Here you are, ready to take in what might be the biggest movie of 2016, “Captain America: Civil War.” But wait! What if you didn’t see all those other Marvel movies that set up this one, or just can’t remember you haven’t seen any of them since they were in theaters? TheWrap has you covered, with a recap to get you ready for the latest superhero-on-superhero movie event.
In “Captain America: Civil War,” the Avengers have split into two factions, led by Steve Rogers/Captain America (#TeamCap) and Tony Stark/Iron Man (#TeamIronMan). The battles they’ve fought have caused an ideological divide over whether or not they should receive civilian oversight from a United Nations committee. Captain America says they’re their own best watch dogs. Iron Man thinks an external layer of control is absolutely necessary. How did we get here?
The four most relevant precursor films to “Captain America: Civil War” are: “The Avengers,” “Iron Man 3,” “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “The Avengers: Age of Ultron.” Other MCU films may have relevant tidbits here and there, but the core narrative arc leading to “Civil War” are contained in those movies.
The seeds to this conflict were sown in the first “Avengers” movie, way back in 2012. Thor’s brother Loki led an army of alien Chitauri through a wormhole in space in an invasion of NYC that came very close to succeeding. It took the combined might of Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye to hold them back.
At this time, the Avengers are overseen by the covert UN intelligence organization SHIELD (Strategic Homeland, Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division), which in turn is overseen by the World Security Council. The Council is monitoring the battle and, fearing the worst, decides to fire a nuke at Manhattan in hopes of earning a scored-earth victory.
Iron Man almost died stopping this nuke — he had to guide the missile through the wormhole and into outer space to prevent that self-inflicted devastation. The battle had a profound effect on Tony Stark’s psyche, giving him a serious amount of post-traumatic stress.
In “Iron Man 3” we see those factors take hold in a big way. Stark knows just how close they came to losing everything, and how close he came in victory to losing everything personally. He becomes obsessed with building a more perfect Iron Man suit, constructing dozens of prototypes, and his relationship with Pepper Potts suffers.
Stark employs his many Iron Man suits in the climactic fight with the Mandarin/Aldrich Killian, and a lot of them are destroyed. But that use of the suits, which are controlled by the artificial intelligence JARVIS, gives him an idea: to build a defense network so impenetrable that the Avengers and other superheroes won’t be needed to defend the Earth from alien threats.
In “The Winter Soldier,” Captain America is working as a SHIELD operative on black ops missions. He soon learns that SHIELD has long been infiltrated by remnants of the Nazi organization HYDRA (which he fought in the original “Captain America” film). This makes him a wanted man, and he goes on the run with Black Widow.
The remnants of HYDRA have also been using Steve Rogers’ best friend from childhood, Bucky Barnes, as an assassin. Barnes was captured during WW II and was put in stasis and given memory wipes — only awoken when HYDRA needed someone killed. Barnes is now known only as the Winter Soldier.
SHIELD, now fully controlled by HYDRA fascists, plan to launch several helicarriers that will take out millions of people it considers possible dissidents and enforcing a rule of law through their everpresent threat. Captain America and Black Widow team up with Falcon to take down the helicarriers and dismantle SHIELD, leaving the Avengers completely without any organizational oversight. Barnes, after several fights with Cap, goes on the run.
Early in “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” the Avengers recover Loki’s sceptor, and Tony Stark discovers that the infinity gem that powers it contains an artificial intelligence. Stark attempts to use this AI in service of his planned Ultron defense network to protect the Earth, and it works — in a manner of speaking.
In standard sci-fi fashion, the newly awoken Ultron doesn’t interpret his directive as intended — he sees humanity as the greatest threat to Earth, and is determined to drive mankind to extinction. Being a computer program, Ultron is not tied to any one mechanical body but can instead travel at will through the Internet. He assembles a robotic army, and plans to create an “extinction level event” by raising the eastern European city of Sokovia thousands of feet off the ground and then dropping it.
The Avengers manage to save humanity by evacuating Sokovia and then blowing it up in the air, but it’s again a near thing. Tony Stark now feels even more guilty, because it was his recklessness that almost caused this disaster. He no longer trusts himself.
And that brings us to “Civil War.” Cap doesn’t trust government oversight after what happened with SHIELD and he also wants to protect Bucky from the long arm of the law. Iron Man is terrified that they’re going to become the very threat they’re trying to protect humanity from. The Avengers take sides and duke it out.
At the same time, a mysterious and villainous man named Zemo has his own threatening schemes in play. Can Tony and Steve can sort out their personal shit in time to deal with them?