Illustration via Max Fleishman (Licensed)
This article contains Captain America: Civil War spoilers.
Superhero movies are supposed to be about the little guy, about how anyone can be a hero if they want. Back when Steve Rogers was just Steve Rogers, he was the quintessential runt of the litter. But then he was transformed into Captain America, the title character in the latest film in the Marvel cinematic universe. That was the moment Steve stopped being the little guy.
Captain America: Civil War is probably one of the most important superhero films of the past 20 years. That doesn’t mean it’s the best, but it’s message is meaningful. Civil War is important because it actually cares about its victims.
In a recent article for Deadspin, writer Tom Ley argued that someone should have died in Civil War. Well, not just someone, but someone important. Ley acknowledged that hundreds of people must have died during the film’s two main catastrophes, including Black Panther’s father, but those deaths didn’t matter because they weren’t main characters.
“I realize that those of us in the audience are supposed to feel as sad about the innocent civilians that keep getting buildings dropped on them as Iron Man does, but that’s not how movies work! I don’t feel bad for the Wakandan aid workers that Scarlet Witch accidentally blew up because I haven’t spent nearly a dozen movies getting to know those people.”
This is not surprising. Superhero films, like most action flicks, focus mostly on the heroes’ deaths because those are the people we’re supposed to care about. That’s the reason we got a whole minute dedicated to Agent Coulson’s death in The Avengers, even if he was retconned back to life in Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. It’s like how we want Boomer the dog to live in Independence Day, even as millions of bodies burn during his heroic leap to safety.
Superhero films may not be as bad as disaster movies, which usually leave survivors in the dozens, but they are getting worse. As Marvel and DC films have become bigger, so have their presumed body counts. The Guardians of the Galaxy totaled several cars, and likely the people inside, trying to save their skin. Thor and company leveled an entire college during Thor: The Dark World. And let’s not forget the countless bodies that piled up after Superman’s actions in Man of Steel.
Superhero films focus mostly on the heroes’ deaths because those are the people we’re supposed to care about.
Props to Batman, who only broke a car window and tagged a bridge in The Dark Knight Rises. Of course, that was before the carnage fest that was Batman v. Superman, even if the area was supposedly abandoned before their final fight.
In Civil War’s most direct predecessor, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, the Hulk and Ultron were likely responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths. Captain America later expresses remorse for those deaths but believes that sometimes sacrifices have to be made for the greater good. Normally, that’d be the end of that conversation, but this movie is different. Unlike countless other action films like Transformers 3 and 2012, where the deaths of millions are written off as soon as they exit the frame, every death in Civil War is given its own Coulson moment.
Tony Stark, one of the richest and most powerful men on the planet, signs onto the Sokovia Accords because one woman showed him how his actions caused her son’s death. Black Widow’s resolve for superhero registration grows after she sees a man’s father die in front of her eyes. We see this reflected in Spider-Man’s choice to help the team, with Uncle Ben’s offscreen death presumably influencing his choices.
With great power comes great responsibility.
After all, with great power comes great responsibility.
Even the film’s main villain is part of this. Zemo is an ordinary man whose life was destroyed the moment his family was added to the body count. He may have military experience and an intelligent mind, but he’s still a minor character with relatively small ambition. He doesn’t want to rule or destroy the world; he wants to damage two men just as much as they damaged him. And he doesn’t have an Infinity Stone to help him either.
As big as Civil War is, it’s also surprisingly small. The film rejects the big picture and gives every death the weight it needs and deserves. Every time Bucky slams a German special ops soldier into the wall, you feel it. Every second of news footage Wanda watches on the carnage she caused in Lagos, you see it. The victims can’t be ignored—no matter how hard you try.
The viewer, much like Captain America, is forced to think about these victims as more than collateral damage. Every one of them has a family, a story, and a purpose. We try not to think about it because it takes away from the fun, but Civil War doesn’t let us. It puts the heroes face-to-face with the damage they’ve done, and the rest of us are forced to deal with the deaths we’ve ignored or excused for years. Captain America: Civil War makes us all care a little more about the little guy.
Beth Elderkin is a freelance journalist who's been featured in TouchVision, Daily Dot, PopOptiq, The Gloss, and several other publications. She also co-hosts and produces Shark Jumping, a TV review series for Channel Awesome. Follow her on Twitter @BethElderkin.