DISCLAIMER: This is a part of a paper that I wrote for a class, THEO 6090: New Testament, at Seattle Pacific Seminary. I claim that I have written this completely and it is my own original work.
Captain America: Civil War is the newest addition to the Marvel Avengers cinematic universe. My brother, who studied communications with an emphasis on TV/film and who is also a very avid film junkie, posted on my Facebook wall the day following the release of the film. And he writes, “Have you seen the new Captain America? We have to talk about how this film is the best superhero film of all time.” And so I wondered to myself, what about this film could make my brother feel this way? I tried my best to go into the film with very little expectations. But this is Marvel. And Marvel is owned by Disney. There’s no such thing as walking in with little to no expectations with two of the most amazing, storytelling mega-corporations backing such a highly anticipated film. Today I will be talking about Captain America: Civil War and its relation to the story of Zacchaeus found in Luke 19:1-10.
Captain America: Civil War is the third and last installment of a film trilogy about the Marvel superhero Captain America. This film takes place after Avengers: Age of Ultron and follows the events that happen in that film. It’s important for those who are not familiar with the Marvel cinematic universe to take into account the events that happened in Age of Ultron before watching Civil War.
The story of Civil War follows Captain Steve Rogers who is currently the leader of the Avengers – a group of superheroes that fight against evil villains who want to take over the world. At the beginning of the film we see a small group of the Avengers on a mission to secure a bioweapon that could destroy all of humanity. As the Avengers pursue the bad guys, Captain America (Cap) confronts the leader who has a bomb strapped to his chest. The leader mentions that Cap’s childhood friend, Bucky, is still alive. This makes Cap hesitate and before he can react, the leader of the bad guys pulls the trigger for the bomb. Luckily one of the Avengers, Scarlet Witch, is nearby and contains the explosion with her mystical sorceress powers. However, she loses control and sends the bomb flying into a building, killing many civilians in the wake of the explosion. This notion of civilian casualties is one of the main ideas that makes Civil War possibly one of the best superhero films of all time. We’ll return to this idea in a bit.
Another major character in this film is Tony Stark, also known as Ironman, who is Cap’s nemesis for the film. Tony is confronted by a woman named Miriam Sharpe after he gives a presentation at a conference; this is following the explosion at the beginning of the film. Miriam tells Tony about her son who was living in Sokovia during the events that happened in Age of Ultron. Her son died because of the Avengers.
The conflict in this film between Cap and Ironman occurs because Tony is confronted by his own guilt of not appreciating his parents before their death. This gets magnified when Miriam confronts him about her son who died because of him. Because superheroes do not really care about the aftermath of their decisions.
In the story of Zacchaeus, we find Zacchaeus also living the life of a superhero tax-collector. He doesn’t know about the aftermath of his decisions. He’s just doing what he thinks is best. In fact, he’s shown in the story as high above everyone else in his tree – just like how the Avengers are high above in the Stark tower, living and towering above the entire city. Until one day, Jesus comes along and tells Zacchaeus to come down. When Zacchaeus comes down, he realizes something – that he’s been up in that tree and not realizing how he’s been affecting everyone with his decisions as a tax-collector. So in response, he says that he’s going to give away half of everything he owns and that he’s going to pay back four times as much as he stole from people.
If we compare this to Civil War, the Avengers are like Zacchaeus. There are a lot of things happening that are showing them that they’re higher and above everyone else. The decisions they make to fight in a city can kill thousands of people if they’re not careful. These people, in light of the Avengers, are the little people—the marginalized, the other, the civilians—who do not matter for the Avengers because their goal is to save the world, right? What are a thousand lives if you can save a million?
But for Tony, Miriam is his “Jesus figure.” She confronted him after his presentation and told him to come down from that tree because what he was doing was affecting her. What he did in Sokovia changed her entire life – she lost her son. When Tony heard the call to come down from the tree, his response was like Zacchaeus’ response. He took the initiative to be the leader, to stand against Cap because Cap was not willing to take responsibility for the civilian lives that were being lost because of the Avengers.
But Cap is in a very sticky situation in Civil War because of his childhood friend Bucky, also known as the Winter Soldier. Bucky is guilty for killing people and has been wanted for a very long time. But Cap knows that this is due to the hypnosis and brainwashing that Bucky underwent when he was captured as a prisoner of war after the train incident in the first Cap film. Bucky is framed in Civil War for planting bombs at a United Nations meeting that was held to discuss the formalization of the Avengers into an official U.N. organization through the Superhuman Registration Act (SRA). This was a reaction to the explosion at the beginning of the film. Tony is for the formalizing of the Avengers but Cap is not.
Captain America’s stubbornness to not sign the SRA is due to his loyalty to his friend Bucky. Signing the SRA would mean that Bucky would have to go back into containment. As someone who has always been there for Cap before he received his superhero powers, Bucky is someone who Cap holds close to his heart.
In relation to the story of Zacchaeus this resonates with the story of the rich young ruler. Cap can be seen as analogous to the rich young ruler in that he does everything he needs to do in order to be a superhero. He does everything right – Cap is the ideal moral superhero who cares for his friends, loves his enemies, and is an ideal leader. However, when Jesus asks the rich young ruler to give up everything that he has, he leaves with a sad disposition. Cap is being asked to come down from his superhero tree. But what lies in the way is his loyalty to Bucky. Is his loyalty to Bucky superior to the lives of others? In this case yes, it is. And very much so. The question for us is what lies in the way for us to come down from our superhero tower? For the rich young ruler, it was his wealth. For Cap, it is his loyalty to his best friend Bucky. For me and you it could be anything.
At the end of the film, Cap tries to redeem himself. After Bucky and Cap’s fight against Tony, Cap decides to leave the Avengers. He writes Tony a letter and tells Tony that the Avengers are now in his hands. But if Tony ever needed help, Cap would be just a phone call away. Because of his loyalty to Bucky, Cap knew that he couldn’t have both the leadership of the Avengers and his best friend. He had to choose one and of course his loyalty to his friend overcame his call to the Avengers. This doesn’t really solve the problem of superhero privilege for Cap. I would even venture to say that Cap is running away from his superhero calling like how the rich young ruler walked away from Jesus that day.
I would also like to confess that for this movie I sided with Captain America. #TeamCap. Cap has always been my personal favorite superhero because of all of his leadership qualities. He always makes decisions that he knows would best benefit the entire team. And he always chooses loyalty to those who he loves the most. In this case, it was his best friend Bucky. The heroic sense of loyalty displayed in Cap is romanticized, for me especially, in the film Civil War where Captain America is the good guy and Tony is the bad guy.
My confession is that I want to be loyal to those who are close to me and I want them to be loyal to me too. I don’t want anything to come above my relationships with my best friends or my family and in all cases I want them to choose me. But when we compare Civil War and the story of Zacchaeus together we can see that loyalty is not always a good thing especially if we put it above Jesus’ call to discipleship – to care for the marginalized, the poor, the oppressed, and the other. Jesus calls us to abandon loyalty to everything else when it comes to loyalty to God. The question for us is, are we willing to abandon our loyalty? Are we willing to come down from our superhero towers (or trees) when Jesus asks us to step down? My prayer for all of us is that we would be challenged in our every day to see how we affect those who are silenced by our privilege and that we would ultimately choose to come down like Zacchaeus and Tony did. #TeamIronman
Oh, and the reason why this is the greatest superhero movie of all time? It’s because we, the non-superhero people, were finally recognized as a part of this universe.