Previously, I have used various personalities of the Avengers team to illustrate basic psychodynamic personality structure types. I have used these structural descriptions to help explain the basic motivations of the characters in Age of Ultron. These same personality structures were visible in Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War. Notably, the personality types of both Iron Man and Captain America not only shown through in the movie, but were driving force to explain why the two followed the courses of action they did. [Spoiler Warning]
As I have previously pointed out Captain America, a.k.a. Steve Rogers, seems to demonstrate the characteristics of a depressive personality structure, while Iron Man, a.k.a. Tony Stark, appears to have a more paranoid personality structure. Because of this, Steve is driven to perpetually seek to drive out his own sense of imperfection as well as battle to control his internal badness. Steve is perpetually driven to prove himself not to be “bad”. This is the source of Steve’s strong moral code, as the code helps him to restrain his “badness”. This is also the source of his compulsion to be the person who stands up for others in order to prove himself as a “hero” and therefore not “bad”. When Ultron taunts Captain America that he’s “pretending [he] could live without a war,” Ultron is referencing this defense, for without a war to fight, he is stuck feeling inferior.
Iron Man, in contrast, is driven seek out and destroy the “badness” outside of him in order to deny the sense of “badness” he feels within. As such, Tony is perpetually stuck in a cycle of proclaiming “I’m not bad, you are.” In the beginning of Civil War, we’re introduced to Ironman’s fundamental trauma, the death of his parents right after a fight where he showed disdain for his father. Generally, such an interaction tends to generate a sense of shame in a child because his final interaction with his parents was filled with regretted statements of anger instead of love. The shame seeps into Tony, and Tony is entered into the cycle of denial to escape it. His grandiosity and cockiness are intended to compensate for this shame, and anyone who challenges these defenses risks making him feel the “badness.”
The Toxic Relationship
These two contrasting personality organizations create an interesting dynamic between the two that is seen throughout the movies. Early on, in the first Avengers, there is a lot of friction between the two, as Tony’s arrogance conflicts with Steve’s strong sense of morality. Steve is compelled to maintain his high ethical standards, and Tony is compelled to oppose them as such a morality conflicts with Tony’s denial. Tony cannot prove others to be bad to deny his own shame if there is such a moral pillar standing in constant contrast. Tony and Steve become begrudging friends due to their team partnership, but in the process a weird codependence forms between them. Steve’s depressive personality structure causes him to seek out the good in others and needs and prone to forgiveness, as this allows him to acknowledge the good in others that he wishes he could acknowledge in himself. This forgiveness then supports Tony’s defenses as the constant tolerance and forgiveness given by Steve helps to calm Tony’s shame. As a result, Tony to seeks to align himself with Steve so they both can join together in his fight against the badness outside. However, Tony is still compelled to challenge Steve whenever he can, so that he can still be assured of his own goodness, as confirmed by Steve’s tolerance. In essence, Steve is compelled to tolerate Tony’s arrogance because it allows Steve to practice the forgiveness he wishes he could get to himself, and Tony is compelled to tolerate Steve but still challenge him, because doing so assures him he is not the shameful person he seeks to deny.
The narrative begins with Tony’s shame being triggered. His attempt to prove himself as good by funding the students’ grants at MIT was thwarted by the mother of a young man killed in Sokovia confronting Tony about his role in that tragedy. Tony had created the Ultron robot that had started the events that ended in the destruction of the city in Sokovia, and the shame triggered was intense. In order to escape the shame Tony needed to find some way to find someone else to make the “bad guy” and then align himself with the forces against that “bad guy.” It is this drive that causes Tony to align with the registration act and the oversight of being proposed by the various governments, even though such alignment seemed so starkly out of character for him. When Tony’s sense of shame had been so strongly triggered, he was psychologically compelled to seek out some other “badness” to blame and oppose. When approached with the accords, the government hands Tony a way to support his psychological defense mechanisms against the shame by giving him a role in restraining of the dangerous people who are not him.
As Captain America is faced with the accords, however, he is then forced to face a challenge against his defense mechanisms as well. Steve’s main objection to the accords is that with them in place, somebody else could potentially order him to do something immoral, forcing him to become the “bad” he feared, or he could be ordered not to respond to a bad situation, preventing him from doing the “good” he needs to prove that he is not “bad”.
When Bucky enters the scene, he becomes a third party that allows both Steve and Tony to shift the focus of their defenses onto. For Steve, Bucky it the old friend, who’s badness is not his fault, and in desperate need of the forgiveness and redemption contained in the second chance, i.e. Steve can do for Bucky what he wishes the world would do for him. For Tony, The Winter Soldier is the ultimate representation of the evil forces plotting that he can fight to prove he is not he bad one, i.e. a guiltless representation of the outer badness he can oppose guilt free to deny his own sense of shame. With Bucky in play, Steve no longer needs Tony’s arrogance to serve as a focus of his forgiveness, and Tony no longer needs Steve’s tolerance to chase away his shame. Their codependence is broken, and they are free to fight. Steve needs to protect his friend at all costs and give him his redemption, and Tony is an obstacle to that. Tony needs to take down the dark forces that Bucky represents, and Steve is a player to be defeated because he has allied himself with that darkness conspiracy.
Forgive me for I have done nothing wrong.
Eventually, Zemo’s manipulation of the situation is discovered. Tony does not repent. He is suddenly willing to accept that Steve and Bucky are not the bad guys and welcome them back onto his side, but he does not show regret for locking up half of his team. The evidence of Zemo’s plot allows him to focus his attentions on a bigger conspiracy, a bigger badness that he can fight. He is now able to join his former friend and be welcomed back into the fold in a forgiveness forced by circumstance, but he is not able to admit he was wrong for opposing his friend in the first place. Steve takes him back because his drive to forgive will always compel him to take him back.
One of us is bad, but it can’t be me, so let me punish you so it all can be right again.
Zemo’s reveal, that Bucky killed Tony’s parents, sets off Tony’s righteous rage, and such rage is always uncompromising. It does not matter that Bucky was brainwashed. It does not matter, that there is a larger issue in play that affects far more people. Nothing can dissuade it, no fact, no explanation, and no relationship. When righteous rage is in play, nothing matters but the rage itself. The rage releases all that pent up shame onto another target, unleashing all the toxic energy built up over all the years. Just as the depressive personality seeks to forgive in response to the desire to be forgiven themselves, the paranoid personality seeks to punish in response to the denied punishment their shame constantly aims at them. Bucky needs to be destroyed at all costs. Any tactic, any casualty, any collateral damage is justified because if he can finally conquer this avatar of the “badness” outside of himself, he hopes that he never has to face that inner shame again. Tony turns on Steve again in order to get to Bucky. Tony will kill his friend, let his team be destroyed, and even let Zemo win just so he can let out this rage. Because if he doesn’t, he has to continue to live with his shame.
In the end, Steve sends a note to Tony. Despite all the fighting, all the destruction, and all rifts between them, Steve still reaches out to Tony to extend the forgiveness. Steve knows that Tony will be Tony, that he will repeat the damage if allowed, but he still has to forgive, because if Steve cannot forgive Tony for all his imperfections, then he fears that he can never be forgiven for his.
And thus we have the psychological motivations for the players in Civil War. The relationship that guided this epic battle was rooted in conflicting ideas on how to destroy a perceived “badness.” Captain America’s “badness” is owned without question, and he is drive to control himself absolutely, gives the forgiveness he wishes he could give himself, and seeks to prove to the world that he is “good.” Tony denies his “badness,” and he is compelled to find forces to challenge and fight in order to attack the “badness” without to support his denial of the “badness” within his shame perpetually asserts. Their relationship becomes one of constant stress as Steve is compelled to seek perfection to dispel his badness while forgiving Tony’s jabs, and Tony is compelled to challenge Steve because such a moral code triggers his shame in contrast, while seeking Steve’s alliance because Steve’s forgiveness soothes the shame.