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As you know, I love the MCU. Marvel Studios could have relied on the action and fantasy elements inherent to the source material to make a ton of money on crappy movies, but they didn’t. They spent a ton of money on special effects, but also on hiring highly talented writers, directors, and actors (some with Oscars under their belts) so that the movies had substance as well. No movie exemplifies that more than Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Like many MCU movies, it had the theme of establishing deep friendships that represented more than just coworkers or bar buddies. No, these friends were so close as to represent an adoptive family, replacing the biological families that Steve Rogers, Natasha Romanov, and Nick Fury lost, never knew, or never had. As wonderfully as it was executed, all of that is actually par for the course in the MCU. The Winter Soldier goes a step further.
Winter Soldier dealt with a political issue that is both timely and important: How do we strike the balance between security and liberty? Both are important. If we lax our security, we won’t have liberty for long, because nefarious forces from within and/or without will steal it. However, if security replaces liberty, then what kind of an existence are we actually fighting for? That’s why, when push comes to shove, liberty must win. In Winter Soldier, all of the good guys either fought for liberty or joined the fight after eventually realizing that they should have been all along. This decision shouldn’t be made naively, but those characters didn’t do that.
Okay, they sometimes did. The commitment to liberty was excessively idealistic, but this is a movie. Filmmakers must deal with extremes or risk losing the crowd. Many moviegoers aren’t observant enough to pick up key points being made unless they’re hit with it over the head, and a major theme is certainly a “key point.” This is why horrible characters that deserve the most serious punishment under the law can be forgiven and exalted by an audience simply because they’ve learned how to love a sibling. The movie world is different from the real world, and I’m sure you understand that. If not, movies must seem utterly ridiculous to you.
With that in mind, Winter Soldier dealt with an important and timely issue, came down on the right side of it (liberty) without being (too) naïve, and somehow managed to do that without pissing off members of any political party.
Unlike the other MCU films, the overarching storyline in Captain America: Civil War wasn’t the Avengers finding a way to come together, but rather the Avengers being torn apart. Behind the scenes, the Sokovia Accords were being written, and Secretary Ross was getting ready to confront the Avengers, but for the disassembly of the Avengers to occur, it had to come from within. The two factions were led by Steve Rogers and Tony Stark. Steve needed no outside help to make his stand; it’s what he does. Likewise, Tony is prone towards sacrificing liberty in favor of security, but in prior films, he insisted on being the one in control of that security. Something had to push him over the edge to where he’d be willing to surrender that control to the government that he so routinely dismissed.
Enter Miriam, played by acting veteran Alfre Woodard.
Jump to 0:55 for the scene in question.
Miriam tells the story of her son, Charlie Spencer, who had the city of Novi Grad, Sokovia dropped on him during the events of Age of Ultron. She blamed the Avengers for his death and laid a huge guilt trip on Tony Stark in that scene.
One of my pet peeves about superhero movies is the after saving the world, the unappreciative human race vilifies the heroes because of the collateral damage that occurs, ignoring that, in some cases, without the heroes the entire human race would be killed. That’s certainly a theme in Civil War, and it’s annoying as hell, but in Civil War those arguments were no more than a means to advance a more reasonable position. The United Nations truthfully understood that what the Avengers were doing was right, and that the consequences of those actions were often not the Avengers’ fault. They simply wanted international oversight to minimize those consequences.
But logic isn’t always the best motivator. Even the most stoic among us are emotional creatures. You can’t blame the Avengers for feeling bad about what happened. If a criminal held a gun to a loved-one’s head, and you felt you had to kill the criminal in order to save that person’s life, the world wouldn’t blame you, but you might still find it difficult to deal with having killed another human being. Maybe you could have disarmed the criminal, and if so overpowered him. Tony was facing the same emotional dilemma, and to make matters worse was the creator of the threat, Ultron. Even more, maybe Tony could have zigged when he zagged and saved some more lives.
Miriam appealed to that emotion, and in less than 2 minutes of screen time, set in motion the civil war between the Avengers.