Exorcism, Burial, and Analysis: Representing Trauma in ‘Captain America: Civil War’

This essay is the third in a series on the subject of Captain America: Civil War. It contains spoilers. (Part 1) (Part 2) (Part 4)

As the recipient of almost universal critical acclaim, most viewers have found relatively little to complain about in Captain America: Civil War. One notable gripe stands out, however: that the film devotes an inordinate amount of time to the exploration of Tony Stark’s psychological motivations while giving those of Steve Rogers short shrift. Animatic storyboards from the early developmental stages of the project reveal that there was a time when the filmmakers envisioned a much more robust defense for Steve’s position,(1) but this attention to his personal philosophy was ultimately pared down.

The decision to do little more than hint at the title character’s motivations has been seen by some as a mistake, an unfortunate concession to the multiple moving parts that had to be incorporated into the final product, but I would argue that this subtlety was intended to serve an important narrative function. In drawing such a sharp contrast between the respective hyper-verbal and circumspect communication styles of Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, the significant personality differences between the two heroes—differences that are first and foremost predicated on their diametrically opposed methods of dealing with emotional trauma—take on a metaphorical significance, representing not just personality traits but the contours of the film’s central debate itself.

Case Study: Tony Stark and the Externalization of Trauma
Steve Rogers and Tony Stark are alike in many ways. They are both orphans; they are both veterans of war; they are both deeply traumatized by their many unpleasant life experiences. However, while Steve suppresses his emotions in response to traumatic incidents, Tony broadcasts—acting out in ways that inflict his emotional state upon the people around him. The differences in these men’s coping mechanisms make sense when you consider their backgrounds. For Steve, who was bitterly poor and bullied through most of his childhood and young adult life, rigid self-control and the suppression of emotion comes as naturally to him as acting out and acting on the world’s stage come to Tony, who grew up both privileged and subtly neglected by his jet setting and sphinx-like parents. For Tony, this combination of factors, privilege and neglect, has resulted in an almost pathological need to project his emotional problems outside of himself.

Our first encounter with Tony in Civil War presents what is perhaps the clearest example of this need: he screens one of his most painful memories for a roomful of total strangers to watch and assess, commiserate with, and perhaps even judge. Extreme though this behavior is, it is an example of Tony’s ability to use his need productively rather than destructively. Just as his post-capture press conference in Iron Man represented a positive channeling of the need to externalize his traumatic experiences, the development and showcasing of Binarily Augmented Retro Framing technology constitutes an equally positive use of this tendency—a positivity that degenerates over the course of the film in the face of fresh traumatization.

As he has been through most of his cinematic appearances,(2) Tony is walking wounded through the majority of this film, struggling with intense psychological distress that consistently and cumulatively impacts his decision-making processes. Already reeling with the potential loss of Pepper Potts, Tony is immediately attacked by a woman whose son died in Sokovia; she blames him for her son’s death, sending Tony into a shame spiral that makes him ripe for Secretary Thaddeus Ross’ picking. Operating under this immense burden of guilt, Tony rushes into acceptance of the Sokovia Accords with little-to-no understanding of their design or constraints, and—in his typical fashion—he rushes his team into the same acceptance by projecting his sense of guilt onto them.

His emotional stability only declines from there. In Berlin, Tony enters into a monologue of psychological purging, during which his compulsion to carry on the fight, his tense relationship with his father, and his resultant resentment of Steve are all given a thorough airing. At the airport battle, he furiously projects his own impulsive and emotionally-compromised motivations onto Steve. In each of these situations, as well as during his interactions with Secretary Ross, Tony’s behavior borders on panic-stricken, and his repeated reiteration of his position and that position’s merits suggests an increasing desperation. Indeed, it is only once Tony reaches Siberia, having come to the realization that his decision to support the Accords was flawed and decided to help Steve, that we finally see a Tony that resembles the garrulous wise-cracking genius of yore. Having run the gauntlet of an extended anxiety attack, the reconciliation in Siberia is the first time in the film that Tony Stark is actually at ease.

Interlude: Bucky Barnes and the Internalization of Trauma
The very fact that Tony is finally at ease, after being so persistently and painfully on edge, makes what follows all the more devastating. In the final confrontation with Zemo, Tony at last learns exactly what happened to the father he was estranged from and the mother he adored, and this realization results in a violent psychotic break(3)—the ultimate expression of his compulsive need to project his emotional distress outward in the face of trauma. But at the same time that Tony’s tendency to broadcast his emotions is given its most prominent airing, one of the men he is with provides an intriguing counter-example of trauma management. For while Tony Stark is busy externalizing his trauma, Bucky Barnes is busy internalizing his own.

It is perhaps easy to forget, in the face of Tony’s explosive display of anger and grief, that Bucky has also been emotionally compromised by the experience of being confronted with the video footage of the Winter Soldier’s crimes. Tony watches his parents’ murder, but Bucky relives it, and that is clear from the way the film presents both video footage (what Tony sees) and sepia-toned flashbacks (what Bucky remembers). Their respective responses are telling. Bucky is so overcome by his memories that he completely drops his guard.(4) Tony is so devastated by this revelation that he flies into a rage and begins an all-out assault upon Bucky and Steve. These contrasting experiences of triggering reveal an alternative method of dealing with harrowing emotional shocks: Tony pushes his emotions out in order to dissociate from them; Bucky pulls them in to ensure that they will hurt no one but himself.

Case Study: Steve Rogers and the Utilization of Trauma
Like Bucky, Steve Rogers is a man prone to internalizing trauma, and it is likely that he learned this behavior as much from observing Bucky during the many years of their friendship as he did from his early experiences of bullying and marginalization. Through these combined influences, Steve has become a highly reticent person. Often described as a man who refuses to bleed on others, he is strongly inclined to keep his own pain to himself, and we see that tendency expressed early in the film when he learns of the death of Peggy Carter and his first instinct is to tell no one.

This is not to say, though, that he never communicates his emotions. It is clear that Steve communicates openly with the people he trusts. When he goes to comfort Wanda in the aftermath of the Lagos disaster, he tells her what Brock Rumlow said to him about Bucky, and he does so without providing much context. Steve obviously has no need to tell her who Bucky is, or who Bucky is to him, indicating that Bucky is a topic that has come up before—possibly in confidence, but more likely as part of an Avengers debriefing. In spite of his willingness to be open with his teammates, however, Steve remains highly aware of the strategic impact of his emotional expression and moderates his behavior accordingly, sharing his thoughts and feelings when it is advantageous to do so and keeping them under wraps otherwise.

The strategic utilization of emotion is one of Steve’s defining characteristics. In contrast to Tony, who is prone to exorcising emotional pain, and Bucky, who is prone to burying emotional pain, Steve’s tendency is to take the pain in, analyze it, and learn from it. Well aware of the consequences of allowing his trauma to consume him—particularly in the aftermath of his catastrophic encounter with Brock Rumlow—Steve uses the internalization of trauma to his advantage throughout the course of Civil War, a practice that enables him to remain remarkably calm and clear-headed through a number of highly charged confrontations. Steve Rogers is a man who knows the importance of learning from his traumatic experiences, just as he knows when and how to keep his ideas about those experiences on lockdown. In other words, he knows how to keep his own counsel, and he spends a good portion of the film doing exactly that.

Steve’s tendency to play his cards close to his chest complicates the presentation of his side of the argument. In contrast to Tony’s repeated justifications, Steve makes a few attempts to speak his piece and then largely drops the matter—a conscious decision that is due to his understanding of the value of strategic circumspection in the face of opposition. Over the course of the film, Steve is misunderstood, laughed off, and ignored when he attempts to explain his actions and motivations. When he points out that simply accepting, without investigation, an initiative that allows an external governing body to use the Avengers as weapons in unspecified ways and for undisclosed agendas is foolhardy at best and complicit in potentially objectionable actions at worst, Rhodey calls him dangerously arrogant. When he asks if Bucky is going to be provided with a lawyer, Everett Ross, the Deputy Commander of the UN Task Force, tells him he’s funny. When he explains the evidence he and Sam have uncovered about the truth behind the UN bombing, the majority of Team Iron Man’s members brush him off.(5) Thus, a lot of Steve’s unwillingness to discuss the subject of the Accords stems from the fact that many of the people around him repeatedly demonstrate that they are unwilling to listen. And if no one’s listening, why waste time talking?

Such an attitude may seem like an oversight on the part of the filmmakers, but—as we have seen—closer inspection reveals such a stance to be both thoroughly in character and entirely understandable given the circumstances. Moreover, by characterizing Steve in this fashion, the filmmakers establish a highly effective narrative framework for interrogating the film’s central philosophical questions. In the face of Steve Rogers’ cautious silence, Tony Stark forcefully thrusts his argument upon his fellow Avengers. So, too, does the film’s narrative thrust Tony’s psychological impetus for that argument upon the audience, leaving the viewer to pay careful attention as the film subtly, but unmistakably, makes Steve Rogers’ argument for him.

Conclusion: The Truth About the Accords
Over the course of Civil War it becomes increasingly clear that actions speak louder than words: for Tony Stark, for Steve Rogers, and for the Accords themselves. We learn that: 1) superpowered people are not entitled to due process under the Accords; 2) superpowered people can be killed on sight and without consequence under the Accords; and 3) no one is under any obligation to investigate the evidence of a crime in order to apprehend the right culprit under the Accords. To put it another way, the Accords—for all their pretty words—are not concerned with justice or accountability; they are merely a tool to bring the Avengers to heel, just as Steve had earlier warned. Furthermore, by the end of the film the majority of the players have come around to Steve’s position. T’Challa violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the Accords within hours of their signing; Natasha observes the situation, determines that she backed the wrong side, and acts accordingly; Tony himself secretly breaks rank, having come to realize the gravity of his mistake. For all that Tony’s voice has been the loudest, and his psychological imperative the more centrally positioned, the narrative arc of the film makes it plain through a variety of actions and reactions that it was Steve Rogers’ argument—not Tony Stark’s—that was correct.

1) The animatic in question has been taken down by the artist who originally posted it, but it may be posted to his YouTube account at some point in the future.
2) Tony Stark’s crumbling emotional stability has been pointed out by more than one critic. See, for example, the fifth entry in David Christopher Bell’s “6 Insane Plot Points Marvel Movies Refuse to Delve Into,” Cracked (May 5, 2016).
3) I use the term “psychotic break” here, but “brief reactive psychosis” would probably be a more precise descriptor for what happens to Tony in the wake of having watched his parents’ murder.
4) Bucky’s dropping of his guard is symbolized by the fact that he lowers his gun and does not raise it again, even in the face of Tony’s first gesture toward violence. Bucky only raises his weapon again, and returns to the present moment, when Tony attacks Steve. I will further discuss the depiction of Bucky Barnes in Civil War in part four of this essay series.
5) One notable exception to this is Natasha, who methodically collects information on the Accords situation, listens to what Steve is telling everyone about the crisis that is imminent, and makes a rational decision to back Team Cap.


3 thoughts on “Exorcism, Burial, and Analysis: Representing Trauma in ‘Captain America: Civil War’

  1. You show such great understanding of these characters. Its a pleasure to read your essays and to delve into the complex psychology of the Avengers.

    Also, this peice has made me even more in favour of Cap’s position. The way the accords are presented and implimented doesn’t look very just considering that they ignore the potential for new evidence and they are clearly just about exerting control motivated by fear, possibly causing innocent people to be hurt by action or inaction (Steve must feel like he’s fighting Project Insight all over again!). The fact that Tony (the Avenger who the accords seem to be most in need for incidentally) can’t make it to the end of the movie without defying his own position speaks to how flawed they are. I loved the line where Steve says he wishes he could turn his back on people to follow orders and conceeds ‘no I don’t’ when Tony calls him out. Such a great character moment and show of understanding between them.

    I never really saw Steve as being bullied as much as trying to defend justice for others. Marginalised though, definately. The only ones that see his potential are Peggy (herself marginalised due to her gender), Erskine (again, marginalised in his own country due to being Jewish) and Bucky. I wonder how Bucky felt about Erskine, grateful for giving Steve a chance, or resentful for allowing him to be in danger?


    • I can definitely see the distinction between being bullied and actively standing up for others. I think a reasonable case can be made either way, although I am inclined to see Steve’s behavior as a reflective of both internal and external forces. Certainly, my assumption that Steve was bullied is largely a matter of inference; the main support for the theory (“I got beat up in that alley, and that parking lot, and behind that diner…”) could very easily be read as arising from his lifelong refusal to ignore a situation pointed south, as you rightly point out.

      As for Bucky’s feelings… it’s a shame that the narrative doesn’t provide any time to really explore Bucky’s reaction to Steve’s transformation into Captain America, but I envision him as more grateful than resentful. When you care about someone, you want them to have what they want. And Steve desperately wanted to be a soldier. I think Bucky respects that, even if he doesn’t entirely agree with it. When he vows to follow Steve, rather than Captain America, it’s an acknowledgment of his respect and an acknowledgment that said respect is tied to who Steve is, not what he symbolizes.


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