The Central Theme
Civil War is a tricky film because like many of the best Marvel movies, it tricks you into thinking its one thing when it's actually another. Captain America: The First Avenger looks like another superhero movie, but it's actually a WW2 film. The Avengers looks like a bloated action movie, but it's really an ensemble character piece. The Winter Soldier looks like The Fugitive, but it's actually about how corruption and extremism poisoned an organization until it was unsalvageable. That last one is incredibly important because the Russos, Markus and McFeely used that to form this film's bait and switch. It looks like another political thriller, and even throws in elements of The Manchurian Candidate to help that along, but the reality is far more simple, direct, and dare we say even meaningful.
Civil War is about the destruction of family.
We'll touch on the Winter Soldier's actions later, but for now we're skipping ahead to the Avengers' mission in Lagos. The new team is there to stop Crossbones from acquiring a chemical weapon, and they succeed in securing it. However, Crossbones attempts a Taking You with Me, and Wanda is unable to completely prevent civilian casualties. This is where we see things start, but the significance isn't fully realized without hindsight. One immediately recognizable change this event impacts, though, is the Sokovia Accords.
While it's clear from the name that this act was going to go to the UN no matter what, the Lagos Incident clearly accelerated its timetable and made the Accords even more of a hot-button issue. Secretary Ross makes it clear that the fears people have over the Avengers are not unfounded, and that the government feels the best way to assuage these fears is to bring the Avengers under their direct control. The heroes then, much like the audience, weigh the pros and cons of this system. It's these scenes that are fundamental in the film's deception, but then the main theme finally makes its entrance. And it starts with a text message.
Peggy's funeral is where the opening really comes to a head. Peggy Carter, Steve's first love, is now dead. He's lost his home, SHIELD, his friends, and now the woman he once loved. Natasha later appears and helps drive the theme home by saying "Staying together is more important than how we stay together." The family is coming apart, and Natasha wants desperately to avoid this. But Steve's response is telling: "But what are we giving up to do it?" He's lost so much right now that to sacrifice his principles, even for the Avengers, is too much. And he's not the only one confronting loss.
We skipped over Tony's scene earlier because for the purposes of this analysis it works better juxtaposed against the funeral. When we first see Tony in the film, he's showing off technology that can create holograms based off of negative experiences. It's meant to be be a therapeutic device that can help people deal with trauma, and his example is the last conversation he had with his parents before they died. Even now, this loss affects Tony, and we see that its not the only one. Pepper, after sticking by him through some of his darkest hours, has left him. He's lost his chance at starting a family with her. What makes all of this worse is that this comes off the heels of the destruction wreaked by Ultron, Tony's own creation. Time and again he's tried to use his technology to save the world, and time and again it's backfired. He's then stopped by the mother of one of the casualties of the Battle of Sokovia, and confronted with the knowledge that his actions have destroyed families. Like Steve's clinging to the past, Tony's guilt is a major factor in his own decisions and arc through this movie.
This brings us to the third major player in this theme, Wanda. Tony (and Bruce, but he's not here) may have created Ultron, but it was Wanda who set him on that path. She knew that the vision she gave Tony would drive him to create that which could destroy him. Wanda's desire for revenge over her parents and all the other inadvertent deaths Tony caused for Sokovia ultimately led to even more Sokovian deaths, including her brother. She hurt Tony, but in the end, it came at far too great a cost. Combine this with the death of the civilians in Lagos, and she's naturally feeling awful. She tried to do evil and it cost her greatly. Now she's tried to do good, and it's hurt her again. And now the new family she's found in the Avengers is coming apart thanks to the consequences of her actions.
A more low-key application of the theme is Wakandan King T'Chaka leaving his country to vote for the Accords. Several Wakandans were killed, and T'Chaka wants to do his duty to their families. It's subtle, but a nice nod. What's not so subtle is a bomb going off at the conference, killing the King and many others. The king's son, T'Challa, then swears to avenge his father and kill the man responsible. There's just one problem with that. All the evidence at this time points to the Winter Soldier, a brainwashed Bucky Barnes.
This is what drives Steve from retiring to becoming a full outlaw. He knows that Bucky is perfectly capable of performing this action, and that he was brainwashed. But with everything he's lost, and the fresh wound of Peggy's death, if there's even a slim chance he can have his best friend back, he'll take it without hesitation. He and Sam track Bucky down, but the government, and T'Challa are on their heels, and a fight breaks out until all are captured by Rhodey. Tony tries to convince Steve to sign onto the Accords in order to save face, and for a short time, it looks like he and Steve may be able to come together and agree. But then Tony says the wrong thing, and the differences between the two men force them apart.
And what did Tony say? That Wanda was being kept at the Avengers Compound for the time being. Supervised by one of his big followers: Vision. Tony's intentions here were well placed. Keeping the "cause" of this whole mess away from where others might try to hurt her. But for Steve, this is again, a step too far. Not only restricting her freedom, but showing to Steve that Tony doesn't really care about the family. More, it's all about him and trying to make the world safe from them. But before things can get truly messy, that's when something else happens.
Now we've reached the point where the villain truly takes the stage. Oh sure, he's appeared before this scene. But this is the point where his presence is made known to Steve, and truly becomes important to the story. Helmut Zemo is a rogue black ops agent who set the bomb at the UN meeting, and has acquired a book that contains the keywords to trigger Bucky's brainwashing. After gathering information from Bucky about the mission we saw in the beginning of the film, he unleashes the Winter Soldier on the facility and slips away in the chaos. Steve, having realized what was going on, manages to subdue Bucky and escape. Bucky reveals that the mission in the beginning was to recover an attempt by HYDRA at recreating the Super-Soldier Serum, which was then used to make several other Winter Soldiers. Unfortunately (or not), they were mentally unstable and forced into cryogenic suspension. Zemo acquired the location of the base from Bucky, and now he's heading there. Knowing that chaos could be unleashed if the Soldiers were to escape, Steve gathers the few Avengers still loyal to him (and Ant-Man) to help him reach an airport so that he can get to the base in time. Tony gathers his own team, and the showdown begins.
On a final note, Wanda reaches the end of her character arc this movie around this point. Picked up by Hawkeye to go help Cap, and told that "If you want to solve your problems, you need to get out and do something", she comes into conflict with her burgeoning lover Vision. Ultimately, she decides to lean towards the Steve perspective, seeing that perception is something she can't control, only herself. And for that reason, even though it hurts the "family", it's something she has to do to redeem herself, just like Steve does.
One of the major criticisms levied against this movie is that for a 'war' it's rather bloodless. The greatest casualty in the conflict between the Avengers was Rhodey, and not only does he live, it was his own teammate who caused the damage. However, it can be argued that this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the scene, and the reason for the film's name. The American Civil War is often referred to as the war that pitted brother against brother, and that was the point here. The characters are all pulling their punches because none of them actively want to kill each other (except for T'Challa, but that's only Bucky). Tony even makes it clear to Peter Parker that he wants him to use his webbing to subdue Cap's team, despite Peter clearly having enough power to kill them if he needed to. This is a brawl, but not a malevolent one.
As an aside, the way they tie in Spidey is a nice revisiting of the dead family angle. The film doesn't directly state that Uncle Ben is dead, but we know enough to fill in the gaps. But back to the main topic.
Steve realizes that he won't be able to get everyone to the plane, so they stay behind as a distraction in order to allow him and Bucky to reach the plane. Natasha, realizing what's going on, subdues T'Challa long enough for the two to take off. Natasha flees, but the rest of Steve's compatriots are captured. After bringing them in, Tony begins to realize that something's not right. He tracks down the evidence and realizes what's really going on. He then heads to the base. Steve and Tony strike a truce and enter the facility.
Zemo uses the intercom to reveal his true plan for the other soldiers. Rather than use them to defeat the Avengers, he kills them. Then he plays his trump card: a video recording of Bucky's mission from the beginning. The person the Winter Soldier stole the serum from was Howard Stark. The Soldier brutally murdered Tony's parents and left them there. An enraged Tony attacks Bucky. Steve defends him, and a brawl ensues. Zemo exits the base but runs into T'Challa, who was tracking Tony. Zemo then explains why he did this.
Like so many others, his family was killed in Sokovia, and he was the only survivor. With his family dead and his entire life destroyed, he turned to revenge to drive him. But there was just one problem: he didn't have the power to defeat the Avengers. While he certainly had criminal connections and guile, that wouldn't be enough. But "An empire that crumbles from within? That's dead. Forever." So using his knowledge and connections, he played off of the existing divisions within the Avengers in order to get them right where he needed them to be so that he could finally kill any chance of them being together again. They killed his family, and now their own is dying.
And Zemo? He apologizes for killing T'Chaka, and prepares to join his family. But T'Challa has seen the truth: this has all only been a vicious cycle. Wanda's family died and she sought revenge, killing Zemo's family. Zemo sought revenge and killed the Avengers family, along with T'Chaka. Tony seeks revenge and is willing to fight his friend to achieve it. T'Challa had been seeking revenge and nearly killed the wrong man. And all that was accomplished was more suffering. But T'Challa breaks free of the cycle by stopping Zemo from killing himself and leaving him for the authorities.
As for the other three, the fight soon comes down to simply being Tony and Steve. Tony is gaining the upper hand, but Steve manages to knock him down and has his shield raised to strike at Tony. With his helmet lost in the fight, Tony raises his arms to defend himself from a deathblow. But Steve smashes the Arc reactor powering the suit instead. With Tony stopped, Steve retrieves Bucky but leaves behind his shield. Steve is no longer Captain America. Rhodey is paralyzed. Tony is powerless. Natasha is on the lam. And the rest are either captured or indisposed.
The Avengers are gone.
Steve later busts out the people who helped him and they take refuge in Wakanda. Tony receives a letter from him, apologizing for not telling Tony that Steve knew about the Winter Soldier's actions. Steve affirms that if Tony needs them, he'll be there, and gives the audience hope that perhaps some day, this family can be repaired. But that day is not today.
The question of freedom vs. security is naturally one that comes up from the debate over the Accords, and it should. But it seems this question has overshadowed the true meaning of the film as an examination of loss and the destruction of families, both from without and within. Whether you agree with the Accords or not, they're not the main focus. The true heart of the film, as is often the case in the MCU, is the characters. The characters we know shouldn't be fighting, drawing lines and taking stands. Night has fallen upon them. But perhaps, like the sun, they will live to rise again.
Counter-Argument: It's Guilt and ResponsibilityTony started as a devil may care playboy who didn't really give a damn. He didn't want to hurt anyone, but he sure as hell never tried to help anyone. Steve started as a bullied kid who kept trying and failing to be a loyal soldier, part of the group that always rejected him.
Tony's It's All About Me attitude means he can never accept that it's not his fault when someone else dies, whether because of one of his machines Gone Horribly Wrong or, worse, Gone Horribly Right, or because he wasn't able to save them. Over the course of the franchise, Tony accumulates more and more guilt over the people that died "on his watch", until, by the time this movie rolls around, he's desperate to offload his responsibility and is an eager advocate of the Sokovia Accords.
Steve, the eager soldier, the man fighting for a cause, part of the Greatest Generation, the inspiration for SHIELD and best friend to its founders, has seen nothing but disappointment and betrayal. Armies supporting empires and dictators, SHIELD full of lies and self-serving manipulation... and even worse it has been suborned by HYDRA. Steve has concluded that organizations, no matter how noble their goals, no matter how good the people who found them, will always become corrupted, or even villainous. And he feels responsible, because he's always been The Face of those organizations. No one could question them because they always had the good, the great, The Paladin Steve Rogers on their side. So he has to reject the Sokovia Accords because he can't stand the guilt of knowing others can and will commit harm in his name.
Steve and Tony also get their mirror-Morality Pet who reflect their personal struggles. Tony recruits Peter Parker, a heart-broken child who failed to save his Father!Uncle, and is driven to realize impossible scientific feats in order to support his impossible heroism in trying to save others. Steve struggles to save Bucky, the man who served an evil organization with no knowledge of what he was doing.
We also get Wanda, who feels a deep personal distress over the deaths in Lagos. It intimately reflects her own personal loss, but she comes to realize that she did the absolute best anyone could in an impossible situation and refuses to accept guilt, no matter the sorrow she feels. This is contrasted with Vision who is utterly dispassionate and doesn't truly recognize guilt or responsibility (yet), but tries merely to minimize harm through rigid and reductive control.
When you try to do the right thing and fail, are you responsible for your failure? When you strive to your utmost and fail to do the impossible, are you responsible for your failure? What burden should you accept for striving and, to some degree, failing to prevent harm?
The movie ends with Tony trying to claim guilt, yet again, over Rhodey's paralysis. Rhodey rejects it, acknowledging that every mission he flew could have ended badly, but he always made the choice. It was always his mission.