As a blanket disclaimer, let’s just agree that SPOILERS may and probably will show up. This isn’t an extensive review, but in order to talk about what I’m about to talk about (English is Fun!) I need the rest of the movie available for referencing.
Consider that your warning!
First of all a big, and I mean HUGE, thank you to the Russo Brothers, Kevin Feige, and Marvel Studios for the superhero palate cleanser that is Captain America: Civil War. The third installment in the Captain America branch of Marvel solo films, it also qualifies as an Avengers movie with only Thor and Hulk missing to complete the set. Make no mistake, though, the story heavily leans on Cap (Chris Evans) but he’s got the best of frenemies in Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr) as the two fight a war of ideology that quickly snowballs into an Avenger-on-Avenger showdown, with one or two shocking revelations, that have very real repercussions for the characters in the aftermath.
Plot-wise, Civil War earns its title because of Tony and Steve’s disagreement over the Sokovia Accords – a law that would make the Avengers an arm of the United Nations as a means of putting the group of super-powered heroes in check after a mission goes south. Tony, still reeling from lingering feelings of guilt since his first foray as Iron Man in 2008 and a more recent condemnation post-Age of Ultron, thinks the Accords are necessary. Putting limitations on where the Avengers go would “theoretically” reduce collateral damage, thus saving lives and preventing disastrous events like New York and Sokovia. The reality of the situation is clear to Tony: Who are the Avengers accountable to in the wake of their cataclysmic battles? How many lives have they ruined after their supposed victories?
Steve, however. sees the Accords as a means of shifting the burden of responsibility. Instead of the Avengers holding themselves accountable, they’d be at the beck and call of a governing body with its own agenda. Additionally, the Avengers would be stripped of their own freedom to choose where to go and who to help. The reality of the situation is clear to Steve: How many lives will be lost if the Avengers have their hands tied? How can they put their trust in the United Nations to make the right call? Suffice it to say when the Winter Soldier, aka “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan), is brought back into the fray, under mysterious circumstances, it tests the limits of Steve and Tony’s convictions as well as their friendship.
The pivotal moment of the movie, however, isn’t the thoroughly entertaining fight that occurs between the two “warring” sides of the Avengers. No, that belongs to a small, quiet scene right in the middle of the film. After an extensive chase through Bucharest in pursuit of the Winter Soldier, Bucky is finally brought in for bombing the UN and killing several foreign dignitaries including King T’Chaka of Wakanda. The damage, however, has been done to the city as well as Steve’s faith. Believing his brain-washed friend to be innocent of the accusations in Geneva, Steve can’t deny that his best friend is dangerous. In his efforts to get Cap on his side and see reason, Tony makes a play of nostalgia by bringing along an old WWII artifact – the pens Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt used to sign the Atlantic Charter in 1941. His father just happened to have them because Howard Stark.
Through Tony’s lens, the Atlantic Charter was an eventual step towards the formation of the United Nations – countries with differing opinions still working together for the sake of the global community. Through Steve’s lens, it pushed America closer to war – a show of good faith that played its part in the attack on Pearl Harbor only four months after the document was signed. The significance of the scene isn’t just in the different yet valid concerns of both Tony and Steve, but the fact that they’re discussing how adding one’s signature to a document can steer the course of history. The most meaningful display of power in Civil War isn’t in the fists of its heroes (though they get plenty of licks in), but in the mundane action of signing.
Tony’s play almost works. The pens, talking about his father, and revealing his relationship with Pepper is on the rocks all seem to push Steve towards signing. Tony even guarantees Bucky will get the help he needs, but in his enthusiasm for things finally going his way he goes a step too far and mentions that Wanda, aka Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), is being kept at the Avengers compound for her own “safety.” And suddenly WWII and the pen Steve holds takes on another meaning: internment. Roosevelt signed many significant documents during his presidency. One of which, Executive Order 9066, approved the internment of people of Japanese descent. Some suggest it was signed out of fear and paranoia, only two months after Pearl Harbor, while others suggest it was for the “protection” of Japanese citizens in danger of retaliation by white Americans, but it’s still a piece of history that we look back on with regret. Time and distance haven’t changed the harsh reality of what the American government did, all under the blanket of benevolence: We thought we were doing the right thing. We thought we were doing what’s best for everyone.
When Cap gives the pen back, it carries the weight of history and the consequences of a signature.