Why Civil War works

This post contains spoilers for Captain America: Civil War.   cacw3

By my count, Captain America: Civil War is the first time the Marvel Cinematic Universe films have directly adapted a comic book storyline. Sure, The Avengers owes some elements to Avengers #1 from 1963, just like the idea that Bucky survived World War II and became an assassin known as the Winter Solider is adapted from Ed Brubaker’s work in 2005, but almost all of the story beats were invented for the film.

And it’s smart on Marvel’s part. They have literally thousands of stories and characters to pull from, so why limit themselves to a particular piece of work? Why pull primarily from one story? With the exception of one-off films like 300 and Watchmen, comic book films have mostly taken this approach. This gives the writers and filmmakers the freedom to be inspired by the source material, but not beholden to it.

Adapting Civil War

Civil_War_7Civil War was an exceptionally risky choice to adapt, mostly because the comic itself is not particularly good. The ideas presented in the main comic are a pastiche of mixed metaphors, and if you were to just read the 7 issues in the main comic, the story is incoherent at best (were you wanting to get the full story, you’d need to read approximately 3400 pages of comics). This recent AV Club article does a great job of digging into the bloated, messy series, which also gives a good idea as to my level of skepticism heading into the Marvel Cinematic Universe adaptation of this storyline.

And it’s not that Captain America: Civil War works so well because they changed the comic to fit the film, but that writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely took the main theme of that story (government oversight) and figured out how it would affect the characters in their story. There are nods to many elements from the comics, but they also managed to make it feel like a natural extension of the character work done in the previous films. Additionally, they left on the page the things that didn’t drive their story forward, like privacy around secret identities, and clone versions of Thor.

In the comic storyline, Iron Man (and a few other heroes) are essentially remade as villains, with their side being wrong, and Captain America’s side being right. Smartly, directors wanted to not make that same mistake. When they spoke with io9, they “always felt from the beginning that the most compelling story we could tell is if at the end of the film, when you walked out, you were arguing with your friends and family about who was right. It was important to us to honor both points of view.” And so one of the biggest areas of change from page to screen is in Iron Man’s character.

Iron Man: (story) arc reactor

There is a clear through-line for Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey, Jr.) evolving philosophy around heroism and protecting people across his Marvel Cinematic Universe appearances thus far. From stopping the Stark Industries weapons sales in the first Iron Man film, through Iron Man Three depicting his reaction to the events of the Battle of New York, and his inadvertent creating of Ultron in the most recent Avengers film. His justification for building an insane amount of Iron Man armors in IM3? Protecting Pepper. His justification for building Ultron? “A suit of armor around the world.” And his justification for signing the Sokovia Accords? Protection. Tony Stark is a man continually defined by his own hubris and guilt.


Tony’s first appearance in Civil War is as a college student, an artificially young hologram of himself, replaying the last conversation he had with his parents. As the older, perhaps wiser Stark emerges, he talks about spending millions of dollars on this project, since he wasn’t previously capable of processing his grief from the loss of his father and mother. Based on everything we’ve seen in the previous films, we know that Tony’s relationship with his father was complicated at best, with both of them feeling like Tony had never lived up to his potential.

Iron Man 2 was all about the Stark legacy, with the Stark Expo and the villain’s motivation being central to that film. By the end it seemed that Tony had made peace with that legacy. However, the defrosting of Captain America (Chris Evans) reopened those wounds. There’s a line in Civil War where Steve Rogers mentions that he was happy to learn that Tony’s father had settled down, and Tony responds with a joke about how often his father mentioned Captain America. It’s a great moment given that we’ve seen Howard Stark and Steve Rogers together on screen in Captain America: The First Avenger), but it also reveals how much Howard’s relationship with Steve has shaped Tony’s relationship with Steve.


We see this also through Scott Lang’s (Paul Rudd) reaction to meeting Captain America for the first time. He calls Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) great, but Captain America dumbfounds him. Steve Rogers is, in the most literal sense, a living legend. His legacy looms large, especially for those that choose to follow in his path. It’s not a far off assumption that Tony Stark’s decision to become a superhero is at least partially inspired by Captain America. All of these things contribute to his blind rage when he learns that Bucky killed his parents. Just learning of this fact would make him angry and hurt, but then finding out that Steve knew and didn’t tell him is the ultimate betrayal. Not just of Tony’s relationship with Steve, but also Steve’s relationship with Howard Stark. This is also underlined in the other emotionally affecting moment of Civil War, when in the final moments, Tony reminds Steve that his father made the Captain America shield.

And this is only one of the things that Tony Stark feels guilty about. The most direct motivation that he has for supporting the Sokovia Accords is his guilt over the innocents that have died as part of his work with the Avengers. Once again, Tony is choosing to deflect his grief, this time by shifting the responsibility (and thus the guilt) to a third party. After trying to build his own protection for the world with Ultron, he is abdicating responsibility. And then, is arguably reckless by recruiting a teenager to join his side in this fight. Hubris again.

Hero against hero

The trick of adapting Civil War wasn’t about convoluted plots to have superheroes fighting each other. Marvel heroes do it naturally, as both Avengers films and Ant-Man involve scenes of heroes fighting heroes. And those battles are thrilling in the sense of “Could Thor beat Hulk?” questions, but more importantly because they create actual drama. We know the good guys will always come out ahead when fighting the bad guys. But when Captain America fights Iron Man, and it is built on well-written character drama, it’s thrilling.


And while Iron Man has the longest history in the Marvel Cinematic Universe thus far, making this kind of deep analysis the most interesting, you could do this kind of thematic character breakdown for any of the heroes involved in Civil War. I teared up during Peggy Carter’s funeral, not out of grief, but knowing the impact the loss would have on Steve Rogers. Civil War is a masterclass in how to unite character and story for a large cast, which in some ways make it the best superhero film to date.

Author: Ryan Silberstein

Ryan spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area, and his nights as a mysterious caped vigilante saving his city from the disease that is crime watching movies. He lives on a diet consisting of film, comic books, experimental beer, black coffee, and those big metal historical markers around town. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.

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