CivilWar_PunmagnetoHow far would you go for your friend?

Not an acquaintance, not an associate, not a work buddy: a friend, your companion, the counterpart whom you love. To what length would you go to protect her? Is there anything that would compel you to hesitate rushing to his side? What if the entire world were arrayed against him? Would you consider what the world had to say for even a second? Or would you grit your teeth and absorb its fury like a lightning rod for the one you love? Captain America: Civil War poses this question and shows us how far love will go to protect its own.

Civil War is the first film in Phase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and follows the course set by the climax of Avengers: Age of UltronCap has been leading a new team of Avengers on missions around the world, protecting us from superpowered threats no one else can contain. Unfortunately, however, something goes wrong during an engagement in Nigeria and collateral damage makes the Avengers the focus of international scrutiny. The heroes who were once hailed as saviors are now feared the world over for the devastation that both draws them out and follows in their wake.

Tensions rise as the team deliberates upon whether or not to sign over control of the team to a UN panel. Guilt informs much of their reflection–have they been too reckless, too indiscriminate in their use of their abilities? Tony Stark, sick with grief over the enormous loss of life he is responsible for from Age of Ultron, insists that bypassing this type of accountability makes them no better than the villains they combat, whereas Captain America petitions the direct opposite: “What if this panel sends us somewhere we don’t think we should go? What if there’s somewhere we need to go and they don’t let us? We may not be perfect but the safest hands are still our own.”

Cap finds himself outnumbered as most of the team is persuaded that submitting to the Sokovia Accords is best for both themselves and the world. “It’s the best way to keep us together,” Natasha Romanov reassures him, clutching him close. The Avengers are the only family Cap has left, though the same holds true for most of the team. What we have witnessed over the course of ten prior Marvel films is more than big budget Armageddon scenarios and adrenaline-soaked action sequences; what we’ve seen is the development of a family. The Avengers are the collective entity that gives outsiders like Natasha and Wanda Maximoff and Tony Stark a place to belong, a place where their idiosyncrasies and faults can be sublimated into something bigger than what they are individually.

Because however brilliant they might be, however agile or breathtakingly strong or impossibly fast, they are not fully themselves without each other. Alone, their lives and skills make no sense, but together, as we saw in the final battle of Age of Ultron, covering one another’s blind spots and imperfections, drawing one another out of themselves, they are unstoppable. Family is what is at risk, and Cap’s isolation is emblematic of the fate awaiting each of them should the team fracture.

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Those bonds still knit them together even in the midst of their disagreement, thankfully, and Cap can stand off to the side without resentment. While the draft of the Accords is being signed in Vienna, however, a terrorist strike against the UN provokes fresh discord when the suspect in the bombing is released to the public: the Winter Soldier–Cap’s oldest friend, Bucky Barnes. As the hunt for Bucky bitterly commences, Cap can do no other but race to his friend to rescue him from a world that cannot understand his plight. Bucky was once Steve’s champion back in the days before Super Soldier serums and secret government programs and arcane alien artifacts, stood by him when death stole Steve’s mother, fought alongside him when Steve was reborn as Captain America. “I’m with you, pal–to the end of the line,” was their chorus; like David and Jonathan, Steve and Bucky’s souls were sewn together more tightly than blood by itself could ever suffice. Bucky is Steve’s family, too; there was never a time he wasn’t. That love compels him to find his friend and save him, even at the cost of becoming a criminal and being hunted himself. Cap knows Bucky is a victim of the most terrible cognitive manipulation imaginable, and as the product of military-industrial manipulation himself he is able to be there for Bucky in a manner no one else can.

Certainly not Tony Stark, anyway, whose solutions to difficulties almost always boil down to upgrading or developing new technology. As we have seen since Iron Man 3, Tony is a bundle of insecurities held together by raw genius and to-hell-with-it insouciance, a seething morass of fears that repeatedly refuses to call a thing what it is and deal with it on its own terms.

Tony still presents his public persona of unflappable cool, but he is weary: weary of constructing solutions which seem to exacerbate the problems they’re meant to solve, weary of disappointing those he loves, weary of hurting those he loves, weary of himself. So we feel the shock of Tony Stark demanding the team submit to an authority outside of themselves–is this really Tony Stark?. Robert Downey Jr. delivers his finest performance as Stark in Civil War by submerging within an ocean of sadness that drenches his every move with the ferocity of a profoundly wounded, terminally lonely man trying to make things right as best as he knows how to.

The principal motivators we see informing his decisions are guilt and a suffocating need for atonement, an atonement he can’t imagine anyone else securing for him but himself. Tony wants to set right every wrong he’s ever done, wrongs he feels the more terrible for because he’s tried to do the right thing and yet repeatedly finds himself having to invest more and more in order to rectify. He’s had the hell beat out of him, and he doesn’t want the team to disband because of his mistakes–he needs his family. He can’t stop being Iron Man, can’t stop being the group’s financier and toymaker and public relations guru because he knows the world needs them just as much as he does. Tony thinks he’s holding the team together but Cap won’t allow him the luxury of that illusion. The Avengers they once were are over once their freedom to fulfill their calling is compromised, and it’s this incommensurability in ideals that blows open into a gaping divide.

captain-america-meme-sherlockTony’s needs and Cap’s loyalties can’t coexist in the political fallout, and the team splinters into factions, some dedicated to upholding the law and bringing Bucky to justice, others unhesitatingly looking to Cap as the only sane voice within this cataclysm.

And so the fault lines we’ve seen shudder and shake in previous installments finally erupt into catastrophic upheaval as the heart and the brain of the Avengers come to blows. What’s fascinating is seeing the drives that impel certain members of the team to either Tony or Cap. Tony’s team is made up vengeance-seekers, impressionable youths afraid of letting down the world by failing to use their abilities well and dutiful soldiers who have oaths to keep. Cap’s team, however, is made up entirely of volunteers who believe in him, believe in his cause, who will follow him to the end of the line and even sacrifice themselves because they simply know it is the right thing to do. They know Cap is the guardian of this family, and as the battle lines are drawn we can see which side manifests the confidence of belonging; we see it in the way the respective heroes look to their champions with either reluctance or fear or unflagging determination. “What do we do, Cap?” Falcon asks as the teams array against each other. “We fight,” Cap answers, and his friends rally around him, ready to spend themselves to the utmost for him. And it is breathtaking.

The emotional upheaval of Civil War is staggering. The film satisfies so marvelously because it foregoes yet another world-ending extinction threat and instead opts for the intimacy of the end of a world a tightly knit group of friends had made together. The action sequences are stunning for how they instantiate the sheer wonder of being a superhero, how they capture the beauty and grace of our heroes’ movement, how they shear at our souls as we watch friends turn on each other, perhaps without hope of repair. Much of the film isn’t grandiose battle scenes, however, and instead focuses on the slow simmering agonies of the very human characters that make up the Avengers. Our heroes snipe and seethe and suffer as they grapple with the vicissitudes of public policy and very personal tragedy both. Witnessing the splintering of this team is awful to behold, as is Tony’s slow descent into a megalomania he can’t even see for what it is. But just as incredible is the steadfast loyalty we also see on display as new friendships and new familial bonds are forged in this ordeal.

There are many noteworthy scenes throughout Civil War, but the single most incredible moment of the film arrives in the climactic showdown between Steve and Tony. Stark grimly threatens Cap: “Stay down. Final warning.” To which Cap, battered and bleeding, resolutely straightens his frame, raises his dukes, and answers, “I can do this all day.” We see the toll the battle has taken upon his body and know he can’t. But Cap’s nature is to throw himself utterly into the center of peril, regardless of how outmatched he is. No inner voice of self-preservation cautions him from donating all of himself to the fight that has to be fought and we feel our hearts tear at the seams as we recognize there is nothing that’s going to stop him from protecting Bucky–he will die to save his friend.

In itself, it’s a moment supercharged with the electricity of deathless loyalty and selfless dedication. But what is truly brilliant about it is the inclusio it forms with the very first Captain America film, The First Avenger. There we saw scrawny Steve Rodgers telling off a loudmouth in a theater and getting mercilessly pummeled as a result. The bully clobbers Steve to the ground time after time, but Steve gets right back up, fists raised. “You just don’t know when to give up, do ya?” the creep asks. Steve shakes his head defiantly and says through a bloody smirk, “I can do this all day.” What’s different this time around is who is being saved. Bucky comes to Steve’s rescue that day when his valor outstripped his physical strength; now it is Steve, whose virtue and might now perfectly coincide, planting himself beside Bucky refusing to stand aside. All the extravagant resources of a Tony Stark will not make him back down: he will never stop. He’s with his friend to the end of the line.

This is the hero we need–one who knows our faults, knows our every wrongdoing, but never wavers in his love for us, who will hold nothing back from saving us. Cap is an icon of the one we need to be pummeled in our place, in whom grace and truth both inhabit seamlessly. So often when someone knows us, they won’t show us grace precisely for that reason. But Jesus, like Cap, will never stop fighting for you: his knowledge of you only amplifies his love for you. There will come a day when Cap can no longer withstand the punishment of our foes and he will succumb. But Jesus succumbed once for the grief-stricken Tony Starks of the world and the guilt-haunted Wanda Maximoffs and the exploitation-weary Winter Soldiers to absorb their dislocation and disease and make them part of his family. And he wants you. And he’ll be with you to the end of the line.