The following contains significant SPOILERS for Captain America: Civil War
While Marvel's Captain America: Civil War has received largely stellar reviews from critics, raves from audiences worldwide and record-setting ticket sales, it's also drawn criticism from some fans of the superhero movie genre, who feel that the movie did not have enough "stakes" in its own right and, more broadly, failed to deliver any kind of story progression for the ongoing Marvel Cinematic Universe project.
When asked how they arrived at that particular appraisal, the answers tend to be fairly straightforward: None of the main characters got killed (unlike the comic book crossover miniseries on which it was loosely based, which featured several character deaths and climaxed with the assassination of Captain America himself), none of the major institutions of the Marvel world were shut down or rechristened, and nobody showed up to lay out any directions for where the bigger "Universe" story is headed next - apart from Spider-Man and The Black Panther turning up to jointly declare: "We exist!"
But there's more to Civil War's conclusion, and to the MCU in general, than questions of life and death, and the film's directors, Anthony and Joe Russo, have said that simply killing off a character for shock value at the end of the movie would have been "too easy" - that they wanted it to end in a "more difficult and more interesting place." This is why Captain America: Civil War's ending works.
A Different Kind Of War
Despite building a lot of Captain America: Civil War's pre-release hype around an end of Act II battle royal between almost every (earthbound) superhero the MCU has introduced up to that point, the majority of these guest stars are treated as such; with only a few minutes of overall screentime save for Iron Man and The Black Panther - both of whom have a direct connection to the main story. Likewise, the Infinity Stones barely come up at all (The Vision has one stuck to his forehead, so it kind of has to). It feels like the first superhero movie in ages where the fate of the world is decidedly not hanging in the balance, with the entire weight of the film instead turning on the question of whether or not the characters' central relationships (familial, friendly, romantic or otherwise) will survive what amounts to an untenable ideological schism.
The strength of setup lies in working backwards from the expected "world in the balance" plotting and audience expectations of the same. As the main Sokovia Accords argument plot gets rolling, the film (and the characters themselves) repeatedly set up the notion of the "war" breaking out because Tony Stark and Steve Rogers - effectively The Avengers' two competing father figures - are split on rigid, fundamental ideological lines: Liberty versus security, individual rights versus collective good, protection from The State versus protection by The State, etc. But as the story continues to unfold, it becomes immediately clear that neither man is looking to serve as an unmoving stone pillar of principle: Stark keeps pledging to his colleagues that the details will be ironed-out in their favor and that his "real" concern is something even more draconian coming later, while Rogers seems ready to (at least) hang back and respect the rule of law - until the situation suddenly involves his old friend Bucky.
It's also established, with admirable subtlety, that both men are also acting out of a desire to preserve support systems: Stark is back playing daddy to the Avengers in part because his relationship with Pepper Potts has gone south, and a failed experiment in grappling with his (still) unresolved issues over his parents' deaths has him feeling hyper-protective of his surrogate family. Meanwhile, Cap himself not only wants to keep The Avengers as their own unit, but sees his resolve harden after losing one of his last two connections to his past (Peggy Carter) to death, and seeing the other connection, Bucky, targeted for assassination. If it's true that superheroes only make real sense when understood as being (psychologically) young children in grownup costumes, then Captain America: Civil War is mainly about two brothers who each blame the other for their family breaking up. What's first presented as a big-picture thematic argument is revealed as an increasingly narrow emotional conflict - and there's more stripping-away yet to be done.
Even as the plot seemingly pivots to symbolically acknowledge that the Accords business has been a thematic red herring (see above) by introducing a narrative red herring (Bucky being set up by Zemo, who wants to find a bunker where HYDRA has a whole squad of even more powerful Winter Soldiers waiting to be activated), it's actually engaging in further misdirection about the real emotional trajectory of the characters. As it turns out, Zemo has no world-conquering ambitions and he only tracked down the other frozen super-assassins to murder them in their cryogenic sleep. He's no supervillain (or at least, not yet), he's an angry Sokovian with a grudge against superhumans in general (hence the dead Winter Soldiers) and the Avengers in particular, born of his family dying during the events of Age of Ultron. His real endgame is about as narrow and personal as it gets: He wants Captain America and Iron Man to kill each other, and to goad them into doing so he cues up a video proving that it was the (then) HYDRA-brainwashed Winter Soldier who murdered Tony Stark's parents - and it works.
The Accords were plot-point window-dressing and the ideological "war" was largely posturing. The build-up has really been "building down" to two men whose dual issues of loss, grief, instability and loneliness are tangled up together finally having no one left to beat up over it but themselves and each other... and so they do. The plot (of both the villain and the film) was a disguise for emotional/cathartic aims of the same. The political is actually ideological is actually personal is actually really really personal.
And while all of this is playing out, Black Panther - introduced as a guy who "hates diplomacy" and has been interfering in Iron Man and Cap's business on his own equally self-interested mission to kill Bucky out of revenge for his father - witnesses what's happened and not only prevents Zemo (his father's real killer) from committing suicide, he also pledges to hand him over to the U.N. authorities in an act of diplomacy, thus completing an entire origin story's character-arc in the margins of a guest-starring role, while also serving as a thematic mirror of the main story.
What truly hits hard about Civil War's ending is that it fully commits to the futility and deflating pointlessness of this final brawl without any qualifiers or moral escape hatches. Zemo hasn't "tricked" anybody. The tape isn't doctored. Everyone is on the same page as everyone else. Stark is 100% aware that Bucky was effectively being remote-controlled during the killing, and he (and the audience) hear Cap explain that, while he did learn that HYDRA had assassinated Howard and Maria Stark during the events of The Winter Soldier, he did not know that Bucky himself had done the deed. The cards are all out on the table very clearly indicating that, by both moral and narrative logic, these guys should not fight.
And they fight anyway. Because they're angry, and because Zemo was only able to break The Avengers in half because they were already starting to crack. Because all that pent-up pain has to go somewhere, and because humans and their emotion-driven responses can't be held completely in check by even the most well-meaning attempts at regulation. Even as Cap tries one more time to make Iron Man listen to reason about not murdering Bucky Barnes, when Stark responds with "I don't care - he killed my mom," we understand where he's coming from, and why all the reason and logic in the world won't stop him - any more than the Accords could've stopped Captain America from conducting his "vigilante" superhero work.
The thematic detail and character nuance at play are so sharply drawn and richly observed that it actually pulls off the most difficult feat possible in an action movie: A cool, exciting fight scene that the audience desperately wants to stop. There are more iconic moments packed into this one sequence than some entire films, but the emotional consequences for the characters render it as a crushing, brutal tragedy that further unsettles its audience by deliberately turning the "Awesome! Superheroes are fighting!" spectacle of the previous big setpiece on its ear, and twists the knife by symbolically stripping all three fighters of their core superhero iconography: The Winter Soldier loses his bionic arm, Iron Man's power-cell is destroyed and Captain America - challenged by Stark on the validity of the unimpeachable honor that earned him his name and powers in the first place ("You don't deserve that shield! My father made that shield.") - appears to agree with the sentiment enough to leave the shield behind.
So, while it's true that the Marvel Cinematic Universe table largely remains "set" in terms of no one dying and institutions like Avengers HQ remaining not blown to bits, a number of equally crucial things have been damaged, reshaped and otherwise changed:
- Stark has lost everything (his friends, the Avengers, his cozy government relationship, and Pepper) by trying to keep everything - and while he finally has closure about his parents, well... be careful what you wish for.
- Steve and Tony have effectively traded attitudes without trading ideologies: At the start Tony is arguing reason and Steve is being idealistic, while at the end Steve is pleading reason while Tony's position is one of pure vengeance, stripped of logic.
- Vision has to live with crippling somebody - in fact, one of the film's few glaring story flaws is that we don't find out how Vision plans to deal with this situation, which is kind of important since...
- Vision and Scarlet Witch's budding romance seems to be either over or severely impeded, which is adding up to a lot psychological baggage for a guy with an Infinity Stone welded to his scalp.
- Stark openly tried to murder Bucky, which is going to be difficult to walk from back no matter how many olive branch letters and burner-phones Captain America wants to send him.
- Cap basically condemns himself to life on the run, with the only person left on Earth he can relate to as Steve Rogers rather than Captain America once again tucked-away and frozen, after Steve has spent five films looking for family and a sense of belonging.
- The remaining Avengers are now fugitives from justice, which you have to imagine is going to be especially difficult for Hawkeye and Ant-Man, both of whom have families.
Even the best films in the superhero genre tend to center the emotional development and resolution of the main superheroes over the actual physical safety of the broader world around them: Millions may have died, but the important thing is that the character we like got over his father issues. And it could be argued that there's a faint cross-franchise echo in Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and Captain America: Civil War both devoting their framing-narrative to the question of what happens to the civilians amid the now-routine epic destruction sequences that define modern blockbusters.
But the fact is, boiling difficult big-picture issues down into relationship dynamics between centralized main characters is more or less the essence of narrative drama going all the way back to stories of gods and monsters spun around campfires. Just as most Greek mythology is about why Zeus is enraged enough to throw his lighting, not what happens to those below when he does, superhero movies will largely always focus on the brightly-costumed figures whose names are in the titles, because that's who we're going to relate to - not because we're callous or because the would-be collateral damage doesn't matter, but because drama tends to center on the forces that drive it.
Captain America: Civil War may not be a perfect movie, and may indeed have several narrative and technical flaws baked into its finished presentation, but its ending and the "realness" of its consequences aren't among them. For a superhero universe installment to set about pulling apart the threads of what make its characters heroic is a tricky setup that plenty of equally ambitious entries in the genre have tried and failed at, and the history of film is littered with bones of movies that claimed to give "equal time" and "no easy answers" in stories of ideological conflict. That the latest episode in the proudly "just for fun" Marvel Cinematic Universe pageant should pull both off so decisively is an impressive feat even for a studio built around such things.
To build to an ending literally and figuratively about the narrative shrinking down from epic-scale adventuring to a grim, personal grudge match is a brave risk to take in a blockbuster era where the world is always expected to be on the verge of destruction. To do so through a fight scene where both everything and nothing are accomplished in tandem while two beloved icons of the genre beat eachother senseless until neither of them are able to stagger away "clean" in the eyes of the audience but still send that audience home eager to see what happens next plays out out like some kind of magic trick: How'd they do that? Or, in Marvel's case, how do they continue to do that?
Yes, The Avengers will assemble again, and the status-quo of The Sokovia Accords and Captain America, Hawkeye, Ant-Man, Falcon and Scarlet Witch as fugitives from international law will inevitably give way to some new arrangement. Yet to whatever degree things can be reset to "normal," the gaps and cracks between the principals and in the moral fabric of their world caused (or exposed) by Civil War will not likely be soon forgotten. The new depths - not all of them attractive - seen in the main heroes will be fixed in the minds of audiences for some time and reverberate through subsequent films even if they aren't brightly referenced or loudly spoken - and that's how you know an ending has an impact, whether it "shows up" on an empirical breakdown of events or not.
Captain America: Civil War is in theaters now. Doctor Strange opens November 4, 2016; Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – May 5, 2017; Spider-Man: Homecoming– July 7, 2017; Thor: Ragnarok – November 3, 2017; Black Panther – February 16, 2018; Avengers: Infinity War Part 1 – May 4, 2018; Ant-Man and the Wasp – July 6, 2018; Captain Marvel– March 8, 2019; Avengers: Infinity War Part 2– May 3, 2019; and as-yet untitled Marvel movies on July 12, 2019, and on May 1, July 10, and November 6 in 2020.