Captain America: Civil War Themes (Spoilers)

civil war3Hopefully most of you have watched my initial reaction review to Captain America: Civil War.  If you haven’t here it is again.

Now I’ve had the chance to see the movie twice and have more detailed thoughts. This is a spoiler filled post so stop now if you have not seen the film.

Captain America: Civil War can certainly be enjoyed on a base level. It’s fun, has great action and quipy dialogue that keeps things from feeling too morose. You have engaging actors and their characters who we have gotten to know over 12 films and some new presences in Black Panther and Spider-man. However, I am going to dig a little deeper and talk about themes of friendship and agency within the movie. If you want to just enjoy the movie then that is great but this might not be the post for you.

cap and bucky
Steve’s friendship with Bucky has been a part of his story from the beginning.


Friendship is probably the more obvious theme within the film. We even heard in the trailer Steve saying “he’s my friend” and Tony replying “so was I”. Clearly there is a dynamic of friendship that is tested between the 3 main characters- Bucky, Steve and Tony. However, you also have other friendships that are explored- Rhodey and Tony, Natasha and Clint, Sam and Steve, Steve and Peggy, Steve and Sharon, Scarlet Witch and Vision, Natasha and Steve etc. All of these friendships are tested with the Sokovia Accord.

Aristotle said there are 3 types of friendship (yes I am going to relate Marvel to Aristotle deal with it). There are friendships of utility, pleasure and virtue. A utility friendship is one “that can be easily dissolved and done away with when a more useful version comes into place”. You could argue that Ant-Man and Spider-Man are friendships or relationships of utility in the film. They are helpful but not essential to any of the other players.

Then we have friendships of pleasure. “These types of friendships are built around love or passion for similar things”. Most of the Avengers relationships are this type of friendship. They love similar things- mainly avenging- and that bonds them together. I venture to say most of your friends are friendships of pleasure. They are very valuable and are an essential part of a happy life. Black Panther is kind of an outside observer given he doesn’t really have relationships with any of the other characters.

Here’s where things get interesting. The top level of friendship is one of virtue. “This is that rare friend which supersedes friendships of pleasure or utility. This is that bond which is practically sacred it is so special”.

This is where we get the main conflict of Civil War. At the beginning of the film Steve has had to see his most treasured friendship of virtue die. This leaves him with only one left and that is Bucky. Everybody else it turns out is a friendship of pleasure. He values Tony and even Natasha but when push comes to shove he values his friendship with Bucky more.

The same thing can be said for Tony and his parents. It might sound odd to say a parent is a friend but when it comes down to it Tony is willing to do anything to avenge his parents. They are more valuable than any other relationship. Steve even tries to explain to him that Bucky didn’t know but his love or friendship for his parents is stronger than any such logic. You can also tell from his heartbreak that Pepper is one of those virtuous relationships. Rhodey is but not as much as the others.

Steve has had to see all his friendships of pleasure die, and that is why he is so focused on saving Bucky. It’s a survival instinct in a way. By saving Bucky he is in a way saving part of himself.

When Tony and Steve come to blows at the end it is especially heart breaking because they are two people who have lost everything. It’s what makes it so gripping and emotional.

Tony begins to lose control and doubt his decisions early on in his story
Tony begins to lose control and doubt his decisions early on in his story


The other main theme of the film centers around agency. When I first heard that Tony was going to be signing the Sokovia Accord I didn’t know if that made sense with his character. Shouldn’t it be Cap who goes along with the government with Tony being the fast-talking outlaw? This is where looking at their films comes into play.

Tony starts out Iron Man not caring about the ramifications of his choices. He sells arms to terrorists. He lives the high life at others expense and he doesn’t care. Then he is imprisoned and becomes Iron Man. In the second movie he has let the fame go to his head but he has started to take more accountability for his choices. He stops producing arms and is trying to make a difference. Then in the Avengers he faces Loki and has a team to support his choices, but Coulson dies and the battle is only narrowly won.

Iron Man 3 comes next and the stresses of making heroic choices is starting to get to him. He has panic attacks and starts to doubt his abilities. Pepper is hurt and he is fooled by the Mandarin. Then in Ultron he see’s the vision of his dead friends and mass suffering all around him. This inspires him to make Ultron and it goes disastrously wrong. So, think about it. You have a man who’s agency has led to disaster.

It starts to make sense now. A man who has a history of panic attacks and bad decision making wants to let other people make the choices. That sounds great! He even tries to limit Scarlet Witch’s choices in the guise of ‘protecting her’. In his mind choices are dangerous and prison is safe.

Let’s look at Steve. His growth is a bit simpler. He started with the morality of a soldier. There are good guys and bad guys and he wanted to be a good guy. He volunteers for the experiment and helps defeat Hydra. But not before he saw how governments can be used to control and manipulate- even his own government in some ways.

Then in Winter Soldier he saw a stalwart organization like Shield get infiltrated by Alexander Pierce. No wonder he doesn’t want to give his decision making ability over to the accord. It makes perfect sense.

You can even see how Tony’s decisions in Age of Ultron creating Ultron would make Cap suspect of even his own organization, the Avengers. He says at the end ‘the Avengers was always more yours than mine” speaking to Tony. No, Captain America must be allowed his agency, and he will not give that up to any group or person- even the Avengers.

Why? Well, that’s where we bring it back to Bucky and friendship. Steve has had to see his one remaining friend lose his agency. As the Winter Soldier, Bucky has essentially become a robot and as his friend of virtue that would be incredibly painful to watch. Of course, Steve is going to do anything to save his friend and that means protecting him and bringing back his agency.

Tony and Steve's different stories is what leads them into conflict
Tony and Steve’s different stories is what leads them into conflict


And so this is where we get our conflict for the film. We have two friends of pleasure that are motivated by deeper friendships of virtue that they will not put aside, no matter what. Then you also have Tony’s history of panic and his poor choices making him seek for control; where Steve has only seen that control go awry.

The two gather friends to their side and punch it out with Steve basically winning because it is his movie after all. 🙂 Now the Avengers are basically a pack of vigilantes which is what Secretary Ross said they were to begin with. It should make the future with Infinity Wars Pt 1 and 2 very exciting.

What do you think of my analysis? Did you see these themes of friendship and agency within the film? Am I overthinking it? Let me know what themes you saw. Thanks!

8 thoughts on “Captain America: Civil War Themes (Spoilers)

  1. You’re not overthinking it at all – you’re spot on. It is fascinating how Steve and Tony have developed and changed their perspectives as the movies have progressed. It was painful to watch them fighting each other at the end – far more than anything like Revenge of the Sith or Batman v Superman: I cared about these characters and their friendship and in my heart, I didn’t want to see them coming to blows.

    1. Those are good comparisons. Marvel took the time to develop characters slowly and others are trying the fast food variety.

  2. You touched on some relevant themes ere. I don’t think you’re overthinking it. I think Steve and Tony have two of the most consistently written character arcs across the entire MCU. Its fascinating to watch that.

    1. Thank you. It really is great to watch and it helps they got such good performers too

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