Captain America: Civil War

This feels like a franchise installment. That is to say that this feels like what franchise installments seem to have become: focussed on the future instead of the present. Civil War is nowhere near as much of a cluttered mess as Batman Vs Superman because the story and characters are compelling. However, the universe becomes heavy-handed in a way that it never has before within the MCU. This isn’t a case of there being too many characters—Avengers: Infinity War proves that there’s no such thing—but rather that there are too many introductions. New characters, new locations, returning characters, and returning plot threads all collide through an otherwise good, character-driven story.

On another mission to a foreign country, Wanda Maximoff accidentally destroys a portion of a building containing innocent civilians. As the latest in a long line of damage left behind by The Avengers, the US Government decides to step in, asking that they sign a document compiled by the United Nations. The Sokovia Accords (named after the city that The Avengers dropped from the sky in Avengers: Age of Ultron) would switch control of the team from themselves to the UN and, primarily, the US. This prompts a moral battle between Earth’s Mightiest Heroes which culminates in a straight-up fight, when Steve Rogers/Captain America commits an unsanctioned act. As this is happening, Sokovian Helmut Zemo is framing Bucky Barnes/The Winter Soldier for the murder of Wakanda’s King T’Chaka and unveiling a dark secret to destroy The Avengers’ friendship.

This is a lot to pack into two and a half hours, but it works because the characters are previously established and grounded in this universe. It is the members of The Avengers and the emotional conflict between them that is at the heart of this story. At the time, the advertising was very similar to Twilight, dividing people into “Team Cap” or “Team Iron Man”. How righteous are The Accords, and should they be signed? The film never gives an explicit answer, treating both sides as equally valid opinions. Cap’s argument is that the Government would use The Avengers for their own means and not in the best interest of the American people. He has lived experience in the area of ‘organisations doing what they think is best’ and has seen how poorly it can end. Meanwhile, Tony’s argument is that The Avengers have inadvertently killed too many people during their battles and that they should be held to account. His decision is fueled by pure guilt, and ignores that civilians would still be hurt if the team was under Government control. The film sits on the fence, trusting the audience to make up their own minds, but there is a correct answer… and it’s not signing The Accords.

This confrontation between Cap and Tony almost reaches an amenable end before Zemo strikes the final blow. Having lured them and Bucky to a secret base in the mountains where Winter Soldiers were trained, he reveals that Bucky murdered Tony’s parents. Their deaths had been unveiled as suspicious to the audience in Captain America: The Winter Soldier but now it is finally revealed to the characters along with the tragic truth. It’s a brilliant plan on Zemo’s part. He is, to date, the only person to defeat The Avengers, who will continue feeling ramifications until Avengers: Infinity War. He knew that emotional scars often cut as deep, if not deeper, than physical ones because he too has suffered. His family was killed when Sokovia fell and it drove him to revenge. When this mission is complete and he is at peace, he feels like his story can come to an end. Peace like this won’t be seen again until the ending moments of Infinity War, but this resonates more emotionally.

Whilst Civil War is telling its story, it is also setting up several others. The fictional African country of Wakanda has been mentioned before, but this is the first time that its people are present with the introduction of Prince T’Challa – The Black Panther. He’s cool and calculating but is overcome with vengeance when Bucky is framed for his father’s murder. This is an interesting element that deserves more time, but there simply isn’t enough to give to it. On top of this is the introduction of Peter Parker/Spider-Man and Aunt May to the MCU. This is the third iteration of these characters in 20 years, so the film assumes that the audience is familiar enough with them to drop them in here. While it’s true that Spider-Man is a popular character, nobody is familiar with this iteration. Audience awareness does not a character make.

This isn’t to say nothing of returning characters who are crossing over for the first time. Scott Lang/Ant-Man has been fleshed out by his own origin movie, but this is his first time with big players like Captain America. It’s clear that he is excited, but there’s barely any time spent on this. Then there is General Everett Ross, whose return here is a significant moment. Until this point, the MCU has felt like it is ignoring the existence of The Incredible Hulk, but including Ross puts that to an end. He is the first character from that film to make his way into the wider MCU, discounting The Hulk himself because he was re-cast. Finally, there is the return of Sharon Carter/Agent 13 from The Winter Soldier who is here to act as a love interest for Cap. She also provides information from SHIELD but her primary existence is as a love interest, which is gross considering she is the niece of Peggy Carter… who was Cap’s last love interest. 

Captain America: Civil War is an enjoyable action-adventure with impactful character moments but it is prevented from being great by setting up too many future stories. It’s an acceptable aspect when done generically and in smaller doses, but there is a limit to how much can be crammed into 2 and a half hours. It leaves this Captain America story feeling more like an Avengers one.


Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

At the time of its release in 2014, The Winter Soldier was the most devastating thing to happen in the lore of the MCU. The events within the plot would shape the cinematic universe going forward and add an extra layer to the films that came before it. Whilst this is a Captain America film, it is intrinsically tied to the larger story of the MCU, as all 3 Captain America films are. He was the very first Avenger and many heroes/villains have come from governments/organisations attempting to replicate the serum that courses through his blood. Aside from being one of the most important stories in this franchise, The Winter Soldier was also one of the most profitable, making around $700million on a budget of about $170million. By the time this film arrived, it was almost a given that any film in the MCU would make bank, and this continued to solidify that statement as fact.

The plot follows Steve Rogers (Captain America) and Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow) as they find themselves on the run from SHIELD and a mysterious assassin known as The Winter Soldier. Along the way, they meet Sam Wilson (Falcon) and must face some harsh truths about the organisation they once thought to be safe. SHIELD has secretly been host to HYDRA agents and, in an attempt to expose the truth, both organisations must fall. The film wastes no time in establishing the stakes by killing SHIELD Director Nick Fury and having a STRIKE team attempt to kill Cap. Of course Fury survives (after all, no death is permanent except Uncle Ben) but for a solid chunk of the runtime none of the characters are aware of this. When his survival is finally revealed it doesn’t change the mission because there is too much at stake. It provides an excellent shift in dynamics between Fury and Cap, with Fury finally giving Cap his full trust and Cap finally feeling like he’s being trusted.

All of the relationships in The Winter Soldier are handled well, especially the friendship between Steve and Natasha, which is a core element of the plot and (thankfully) is never played as romantic. It’s clear that Nat has been shaken to her core by the revelations about SHIELD and is terrified that she is no longer the hero she thought she was. The faith that Steve places in her is clearly something that she experiences very rarely, and with her reciprocation, you get one of the best friendships in the MCU. Meanwhile, Sam is an excellent person to round out the trio. His military service and loss of a close friend gives him an instant connection with Steve, and he trusts Nat because Steve does. Sam is willing to take orders, but it’s clear that he won’t do so if it conflicts with his moral compass and, to top it off, he’s a super fun character.

The small spanner in the works, and one of many plot twists spoiled in the advertising, is the reveal that The Winter Soldier is Cap’s best friend Bucky Barnes, who supposedly died in 1945 after falling over a cliff from a moving train. It transpires that he fell into a river, which broke his fall, but he was picked up by Soviet Scientists and had his mind erased before being given a metal arm and getting cryogenically frozen between top secret missions. This is a traumatic experience for him once his memory begins to return, and the film never shies away from that. We are shown his mind being wiped and the rage of confusion as it grows inside him until he can’t bear it anymore. There are several tragic and sympathetic figures in the MCU, but I think that James Buchanan Barnes may be at the top of that list. 

The large spanner in the works, and a selling point for the film, is that HYDRA has embedded itself inside SHIELD. A couple of key players are shown to have been HYDRA all along such as Agent Casper Sitwell (from Thor) and Senator Stern (from Iron Man 2). The infiltration really does go all the way to the top, and there’s no knowing who can be trusted. To truly solve the problem, both organisations need to collapse, which will have a lasting impact going forward. Without SHIELD to protect them, The Avengers will finally be held accountable by the government, and will see their popularity start to falter. This is where the age of liability begins.

There’s so much happening in terms of the larger MCU continuity that I’d consider The Winter Soldier essential viewing in an MCU marathon. It marks a drastic change in circumstance and introduces characters, as well as destroying an organisation that has been ever present thus far. For once, in an Earth-based installment, there are no Infinity Stones, and they really aren’t needed because the stakes are big enough on their own. We won’t see ramifications this massive until Captain America: Civil War, and we won’t see a main Avenger in a non-ensemble film until Thor: Ragnarok. The main question that this film raises is where the other Avengers are, considering how devastating this event is, and you can keep wondering because it’s never explained. I suppose none of the other Avengers actually work for SHIELD, so they don’t need to step in, and they do eventually team up again to deal with the aftermath in Age of Ultron, but it might have been polite to check in. If this is my biggest issue with the film, I think that’s a pretty good sign.

This may be an MCU film, but it’s an espionage film through and through. It keeps the conflict focused on our main characters despite the conflict itself being massive. Each of our longtime characters get to progress their arc, and that includes Black Widow who gets to demonstrate that she’s a brutal spy with deep insecurities. I’m a little nostalgic for this era of the MCU, if I’m honest. It felt like there was more agreement back then.


Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer

Captain America: The First Avenger

Released in 2011, this was the fifth film to be seen in the MCU but it sits first chronologically. Set in 1943, it tells the tale of Brooklyn born Steve Rogers who isn’t permitted to join the US Army due to several health conditions, but who is given a second chance by a Dr Erskine as part of an experiment. After being given a super serum and witnessing the death of his dear doctor, Steve becomes Captain America- a spokesperson for the Army who later disobeys direct orders to save the captured battalion of his best friend James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes. Here, he comes up against a former Nazi organisation known as HYDRA, led by Erskine’s first test for the serum: Johann Schmidt, also known as The Red Skull. Along the way we also meet Steve’s love interest and capable agent Peggy Carter, Steve’s best friend since childhood Bucky Barnes, and world-renowned ladies man/inventor Howard Stark.

The First Avenger is a perfect film to start off the MCU timeline as it introduces us to a load of elements that are going to remain important going forward. First is The Tesseract which is a Cosmic Cube that Schmidt plans to use to fuel HYDRA’s weapons and vehicles, but is ultimately lost to the ocean. It will re-appear in the next film Captain Marvel, before becoming the main plot point of Avengers Assemble and eventually being revealed as one of the 6 Infinity Stones, specifically the Space Stone. What’s great is that there isn’t a bigger picture being painted here, it’s primarily present as a McGuffin which allows it to push the plot forward without drawing attention away from the plot. There’s also a good introduction to HYDRA, who will go on to play a much larger role in the MCU, specifically The Winter Soldier, but work just as well as villainous goons. There’s a lot happening here in terms of universe set-up, but The First Avenger focuses on its own story and characters.

Steve is given the label of Captain America but this story is about the man who became the myth. He’s finally living his best life, falling in love and making new friends, but ultimately gets iced for 70 years, and that’s rough. Meanwhile, we are introduced to Howard Stark whose currently unborn son Tony will become pivotal to the story of the MCU. Meeting Howard first allows for more understanding as to why Tony is the way he is, and it gives his declaration against weapons much more weight. Then there are Peggy and Bucky who will come to define the two pillars of Captain America’s moral compass when he returns. One is the girlfriend who represents the “ordinary” life that he could have had, whilst the other is his best friend whose death ensures that Cap is determined to save every life he can.

The only issue with watching The First Avenger first is the film’s final 15 minutes. Having plunged himself into the icy depths to save America, Steve awakes after almost 70 years, just shortly before the events of Avengers Assemble, which was the next film to be released. It introduces us to Nick Fury, before we properly meet him in Captain Marvel, which is understandable considering the way this universe was built. They wanted the film releases to flow smoothly, and it doesn’t feel like Captain Marvel was ever totally planned so it makes sense to introduce us to him here. Now that we do have Captain Marvel, I think this would have worked better as a post credits scene to Thor which was released the same year as The First Avenger. In terms of a post credit scene, there isn’t space for one here and it seems like Marvel agreed because we instead get a trailer for Avengers Assemble….6 films early. it’s a great trailer, but it does disrupt the flow a little bit to have a trailer featuring a bunch of characters we’ve never met.

As for The First Avenger itself, it has remained one of my favourite MCU films, if not one of my favourite films period, and I’ve watched it more than any of the other films in this franchise. It has all the action and general vibes of an Indiana Jones film which is appropriate given they both take place around the same time, however the Visual Effects are undoubtedly bigger and flashier. At the core, this is a character driven story and that is exemplified by the beautiful leitmotif given to Steve. The rest of the score is fairly standard fare, but the absolute standout is The Star Spangled Man which is such a marvellous mix of the campy tones of the original comic and the military propaganda of the time. As for the title of The First Avenger, there has been some debate that it belongs to Captain Marvel, and I respectfully disagree. Yes, he is never called an Avenger, but he is the first official Avenger to be born and the first person to serve a hero role. Make no mistake, when I think of The First Avenger, I think of Captain America, and when I think of Captain America I think of The First Avenger.


Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer