for revenge. Initially, the target of this crusade is Bucky; whom everyone believes is the culprit behidn the bombing. Eventually T’Challa, along with everyone else, will learn that Zemo is the true villain. During all of this, Zemo’s plan to get Tony and Steve to turn on each other comes to a head as Tony is shown a video of his parents murder at the hands of the Winter Soldier, AKA Bucky Barnes. Even though Tony has been shown that Bucky was not behind the bombing of the Accords, and is willing to work with Cap and Buck to get to the source of the trouble, seeing Bucky kill his parents will send him into a murderous rage as he seeks revenge for their deaths. This, of course, puts Steve in the middle of the two of them as he tries to prevent Tony from killing Bucky and, presumably, to make sure that Bucky doesn’t have to kill Tony. This, by the way, is what the fight between Cap and the Shell Head is actually about.

The Conceit

T’Challa is really the only character with a true arc in the film as he seems to be the only one that actually learns anything and grows from the story. He starts off believing in the Accords and what they stand for; that people with abilities should not act outside of the law. After his father is killed, he throws that ideology aside to quest for vengeance as the Black Panther, becoming a vigilante. When T’Challa catches up to Zemo during the finale, he remarks at how vengeance has destroyed Zemo and is in the process of destroying The Avengers. He sheaths his claws and states he will not let it destroy him as well. This choice to set aside the quest for revenge is the narrative conceit; the choice that actually leads to a resolution of the films situation and the culmination of T’Challa’s character arc. He has learned a great truth, and is the only character in the movie to do so. His actions at the end also make him the movies hero as he prevents Zemo from taking his own life and brings him into custody to face justice. In the end, while Tony and Cap are fighting over Bucky, he upheld the ideals everyone was supposedly fighting for. T’Challa’s actions bring closure to the story and justice to his father, along with all the other people Zemo hurt with his actions.

T’Challa and Zemo are the only characters that are on an emotional journey and, because of this, we get to see the corrupting effect that vengeance has even more than with Tony; whose sudden onset murder syndrome comes from too far afield to be effective in this regard. Playing armchair storyteller, if the truth had been revealed to Tony earlier in the film, and he then masked his quest for revenge under the guise of upholding the law, we might have had more to chew on with this narrative. I think I can understand why the decision was made not to go this route and it seems like it was a story element that got handed to T’Challa to give him a strong introduction to the MCU at the expense of giving Tony an actual arc to follow; even if it was a negative arc. It keeps Tony on the side of right, for the most part. As long as Steve forgives him in the end, so do we.

Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War Black Panther/T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) Photo Credit: Film Frame © Marvel 2016

Bring It Back To Me

I’ve said before that this is a movie that I at least find entertaining. I don’t hate it; I don’t even dislike it. I do think it’s a bit of a missed opportunity for the MCU to show some real maturity. For the movie to be so blatant with it’s narrative conceit at the end, having spent virtually no time engaging in it throughout the film itself, leaves me a bit cold though. The best character, the only character, that could have addressed this issue within the bulk of the film would have been T’Challa. To have him question or be questioned about how his quest for revenge is affecting him would put the narrative front and center of the film. But, In my opinion, that would place T’Challa as the main character of the film, and the movie is clearly meant to revolve around Cap and Tony; neither of whom engage with this narrative until the very end of the film. I could chalk this narrative up to being nothing more than T’Challa’s story arc but, again, he’s pretty much the only character in the movie with an arc to follow. As it is the main situation of the film is ended only because Captain America chooses not to kill Iron Man, I guess, because he doesn’t want to. Nothing is resolved, and maybe that was the point. It certainly sets up a broken world going in to Avengers: Infinity War. But as I have been told so many times a film should not serve simply as set up for another film yet to come.

So Captain America: Civil War is a film that is ultimately about the corrupting power of revenge. Or maybe it isn’t; but it sure seems to be as I don’t really see anything else in the film that qualifies as a narrative. It’s not uncommon for the message in a film not to reveal itself until the very end but I find it personally unsatisfying when it happens. I don’t think it needed to go down this way. For me, there could have been a much more satisfying story in watching Tony go through T’Challa’s story arc with Cap caught between his loyalties to his two friends. That’s mostly what we have now but the schism between Cap and Tony seems more clerical than personal; and it ends up being a technical difference that Tony hypocritically throws away once he finds out he’s been wrong.

Revenge is a powerful drug that has destroyed many a great person; fictional and otherwise. Yet we never seem to learn from the mistakes of others. From Khan to Picard, I never grow tired of watching the Ahab’s of the world of fantasy struggle with their whales. There is a lot to learn about who we are when we are at our lowest, and it doesn’t get much lower than revenge.

Agree? Disagree? Discuss.

Clever endings aren’t my bag.


Captain America: Civil War is available on Blu-ray from Amazon.Com

(Follow *NotThePopularOpinion on Twitter @Only_Grey)

What Was That All About? is an exercise in finding, recognizing and understanding the narrative conceit in films of my choosing using only the films text as a guide. What Was That All About? in no way implies a declaration of film maker intent; only an examination of the on screen information. There are millions of film makers in the film world; these are their stories.

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