“Captain America’s been torn apart/Now he’s a court jester with a broken heart.”–Guns and Roses “Paradise City”
By most accounts, Marvel Studios scored a home run with Captain America: Civil War. It was, as expected, a box-office smash, demonstrating once again the bankability of superhero films in general and the staying power of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) in particular. It also received enthusiastic praise from critics. Chris Klimek, on National Public Radio, proclaimed that “in all the ways that matter most — characterization, performance, emotional tension, allegorical heft — Civil War is Earth’s Mightiest Marvel movie.” Joe Morgenstern, in The Wall Street Journal, applauded the “comic-book extravaganza” for dealing with questions of “contemporary resonance.”
I agree that Civil War is an enjoyable film, stuffed full of extended and exciting action sequences. It constructs a slightly preposterous plot that nevertheless leads the audience through a satisfying emotional journey that culminates in an intimate, raw encounter between two of the MCU’s mainstays – Steve Rogers (Captain America) and Tony Stark (Iron Man). It certainly balances its light and dark sides with much more deftness than the morose Batman v Superman, to which it has been endlessly compared. And the airport brawl is pretty awesome. And Tom Holland’s Spidey is as adorable and hilarious as advertised. Still. “Allegorical heft”? “Contemporary resonance”? Give me a break.
Let me state for the record that I really like superhero movies. Not only have I seen them all, but more often than not I pay theater prices to do so (though always two-D, I’m not an oil magnate). Like many fans, I rate the MCU higher than the series featuring the X-Men, Spiderman, the Fantastic Four, and the DC pantheon (excluding Christopher Nolan’s Holy Trilogy, of course; maybe the first two Supermans, maybe), chiefly on the strength of the first Iron Man, the first Thor, the first Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man, and the three Captain America films. But let’s face facts. Neither Civil War nor any superhero movie (no, not The Dark Night, not Watchmen, not V for Vendetta) can offer any insight into the “serious” topics they purport to tackle. They simply cannot and should not be taken seriously beyond their own fantasy worlds. Should we take them seriously, we would be forced to judge them, at best, utterly moronic and, at worst, downright dangerous.
The only reasonable attitude is to recognize these films as bereft of any insight into the real world. These are commercial products with a clear, single goal: to make money for their studios, their producers, writers, directors, artists, cast, crew, and down the line. Period. Superhero movies are the new hot trend like Westerns, slasher horror, space operas, and gross-out comedies before them. This is just fine as far as I’m concerned. I’m a fan. But I’m also aware that these films can, and will, use anything at their disposal to achieve their profit-seeking goal. This includes appropriating (really, cheapening) any and every aspect of human history, culture, politics, religion, or what have you that serves that goal. Recall, for example, that both the original X-Men and the rebooted X-Men: First Class open with extended sequences set in Nazi concentration camps. Does anybody expect these movies to have anything to say about Nazism or victimhood or suffering? Come on.
Superhero films are most successful when they stick to a carefully constructed secondary world and work within its rules, its mythology, its conflicts. After watching Civil War, which needs to be understood as the final installment in a trilogy that includes Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Avengers: Age of Ultron, I am more than ever convinced that the MCU needs to extricate itself from reality. Less terrorism, more Infinity Stones, please! Artist David Mazzucchelli had it right, some thirty years ago: “Once a depiction veers toward realism, each new detail releases a torrent of questions that exposes the absurdity at the heart of the genre. The more realistic superheroes become, the less believable they are.”
The Captain America films have been positioned as the most “real,” the most “topical” in the MCU. This makes perfect sense insofar as Captain America has always been the most explicitly political of the major superheroes. The cover of Captain America No. 1 (published in 1941) famously shows the supersoldier in his red-white-and-blue uniform punching Hitler in the face. After vanquishing the Nazis, he battled Communists, then corrupt American politicians, then ruthless industrialists, and so on. He has always stood for patriotism and American values. This has created problems for the many comic book storylines featuring Cap for over three quarters of a century and is creating problems for the MCU now. The decision to kill Steve Rogers in 2007, according to series editor Ed Brubaker, was prompted in part by an inability to create a character with a credible political stance.
Critics have periodically pointed out that many superheroes, Cap in particular, espouse a problematic ideology, what the great comics writer Grant Morrison has called a “gung-ho laissez fare patriotism of the old school,” most often expressed as ultranationalist, ultraviolent libertarianism. Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence argued over a decade ago that the Bush Administration’s ill-considered invasion of Iraq followed the supersoldier’s example in its “crusade against evil.” More recently Annika Hagley has placed some blame on Cap and his fellow superheroes for the rise of Donald Trump. These critiques have merit, but I would like to focus on a slightly different issue below, not the ideology advocated in Captain America’s stories, but the weltanschauung, the understanding of the world, that underlies this ideology.
One of my biggest pet peeves is the improper use of the term pretentious (and no, using the term weltanschauung is not pretentious, damn it). To be pretentious is to claim a quality that you don’t possess, to pretend to be something you’re not. Pretentiousness is inherently hypocritical, and springs from either malice or insecurity. I hear the word misapplied most often in discussions about the merits of movies (though, increasingly, TV as well). It’s quite common for particularly cerebral or serious-minded filmmakers to be derided as pretentious. How often have you or one of your friends flung the epithet at Bergman, or Fellini, or Kubrick, or Terrence Malick, or Wes Anderson? In fact, none of these guys is pretentious. You might not like their movies. You might think them boring or pointless, unsuccessful in their self-important attempts at profundity (self-important is not the same as pretentious). But they are not pretending to be anything other than what they are.
You want a pretentious movie? Watch Winter Soldier again sometime. Like Civil War, it was widely lauded by critics and fans not only for delivering the action-flick goods but also for speaking to themes currently very much in our collective mind, what with its forays into government surveillance and secrecy and the like. You may recall (SPOILER ALERT!) that good ol’ Cap spends much of Winter Soldier antagonizing Nick Fury and the bigwigs of S.H.I.E.L.D over their declared belief that the best way to keep humanity safe is to dispatch great big flying aircraft carriers to patrol the Earth’s skies and shoot down anyone who looks like a threat. Cap has some not-very-well-articulated issues with this.
In its own exaggerated way, the movie could have tried to shine a light on the complexities of trying to balance the availability of immensely destructive technology (cough…drones) and the need for a moral plan of action in a dangerous world. Instead, Winter Soldier takes the easy way out. Captain America and Natasha Romanov (Black Widow) discover an underground lab in which they learn the truth, courtesy of scientist-turned-consciousness-inside-a-supercomputer Arnim Zola. The truth that they learn is that, soon after its creation, S.H.I.E.L.D. was infiltrated by Hydra, the nefarious organization that was too evil even for the Nazis. Through S.H.I.E.L.D., Hydra conspired to create every single political crisis that befell the world after the war, from the Cuban Revolution to the rise of radical Islam, creating chaos and uncertainty, which are naturally the tools of evil.
Remember, early in The Avengers, when Cap tells Natasha “I wake up, they say we won [WWII]. They didn’t say what we lost”? He means that we lost a world with easy moral choices, a world in which good and evil are easily discernible and moral compromise is unnecessary. This is what Captain America stands for in the MCU: the yearning for moral certainty. Comic fans of a certain age will remember that Cap faced a similar crisis of faith in the 1980s, when he complained that “people aren’t so easily pigeonholed into good guys and bad guys” anymore. Winter Soldier “reveals” that moral uncertainty was created by the bad guys as the first step towards world domination. The debate about government surveillance becomes moot. That the plot ends up with this silliest, most infantile of revelations is no accident. The movie was pretending to deal with an important, timely, complex subject when in fact it had nothing substantive to say about it.
The same is true in Civil War. The topic du jour is no longer government surveillance of the population at large but government oversight of the groups and individuals who are supposedly fighting to protect the people. In their role as defenders of mankind (SPOILER ALERT!!), the Avengers have been involved in massively destructive battles that caused the deaths of innocent civilians, most notably in New York City (at the end of The Avengers), Sokovia (at the end of Age of Ultron), and Nigeria (the beginning of Civil War). As a result, the governments of the world have convened and, in an inconceivably short time, drafted the Sokovia Accords, which require that the activities of superheroes be overseen by civilian authorities. Tony Stark believes the Avengers should submit to the will of the world and sign the accords. Steve Rogers is opposed.
Both of their positions reflect how the characters have changed over the course of several MCU films. Captain America, who began his career as a member of the U.S. Armed Forces and chastised Stark in The Avengers for not understanding what it takes to be a soldier, has become disillusioned of authority due to the events of Winter Soldier. Stark, who boasted at the beginning of Iron Man 2 of having “successfully privatized world peace,” has become all too aware of his own failings after creating Ultron and thereby endangering the entire world. The split between the heroes follows that of the Civil War event in the comics (in 2006-2007), though the conflict in print has a slightly different angle. In the comics, the issue is the registration of superheroes in a government database. The focus is on individuals with superpowers being singled out and tagged because they are inherently suspect. In the film, the issue is whether superheroes can pursue their notion of the public good with no input or supervision from governmental or any other civilian institutions.
Since Captain America is the eponymous protagonist of Civil War, and since he (SPOILER ALERT!!!) kind of, sort of, wins in the end, it’s safe to say he is the “hero” of the movie, the one we’re supposed to agree with and identify with. So, if we are to take the film seriously, that is as addressing issues that matter in the real world, the first question should be: why does Cap reject the Accords? What does he stand for? The answer is hard to pinpoint since the script gives him mainly platitudes and inanities to support his stance. During one exchange, Stark challenges Cap: “If we can’t accept limitations, we’re no better than the bad guys.” Cap’s response is a curt and infuriating, “That’s not the way I see it.”
So how does he see it? The most complete answer, such as it is, is to be found in the central discussion among the heroes soon after being presented with the new documents. Captain America claims that, should the Avengers accept the Accords, they are “not taking responsibility” for their actions. “This document just shifts the blame,” he adds, unhelpfully. Shifts it to whom? Why is that bad? James Rhodes (War Machine) doesn’t buy it: “Sorry, Steve, that is dangerously arrogant. This is the United Nations we’re talking about.” The problem, replies Rogers, is that the U.N. “is run by people with agendas and agendas change.” Stark pipes in that changing agendas are good. He changed from a weapons manufacturer to a pursuer of world peace. “Tony,” concludes Rogers, “you chose to do that. If we sign this, 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.”
Cap believes, in other words, that submitting to government oversight eliminates his agency. He believes that he, and his superhero colleagues, should have the inviolable prerogative to decide what they will do and how they will do it because they are “the safest hands” and, anyway, other people always have their pesky agendas. There are a number of problems here. First, how does it make sense that blame for civilian casualties rests on individual crime fighters? Why isn’t it better for the blame to be institutional, in the same way that a law enforcement officer is not held responsible when (lawfully) killing a criminal or an innocent bystander? Second, who says that the best solution to global threats is individual choice? Age of Ultron showed quite clearly that Tony Stark can make wonderful choices, but also terribly misguided and arrogant ones. Third, of course politicians have agendas, but so do superheroes! Civil War, indeed, shows Captain America challenging the international community and his own super buddies because of his emotional attachment to Bucky Barnes (the Winter Soldier). During the final confrontation (SPOILER ALERT!!!!!!!!!!), Stark discovers that the Winter Soldier killed his parents years before. He asks Cap if he knew that this happened. Cap admits that he did. Later, in a letter to Stark, Cap confesses: “I guess I thought by not telling you about your parents I was sparing you, but I can see now that I was really sparing myself, and I’m sorry.” What’s that if not a personal agenda? Where does Steve Rogers get off allowing himself and his agendas free reign but not anybody else’s?
Cap’s stance in the film echoes a speech he makes in the comics during a particularly dark period of the ‘80s. Mediating on his relationship with government officials, he concludes: “Those men are not my country. They are only paid bureaucrats of the country’s current administration. They represent the political system—while I represent those intangibles upon which our nation was founded … liberty, justice, dignity, the pursuit of happiness … that, really is my major stumbling block with their plan for me. By going back to my wartime role as a glorified agent of America’s official policies, I’d be compromising my effectiveness as a symbol that transcends mere politics.” But of course, as long as he is a participant in the political arena, he cannot transcend politics. Soldiers’ acts are as political as politicians’. War, as Carl von Clausewitz asserted two centuries ago, is a continuation of politics by other means.
Stark’s position, conversely, is not much better articulated. For most of Civil War, he seems to accept the choice of signing the Accords as an unavoidable evil: “If we don’t do this now, it’s gonna be done to us later.” As philosopher Mark White has pointed out, Rogers and Stark basically agree that limiting superheroes’ actions and choices is a bad thing. Stark is adopting a “utilitarian” view that chooses the lesser of two evils, while Rogers prefers the “deontological” approach, not deviating from what he sees as the right principle.
Since those are the two options presented by the film, it’s pretty safe to say that Captain America: Civil War is not interested in discussing the true political significance of superhero vigilantism. If it was, it would at least suggest that Cap’s position goes against the very principles on which the United States and all modern democracies are founded. Vigilantes are bad because in orderly societies the government, the state, should have a monopoly on the use of legitimate violence. If anybody is allowed to take up arms and hurt anyone they deem evil, the result is endless violence. Cap thinks he is best at making decisions regarding when to use his awesome powers, but the films themselves show that he is not. In fact, every character in the MCU who makes a heroic choice in defiance of authority is later seen making atrocious errors of judgment or action. Nick Fury, for example, refuses to allow for the nuclear bombing of Manhattan during the climactic battle against the Chitauri invaders in The Avengers. “The Council has made a decision,” he is told. “It’s a stupid-ass decision,” retorts Fury, “so I choose to ignore it.” Now, I’m not advocating for the nuclear destruction of New York City, but Nick Fury’s judgment has to be suspect. He’s supposedly the smartest, shrewdest spy in the world, and yet he worked for S.H.I.E.L.D. for his entire career and never realized it had been infiltrated by Hydra!
All people (and sentient aliens, and superadvanced magical androids like The Vision) have agendas. Everyone makes mistakes, and everyone is subject to the temptations of power. That is why modern political life, from the Magna Carta through the Federalist Papers and the United States Constitution, strives to control, balance, and moderate power.
Civil War, moreover, only makes sense in the simplistic world of superheroes, in which lip service is made to freedom and democracy and values, but all problems can ultimately be resolved by violence. The real world happens to be more complex than that. Matters of national security and threats to humankind are not really solvable by means of a flying suit of metal armor, or a vibranium shield, or a mystical hammer that shoots thunder. The core of democracy is not voting in elections. The core of democracy is public deliberation of matters of social concern: dialogue, negotiation, compromise in an environment of social and political equality. By not even considering this, the MCU has turned Captain America into an anti-democratic, anti-American hero.
It may be that Captain America’s behavior in Civil War is required by the very nature of the comic book superhero. Jewett and Shelton Lawrence argue that the superhero myth is very different from hero stories throughout history. In most cultures, the hero is forced to leave home, encounters danger and adventure, and emerges victorious through the use of newfound, often magical powers. Crucially, at the end of the story, the hero becomes king or marries and starts a family or otherwise enters into the life of the community and participates as a fully integrated member of society. Comic book and movie superheroes do not follow this pattern. Partly due to the financial requirement of constantly churning out new adventures, superheroes never integrate into society. They are always outsiders, more godlike than human. If this is the case, then the responsible attitude on the part of the MCU bigwigs is to unblur the line between the fantastic and the real, to stop pretending to be serious commentators on the issues of the day, and to stick to what they’re good at.
Since that’s probably not going to happen, I’d like to suggest that there are alternatives to the ultra-libertarian superhero. To find examples of super beings who are awesomely powerful and unfailingly noble yet still retain a respect and appreciation for both checks on power and open deliberation one could do worse than reconsider the films of… are you ready?… Michael Bay! Yes, Michael Bay. I’m thinking especially of Armageddon and the Transformers films.
Please. Before you flush your computer down the toilet in disgust, hear me out. I’m not arguing that Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is a better movie than Winter Soldier. Obviously it isn’t. The action is choppy and incomprehensible. The dialogue is silly, the characters badly developed, the jokes unfunny, the sidekicks racist, the star goofy and uncharismatic, and the women merely catnip for horny teenage boys. I don’t like Revenge of the Fallen.
But it has a more mature take on politics than any Captain America film. There are government officials who have to call on each other and speak to each other about facts and hard choices. There are soldiers who fight with the Autobots to achieve a common purpose (though they do shout “bring the rain!” a lot). Optimus Prime has willingly become a partner in the Non-Biological Extraterrestrial Species Treaty (NEST). He works with the government and submits to government decisions, even, most crucially, when he disagrees with them. In Armageddon, though technically not a superhero movie, the nevertheless-superhuman oil drillers start out as uncompromising libertarians. Over the course of their many, many, many near-death experiences, they learn the value of cooperation, deliberation, sacrifice. They learn that muscles are not sufficient to solve the truly great problems that face our world.
According to Grant Morrison, the Civil War run in the comics “signaled the end of the vigilante superhero.” Captain America “wins,” but he understands that he can’t continue acting as before. On the screen, Civil War ends (SPOILER AL… oh, forget it) with Cap’s bittersweet departure, leaving his fate and those of the incarcerated superheroes who supported him unresolved. Here’s hoping that the MCU’s producers find a way to resolve them without tying themselves into ever more awkward rhetorical knots. Perhaps they’ll learn a lesson or two from Michael Bay and show a little acumen about how politics works. Or better yet, I hope that, in these days of president-elect Trump, their self-preservation instinct will kick in and they’ll shift their focus away from the halls of the U.N. and towards Ragnarok, and Planet Hulk, and Thanos and those pesky Infinity Stones. And let’s pray to Odin that they don’t try to use Black Panther to pretend they know the first thing about Africa.