By now you have all seen the breakdown of the two sides in the Civil War. If you didn’t, look up.
The contours of circumstances that lead to this are fairly clear, given a slowly increasing pattern of superhero resentment in the Marvel universe.
It began with the Senate hearing in Iron Man 2 where some members of the Senate (led by one who turned out to be part of HYDRA) tried to make Tony Stark disclose the secrets to his suit. In The Avengers, we caught a glimpse of at least one politician calling for greater superhero accountability for the damage to New York. In Iron Man Three the President recommissioned War Machine into the Iron Patriot because it projected a friendlier image (even if that fell by the wayside). In The Winter Soldier a committee of the Congress and the Joint Chiefs sought answers from Cap and Black Widow for ‘laying waste to America’s intelligence apparatus,’ and clearly wasn’t buying Black Widow’s final statement. At the start of Avengers: Age of Ultron, the people of Sokovia demonstrated an active resentment for the Avengers.
During Ultron, the world saw Hulk go berserk through the streets of Wakanda* (similar to his Vegas rampage in the comics that led to his outer space exile). We know at some point in the upcoming movie, Cap fights Crossbones in what’s looking a lot like Wakanda. This could also be where Scarlet Witch’s uncontrolled powers cause a catastrophic accident, giving us at least two reasons for Black Panther’s involvement in the Civil War, on Stark’s side.
So on the surface, the pieces are definitely in place for something like this to happen. Beneath that, this is also explained by the existing character arcs behind two key rivalries: Captain America vs. Iron Man and Hawkeye vs. Black Widow.
Captain America vs. Iron Man
Cap has struggled to find a purpose with the modern world, as indicated by his dilemmas in The Winter Soldier and moment of pause on the Barton Ranch (which was straight out of The Searchers). He fears being a stranger to the world yet he also is no longer suited to civilian life (his terrific deleted scene in The Avengers hints at that), so he first tried working for S.H.I.E.L.D. in the hopes that it retained some trace of the values that inspired its founding. When that didn’t work out, he made his home with the Avengers. Now he runs their new headquarters, trains the new team, and leads them into battle.
Stark has evolved from being too care-free and reckless to internalizing the entire problem of global security. His last run-in with his PTSD involved him tirelessly working to solve it, resulting in a disaster like Ultron, but where he was able to salvage the wreckage of his failure into something better. And now that he has been vindicated by the baffling existence of the Vision, Stark will only be more emboldened going forward, provided he has a reason to return.
All it takes is one catastrophic accident involving something like, say Scarlet Witch’s powers going haywire and her inability to control them to tear the unflappable Iron Man from his pursuit of the simple life and bring him back to the front and center of the world’s attention, turning him into the vanguard for superhero accountability with the embodiment of the best of their kind – Captain America – thrust back into the crosshairs. The Civil War will happen because the self-anointed arbiter of security and accountability is about to rip into the man out of time’s sole reason for existing in the modern world.
Hawkeye vs. Black Widow
Black Widow may actually be the lynchpin for the whole thing, in terms of illustrating the war’s tragedy. Her character arc has been about her trying to be more than just a cold-blooded assassin. In The Avengers, her joining the team is about her erasing the red in her ledger. In The Winter Soldier, she buries her true self beneath her act, and not just when she’s doing covert ops with S.H.I.E.L.D. At the end of that movie she exposes all of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s secrets and blows all of her covers. She’s a real person now, and she lets Congress know it. In Ultron, the Natasha Romanov who no longer believes that “love is for children” finds herself attracted to someone with that same exact struggle she’s always had – the Hulk. The life and family she wants is denied to her by Bruce Banner’s return to exile and the fact that Natasha Barton turns out to be Nathaniel Pietro Barton. It was always denied to her because of what she was made to be. The Avengers are her next closest family, so she stays behind with Cap, still chasing purpose in the modern world like he is, but also still chasing redemption.
So it makes sense that Romanov, now an Avenger who no longer hides herself and who publicly defended her fellow heroes in Washington, would actually take Stark’s side.
Hawkeye, meanwhile, is an Avenger because it’s his job. He has no destiny or heroic origin. He’s a husband and a father, the only hero with a secret identity, making him the human element of the team. That also means he has the most to lose – from both Big Brother and by him and his family being exposed. That puts him squarely on Cap’s team, and will be devastating to see him fight Romanov.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is big enough at this point that it can’t help but to be a mess. In an odd way, the Civil War arrives at the perfect time to make an even bigger mess of things before the bigger Infinity War, but it’s also a long time coming. Here’s to it.
*UPDATE: In Age of Ultron, Hulk rampaged through Johannesburg, not Wakanda. I’d like to thank my buddy Daniel Rochelle (@DanielRochelle on Twitter) for pointing that out. This actually makes it plausible that the opening sequence in Captain America: Civil War will take place in Wakanda itself (that favela-looking area from the production shot here).