Here’s Why Everyone Is Fighting in Captain America: Civil War

4 minute read

The days of silently snacking on shawarma together are long gone. The Avengers team has split in two and are battling each other in Captain America: Civil War. But why? Here’s some spoiler-free background before you see the film.

The issue at hand: Should the U.N. control the Avengers?

At the beginning of the film, one of the heroes tries to save another but accidentally kills a bunch of innocent bystanders. Though collateral damage has long been a major part of superhero films (and all action films), the world is finally taking notice. The Secretary of State approaches the Avengers team about signing an agreement that would make them beholden to the United Nations. Captain America and Iron Man, the de facto leaders of the group now that Thor and Hulk are missing (likely filming Thor: Ragnarok together), debate whether to sign or not.

Iron Man: “Yes!”

Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man, believes that the Avengers’ antics are out of control and need to be regulated. This may be related to his crushing guilt over having accidentally created the murderous Ultron (the villain in the last Avengers film), compounded by a mother who shows him a picture of her dead son early in the film. Also, remember that Stark has a relationship with the government: Before he rebelled and became Iron Man, he spent most of his life building weapons for them.

Cap: “No!”

“What if they want to send us somewhere we don’t want to go?” asks Captain America. “What if they won’t send us somewhere we’re needed?” The Brooklyn-born hero argues that the Avengers’ judgment is still the safest. Government control is an invasion of their freedom and just a first step toward fascism—remember, the guy just woke up from a battle with the Nazis.

Bucky’s back

There’s another complication: Bucky a.k.a. The Winter Soldier. Those who saw Captain America: The Winter Soldier will remember that Bucky is a friend of Captain America from his childhood days in Brooklyn. Bucky was captured by the evil organization Hydra and weaponized.

When Bucky is blamed for a terrorist attack in Civil War, Captain America refuses to believe Bucky is truly responsible. He makes it his mission to get to him before the authorities can, while Iron Man decides to help the government catch Bucky.

Enemies and allies

Half of the fun of Civil War is watching Iron Man and Captain America recruit different superheroes to their side — it’s like the scariest game of dodgeball ever. We won’t spoil how Ant-Man finds his way to Captain America or how Iron Man first meets Spider-Man (one of the movie’s best scenes). But the film has been heavily marketed based on which heroes are #TeamCap and which are #TeamIronMan, and the trailer gives it away. So here’s the lineup:

Team Cap: Bucky Barnes, Falcon, Scarlet Witch, Hawkeye and Ant-Man

Team Iron Man: War Machine, Black Panther, Black Widow, Spider-Man and Vision

The politics of Civil War

The comic books are much more political than the film, but audiences will probably come away debating the same questions. Civil War explores a powerful political question in the post-9/11 world: What role should government regulation play in modern America?

In the books the “Superhero Registration Act” was an allegory for the Patriot Act with each side debating when measures taken for public safety end and the invasion of privacy begins. Some readers have also pointed out that the books can work as a metaphor for the gun control debate: if superheroes are essentially weapons, who has the authority to use them?

That said, Captain America: Civil War basically drops the political plot for the personal one, hence the introduction of Bucky. Don’t expect it to change your views on the NSA. It is, after all, a blockbuster film.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Eliana Dockterman at