At the beginning of Captain America: Civil War, Tony Stark is drowning in guilt. Confronted by a bereaved mother who lost a child in Sokovia—for which Stark is responsible, as the creator of Ultron—and flailing in the wake of a breakup with Pepper Potts, Stark is unmoored. Because he’s not good at self-regulating (see also: his addiction issues), he latches onto the proposed Sokovia Accords as a way to regulate the Avengers and hopefully prevent future Sokovias. Stark’s reasoning is understandable and even sympathetic. He is not a villain and he isn’t trying to take over the world, he just wants a framework to assume responsibility for sending the Avengers into the world to fight, thus removing that very responsibility from the Avengers’ shoulders.
Of course, that leaves the Avengers open to the machinations of others in turn, which is the basis of Steve Rogers’ objection to the Accords. Their ideological differences come down to this: Tony Stark wants oversight, Steve Rogers sees oversight as a potential for abuse of power. Both their positions are understandable. Following the fall of SHIELD and learning of the indescribable torture suffered by his best friend, Bucky Barnes, who fell into the hands of a corrupt and evil organization, Rogers is acutely aware of the worst case scenario when agendas are put ahead of people. But Stark is a creature of corporate culture, used to operating in a system of checks and balances that come from the boardroom, where a board of directors and a chairman oversee the actions of the CEO, and considerations about “the people” rarely, if ever, enter into it.
In and of itself, oversight for a group like the Avengers is probably a good idea. And Stark is right that without checks and balances, they’re really not that different from the rogue agents they fight around the world. But Rogers is also correct that they need safeguards to protect the Avengers from the changing agendas of politicians, and that they are the best authorities of their own power. Again, the specter of Bucky Barnes looms in the background, a constant reminder of what happens when superhumans fall into the wrong hands.
But the divide goes beyond considerations of power and authority. There is a deeper ideological rift in place, and it’s one that is insurmountable for Tony Stark. In The Avengers he says, “We are not soldiers,” but that’s not really true. He is not a soldier, but Rogers is, and so is Clint Barton, Thor, Rhodey, and Wanda and Pietro Maximoff, as freedom fighters, fall on that end of the spectrum, too. And Rogers is certainly running the Avengers as a paramilitary response unit. The comfort he offers Wanda Maximoff after the mission in Lagos goes south is a soldier’s comfort—you have to learn to carry this burden, because if you don’t, next time it might be even worse. The same words could apply to police officers, first responders, or surgeons who have to reconcile that they can’t save every patient.
Stark, though, can’t reconcile that, because he isn’t a soldier. That doesn’t make him bad or wrong, but it does reveal his blind spot. The Accords put the Avengers under UN control, which means they won’t ultimately be responsible for the decisions that send them into the field. Rogers points this out: “This document just shifts the blame.” Rhodey accuses him of being “dangerously arrogant” for presuming to know better than the United Nations, but Rogers has a point. Oversight, in and of itself, does nothing to address collateral damage. The Accords come up because of collateral damage, and yet they do not seem to do anything to actually prevent more collateral damage. They’ll just pass the buck the next time it happens.
That’s all Stark is after, though. Desperate to assuage his guilt, he wants somewhere to offload it, and the Accords give him plausible deniability the next time something goes wrong. The mistakes Stark make in Civil War are because he can’t see anything beyond his own guilt. Natasha Romanov even says something to this effect: “Are you incapable of seeing past your own ego for one goddamn minute?” Stark means well, but his support of the Accords is more about him than considerations for anyone else. And certainly his burden of guilt is enormous, as he’s responsible for creating Ultron, who laid waste to an entire country. The Avengers must shoulder guilt when innocent people die in the wake of their battles, but Stark seems to be looking for a way to offload that burden—he wants to “cut the wire”.
“The Futurist is here,” Clint Barton says from a jail cell. “He knows what’s best for you, whether you like it or not.” Of all the Avengers, Barton is the one who has figured out the work-life balance the others seem incapable of attaining. He has a home and a family, a whole life away from the world of the Avengers. He’s achieved the thing Stark wants with Pepper, and as a father he has a unique moral authority within the group (something he shares with Scott Lang). Stark is a Futurist, planning and building his way to incredible possibilities, but Barton is the one actually fighting for the future, in the form of his children.
Barton is the normal, human heart of the Avengers, and his open contempt of Stark is tinged with a sense of weariness that suggests he always knew it would be Stark who caused the inevitable problems in their super-group. He sounds like a father—which he is—chastising a child, and Stark reacts like he’s been slapped. Like he’s only just realizing that he has forever damaged the dynamics of the original Avengers, that he is not their eccentric benefactor, but their downfall. Everything he did to keep the Avengers together, in the end, only drove them further apart. Steve Rogers isn’t blameless—he put Bucky Barnes ahead of everyone else, and he pays a price for that, too. But at the end of Civil War, Rogers is in the wind with his team, perhaps more free than we’ve ever seen him before, while Stark sits in a big office. Alone.