This is a sequel of sorts, to one of the earliest pieces I ever wrote on this site. However, it isn’t a piece I was planning on writing now or, if I’m being honest, ever. I wasn’t planning on writing tonight as I’m in D.C. for the PCA/ACA National Conference on Popular Culture. My week’s focus is attending exciting panels and presenting my paper on The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. So writing wasn’t on the agenda. However I HAD to write because something’s been gnawing and I had to express it. You see, last night my pre-Avengers: Endgame marathon came to Captain America: Civil War and, well, something struck me – something I never thought I’d see or say or believe. But here we are.
I was steadfastly Team Iron Man since the first trailer dropped in November 2015 and, after seeing the film, I still resolutely sided with the Armored Avenger. I even shaved Iron Man’s face on to the back of my head to display my Team Iron Man pride! The third piece I ever wrote here, “Team Iron Man: A Treatise,” explained why. In short, I said the idea of vigilantes running around, free to do whatever the deem acceptable with zero oversight, was problematic. To help illustrate my point, I invoked the idea of Kant’s Categorical Imperative. In Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant wrote we should, “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 just only if you’d want everyone to follow it in all circumstances. Sure, Captain America is morally incorruptible. But every superhero isn’t. Cap doesn’t need oversight, but others do. So the idea of letting Captain American operate without oversight is fine. But the idea of letting all superbeings do so? Nope, that didn’t sit well with me. It seemed highly dangerous. Tony Stark, for all his arrogance, understood this. He understood he needed to be put in check; he needed to acknowledge that maybe someone knew better than he did. I could will his position be a universal law far easier than I could Cap’s so I was proudly, certainly, and vocally Team Iron Man. #TeamIronMan for life baby!
Except……except, as I watched the film last night I realized, if I was to put myself inside the narrative itself, I’d probably end up siding with Captain America. I, who had Iron Man on his head, may in fact be Team Cap.
What led me here was one scene, a scene I love, a scene I’ve quoted for years to say why I’m Team Iron Man. But last night I saw it differently. As I watched the Avengers debate the Sokovia Accords (the proposed legislation making a U.N. mandate necessary for the Avengers to go into action anywhere) I kept wondering what I would do in that situation…and I kept wondering if I’d ever be willing to give up my free will to an organization I couldn’t guarantee I’d always morally agree with.
Tony – “Who said we’re giving up?”
Steve – “We are if we’re not taking responsibility for our actions. This document just shifts the blame.”
Rhodey – “Sorry Steve. That…that is dangerously arrogant. This is the United Nations we’re talking about. It’s not the World Security Council. It’s not S.H.I.E.L.D.. It’s not Hydra.
Steve – “No but it’s run by people with agendas. And agendas change.”
Tony – “That’s good! That’s why I’m here. When I realized what my weapons were capable of in the wrong hands I shut it down. Stopped manufacturing ‘em.
Steve – “Tony, you chose to do that. If we sign these, we surrender our right to choose. What if this panel sends us somewhere we don’t think we should go? What if there’s somewhere we need to go and they don’t let us? We may not be perfect but the safest hands are still our own.”
I’ve seen this movie dozens of times. I’ve seen this scene dozens of times. But last night? Something changed. As opposed to looking at the story in terms of a general societal allegory I saw it as an allegory of personal moral responsibility. And I realized I don’t think I could sign the Sokovia Accords. No matter how much I’ve championed Team Iron Man over the years, I don’t think I’d really end up siding with him.
I considered whether or not I’d be comfortable giving up my own free will and letting others decide my actions for me. I think I can be stubborn sometimes (something I’ve always appreciated and connected with in Tony Stark’s character) and I think I really tend to dig my heels in when I think I’m right. However, if I was to really consider the unthinkable reality that I may, in fact, actually agree with Cap I couldn’t make that move on my own hunch. So I called, texted, and emailed the people I’m closest to, the ones who know me the best and whose opinions I trusted the most. As some would certainly be swayed in their response if they knew it was a Team Iron Man/Team Cap thing (*cough* David and Sarah *cough*), I had to be vague in my question. I said, “I’m working on a personality piece for the blog so I’m asking the people I’m closest to a question: How stubborn would you say I am? Or rather, how likely would I be to do something someone else told me to do, particularly if I didn’t agree with it/thought I was right over this other person?” Some responded immediately, some asked for clarification on the issue in question. For those people I added, “So let’s say I’m 100% sure I’m right…it’s about an issue with moral consequences or a moral issue in general. How likely am I to do what I’m told if I disagree with something like that?”
While my stubbornness was debated, everyone agreed that – in regard to moral issues – I can’t be led to stray from what I truly believe in my heart to be correct. Those I asked said I was, “One of the most stubborn people I know!…But I think it is a good thing, you are very confident about what you believe to be true. Though you would never do anything if it was morally incorrect.” “In general, I would say you are stubbornly, and rightly, committed to everything you believe is right. However, when something significant persuades you to change for the better you are always open to change.” “Hmm I guess I would say you would do what you think is right, but not out of stubbornness, more out of just what you think is right.” “I would say very stubborn in a good way. You stuck to your beliefs.” “I don’t feel you are a go along with the crowd person when you feel that it is a wrong decision. You don’t have to be strongly persuaded when you are on the fence, but won’t be swayed when your moral compass is not in accordance.” “Honestly, if you really think you’re right you’re SUPER stubborn. Especially with ethics because you can usually find a piece of evidence from the Bible to back up your argument. So the likelihood of you going back on that unless someone comes up with stronger evidence is slim to none.” “The only way you’d go against what you think is right is because you wouldn’t want to hurt someone’s feelings but then you’d immediately feel bad about it. And you would never do that with something big. You’re positive in your beliefs. That’s the way you’d go. I don’t think ‘stubborn’ is the right word. But you’d always do what you think is right.”
Kalie brought it home when she said it really isn’t an issue of stubbornness per se or even rebellion. Rather, it’s an issue of whether or not I agree morally with what’s going on. If I agreed with the Accords, I’d sign them. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t and nothing would sway me from that if that’s what my heart and my conscience told me was right. So if I trust my friends and family, which I do, and if I believe they know me, which I do…then it looks like I would side with Captain America. That’s what he does, right? He refuses to compromise his moral compass. He, as Sharon Carter says in the film, “Even if everyone is telling you that something wrong is something right. Even if the whole world is telling you to move, it is your duty to plant yourself like a tree, look them in the eye, and say ‘No, you move.’”
Even when I wrote “Team Iron Man: A Treatise” all those years ago, I think I knew this. In fact, even though I didn’t realize this truth, I seemed to know I had to find a way around it all the same. I wrote, “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.” But here’s the thing…I was wrong. That’s exactly what makes the Accords wrong. Because even if the idea is great, it still has to be carried out in this world.
Maybe it’s the difference of seeing the movie for the first time under the Obama Administration and watching it last night in a country where we’ve elected Donald Trump president. I don’t know. But governmental organizations are fallible and while I grant the necessity of the Social Contract (the idea that we give up certain rights to live in society), I’m not comfortable with giving up my right to act according to my conscience. And that, at the end of the day, is what Captain America is doing. He’s acting according to his conscience and fighting the be sure they can continue to act according to their conscience. As Augustine said, “An unjust law is no law at all.” Tony is concerned with the law. Steve is concerned with justice. Tony is siding with the Accords out of guilt and fear. Steve is opposing them because he refuses to abdicate his moral decision making. And I think Captain America is right.
Let me say this again – specifically for David, who’s been a Captain American fan our entire lives and who has debated this with me for years, ever since the first trailer dropped – I think Captain American is right.
The other side of this is the Bucky/Tony part. The scene at the end of Captain America: Civil War, where Tony is fighting Cap and Bucky, always breaks my heart. Whenever I’ve watched it before, I’ve put myself in Tony’s shoes. When Cap looks at him and says, “I’m sorry Tony. I wouldn’t do this if I had any other choice. But he’s my friend” and Tony replies, “So was I” – GAH! That breaks my heart. And I feel for Tony, how abandoned he feels, how betrayed. But looking at it from Cap’s point of view…if two of my closest friends – two people I love so much I see them as family – were at odds, I don’t think I could ever betray one for the other. I mean, I’d never pound one friend so hard in the face with my shield that I literally shatter their helmet off their head. That’s a little over the line. But I can’t imagine the circumstances where I’d stand aside when, by my standing aside, they’d potentially find themselves in danger/trouble they didn’t deserve to be in.
So whether we’re talking about the micro/personal level of protecting a friend who needs (and deserves) protection or the macro/institutional level of refusing to give up my ability to freely follow my conscience, I’ve come to realize Cap is right. I began this piece wanting to say, “I still believe Iron Man is right but, if I was in that situation myself, I have to admit I’d end up siding with Cap.” But that’s not true. If my conscience tells me I’d side with Cap, then I have to say I believe Cap is right.
I’ve realized this film really isn’t a theoretical discussion about vigilantes after all. It’s about whether or not we should follow our conscience and whether or not we should stay true to our conscience even when the law/government says otherwise. The answer to that question has to be “yes.” Otherwise we end up – to go to the most dangerous extreme – with people like Adolf Eichmann who justified his role in organizing all the transport of Jewish people to the death camps during the Holocaust by saying he felt it would be morally wrong to not do what his government told him to do because they are in charge. And that’s wrong. At the end of the day, our conscience, our morals, our integrity is all we have. We can’t abdicate that, not for anything. I’m not sure how I didn’t see this before. But I see it now.
So, never let it be said I won’t admit when I’m wrong. Because I was really wrong here. David was right. Captain America was right. Allllllll those Team Cap people were right. And that’s the side I should be on. That’s the side I would be on. That’s the side I see I’m on now. It turns out I’m really #TeamCap after all. Or, rather, maybe I’m really #TeamBlackWidow because, like Natasha, I stood with Tony all along…until I realized I was on the wrong side. Then I did the right thing and stood with Captain America. If, at the end of the day, Black Widow can admit her mistake and do the right thing, well then so can I. Go Team Cap!