To mangle a catchphrase, superheroes are often meditations on the balance between power and responsibility. However, one of the more interesting recurring motifs of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is the preference for the former over the latter. This is especially the case for the character of Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), who headlines the new streaming series WandaVision on Disney+.
Interestingly, the early films in the MCU were largely about consequences. In Iron Man, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) must confront the reality that his negligence and lack of oversight has allowed Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) to turn Stark Industries into a company that supplies arms to terrorists. Stark is motivated by responsibility, trying to atone for the fact that for decades he “reaped the benefits of destruction.”
In The Incredible Hulk, Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) must deal with the fact that his arrogant self-experimentation has turned him into a giant green rage monster over which he has no control. In keeping with decades of comics, Banner spends the entire movie as a ticking time bomb, trying to cure himself and attempting to avoid transforming in a place where he might hurt innocent people. Like Stark, Banner is trying to make up for his past mistakes.
This is arguably an extension of the genre roots in comic books, which historically tended towards long-form storytelling. (Indeed, the MCU carries over certain aspects of this, to the point that some critics have argued that the films are effectively a television series with Avengers: Endgame as a season finale.) In comics, actions can have consequences, with fallout playing out over dozens of issues and years at a time; think of arcs like Tony Stark’s alcoholism or the work of writers like Chris Claremont.
However, while there are exceptions like Thor: Ragnarok, the later films in the MCU push back against this idea. The trend arguably starts with Avengers: Age of Ultron and continues into Avengers: Civil War. The character of Wanda is introduced in Age of Ultron. She is the subject of experimentation by the evil Baron Wolfgang von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann), which has given her superpowers. Along with her brother, Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), Wanda watched her parents die in an attack conducted using ordinance from Stark Industries. She has sworn vengeance.
Various characters in Age of Ultron do reckless things that have terrible results. Given a subliminal prompt by Wanda, Stark pushes ahead on the “Ultron” global defense program with Banner. The plan is to construct “a suit of armor around the world.” Naturally, the plan goes horribly wrong when Ultron becomes self-aware and determines that the best way to save the world is to wipe out all human life. The Avengers stop Ultron, but not before the intelligence kills many people.
In Age of Ultron, Ultron aligns with Wanda and Pietro. During one confrontation, Wanda uses her mind manipulation powers against Banner and unleashes the Hulk against Johannesburg. Iron Man and the Hulk square off in the densely populated city. The battle doesn’t appear to incur too many casualties, but the devastation is severe. Given the Hulk is a long-standing metaphor for the atomic bomb, Wanda effectively targeted a weapon of mass destruction at a civilian population.
Civil War is supposedly about the consequences of Age of Ultron, at least on the most superficial of levels. Ultron’s rampage is cited as justification for the introduction of the Sokovia Accords, designed to ensure oversight of Earth’s emerging superhero population. However, there is no indication that Tony Stark has faced any civil or criminal consequences. The villain Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl) lost his wife and child in Sokovia, but Civil War never shades him as particularly sympathetic. He kills plenty of innocent people.
Naturally, having switched sides at the climax of Age of Ultron, Wanda has managed to also avoid any repercussions for the events of the film. At the start of Civil War, she is working with Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and the Avengers. Wanda’s status as a terrorist is never even properly discussed. The team is operating without oversight, staging unilateral interventions on foreign soil. During one such encounter in Lagos, Wanda makes an error in judgment that results in the deaths of more than 11 people.
The heroes in Civil War are not particularly humbled by their failures. While Civil War depicts Steve Rogers’ distress at the passing of Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), there is no suggestion that the Avengers paid any heed to the memorials for those lost in Sokovia or Lagos. Stark is initially cowed by a visit from Miriam Sharpe (Alfre Woodard), a woman who lost her son at Sokovia, but that does not last. Stark’s support of the Sokovia Accords is pragmatic and half-hearted at best.
The obvious point of comparison for the Sokovia Accords is the Mutant Registration Act in the X-Men comics and films. The Mutant Registration Act is generally portrayed as a monstrous violation of human rights. However, the Mutant Registration Act criminalizes people for who they are — people who are born as mutants. In contrast, the Sokovia Accords regulate what the Avengers do. General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt) makes it clear that any members who don’t want oversight can retire; they simply lose the right to unilaterally deploy superweapons in densely populated areas.
With this in mind, Civil War asks its audience to treat any attempt to hold these superheroes to account as inherently unreasonable. The film declines to present Stark as a “true believer” in regulation and instead delegates that role to Ross — one of the two primary antagonists in The Incredible Hulk. When Rogers stages a breakout of the supermax prison designed to hold his allies at the end of the film, Stark just stands idly by.
This is particularly apparent with the character of Wanda. Despite being indirectly responsible for inspiring Stark to bring Ultron online and directly responsible for setting the Hulk on Johannesburg, there is never any question that she belongs on an Avengers team. As the crisis over registration escalates in Civil War, attempts to keep Wanda under temporary house arrest in the top-of-the-line New Avengers HQ in Upstate New York are presented as grotesque violations of her civil liberties.
The refusal of the film to grapple with the question of Wanda’s culpability or responsibility for her actions is neatly mirrored in the film’s treatment of Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan). Of course, Bucky has been brainwashed and turned into an unstoppable killing machine, so it’s debatable how responsible he is for his actions. Still, Civil War repeatedly demonstrates that Bucky is a clear and present danger to the people around him — even after he is released from the control of HYDRA.
The sane thing to do would be for Bucky to surrender himself to the authorities. This would prevent Bucky from continuing to accidentally hurt people. In the longer term, those authorities could follow due process in determining his culpability (or lack thereof) in crimes committed while under mind control. Personally, I’d love to hear Adam Adler’s take on it; after all, facing these sorts of accusations was a major and important part of the comic book character’s journey towards redemption.
Following Captain America: Civil War, the MCU abandoned any real sense that actions have consequences. In Civil War, Rhodey (Don Cheadle) has his spinal cord “completely severed” during a confrontation with the Falcon (Anthony Mackie). In the closing scenes of Civil War, Rhodey is shown undergoing extensive physiotherapy just trying to walk. However, when Rhodey meets the Falcon again in Avengers: Infinity War, there is no sense of bad blood. Rhodey isn’t angry. The Falcon doesn’t even apologize.
This attitude perhaps reaches its apotheosis in Endgame, with its bizarre rules of time travel. These rules effectively determine that the characters will experience no consequences for meddling in their own history; any changes that they make will have no impact on the present. Even Banner has embraced this idea, no longer treating the power of the Hulk as something to be feared. Instead, Banner chooses to have “the best of both worlds,” to be the Hulk all the time.
“Eighteen months in a gamma lab,” Banner boasts over breakfast. “I put the brains and the brawn together.” All of the power, none of the responsibility.