In the third and final part of the Thinker’s Captain America series, I continue to analyze the manner in which the franchise depicts conservative themes and modern America. The first and second articles in the series may be read here and here, respectively. The series contains full spoilers for all three films, as well as for any other relevant Marvel films.
Is it possible to embrace bipartisanship when the other side has a worldview diametrically opposed to yours? This is the question contemplated by Captain America: Civil War. Picking up where the previous film, The Winter Soldier, left off, Civil War flips the script: instead of being evil fascists, most of the antagonists are now the friends of Cap and those who truly want to do good, namely Tony Stark/Iron Man. This allows the film to more thoroughly dig into modern political issues without villainizing either side. In so doing, the film questions whether these radically different ideologies can coexist—even among those with good intentions.
Unintended Destruction and Death
Civil War opens with the Avengers attempting to stop a terrorist, Crossbones, from stealing a biological weapon. While the Avengers are able to accomplish their goal, it comes with a high price. Wanda Maximoff—still a relatively new Avenger at the time—causes an explosion in the side of a building and, with it, many injuries and deaths. The incident follows massive damage caused by the Avengers in Sokovia, a European country in the Marvel Universe, when trying to defeat Ultron. Tony is approached by a woman whose son died in Sokovia while doing humanitarian work under the Avengers’ watch—a calamity she blames on Tony. All of these episodes spur the creation of the Sokovia Accords.
Sokovia Accords: Necessary Oversight or Governmental Overreach?
The Accords are named after the location of the Avengers’ infamous battle with Ultron and are further inspired by events like the Battle of New York and Lagos. If enacted, they would give the United Nations the ability to decide if and when the Avengers are deployed to stop a threat.
Tony vehemently supports the Accords; Cap takes the opposite position. When Rhodey, Tony’s best friend and the superhero War Machine, tells Cap that he cannot simply brush off the U.N., Cap responds, “No, but it’s run by people with agendas—and agendas change.”
Tony pushes back, saying that he himself has changed, throughout his lifetime. Tony realized that the weapons he was manufacturing were killing millions, so he stopped producing them. However, Cap remarks that Tony chose to make this change and that, by signing the Accords, the Avengers “surrender [their] right to choose.”
Especially after Project Insight, Cap knows the dangers inherent to prioritizing government-imposed safety over liberty. And he recognizes that people’s agendas change. The U.N. could choose not to send the Avengers to stop an impending threat, or it could choose to send them somewhere they should not be going. Cap recognizes that the Avengers have made mistakes that they need to own up to, but that giving away their freedom still isn’t the solution.
Tony, on the other hand, argues that oversight for the Avengers is essential. The Avengers cannot just keep the world safe from terrorists and supervillains; they need to keep the world safe from themselves. Tony argues that sacrificing the Avengers’ liberty is necessary, so that the Avengers can protect as many lives as possible.
The film’s ideological conflict is incredibly interesting because there are legitimate arguments for both sides—and the film readily acknowledges this fact. Black Widow, Vision, Rhodey, and Tony all sign the Accords, while Cap, Falcon, and Wanda do not. While the film’s protagonist is Cap, and the narrative thus leans towards his ideology, neither side is treated as evil or wrong. Rather, the film emphasizes the ideological struggle. This was even reflected in the film’s marketing, in which Marvel asked fans to choose a side of the conflict.
By taking this approach, the film closely models present-day American politics. Most individuals on both sides of the aisle have good intentions, but, to quote Milton Friedman, “One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results.” Tony’s intentions may be good and his ideas may have merit, but, as Cap argues, good intentions do not necessarily lead to good results—especially when extensive power is ceded to the government.
The movie’s conflict proceeds to establish a stark dichotomy between liberty and safety, thereby demonstrating that they cannot coexist. Either the Avengers give in to the U.N. (like Tony does), or they go rogue to protect their liberty (as Steve does). There is no middle ground and no real ability to compromise with these conflicting worldviews, as is often the case in the real world.
Arguably reasonable “stay at home” directives, which even former President Trump supported, inspired seemingly endless lockdowns that have even taken root outside the U.S. and have been used to perpetuate other policy goals. Meanwhile, the freedom of expression enshrined in the First Amendment is no longer sacrosanct. And the right to own a gun is presently under attack. Most of the people who support lockdowns, forced ideological conformity, and Second Amendment nullification are not evil, but the safety that these initiatives supposedly confer is an inescapable threat to liberty. The film’s emphasis on this clash is incredibly relevant.
Return of the Winter Soldier
At the signing of the Accords, a bomb is detonated, resulting in the death of King T’Chaka of Wakanda, father of T’Challa/Black Panther. The suspect appears to be Bucky Barnes, who Cap promptly tracks down.
Soon after Cap finds Bucky, however, the police arrive. This leads to a chase sequence, resulting in the arrests of Cap, Falcon, Bucky, and T’Challa, who was seeking vengeance against Bucky for killing his father. A psychiatrist is brought in to evaluate Bucky, and the psychiatrist turns out to be the film’s main villain, Helmut Zemo. In order to extract information about the location of other Soviet super-soldiers, Zemo activates Winter Soldier mind control over Bucky and orders him to start destroying the compound.
Cap is able to stop Bucky, who, after the mind control ceases, tells Cap and Falcon that he has regained his lost memories. Bucky tells them that Zemo now possesses the location of the other super-soldiers.
Not trusting the government to believe Bucky, Cap and Falcon go rogue and head off to find Zemo. They recruit Clint Barton/Hawkeye, Wanda, and newcomer Scott Lang/Ant-Man to help. After arriving at an airport, Iron Man, Black Widow, Black Panther, Vision, War Machine, and newcomer Spider-Man show up to stop them. Cap and Bucky are able to escape, but their allies are sent to a maximum security prison.
As Cap and Bucky search for Zemo, Tony learns of Zemo’s actions and goes to help them. When they encounter each other, they declare a truce in order to stop Zemo, who they assume is going to use the super-soldiers for his own evil purposes.
To their surprise, they discover that all of the super-soldiers are already dead. As Zemo eventually explains, his family was inadvertently killed by the Avengers in Sokovia. Knowing that he could not defeat the Avengers, Zemo decided to make them defeat each other, so that they could never rise again. Zemo hates that the Avengers possess extreme power and can abuse that power, whether it be intentional or not. This is why he killed the super-soldiers. Zemo himself has no superpowers, but he’s meticulous and determined in his plan to defeat the Avengers from the inside out.
Zemo acts as the movie’s perfect villain, as his story illustrates both the justification for the Accords’ existence and the problems inherent to them. Had the Avengers been less reckless, Zemo’s family would not have died and he would have gone down a different path. However, those in charge of the Accords did little to deal with Zemo, proving Cap’s point that, even with the Accords, there exist problems outside of the U.N.’s reach.
Zemo proceeds to show Tony the footage of Bucky, then under Soviet control, killing Tony’s parents. After Tony finds out that Cap knew of this execution, Tony, Cap, and Bucky brutally brawl, with Cap and Bucky emerging victorious. As they walk away, Tony remarks that Cap does not deserve the shield, as Tony’s dad, Howard Stark, was the one who created the shield. In response, Cap drops it.
The Arc of Steve Rogers
While the shield drop is symbolic of Cap and Tony’s conflict, it has broader implications. Steve Rogers’s narrative begins with him as a young patriot determined to fight for his country. He is then suddenly transported to the modern day, where liberty is compromised for safety and the starkness of good and evil is overrun with moral ambiguity. Despite this, Steve challenges all odds and fights for the principles of liberty, morality, and America. By the end of Civil War, however, Steve is broken. He had to brutally fight one of his closest friends, in order to save another. He’s witnessed the government become ever powerful in the name of safety, and all the damage that can cause. The shield drop is Steve letting go of Captain America, because Captain America cannot exist in this new world. Captain America was born in a world where people were free and America fought for that freedom. Captain America died in a world where safety is valued above all and big government abuses power in its name. Captain America dies because he does not represent the United States anymore.
The trilogy’s ending may seem pessimistic, but it’s not entirely hopeless. Yes, Steve drops the shield and Captain America “dies.” However, as he says in his final monologue delivered to Tony with a burner phone in the mail, Steve will return, should he ever be needed. Captain America may be dead and gone, but he will rise again in new, more mature form, just as Steve rose from the ice after 70 years.
By showing that Steve and Tony can occasionally work together, despite their (oftentimes brutal) disagreements, the film also demonstrates that it is indeed possible to embrace bipartisanship. While the movie gives no easy solution, because there is no easy solution, Steve’s work to make amends with Tony, both politically and interpersonally, demonstrates what needs to happen in order to achieve true bipartisanship. If we stop demonizing the other side of the political aisle and remember that, even if we believe others are misguided, we all want the best for the country, then bipartisanship is possible.
Throughout the trilogy, Steve Rogers’s arc is a truly remarkable one, as he confronts America’s ever-changing landscape. From the unbridled patriotism of World War II, to the moral ambiguousness and statism of the post-9/11 era and the hyper-polarization of modern politics, Steve’s journey exposes viewers to some of the most complex periods in recent American history. By illustrating Steve’s own hopes and dreams, the film also shows us how America could be—rather, how it should be—to further contrast the contemporary landscape with the ideal.
Despite recent renditions of the character that intend to inject woke politics, the Captain America trilogy is also a series of fundamentally conservative films. The movies argue for liberty and America, while depicting a man who caves to no threat. As Cap says, he is “just a kid from Brooklyn [who] doesn’t like bullies.” He is the perfect embodiment of the American ideal. He’s “not a perfect soldier, but a good man.” And that is a powerful message for every American.
*The views expressed in this article solely represent the views of the author, not the views of the Chicago Thinker.
Chad Berkich is a Senior Editor for the Chicago Thinker. As a senior at the University of Chicago, he is majoring in mathematics. He is a Christian and conservative, and his other interests include superheroes and science fiction, video games, and rock music. He was the president of the University of Chicago's chapter of College Republicans for the 2022-2023 school year.