It’s been a week and a half since Captain America: Civil War was released and excitedly exceeded all of our expectations. And we learned once again that the best movies in the MCU are consistently the ones starring Captain America. Captain America: The First Avenger was a moving period piece with an ending more sad and painful than anything I’d ever seen in a comic book film. Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a political thriller that was equal parts escapist fun and social commentary. Now Captain America: Civil War manages to be the darkest and most emotionally complex of the Marvel movies to date while also still being incredibly fun. I’ve seen it four times now and it gets better with each viewing! This blog didn’t exist for me to talk about all this opening weekend so I’m doing it now. However, this might be the better approach anyway as there’s less chance of spoiling anything. Regardless, this is your warning – SPOILERS WILL FOLLOW. Now, with that out of the way, let’s see why Iron Man is right…even if Cap’s name is in the title.
Let’s start off by stating the obvious, Captain America: Civil War isn’t the story or conflict that tore the Marvel Universe apart in the comics in 2006-07. That was about the Superhero Registration Act and (from what I know of the conflict never having read it myself) yes, Cap was right. It was a civil liberties thing and Iron Man was out of line. But the conflict in this film is very different. In the wake of the disasters that always accompany superhero battles the UN has introduced the Sokovia Accords, a bill which will prevent the Avengers from acting with absolute autonomy. Instead of going wherever they want whenever they want to do whatever they like, the Avengers are now to report to a UN commission to approve of their activities. Yes, sadly in the real world the UN is a body that is often plagued by impotence and bureaucracy. I love the idea of the UN but it isn’t structured in a way (nor will our world operate in a way) that allows it to be as effective as it could. I grant that. And making General “Thunderbolt” Ross the Secretary of State and the one to oversee the Accords is a problem too because he’s, well, a huge dick. But that doesn’t mean the idea behind the Accords is wrong.
As the Avengers debate the issue at their compound Tony says, “We need to be put in check. Whatever form that takes, I’m game. If we can’t accept limitations, boundaries, then we’re no better ‘n the bad guys.” And Tony’s right. Loki, Ultron, the Red Skull, they all seek to bend the world to their whims. Now, of course the Avengers aren’t seeking world domination, but if they refuse to listen to anyone other than themselves can they honestly consider their actions just? Steve counters Tony’s point by saying, “We’re not perfect. But the safest hands are still our own.” Rhodey responds, “I’m sorry Steve but that’s dangerously arrogant.” I would agree. Presuming we alone are “the most right” puts us on a very slippery slope. Now, I grant this film doesn’t take place in the “real world.” It takes place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And in the MCU, the good guys always make the right choices.
However comics and superheroes function as myth as well as escapist fantasy. As such, they challenge and teach us. What lesson are Team Cap and Team Iron Man teaching? In his essay “Easier than Typing” (from his incredible collection of essays on evil, I Wear The Black Hat) author Chuck Klosterman compares Batman with Bernie Goetz. Batman, a fictional vigilante [who] regularly takes justice into his own hands and physically beats criminals for their transgressions, is a hero. Of course he is! He’s Batman. But then there’s Bernie Goetz – a man who shot four teenagers, paralyzing one of them, on the subway in New York City in December of 1984. As a victim of an assault himself in 1981 he began carrying a gun (illegally) for protection. At first he was heralded as a folk hero…but the more time that passed from the incident, the more public opinion began to shift. If Batman was real, Klosterman asserts, and we only knew stories of a shadowy figure who beat criminals to within an inch of their life (and there was no fictional Batman to connect this to) we’d be scared of this man. Like Goetz, if the Batman was real, we’d see him as dangerous and want him brought to justice. Klosterman points out that we regularly accept fictional characters doing what we consider monstrous in real life. Moral or not, Cap’s advocating vigilante justice. Flawed or not, Iron Man wants accountability. That seems like a good idea to me. We could never accept vigilante justice in the real world. Should a superhero exist above the law, beholden to no one but themselves? Is that heroic? Is it just?
Personally, I am not okay with the idea of vigilante justice. So I feel Tony is advocating the correct path in the film. I grant Captain America is about as morally pure a character as you can find. Cap is far more moral than Tony and probably even a better superhero. I freely admit Steve Rogers is without reproach…but everyone isn’t. Let’s consider Kant’s idea of the Categorical Imperative. In his work on ethics, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant encourages his reader to, “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” This essentially means a law is truly just only if you’d want everyone to follow it in all circumstances. Can Cap’s position hold up under this approach?
No matter how moral an individual Cap is, his point of view can’t gain this Kantian validation. If everyone with powers acted as freely as Cap wishes to there’d be trouble. Remember, the MCU also contains Daredevil who beats the criminals of Hell’s Kitchen into bloody and broken pulp and the Punisher who hangs gang members on meat hooks, allowing them to slowly and painfully bleed out. Cap’s way implicitly sanctions the actions of Daredevil and the Punisher. They are doing what they see fit to make the world safer, answering only to their own conscience.
Tony’s vision comes closer to approximating Kant’s Categorical Imperative. I think we’d all agree on the idea that “beings with godlike powers shouldn’t do whatever they want without oversight” would be a fair universal law. Yes, Ross is not the person who should be in charge of the UN board to monitor the Avengers. But that doesn’t mean the idea of oversight is wrong. Tony is willing to submit to a will higher than his own, saying the Avengers need limitations and boundaries to help prevent collateral damage and innocent death, to accept the laws, sovereignty, and wishes of all countries in the world. Being willing to submit to a just law higher than our self is something that works universally.
In fact, the idea of surrendering our freedoms and submitting to a higher power is the very ground of our society. During the Enlightenment (a period of philosophical explosion in Europe during the 1600s and 1700s) the idea of the Social Contract Theory was born. The Social Contract (an idea advocated and shaped by many, including Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau) says we must, by nature, give up some of our freedoms to live in a civilized society. For example, I could drive my car 150mph on sidewalks all the time. It’s within my ability. It could be my free choice. And I’d get places a lot quicker. BUT I’d also endanger a lot of people. So, to live in civilized society and have the benefits and protection society offers, I relinquish my freedom to drive my car at any speed and in any location I’d like. The Avengers exist as part of a global community. They are governed by these same rules. Yes, they are there to protect everyone, but they are still a part of that community. The Social Contract dictates to be part of a community you willingly giving up some of freedoms. If we forsake the social contract then society crumbles into anarchy and chaos. As I said above, Cap’s point of view puts us on a slippery slope.
As they debate the idea Cap worries, “What if they send us someplace we don’t think we should go? Or what if there’s someplace we need to go and they say we can’t?” These are legitimate concerns but they aren’t strong enough to abandon the glue that holds civilized society together. Again, Ross isn’t the right person to be in charge of this council nor of patrolling the Avengers. But what of someone like T’Challa? What if, instead of three days notice, the Avengers had the time to work through the Accords with the UN? What if they had a larger voice on the council? As Tony says, “Documents can be amended.” Tony’s path is one that allows for growth and change as the situation and the nations of the world decide. Tony is advocating a sharing of responsibility. Cap wants to live and die by their own choices alone. He is unwilling to compromise. Where do we end up, as a people, if we do the same?
As I wrote in my last post, comic book heroes are meant (in a mythic sense) to serve as our models, people who can face the trials of humanity with divine power and show us the way into the light. Who then is best for us to learn from? Who should we model? Captain America is the ideal. Again, he’s morally pure and beyond reproach. Of course he doesn’t need the Accords. Cap’s who we should all aspire to be. But Tony is human. He’s our model. He simultaneously shows us the price of our sins and hubris and how we overcome them.
For me, of all the Avengers in the MCU, Tony’s story arc is by far the most interesting. I’d argue it’s the most important too. There’s a reason Robert Downey Jr. has become the definitive vision of Tony Stark. It seems we’re all a little uncertain where Tony ends and RDJ begins. Brian Michael Bendis, the current author of Marvel’s The Invincible Iron Man as well as International Iron Man, and Mark Waid, author of All New, All Different Avengers, both seem to take strides to make their Tonys sound and feel like Robert Downey Jr.’s take on the character. There is a clear reason for this.
Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark is arrogant, cocky, condescending, snarky, and deeply in love with himself. And we love him for that! But, Tony’s story doesn’t end there. Far from static, Tony Stark is a character ever evolving. In Iron Man we have the origin story where he learns, among other things, that his company has been selling weapons to “the bad guys.” Uncomfortable with that, Tony demands accountability. He shuts down the weapons manufacturing departments of Stark Industries and directs his company to create clean, sustainable, renewable energy instead. In Iron Man 2 he boasts that he has “successfully privatized world security” and openly mocks Congress when they ask for access to his technology. Then come the Chitauri. Tony’s near-death experience in the worm hole above New York City at the climax of The Avengers leaves him with serious Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. His anxiety about being able to protect those he cares about almost costs him his relationship with Pepper in Iron Man 3 and leads him to the point of a nervous breakdown. By the time Avengers: Age of Ultron roles around his very real fears lead him to recklessly create a dangerous A.I. in Ultron. Tony’s panic about being able to protect the world from threats he can’t yet see nearly leads to its destruction.
So Tony knows he can’t be trusted to act on his own. In Captain America: Civil War, gone is the cocksure swagger from his first two films. Instead we see a man who is willing to submit to oversight because he carries the guilt of things going wrong deep within his soul. He does something the Tony Stark in The Avengers never would have done. He admits he’s wrong. Twice. And he tries to honor the lives his mistakes help take by learning from what he’s done wrong. So who is to be our model? Who is right? Who should we side with? Steve boldly refuses to consider the request of 117 countries while Tony sees where the sin of pride can take you and models humility in the face of those he’s unintentionally had a hand in killing. I think the answer is obvious.
Tony is the one we are meant to connect with. He’s the character we are meant to learn from. We may aspire to be Captain America but we, as prideful beings, need walk in Tony Stark’s footsteps. And before the claim is made that Tony’s way would have left Bucky falsely imprisoned or killed, let’s look at how the film played out. Yes, the council acted prematurely and rashly in sending the police after Bucky, with shoot-to-kill orders. Steve did what he did to protect his friend and that’s admirable. But I’ve acknowledged above with Thunderbolt Ross at the helm, that was bound to happen. As opposed to battling the police force or even forcing a confrontation with his teammates (remember it is Cap who declares, “We fight,” at the airport), Tony wanted to bring Bucky in peacefully. He wanted him arrested and extradited to the U.S. for a psych evaluation. Through those channels it would have been possible to legally prove Bucky was a mind-controlled puppet of Hydra. Even…wait. This is a MASSIVE SPOILER so, for real, if you haven’t seen the film yet you might not want to go ahead to the next paragraph.
Are you still here? Okay? So you’ve seen it or you’re cool with a MAJOR spoiler? Okay…then let’s go on. Even when Tony learns that Bucky, acting as the Winter Soldier under the influence of the Soviets, killed his parents he doesn’t fight him to kill. The battle that ends Captain America: Civil War is the bloodiest (both physically and emotionally) of the films. It is painful to watch these character we love fight each other so violently. But who can blame Tony for reacting as he did in the moments after he learned his parents were assassinated? Yet was Tony really trying to kill Bucky? I’d argue he wasn’t. His armor’s chest canon was clearly powerful enough to easily take Bucky’s near indestructible metal arm off – a shot Tony only fired when Bucky was trying to rip the arc reactor out of his armor. Tony could have killed Bucky (and Steve for that matter) with one canon blast through their chests. But he didn’t. He was angry. He was hurting. But he didn’t fight to kill. Again, Tony is showing us how to transcend our darker impulses. He models how to quiet our pride, our anger, our pain and rise above it.
So even though the movie is called CAPTAIN AMERICA: Civil War, I think it’s obvious that Team Iron Man is the morally sound, logically justified place to be. If everyone was as pure as Captain America, then Steve would be right in his approach. There would be no need for supervision, accountability, or multiple points of view. But we are human. We’re flawed. And, as such, we need to follow Tony as he shows us how to overcome our prideful self and serve a higher power.