There is no shortage of films about fatherhood in Hollywood, perhaps in part because the industry is still largely dominated by men who get to explore elements of their own lived experiences on the silver screen. But just because it’s a theme that is oversaturated in the industry, doesn’t mean that it isn’t fun to recontextualize certain films that aren’t typically looked at for deeper, more nuanced examinations of the human condition. One film, in particular, has just reached the six-year mark since it premiered, and it seems like a fitting time to unpack how Captain America: Civil War is a film about fathers and sons.
If you strip away the high-flying action and superhero dramatics of Captain America: Civil War you are left with a film that has three extremely compelling stories about fathers and sons. The first is the story that kicks off the film: the assassination of Howard Stark (John Slattery), which shapes and informs the choices that Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) makes throughout the film. The second is the relationship between King T’Chaka (John Kani) and his son T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) which serves as a pivotal launch point for T’Challa and ties in with the third story. Helmut Zemo’s (Daniel Brühl) actions are fueled by the loss of not only his own son, but his father as well, which shapes him into the tool that brings down the Avengers. All three stories are inherently linked to each other, underlining just how fundamentally tied to the themes of fatherhood. Civil War is.
Howard Stark and Tony Stark
Civil War opens with the murder of Howard Stark, which is the inciting incident that propels the entirety of the film. A few short scenes later, we see Tony reliving those precious hours preceding this life-altering moment. While it is revealed to the audience through a glitzy Stark-ish tech show, it is tinged with the guilt that Tony lives with. He had unfinished business with his father and, now that he’s older, he can look back at that final goodbye and picture how he would do it differently. For all of his bravado, this sequence reveals a wound Tony carries that will never be healed.
Soon after the conference, Tony is confronted by the mother of Charles Spencer, who was building sustainable houses in Sokovia in 2015, when the Avengers leveled the country. While this is an example of motherly love — something that is in short supply throughout both superhero franchises — it meant to remind him of parental love. It’s designed to reopen his own wound and, ultimately, become the motivator for his decision to side with the government on regulating superheroes.
Ultimately, it’s Howard Stark’s death that drives the final and most fatal wedge between Tony and Steve. It does not matter that Bucky was brainwashed and manipulated into becoming a killer, Tony sees him as the man that murdered his parents and that’s all that matters to him. He does not see Steve protecting his friend, he sees Steve protecting his parents’ murderer. It’s this revelation that leads Tony, Steve, and Bucky to the iconic showdown, and it sets into motion the beginning of the end for the Avengers. They may reunite and work together, but it’s never the same from this point forward.
King T’Chaka and T’Challa
Wakandans have a very different view on death than most, as T’Challa explains to Natasha after the death of his father: “Death is not the end, it’s a stepping-off point.” But in the wake of his father’s untimely death, T’Challa is not prepared to accept this idea. Like Tony and Zemo, T’Challa wants to avenge his father’s death. Unlike Tony and Howard Stark, T’Challa and King T’Chaka had a healthy relationship — one seemingly founded on mutual respect and love. It’s not until Black Panther that we get a deeper look at this relationship and how T’Challa is affected by the truths he learns about his late father.
In the context of Captain America: Civil War, T’Challa is forced to grow up after his father’s death, and it’s a struggle for him throughout the movie. There is only one major scene between this father-son pair, but it lays the groundwork for whom T’Challa is as a person, and the kind of man he will one day become as Black Panther. The new responsibilities foisted upon his shoulders after T’Chaka’s death are at odds with his need to make his father’s murderer pay. This conflict is the driving force behind his motivations — both to chase down the man he thinks killed his father and to spare the man who actually did orchestrate his death.
Helmut Zemo and Carl Zemo
Zemo weaponizes the loss of Howard Stark, using Tony’s grief to dismantle not only the Avengers as a whole but the paternal authority that Tony held over the group as its figurehead. The Avengers have encountered a lot of advisories throughout their do-gooding, but none of them have been a direct reaction to their inaction. That’s what makes him such a fascinating anti-hero because his actions make sense — who wouldn’t want to avenge their family after the “good guys” let them get killed? Let your whole country get destroyed.
There are several short Zemo scenes that were cut from the theatrical release, which are important to the thesis of this article. In the movie, we see Zemo listening to the voicemails that he saved from his wife, Heike, but there’s one particular one that is available to watch on Disney + which really drives the point home. In one of the voicemails, Heike mentions that Carl’s birthday is coming up and that Zemo had promised him a new Xbox. While we do not know exactly when this voicemail was left, it can be assumed that this was sent in the lead-up to the tragedy in Sokovia. Implying that Carl’s birthday had just happened before his death or that those plans for a new year were cut short by the Avengers. This further compounds the pain caused by the Avenger’s negligence, and there’s a reason why Zemo is repeatedly reopening that wound for himself. Those voicemails — the lost moments with his son that they symbolize — are his motivation.
The voicemails are revisited in the final act of the movie, after the dust has settled and the Avengers are in shambles, Zemo resigns himself to wallow in his victory. Because, no matter how sweet victory might be, destroying the Avengers can not bring his family back. He deletes the voicemails from Heike because he no longer needs them for motivation and plans his own demise. As Zemo cocks the gun, T’Challa closes in on the revenge that he has also been seeking in the wake of his own father’s death.
In this scene, an exchange occurs — both verbally and ideologically. Fundamentally, T’Challa and Zemo have both been driven by the same singular motivator: a relationship between a father and son. Zemo is driven by the promise that he made his son Carl and the sacrifice of his father, while T’Challa is seeking vengeance for his father’s death. They both acknowledge their losses and, in Zemo’s case, he takes accountability for his part in King T’Chaka’s death. Through the exchange of dialogue and shared tragedy, T’Challa sees a path beyond vengeance and recognizes that he was on the same path already taken by Zemo.
T’Challa is then presented with an opportunity to allow the man who took his father’s life to take his own life, but he stops Zemo from committing suicide. This action is derived not only from being a hero but from seeing some part of his own journey throughout Civil War reflected in the depths of Zemo’s own grief. It’s a recognizable desperation that is intrinsically bound to the relationship between a father and son that he understands.
Marvel has no shortage of complex relationships between fathers and sons, and most of them are defining components of their tragic backstories and flawed personalities. After all, Star-Lord would not be Star-Lord without the relationship between Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and Ego (Kurt Russell) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) may not be as emotionally broken if Odin (Anthony Hopkins) had actually raised him like his son and not a pawn. Captain America: Civil War may be remembered for Team Cap and Team Iron Man, but the far more compelling story — and the heart of the movie — is the struggle between sons escaping the grief of losing their fathers.