A lot of people die in Captain America: Civil War.
Within the first twenty minutes alone, a good dozen people (at least) die between the confrontation with Rumlow and his men, the chase through the marketplace in Lagos, and the bomb.
You come to expect a lot of death in superhero films. Either the villains are killing people, the heroes are killing villains (and the occasional civilian casualty), or debris from a major fight kills people. Even superheroes who previous took oaths not to kill (like Batman) now shoot AR-15’s and snap necks to save the world.
That being said though, most (but not all) of the many people that die within the first few minutes of Captain America: Civil War are Black. In fact, most of the major incidents that trigger action within the film involve (or follow) the death and/or pain of Black people and how it affects white characters.
The point of this post is to look critically at how Black pain and death are handled in this movie and how Black pain and death in Civil War tends to revolve around white characters. I also aim to look at what it says about a film franchise that took over a decade before it had a film headlined by a Black character (and no Black women as main characters).
The death of the people in Lagos due to Wanda Maximoff’s terrible aim (Nigerians and Wakandans alike) serves to start the focus of the film. Without those dead Black people, the Sokovian Accords would’ve never received the weight of Wakanda’s king behind them and, most likely, would have been dead in the water.
After the scene in Lagos, the film cuts to one focusing on Tony Stark hyping up graduate students at MIT. When he walks offstage, presumably to head home, he’s confronted by State Department worker Miriam (played by Alfre Woodard) who is hurting and angry over the death of her son Charlie during the final battle in Sokovia during Age of Ultron.
She says that:
“I work for the State Department, human resources. I know it’s boring. But it enabled me to raise a son. I’m very proud of who he grew up to be. His name was Charlie Spencer. You murdered him, in Sokovia. Not that that matters in the least to you. You think you fight for us? You just fight for yourself. Who’s going to avenge my son, Stark? He’s dead, and I blame you.”
Tony looks shaken as a result of her comments.
What happens next, no one knows though, because this part of the film is only around to ping Tony’s guilt and pain. Miriam’s pain over her son’s death is something that fuels his.
Later in the film, after the Sokovia Accords are introduced, Tony tosses a photo of Charlie out towards the other Avengers as the two sides argued. In this, Charlie’s death becomes something that Tony wields against the other Avengers to silence and shame them. Regardless of how you feel about the Avengers’ politics and responsibility for the various catastrophes around the world, this is the first time that we see these heroes actively react to the effects of their fighting and it stems from Black death.
This kid’s death matters now (even though we know that dozens of people died during that final fight scene and so do the Avengers) as a way for Tony to essentially slap the other Avengers in the face and demand that they take responsibility (for something that he absolutely started).
We’ll never know if Tony had looked up other casualties in Sokovia and felt guilt over them. There’s no handy tie-in novel to make things clearer about what happened between Age of Ultron and this film. What we do know is that until Miriam showed Tony a picture of her son, Tony didn’t know he existed.
He didn’t know and so he didn’t care.
That’s how that works.
But once he knows about Charlie’s death, he cares. He cares so much that he uses the kid’s name and image in order to try and put a face against the image of loss and pain coming out of Sokovia. What he’s saying to the Avengers is that if they don’t want any more Charlie Spencers, then they need to sign the Accords.
In death, Charlie becomes a pawn and a misused one at that considering that what his mother probably would’ve preferred would have been for the Avengers to just quit what they were doing in the first place.
So that’s two (technically one and a half) instances of Black pain/death being used to spur (white) action in the film.
The next major instance of Black pain as an inciting action for white characters comes near the end of the airport battle when Vision shoots Rhodey out of the air after Sam dodges.
First things first, let’s talk about how either way a Black man was going to get hurt (or even killed) because Sam has nowhere near as much armor as Rhodey and if he’d dropped from the sky he would’ve been dead because it’s not like Tony seemed inclined to help him out. (Remember, Tony shoots Sam in the chest after Sam touches down and apologizes for not getting shot out of the air instead. Just… remember that.)
But let’s talk about how Rhodey’s injury is all about Tony.
Tony’s anger. Tony’s pain. Tony’s friend who got hurt.
Look, I absolutely enjoy the Rhodey/Tony relationship, but in the film franchise it’s always been more balanced towards Tony’s feelings and needs. Civil War does give us some great Rhodey moments that keep the character from being Tony’s right hand man (like he has scenes with and without Tony where he shows that he’s a power in his own right), but I seriously and strongly feel as though having him get injured and then having Tony react the way that he did were kind of uncool.
Because for much of the film, Black pain and death are used to spur white heroes on towards making an action and doing something.
Maybe I wouldn’t have noticed this if they’d used white characters or if this had been a more diverse franchise – like the Fast and Furious one perhaps – but we’re talking about the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The MCU which basically doesn’t understand that Black women exist, or that men of color don’t exist to be the white male lead’s funny best friend.
They don’t have enough Black people in their films and shows to be killing them off and grounding them like they did in Civil War. It was something that was hard to overlook because it was so present onscreen. Of the four (technically three and a half) moments that you can say that Black pain and death were plot points, most of them were explicitly used to make white heroes feel guilt and anger and pain.
Even the death of the Nigerians and Wakandans in Lagos was immediately made about Steve and Wanda’s feelings and how the (largely white) Avengers team was going to handle things.
If there’d been more of a focus on T’chaka and T’challa as well as on Wakandan relations with Nigeria in general, maybe it’d be different to me. But what the film does is position the Avengers’ guilt (and in Steve’s case, his anger) against T’chaka talking about the incident and Ross looking smug as he’s found a way to “control” the Avengers.
It doesn’t actually seem as though any of the Avengers – outside of Rhodey and Wanda – actually understand that people have been hurt and killed and that that’s more important than their sovereignty.
That’s what gets me. It’s that if you look at how the film positions them, the deaths of and pain associated with Black characters in this film largely doesn’t matter. It’s not about them, it’s about the white people who are forced to rethink their position or change how they live their lives. And for the most part, neither of the people responsible for the split actually rethink their positioning.
Steve still has no respect for other nations’ borders as long as he feels that he’s doing the right thing.
Tony, after seeing a photograph of a young man killed due to violence that he’s ostensibly responsible for, recruits a high school age kid to fight against grown adult heroes. He doesn’t at any point seem to admit that he’s bringing a kid in to a battle that he might die in. (And please, let’s not forget that he doesn’t admit how old Peter is when asked because that’s just infinitely shady.)
Now I think that when you first look at T’chaka’s death, it’s very easy to write it off as more of the same.
After all, he’s killed because Zemo wanted an easy way to get to Bucky for his own gain. He was killed because a white guy had beef with two other white guys and couldn’t figure out a way to handle his shit that didn’t involve killing innocent people.
I still think that T’chaka’s death was unnecessary as it relates to the film and how his death was straight up seen as a means to an end for Zemo, but T’chaka’s death doesn’t actually revolve around whiteness.
Zemo kills T’chaka for basically NO reason, but T’challa is the only character who is moved to fight based on his death.
T’chaka’s death isn’t for white pain or a call to action for white characters.
Out of all of the instances of Black pain and death in this film, this is the only one that isn’t directly and largely connected to white people being spurred into action. T’chaka’s son is moved to act and in the end, his memories of his father and firsthand knowledge of what revenge does to a body stops him from killing Zemo or allowing Zemo to kill himself.
It’s still… a bit problematic, of course, because I mean… even if the narrative doesn’t make T’chaka’s death all about a white character’s pain, how it comes about still shows evidence that the Avengers live in a world where a white man thinks nothing of engaging and then killing a Black monarch for his own gain.
This year is the first time since Blade that a Black Marvel actor is going to headline a Marvel property (Luke Cage) and at the same time, one of Marvel’s biggest 2016 hits involved a rather worrying amount of Black characters being fridged in order for white male characters to feel motivated enough to do something with their lives.
 While Sokovia is clearly a stand-in for an East European country where the citizens probably have conditional access to Whiteness within Europe, I’m pretty sure that Marvel didn’t think that far in the casting and character creation processes.
 I typed this with a wince because I know how that sounds
4 thoughts on “Black Pain and Death in Captain America: Civil War”
Actually this is woven through all of the MCU films, where the deaths, or threat of deaths, of PoC are used to spur the white characters into action. I think I mentioned in another post about how Bruce Banner tore up Africa in the last Avengers movie, he mentioned tearing up Harlem in the first Avengers movie, and how whenever he wants to hide, he tends to pick places where his being white is conspicuous, as these are all places with PoC, (note that he’s hiding in India at the beginning of the first Avengers movie.) Bruce Banner has a habit of putting PoC in danger of his hulking out, even in his own movies.
One of my big problems was Civil War tries really hard to make Tony a sympathetic character, but if you look closely at the narrative, you realize Tony is a total ass. Rhodeys death was used as a spur for white pain and action in the comic books as well, so this appears to be a thread through a lot of Marvels narratives. (Even when the writers had it pointed out to them that maybe they shouldn’t do it, they decided to do it anyway. It should be pointed out that Marvels writers are overwhelmingly white and male.)
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A terrific piece. Captain America: Civil War is a Marvel film that featured 3 Black male characters, so I knew ONE of them would be either killed or maimed, that’s what Marvel does in the comics.
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Hey! I always love reading your blog, even when (especially when) it challenges me to rethink the way I engage with media. I think this piece really hit on one of my main problems with the movie, which was: it all began with an American force imposing their law on a separate sovereign nation (a separate, sovereign nation–Nigeria–in Africa, for an added helping of racial hegemony on top of American hegemony). While I mostly agree with the fan argument that the Sokovia Accords were a terrifyingly bad mess of legal jargon designed to treat people as superweapons at the disposal of a shady government, the thing that made Steve’s position harder to swallow for me was that he apparently found nothing wrong with crossing national borders to enact his own brand of justice. I do think his position was a little more nuanced than “danged feds ain’t gonna regulate me” (given the events of the first two movies in the trilogy) but he lost any moral authority when his team hurt civilians in Lagos.
I’ve been distancing myself from the MCU because of how badly they’ve handled and are handling race. Between everything you brought up here, whitewashing The Ancient One and the Maximoff Twins, HYDRA, and the fan’s reaction to it (which I shamefully didn’t realize was crappy until recently), it’s just a mess. Plus several of the actors (Robert Downey Jr., Jeremy Renner, Scarlett Johanssen, Benedict Cumberbatch) are asshats.
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