If I had to sum up the central thematic concern driving Marvel’s latest cinematic offering in one word, that would be it: loss. Every one of the film’s major characters loses something important, something precious, and the resulting pain and rage propel the narrative towards its violent, tragic, inevitable conclusion. When Peggy Carter passes away in the first act, Steve Rogers loses one of his few remaining tethers to his past, inspiring him to fight harder to protect his former friend and fellow time traveler, Bucky Barnes. Between his recent breakup with Pepper Potts and an emotionally devastating encounter with a grieving mother, the normally narcissistic Tony Stark loses faith in himself as a hero, causing him to become the most vocal advocate for government oversight. After watching his beloved father perish in the fiery aftermath of a terrorist attack, Prince T’Challa of Wakanda, a.k.a. The Black Panther, embarks on a murderous rampage, joining forces with Iron Man only as a means to enact his bloody vengeance.
And then there’s Helmut Zemo. Played with quiet, subtle precision by Inglourious Basterds’ Daniel Bruhl, Zemo is, hands down, the best villain to appear in one of Marvel’s big screen efforts thus far (Wilson Fisk and Kilgrave from the Netflix shows have him beat, but each also enjoys the benefit of an extra ten-and-a-half hours of character development). He may lack Ronan the Accuser’s raw power or The Red Skull’s flair for the dramatic—in fact, aside from some special forces training, he’s more or less just an ordinary guy—but he has patience, resolve, and plenty of hatred, and that’s more than enough. I won’t spoil the exact nature of Zemo’s loss here; suffice it to say, it fills him with so much anger that the only sensible response, from his perspective, is to share it with those he deems responsible and watch as the ensuing suspicion and resentment cause them to tear each other apart.
None of this grandiose conflict would matter much if we didn’t care about our misguided heroes. Fortunately, considering that this is not only the third entry in the Captain America franchise, but also technically the fourth Iron Man (heck, I’d even argue that Civil War could be considered the first official Black Panther), True Believers know these characters intimately enough by now to understand every conceivable point-of-view. Given his history with incompetent and/or corrupt superiors (the glory-seeking senator in First Avenger, Hydra’s infiltration of S.H.I.E.L.D. in Winter Soldier), it’s no wonder Captain Rogers is skeptical of the measures proposed by the Sokovia Accords. Stark, on the other hand, has been trying to take responsibility for the consequences of his shortsightedness since way back in Iron Man 1, when he shuttered his company’s weapons development division after seeing his creations in the hands of terrorists; is it really a surprise, then, that his hand in Ultron’s “birth” would prompt him to finally submit to government regulation?
Ultimately, neither stance is necessarily morally wrong nor completely without flaw, and that sense of ambiguity—the idea that a hero might be one step away from being on the “wrong side,” while still remaining completely unwilling to compromise—makes Civil War one of the most suspenseful, compelling, engaging, insightful, and all-around entertaining works of comic book-based pop art to date. Take your “superhero fatigue” and shove it; make mine Marvel any day.
[Originally written May 6, 2016.]