There Was an Idea… Captain America & The War Within

For one veteran, looking back at CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR means looking into dark reflections of self

Editor’s note: This article is presented as part of the limited article series There Was An Idea…, where every week, the Lewton Bus crew dive into the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the run-up to Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War.

Thus far, the MCU saga has been a mostly passable experience for me, with a few notable highs and one or two lows.

Captain America: Civil War is one of those lows.

There’s been enough bellyaching on internet forums and comment sections about what does or doesn’t work in Civil War, and I’ve certainly been a part of that to a somewhat regrettable degree. I wanted to touch on a few of those issues once more, if only to address some things I don’t often see discussed about the movie, but the truth is that something about this film has been eating away at me for a while now; maybe talking it through will afford a relief and clarity that has escaped me.

I initially regarded the latest Cap adventure as a fun blockbuster experience, despite some narrative stumbling points. However, the more I thought on it, the more the movie began to unravel. I had hoped for a grand culmination of the cinematic serialized experiment, but I instead received a stinging reminder of the limits of comic book movies. With Civil War, I felt the tension between What I Want from modern comic book movies and What They Are more than ever.

A great strength of the MCU’s serialized storytelling is that, like the comics, different writers and artists can push and pull the core of a character in different directions in order to address certain themes. However, the nature of comic books also means that a certain status quo must be maintained, despite whatever trials and tribulations the character might endure. Another great strength of the MCU is its willingness to explore the trauma of a post 9/11 world and the Global War on Terror, which is baked into the inception of the MCU with Incredible Hulk and the original Iron Man. But once again, that strength of the MCU serves also as a weakness, as ruminations on real-world politics and the law of war collide with brainwashed cyborg assassins, super-scientists, and sentient alien androids.

I. With His Shield or On It

Send us to die across the seas
Where it’s told we want to deceive
Send us so far from home
Empty hearts want to believe the fight is for humanity
Look at yourself heroic state of existence
Patriot in your mind
Look around you, the world is caving in
Victim of life, the antihero
Torn between right and wrong, the antihero

I guess there’s no need to mince words: Steve Rogers is the perfect idealist of good moral standing who has saved the world and countless lives, but who is also a superhuman combat-weary adrenaline junkie on the edge of a mental breakdown. He is a psychologically damaged war veteran getting closer to losing control, which could yield harmful ramifications for those around him. His best friend has been twisted into a stranger with the blood of innocents on his hands, and the love of his life is cursed with the affliction of amnesia to her dying breath. In Civil War, Steve engages in a form of vigilantism with a degree of reckless abandon, putting in danger the lives of those who are lawfully and reasonably in pursuit of a wanted international criminal. It is indeed clear that Steve’s mistrust in government institutions is well-founded, but that alone isn’t an excuse to have a walking time bomb and his volatile companion on the loose on their own terms.

Tony Stark is also a hero ravaged by (and you could even say propelled by) PTSD who uses his gifts for the greater good, though his efforts seem to yield successive failures that produce greater harmful fallout with each adventure. The Sokovia accords are the device through which Tony hopes to right his wrongs and, more selfishly, assuage his guilt. Though a reasonable pursuit, his search for absolution blinds him to the machinations of the kinds of evil men that Steve has encountered first hand. Tony’s chaotic mental state is the very thematic through-line of all of his movies, and though he is the nominal hero, it is made expressly clear that he has flaws and problems that other characters and we the audience condemn outright. Civil War seems painfully afraid to cast Steve in any dubious light, and the central conflict is all the weaker for it.

The movie paints the accords in a completely negative light by having previous MCU movie antagonist General “Thunderbolt” Ross as its proponent. However, the movie dismisses the fact that the accords are a multinational cooperative agreement almost as soon as it explains it as such. It’s more than just “the government”; as Col. Rhodes points out, it is literally the rest of the world, 117 countries. Rhodey, recognizing that transparency and cooperation are key to earth’s defense, also significantly calls out Steve’s tunnel vision as arrogance – but this too seems to be the end of any significant criticism of Captain America. The MCU has trouble with how to treat civilians and regular/non-powered people. The presence of uniformed service members and civil servants along with endangered civilians works well in The Avengers, but they amount to not much more than plot device cannon fodder in Civil War. More importantly, this adaptation of the Civil War comic excludes the critical role civilians play in ending the conflict between the two warring superhero factions, as firefighters, policemen, and civilians caught in the crossfire hold Steve back enough for him to recognize in dismay the damage he has done. At the end of this movie, Steve pulls back from murdering Tony because he’s just a really good guy I guess.

II. My Brother’s Keeper

In these moments of loss and torment
When the vast skies don’t seem to call to you
When the weight of this world bears down
And the stars have fallen like tears
I am with you always
From The darkness of night
Until the morning
I am with you always
From life until death takes me

We the audience are meant to understand that Bucky Barnes is significant because he is important to Steve Rogers, who we are meant to care about and love because he’s Captain America and punches Nazis quite well. It seemed to me that there was an attempt to further develop Bucky via a loosely constructed metaphor for the soldier’s experience. Bucky was once an upstanding service member who was then twisted into a ruthless killing machine, used as a tool for the powerful. Unfortunately, this metaphor doesn’t really fly since Bucky is forced into his predicament via super-science brainwashing. The real tragedy – a service member willingly volunteering his life for a presumed just cause, only to be expended as a pawn in the games of the wealthy and elite – doesn’t synch with this story device. There is something to be said for Bucky’s importance as a fellow warrior in helping Steve cope with his wartime trauma, but it instead plays as an unruly child clinging to his safety blanket.

Having said that, it is indeed true that Steve has another friend to help in this process, though I have often wondered about the efficacy of his use in the story as well as subtextually. I always found it fascinating that Sam Wilson aka The Falcon was introduced to Steve as a counselor in a VA clinic, working to help his fellow veterans through their PTSD. It is also interesting to note that Sam is himself no “ordinary” soldier, but was in fact an Air Force Special Operations Pararescueman or “PJ,” an elite force of expert combat medics. This experience grants Wilson a level of insight into the torment in Steve’s mind that few can comprehend, while also giving him a degree of combat prowess great enough to assist the likes of a Super Soldier. This is something that always rubbed me the wrong way; of course anyone would jump at the chance to help Captain America if asked, but there is a whole other degree of help that Sam can give Steve that he seems to completely dismiss. Instead of seeking a way out of his combat addiction via counseling and therapy, Steve has dragged along Sam for the ride, further down his path of unending war and (self) destruction in the name of security.

As an aside, I’ve actually found that the Netflix MCU series The Punisher deals with the struggle between healing trauma and a call to action much more effectively than anything seen in a Captain America movie thus far. Frank Castle, a Marine Special Forces combatant turned black ops assassin, hopes to take the lives of those responsible for his family’s death, but the show also makes it explicitly clear that he is a war criminal and deals with the ramifications of that moral injury along with his PTSD born of so much death. Frank, too, finds help in his medic friend. Curtis Johnson, a former Navy SARC (special operations Corpsman) spends his days trying to assist other veterans with PTSD by heading group therapy sessions, and the show purposely keeps Curtis at arms-length from Frank’s more grizzly and questionable activities. Curtis tries his best to help a troubled former soldier, bet when the young man falls to right-wing extremism as a domestic terrorist, Curtis takes action. He is unfortunately felled in a bloody brawl, but his ensuing rescue by Frank also involves coming to terms with a long and deeply held traumatic guilt that the two have to work through together. The Punisher showed the necessity of talking things out while still recognizing the sad inevitability of violent confrontation. That gravitas is almost entirely absent from Civil War, which is wholly strange for a movie with such a title.

III. A Life Once Lost

I fear I’ll die a forgotten man
Just a number, a grain of sand
Time won’t heal, it’s running out on me
All your pain, it’s more than I could take
War still rages
Will you keep fighting when I’m gone
Through the ages
Will you keep fighting
When I am dead and gone

In film, the minutiae of questionable plot mechanics and character development can be overlooked for the sake of enthralling entertainment, yet I find myself persistently vexed by Civil War. I’ve been mulling this over for a very long time, but I think I’ve finally come to a concise, rather lamentable conclusion:

I hate how so many other people’s perception of MCU Captain America as an ideal to strive for clashes with the reality of my failures in my own service.

I had hoped that in Civil War, the descent of Steve Rogers and the grounded ugly aspects of his trauma would force a “come to Jesus moment”, a moment of clarity and coming to terms with oneself that would, in turn, reinvigorate his status as a true hero. Instead, there’s some lip service to the burden of friendship and a pulled punch of an ending necessary for the Marvel machine to continue cranking out these money makers.

I often joke that as a first-generation American born in Brooklyn and as a service member with a decade overseas, I’m more true to what Captain America stands for than the character himself. But that’s not true at all. I am proud of my accomplishments during my service, but I have to reconcile that with the atrocity we as a nation take part in with our projection of military force around the world. I have never directly taken anyone’s life with a weapon implemented by my hand, but I would be fooling myself to think that I am totally absolved from the death and destruction I have assisted in. Steve Rogers has blood on his hands too and tacitly recognizes this, but in the end, simply because he believes from the bottom of his heart that he is doing the right thing, we the audience are moved to absolve him of his sins. Would that it were so simple.

I believe that there can be a balance between compromise and unwavering resolve, each being necessary for success and progress as the situation allows. Civil War, I think, was meant to show what happens when that balance is thrown off, but only Tony is made to feel the ramifications of that. That said… I suppose I also simply regret many moments of compromise instead of displaying the intransigence of values. And perhaps I also wish that my mind and body could have held out longer, to bear the strain of service for 8 more years until retirement, instead of surrendering to a life of domestic tranquility.

Steve Rogers is a warrior addicted to combat, violence is a part of his everyday life despite his greater cause as a proponent of peace. In his clash with Iron Man, he pulls back at the last second. How I wish I could have the presence of mind to temper my rage with such fortitude. Since my separation from service, I find myself getting angry very easily, where any little thing can set me off. And when there is a time to be appropriately angry, I find myself willing and ready to disproportionately meet even the slightest opposition with the intent to kill. There have been several confrontations within the past 2 years where in a flash of blinding fury, I planned out every step to dismantle an aggressor. At one point, I was moments away from bludgeoning someone with a stapler. I certainly don’t deserve to wield a vibranium shield either.

In the past year, I’ve volunteered myself for a study on OEF/OIF Veterans that collects and analyses PTSD psychology and physiology. I am part of the control group, which is to say I have not been diagnosed with PTSD. And it is so fucked to think that sometimes maybe I wish I had been, because how else can I explain my state of mind? Nonetheless, I have found great value in my psychological screening sessions, prompting me to talk about things that I haven’t shared with anyone since I got out. And so it is, I subject myself to all manner of examination; collections of all sorts of bodily fluids, physical assessment, and even MRIs. But I suppose someone doused in Vita-rays and super-serum wouldn’t require this level of scrutiny of mind and body. “Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial”, I suppose. I guess I’m still finding my own way adrift, in this storm.

I’m no stranger
To this thing called war
Just a person starving
Stranger, stranger
What makes us human
Becomes a ghost
I can barely breathe in
All I see is war

I never knew what you needed
I just know I’m wrong
I know its hard for you to believe
I’m gonna die whole