I came away from Civil War really struck by how overwhelming the theme of guilt was. It motivates people to do selfless things, it motivates people to do selfish things, and it’s the driving force behind the ultimate showdown between Bucky and Tony. What the movie does though is contrast the fashion people deal with their guilt.
Tony and Bucky are both people consumed by guilt. In both cases it’s guilt over things they ultimately had no control over. Tony couldn’t have predicted that his parents would die with so many things left unsaid between them and him, yet when we first see him he’s reliving that moment over and over. Tony is steeped in even more guilt when his actions in creating Ultron are thrown back in his face by a victim’s mother. He’s even guilty that his teammates hold him responsible for their containment. The crux of the issue is that Tony just can’t let it go. He’s willing to stare his flaws in the face, but he’s unwilling to forgive himself for those flaws, which leads to an issue I’ll get to in a second. Tony is stuck in an endless guilt loop. His attempts to fix things always seem to lead to more issues that lead to more guilt. He’s understandably frustrated because he’s just so driven to try to make things RIGHT that he’s willing to clash hard and often with people who don’t agree with his ideas. Ultimately the government might be right that the Avengers should have some limitations put on them, but Tony is so desperate to try to fix or at least ease his mind over what he feels like he’s responsible for that he makes agreements and does things without looking at every angle. He flogs himself over his mistakes, but he can’t even really articulate the real problem: acceptance that sometimes things happen no matter what and you’re going to have to live with them.
It’s Bucky who actually voices what is Tony’s issue as well as his. As Steve tries to tell his friend that it was Hydra’s fault and that “it wasn’t really you doing those things” during his assassin days, Bucky calmly and quietly looks up and says “but I did it”. It doesn’t matter to Bucky who MADE him do it. It doesn’t matter to him that he was just the weapon. What matters to him is that he did it. He has to live with that. He has to see something he caused happen in his mind over and over again. He ultimately takes responsibility, and in doing that he echoes something Steve says earlier about being willing to shoulder the blame over things that go wrong. What Steve doesn’t address is not just being willing to bear the consequences of mistakes, but being willing to move forward from there.
That’s the real issue. Not whose fault it ultimately is, but the fact that both Tony and Bucky, in their minds, DID IT. They have to live with that. They have to live with something that no amount of reassurance from outsiders can fix. All the love and understanding in the world can’t help someone who won’t move out of the guilt cycle. And in the end that’s why Tony, in spite of knowing Bucky had no control over his actions in killing the Starks, attempts to kill him. I think it would be easy to claim Tony is motivated purely by revenge, but I think it’s more than that. Tony of anyone should be able to understand someone causing something horrible inadvertently. He’s been in Bucky’s place. He’s caused damage without really knowing it. He KNOWS Bucky was programmed, even calls him the “Manchurian Candidate” at one point proving he completely believes Bucky had no control over his actions. Part of the reason Tony can’t accept Bucky’s moral innocence in what he did is because he can’t accept his own. Tony can’t consider forgiving Bucky because he can’t forgive himself. Tony’s generally a reasonable person, but he’s willing to flat out murder Bucky in the end even though he’s aware Bucky was just the weapon that HYDRA used to kill his parents. Bucky didn’t have a choice in the matter, Tony knows that, but he violently tries to hold him responsible in the same way he mentally holds himself. “Do you even remember them” he lashes out at Bucky, sure that the person involved in causing the determining factor in his life can’t understand the magnitude of what he’s done. Can’t understand the weight of feeling responsible for some many lives. He unwittingly echoes the woman who cornered him in the elevator earlier in the movie. He’s suddenly in her place reacting the exact same way.
“I remember them all.”
That line, right there. If Tony had been able to pause in his rage and grief for a second he would have realized that out of ANYONE he’s come across, Bucky gets it the best. Tony lives with all the ghosts of what he’s caused. So does Bucky. Bucky voices what Tony can’t. No matter what people tell you, you are still going to feel guilty that you did something no matter the reason and every incident can still be fresh and painful and seared on your memory whether it really deserves to be there or not. Maybe you had false information, maybe you didn’t have control, but it still happened. You still did it. You’re still going to have to live with it. And if you don’t forgive yourself to some degree you’re not really going to function. You can see Bucky trying to figure out how to live with himself. He can at least voice that he’s not sure he’s worth it, voice his uncertainty. You see him cringing at the scythe of destruction he is (ie. “what did I do”). You see him figuring out how to live with guilt without needing to punish himself.
Tony says the problem without really saying it. “And then, and then, and then”. The cycle over and over and over. He pushes people away because of it. He tortures himself because of it. And it will eat him alive until he is able to step forward.