The Marvel Moment

At the end of this month, Avengers: Endgame will bring to a head Marvel’s decade-long experiment in shared-universe storytelling. To mark the occasion, The A.V. Club is revisiting all 21 movies in this mega-franchise through a single, significant scene in each: not the best or most memorable scene, necessarily, but the one that says something about the MCU as an ongoing blockbuster phenomenon. This is The Marvel Moment.

Even the most devout Marvel loyalist can admit that the studio’s cinematic universe tends to have a problem when it comes to the big climactic set pieces that end their films. As with many of Hollywood’s CGI-heavy spectacles, there’s a tendency toward louder, flashier, and dumber—final fight sequences in which a hero or heroes go up against a large, anonymous, and insubstantial assemblage of meaningless goons, usually in service of preventing a giant glowing hole in the sky from opening or closing or exploding or whatever. For the MCU, this unfortunate trend began with Iron Man 2, whose finale found Tony Stark and Rhodey fighting empty suits—an all too fitting symbol for what was to come.

With the ending of Captain America: Civil War, Marvel blessedly broke from that tradition. It’s not the most instantly iconic scene in the movie—that honorific almost certainly belongs to the airport fight, the closest thing Marvel has ever come to bringing a big comics splash page to life. But one can see the beating heart of the company’s continued success in the final showdown between Tony (Robert Downey Jr.) and old war buddies Steve (Chris Evans) and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), a.k.a. The Winter Soldier.

Beginning with a flashback reminder of the gruesome car-crash death of Tony’s parents when he was still in school, Civil War builds to a reveal engineered by the revenge-driven Zemo (Daniel Brühl): Stark watches security footage depicting the shocking truth that his parents were actually murdered by Bucky while the bionic soldier was brainwashed and under the command of Hydra. Immediately, everything else goes away—Tony just wants an eye for an eye. The climactic sequence finds him slugging it out with Steve and Bucky, the two of them trying to get him to realize it’s not Bucky’s fault. It’s angry and raw and painful.

The fight showcases the personal stakes that drive this franchise, and that hold the key to the success of the entire MCU. People love these films in spite of their overheated finales, not because of them (barring a few excellent exceptions, of course). The “character first” approach comes home to roost in Civil War, by taking two of the most beloved heroes and pitting them against one another in a fight that definitively left no room for half measures—either Captain America was going to stop Iron Man from killing The Winter Soldier or he wasn’t. Except maybe those code names shouldn’t be used here. These aren’t heroes trading quips, or even getting into a heated debate in the science lab aboard a Helicarrier, à la The Avengers. This isn’t Captain America versus Iron Man. It’s Steve versus Tony. It’s two characters in which audiences had become deeply invested, one refusing to let the other avenge his family. “He’s my friend, Tony,” Steve says, trying one last time to explain. Tony’s sense of betrayal is palpable: “So was I.”

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These very intimate, very human stakes are what make the conclusion of Civil War meaningful in a way many other MCU final fights aren’t. The fundamental clash of ideas and personal values will always resonate far more than any over-the-top slugfest; it’s why the final conversation between Vision and the last avatar of Ultron in Age Of Ultron packs more punch than much of the city-destroying CGI robot battle that precedes it. And by staging an action sequence rooted firmly in an all-too-understandable falling out between its most iconic characters, directors Joe and Anthony Russo were able to give a visceral emotional impact to the excitement of a hero-on-hero struggle. Every brutal punch and injury lands not just physically but psychologically and symbolically. A friendship that had defined the Avenger films was being ripped apart. It stung.

Of course, Marvel couldn’t leave well enough alone, and the MCU couldn’t let such a downbeat state of affairs endure (at least, not until Infinity War, when the bummer was the whole point). Hence, Steve Rogers’ film-ending voice message to Tony, assuring the troubled billionaire that they’re still friends and that he’ll always be there for him. It drains the bitter struggle of some of its nasty acrimony—especially Tony’s demand that Steve give up his iconic shield, a move that seemed to sever more than just their friendship. But the weight of the fight that precedes it is still potent, and a demonstration of what keeps these films working. And hey, should we really expect anything less than for Captain America to be the bigger man, even when he’s just dropping into your DMs for a quick apology?