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Here we are, 4 weeks away from the wide release of Captain America: Civil War. This movie has been hotly anticipated ever since Disney announced last year that the third Captain America movie would not have the subtitle “Serpent Society,” but instead would be titled Captain America: Civil War. However, to think that the MCU Civil War has only been building for a couple of years would be to ignore the facts. It’s not like Tony Stark and Steve Rogers just decided one day that they wanted to disagree about something, picked the Sokovia Accords, and duked it out. No, this conflict over accountability vs. freedom has actually been built into the very DNA of the Marvel Cinematic Universe virtually since its inception. You might say that these heroes were always destined to come into conflict, either with each other or with the government; the time and place was the only question left to be answered.
Frankly, this Civil War has been a long time coming.
Before we start looking at how the conflict is built into the MCU from the beginning, we need to figure out exactly what the heroes are going to be fighting about come May 6. In the comics, the Civil War centered around the heroes’ split reactions to the Superhuman Registration Act, a piece of legislation proposed by the U.S. Government in response to the “Stamford Incident,” in which a team of young heroes filming a reality show tried to take out a group of heavy-hitting supervillains, one of whom detonated, killing over 600 people, including 60 schoolchildren. The Superhuman Registration Act required superhumans to register their secret identities with the U.S. Government and accept government accountability. Most of the heroes weren’t thrilled with the idea of anyone knowing their secret identities, and resisted.
In the MCU, there really aren’t a lot of heroes with secret identities—Daredevil, Spider-Man, the Secret Warriors, and possibly Hawkeye and Black Widow—so a conflict over registering identities really would not work. This time around, the conflict will instead revolve around the idea of governmental accountability: should heroes be held responsible for the consequences of their fights with villains? Should heroes act as agents of the state instead of doing their own thing? To whom should heroes be accountable: themselves or a government agency? These are not easy questions to answer, and that is where the conflict will come in.
However, people have been asking these questions within the MCU for quite a while, so before the movie comes out, let’s look back at just how they’ve been building this conflict.
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We can start right near the beginning with The Incredible Hulk. The entire premise of this movie is that the U.S. Military, embodied by General Thunderbolt Ross, wants to recapture the Hulk and replicate him to create an army of super-soldiers. For his part, however, Bruce Banner (the man behind the Hulk) wants nothing to do with the military, desiring nothing more than to live a normal life. Should Banner be allowed to live a normal life when he represents such a game-changing source of power?
Iron Man 2 also poses similar questions in its infamous Congressional Hearing scene. The U.S. Government, represented by Senator Stern (Hail Hydra), summons Tony Stark (the creator and user of the Iron Man suits) to appear before the Senate and defend his decision to hold back the Iron Man suit from the military. Stern wants to be able to replicate the Iron Man suit for general use by the U.S. military, but Tony refuses, believing that the safest hands for that technology to be in are his own. Should such powerful technologies be held by private citizens, or should the government have some control over a device capable of “privatizing national security”?
The final Phase 1 movie relevant to this discussion is The Avengers, the movie that brought the whole group together. The Avengers assemble to fight off an alien invasion brought on by S.H.I.E.L.D.’s experimentation with the Tesseract. This battle causes untold devastation to an area of New York City. Following the battle, the Avengers disappear into the woodwork, leaving the people of the city to rebuild after the destruction. Before the dust has settled, however, there are already public calls from a New York Congressman demanding that the Avengers be held accountable for the destruction of New York City. From the perspective of the audience there doesn’t seem to be any reason for this—Loki chose the battleground, not the Avengers, and Loki summoned an alien army to invade Earth—but from the perspective of the people within the universe, it does make a degree of sense to hold the heroes accountable for the results of their actions. And since emotion is very heavily involved with this, those calls become all the louder.
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Phase 2 kicked off with Iron Man 3, in which a corrupt, power-hungry businessman attempted to essentially get a corner market on the war against terror by controlling both the world’s greatest terrorist threat and the President of the United States. That Killian came so close to success calls into question just how safe it would be for superhumans to work directly for the government: When his choice for President was in office, Killian could have used him to deploy War Machine (I mean “Iron Patriot”) anywhere he wanted to further his own agenda. So much for government accountability being a good thing…
In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it is revealed that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been compromised from within by Hydra, which somehow managed to worm its way into the agency and take over key areas. Hydra in fact plans to use S.H.I.E.L.D.’s own Insight Program to ensure security by killing off about 10% of the world’s population (including, among others, Tony Stark, James Rhodes, and President Ellis). In order to defeat such a threat, Captain America and his friends have to go completely off the grid: they do not know who to trust, so they cannot wait for authorization to fight back. This is truly a situation in which Captain America must do what is right, despite the fact that no one in authority supports him, and because those in authority are actually in the wrong. Yet again, where does government accountability come into play when those in authority are corrupt?
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Avengers: Age of Ultron is where all of this comes to a head for the Avengers. The team came together to defeat the final Hydra Head they knew about (Baron Strucker) and recapture Loki’s scepter. However, Tony attempts to use the scepter to jumpstart the Ultron peacekeeping project, and Ultron becomes sentient and attempts to destroy the human race. Even though Tony was trying to protect the world with Ultron, should the results of his actions be blamed on him? How much of the consequences of these actions should he be considered responsible for? Who is to blame for the Hulk’s rampage that tore apart a South African city? The Hulk wasn’t exactly in control; the Avengers never actually called the Hulk in. At the same time, the Scarlet Witch simply manipulated Banner/Hulk’s brain; she didn’t control his actions. Nevertheless, given everything that happened, it is natural that there would be people demanding a level of accountability from Tony Stark and from the Avengers.
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The TV shows have also helped to build the concept of heroes being held accountable by the government into the MCU. In some ways, the TV shows have done far more to push this than the movies!
A major part of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 2 was the lack of transparency and accountability by Coulson as the new Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. He was no longer accountable to the U.S. Government or World Security Council, so he could do virtually anything. This comes to a head when Commander Gonzales and his rival S.H.I.E.L.D. group take over Coulson’s base, leading to an eventual merging in which Coulson remains Director under the oversight of Gonzales’ Board.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has placed a huge emphasis in season 3 on the proliferation of the Inhumans, a race of superhumans descended from the products of Kree experiments performed on early humans. These Inhumans are normal people who unexpectedly undergo the process of Terrigenesis, unlocking superhuman abilities. Consequently, the world is faced with an unexplained sudden increase in the number of “enhanced” or “powered” people running around, not all of whom know how to use their powers or will use them for good. The world’s governments are still wrestling with the proper response to this crisis, something which could be addressed by the United Nations as part of the Sokovia Accords. Who should be responsible for overseeing these new Inhumans? Should they be allowed to make their own choices, or should they be required to register with the government, even if they want nothing more than to return to their old life?
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Unique within the MCU, Daredevil is the only hero (beyond the new Spider-Man) with a truly secret identity. In his series, he works with the police for the common good, but on his own terms. The police are willing to assist him, but that does not stop his police buddy from attempting to shoot/arrest him on several occasions. However, Daredevil season 2 incorporates the interesting concept that there are some things which the vigilantes are able to handle which regular police cannot do: there is a purpose to having these heroes running around and fighting undead ninjas and well-armed gangs. Should vigilantes like Daredevil and the Punisher be permitted to operate in situations where the bad guys outclass the police?
In Jessica Jones season 1, Jessica experiences the everyman’s reaction to all the superheroes running around when one of her clients turns the tables and tries to kill her in revenge for the client’s mother’s death during the Battle of Manhattan. In my mind, this emphasizes the call for accountability which we have heard from several other places within the MCU. This series also demonstrates one of the major problems with allowing powered individuals to run around without holding them accountable: Killgrave can use his powers to do anything he wants, and no one (aside from Jessica) can stop him. At the same time, however, Jessica does stop Kilgrave, and she does so in spite the authorities’ unwillingness to accept his powers.
In looking back at the MCU pre-Captain America: Civil War, it should be clear that the ideological divide which will split the characters in that movie has been a long time coming. Should the government have some control over superheroes and other enhanced individuals? Should those with powers be watched to protect the world from them? Should they be able to do what they want with their powers? Who is responsible for the damage caused by battles between heroes and villains? All of these questions have been asked already, and none of them have yet been given an adequate and definitive answer.
In Captain America: Civil War, these questions will be at the forefront of everyone’s minds, and their different answers to these questions will cause the falling out between Captain America and Iron Man. However, because this ideological conflict has been such a long time coming, I do not think it will be solved in a single movie—or at least not entirely. Even if Captain America and Iron Man join forces in the end, there will be too much bad blood and too great of an ideological divide for everyone involved to set it aside.
How do you see this ideological divide throughout the MCU? Do you think it will or should be resolved in a single movie? Let me know in the comments!
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