Captain America: Civil War, the latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), is less predictable than the last one, the lightweight if fun Ant-Man, and makes a hell of a lot more sense than the last big one, the bloated The Avengers: Age of Ultron. But it took a tweet for me to realize what I really love about Civil War and what Marvel has managed to do over the last eight years: These films do character development better than any others in the superhero genre.
Last Friday, the day after I saw Civil War, Salon posted an article lamenting that Steve Rogers—a.k.a. Captain America—in Civil War has been turned into a “douchey libertarian.” The film’s premise is that the governments of the world have banded together to attempt to force the Avengers—a group of superheroes that at various times includes Cap, Falcon, Iron Man, War Machine, Hulk, Scarlet Witch, Thor, Black Widow, Hawkeye, Vision and now Spider-Man and Ant-Man—into accountability. The U.N. wants the members of the Avengers to sign a document called the Sokovia Accords that would limit the heroes’ autonomy and provide a legal framework for their operations. Iron Man and Cap take opposing sides on this issue, each gathering a posse of other heroes around him, and several really fun good-guy-on-good-guy fight scenes ensue.
Captain America is against signing the Accords, and Salon politics writer Amanda Marcotte argues in her piece that “Steve suddenly turns from a level-headed liberal to a [sic] Ayn Randian libertarian douchebag who throws tantrums because he has to do grown-up stuff like share power instead of make unilateral decisions for other people.” She points out that in Cap’s previous starring film, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Rogers argued for more oversight for the organization S.H.I.E.L.D., the clandestine body that used to be in charge of The Avengers.
But as film critic Devin Faraci pointed out on Twitter, that’s exactly the point: S.H.I.E.L.D. used to oversee the Avengers until it was revealed in Winter Soldier that S.H.I.E.L.D. had been pretty comprehensibly infiltrated by the evil group known as Hydra over the latter half of the 20th century. Rogers started out as a true blue patriot—"the star-spangled man with a plan"—but that was in the 1940s. Since he woke up in the present, he’s seen everything he thought he knew or trusted crumble, not to mention his best friend Bucky—turned by Hydra into a weapon—abused and vilified by authorities on every side. No wonder at this point he trusts no one but himself and his team, especially not a global governing body of representatives with wildly varying agendas like the U.N.
But it’s not just Cap whose point of view has changed; Tony Stark would have taken a very different stance if this issue had cropped up when he first built and donned the Iron Man suit. It’s a major plot point in both Iron Man and Iron Man 2: How much oversight should the government have over Stark’s creation, which they deem a dangerous weapon while Stark half-jokingly calls the suit “a high-tech prosthesis”? He and longtime friend Rhodey—later War Machine—come to blows over it before being forced to team up, fittingly, against Sam Rockwell’s character Justin Hammer, whose weapons manufacturing company took over Stark’s government contract work. Once again, Iron Man has to fight “the man” for his own autonomy.
By the time Civil War rolls around, though, Stark has had a change of heart. The last Avengers film, Age of Ultron—for as little sense as it generally made—did a great job of showing the consequences the Avengers’ unchecked powers can have: their clashes with Ultron end with the entire city of Sokovia destroyed. Civil War’s opening, in which Scarlet Witch accidentally sets off an explosion in a high-rise apartment building, echoes and emphasizes that event, even as Stark is berated by the mother of a young man who was killed in Age of Ultron’s climactic battle.
I re-watched the first two Iron Man movies and the first Captain America over the weekend. Both heroes in those are like completely different people. Now, thanks to the events of Winter Soldier, Captain America has grown disillusioned and mistrustful of authority, a pretty significant transformation. Iron Man, meanwhile, has come to realize the necessity for oversight and accountability. And because of the intricate ways these films have woven together over the years and the general deftness of their writing, all of it—their transformations, their positions, their shifting loyalties—makes a shocking amount of sense.
Civil War’s plot has many similarities to Batman vs. Superman’s, but I can’t really form an opinion there because I skipped the latter. The DC film universe, unlike the MCU, has done little to earn or justify such a weighty showdown. (Besides, I thought BvS looked terrible.) A comparison I can make is to X-Men: Apocalypse, a film that will be held up to Civil War if only due to the proximity of their releases. And it is terrible, full of schlocky dialogue, predictable cameos, cheesy costumes and a cookie-cutter plot about a bland villain trying to reshape the world to his liking.
Most important, the events of Apocalypse have little impact on its characters or world. Entire cities are destroyed with zero emotional follow-up. James McAvoy’s Professor Xavier and Michael Fassbender’s Magneto remain grudging friends with opposing ideologies; at the end, Magneto walks off into the night yet again, echoing a scene from the previous X-Men: First Class—a scene that they literally had flashbacks to in this film. The next movie that features them both will likely have the two characters locked in the same cyclical personal conflict, and anything else that happens—including the entire city of Cairo being leveled into a scrapyard—is just set dressing for that.
When The Avengers next return, I won’t know what to expect. Thank Marvel for that.
Mike Rougeau is Playboy.com’s Gaming Editor, in charge of all things video games. He didn’t know who Thanos was when The Avengers came out, and now he’s read every issue of The Infinity Gauntlet. Follow him on Twitter @RogueCheddar.