Civil War starts with the creation of the “Winter Soldier”, a figure whose personal and political history establishes him as a negative doppleganger for Captain America. Significantly, it is political ideology (the “red book”) that makes this former hero a villain, overcoming his rationality, eradicating his individuality and transforming him a willing tool of the state. The critique of collectivism implied here (as also in the nonsensical text which subdues Bucky’s reason) will subsequently become the major theme of the film, which argues that collectivism is dangerous not only because it undermines the individual’s freedom to act with virtue but also because it can lure even the well-intentioned into serving as the unwitting pawns of those with political power.
As the film proper begins in Lagos, we see a number of Avengers struggle to save the world from biological terrorism. While the casualties are light compared to the deaths averted, the group’s inability to avoid any collateral damage invites political intrigue, and when the squad returns to New York a second “red book” is thrust upon them in the form of the Sokovia Accords, a text which parallels its Soviet predecessor with a similar call for the subordination of individual freedom to the collective interests of the state. The thematic lines implied in the first scene are thus redrawn on a larger scale, forcing the Avengers to choose between accepting government oversight (collectivism) or standing in defense of individual liberty (individualism).
Although the audience is clearly meant to be sympathetic to both sides, the script offers unblinking support for its titular hero. Certainly, it is interesting that none of the Avengers who fight with Captain America in Lagos end up supporting the Sokovia Accords (the Black Widow is the exception that proves the rule, the double agent who switches sides exactly when her personal interests require it). Conversely, all of the figures who acquesce to government oversight are notably disconnected from the events they unfairly condemn. The American Secretary of State, for instance, is an official who brags of a “perspective” (read: distance and non-involvement) gained through a forced retirement. His removal from the events he criticizes is similar to that of the grieving mother who waylays Tony Stark over the death of her son, the King of Wakanda (who abdicates his responsibility for maintaining regional peace), and even the main villain Zemo, whose mission to avenge his murdered family (paralleled in the similar vengeance quests of Tony Stark and the Black Panther) is sparked by his experience of their deaths at a distance.
The role that media may play in creating and nurturing political grievances is suggested by the visuals of violence which play-and-replay on monitors and mobile devices through the film and in doing so provide the pretext for the state suppression of individual freedom. While Captain America and the Scarlet Witch have a meaningful discussion of their own failures, the other characters can only criticize from a position of ignorance. Personal experience is of paramount importance to proper moral judgment in this reading. And thus when the Black Panther confronts Zemo at the climax, it is his personal experience with his father’s death which allows him to transcend vengeance (unmasking and regaining his humanity) and become at last an agent of real rather than vigilante justice, a moral reversal which also changes his home from the “Wakandan prison” dismissed ironically by Stark mid-film to the hospital refuge we see at the film’s close which promises safeguard the Winter Soldier in his voluntary seclusion.
For further evidence Civil War sides with Captain America in an unapologetic defence of individualism, consider how the script confirm Captain America in his critiques of the Sokivia Accords. When discussing the agreement with the other Avengers following the ultimatum issued by the State Department, Captain America follows his generic defence of liberty with the more subtle observation that if the state itself is corruptible, what seems to be the collective interests of society may in fact be the private agendas of those in power. And this is exactly what the film shows on a closer reading: the grieving mother who convinces Tony Stark of the necessity of oversight is clearly motivated not by her public role as state functionary so much as her unrelenting private grief; Tony Stark admits that his support is due mostly to the way the agreement offers a politically expedient way for him to repair a tarnished personal relationship (and repress his own desires); and of course the villain Zemo is a manipulative force who drives the action behind the scenes and manipulates all of the players for his own private purposes.
DeepenThe international community’s attempts to foist the Sokovia Accords on the American government are also shown to be hypocritical. At the least, it is ironic that the Wakandan attempt to regulate “enhanced individuals” is justified on democratic grounds given that Wakanda is a monarchy that is not subject to democratic pressure. This same regime is also implicitly criticized by the film for not subjecting the Black Panther to international monitoring. And it is surely one of the more pointed ironies of the story that this new hero — who is credited with the the success of the diplomatic effort to create the accords — immediately follows their enactment with a vigilante crusade to “avenge” his father.
Although Civil War generally eschews more complex symbolism, the film’s criticism of the Sokovia Accords also comes out in some traditional symbolic ways, such as the way the Iron Man contingent suffers far more than Captain America’s in their set-piece airport battle, a sequence which shows multiple characters on the collectivist side unexpectedly stripped of their “powers” (read: virtues) or who find said powers newly unreliable and/or self-destructive: Iron Man’s multiple concussions, War Machine’s broken spine, and Vision’s loss of “clarity” (a symbol of blindness which parallels Tony Stark’s black eye) all indicate on a basic symbolic level that these characters are in the wrong. For a more trivial example, when Vision is shown sitting in defeat at a chessboard, the black king dangling from his hand, the image is evocative of Stark’s earlier warning that the Avengers themselves are now “in check.”
And just as the Avengers who accept oversight lose virtue, the film shows the American government grow more repressive and militaristic as the Sokovia Accords take root. Not only do the police dispatched to capture The Winter Soldier adopt an unnecessary kill-first policy, but the prisoners captured end up being treated unequally under the law, with the least fortunate (and ironically the most innocent) character denied due process or legal representation. The imprisonment of Bucky is then paralleled in the deliberate grounding of the Scarlet Witch as well as the imprisonment of the other heroes in a black jail that exists beyond the protection of national law. The way the script refers to these incidents as “internments” also suggests -— as does the appearance of the Lend/Lease pens as the signing instruments for the accords -— that the state itself is moving towards militarism and war in these scenes.
And this brings us to the end of the film. Tony Stark’s rejection of the State Department at the end of the film turns him towards a more ambiguous rejection of what the Sokovia Accords represents. Yet when confronting Bucky at the Siberian enclave, Iron Man falls to the same temptation as the villain Zemo, tempted into the pursuit of blind vengeance by the murder of his family. In the battle which follows, all of the heroes suffer fundamental wounds indicative that it is this militaristic violence which is ultimately self-destructive (a theme alluded to in the multiple references to The Empire Strikes Back), and in which the behavior of the characters also indicate the fallen state of American virtue.
And this is perhaps the most interesting moment of the film. For what do we have at the climax but the rejection of America by the figure meant to represent its cardinal virtues? The message of this sequence, followed by the Captain’s plainclothes liberation of his imprisoned crew, is the idea that a real American will embody the virtues of American values even if doing so requires him to abandon patriotism. As the Platonic embodiment of individualism, Captain America thus casts off his country when its government becomes inconsistent with those ideals, and so the film ends on a note of tragedy, but also the promise that America can and may return whenever the country calls out again for the freedom this hero represents.