Now that we’ve all seen Captain America: Civil War, it’s about time to open up the #TeamIronMan v #TeamCap debate.
On the one hand, you have Iron Man as a guilt-addled pragmatist who feels UN/international oversight is a necessary step forward when it comes to The Avengers and their role in terrestrial and extraterrestrial conflict. Captain America, on the other hand, feels that The Avengers are above the bureaucratic red tape of oversight and need to act immediately and independently given the existential threats they face.
What interested me in all this was the distinct era-specific concerns of the new movie and its source material. While the Civil War comic was all about the Bush era war on terror and its impact on individual freedom and civil liberties, the Civil War movie is about the Obama era and the ways institutions and individuals try to mitigate the consequences of foreign intervention.
Both Iron Man and Captain America’s sides are justified in-character by their experiences over the course of 12 other films. It might speak to the strength of long-form stories allowing characters to develop through choices and actions over time, and to then have a major interpersonal conflict stem from the ideological differences between characters.
Given the collateral damage and technology-run-amok in Avengers: Age of Ultron, it makes sense for Tony Stark to consider international approval. It would keep his own ideas in check (i.e., creating something like Ultron) if there had to be political consensus before moving forward, and that consensus could then justify direct action and mitigate any personal guilt over the deaths of innocent people. This makes more sense than Tony Stark going full neoconservative fascist douchebag as he did in the Civil War comic by Mark Millar and Steve McNiven.
HYDRA’s decades-long infiltration of the US government and SHIELD in Captain America: The Winter Soldier leads to Steve Rogers’ distrust of oversight, which may involve parties with motives and interests outside of the greater good. On top of that, we’re talking about the United Nations as the overseeing body, an organization which stood idly by during the Rwandan genocide and whose actions these days include strongly worded letters of condemnation. Could you imagine the Avengers assembled to draft a letter?
In a way, Tony’s trust in his own judgment backfiring so badly led him to the security of the Sakovia Accords. On the other side, the complete failure of those in power to stop HYDRA led Steve away from the compromise and institutional oversight of the Sakovia Accords.
There’s also a generational conflict that tempers the Iron Man and Captain America worldviews. Tony Stark has grown up in the era after Vietnam with a certain gray or cynical view of military conflict. This is not a doveish view on Tony’s part, however, but maybe one that adds ambivalence to the view of intervention and combat. Captain America, on the other hand, is a product of the greatest generation who could align in a black-and-white good-vs-evil battle against the Axis powers, HYDRA (i.e., science Nazis), and fascism. Of course, Cap doesn’t really talk much about Dresden or the atomic bomb–that would complicate the moral arithmetic of utilitarianism.
Civil War doesn’t talk about the possibility of non-intervention and the use of diplomacy, but that sort of discussion would be silly in the context of superhero films. The Avengers fight massive hordes of faceless alien/robot/science Nazi goons hellbent on eradicating humanity. When that’s the situation, the only viable option in the particular story being told is some sort of large-scale action set piece. (You don’t bring a strongly worded letter to a gun fight.) It’s maybe no surprise that in Alan Moore’s Watchmen, the grand solution to fixing a world at war involves something extraterrestrial.
Real life situations are far more complicated and can’t be treated with the cavalier sense of moral righteousness seen in superhero movies. The foreign interventions of the Obama administration show how even careful deliberation or a humanitarian goal can backfire. Drone strikes are meant to eliminate select terror targets and reduce civilian deaths, but innocent men, women, and children have been murdered by American drones (see National Bird). The moral righteousness of Captain America’s stance does nothing to mitigate the heartbreak and tragedy (and potential war crimes charges) of airstrikes against Doctors Without Border hospitals in Afghanistan or Yemen; Presidential apologies are of little consolation either. With regard to the Syrian Civil War, the complexities of the various factions involved, interfactional alliances, allegiances to various outside parties/countries, and a host of other factors have meant little direct or immediate action by the United States, which is still trying to figure out the quagmire it caused in Iraq under Bush; ditto the ISIS-led power vacuum the US created when Obama, under the counsel of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, used airstrikes along with French, British, and other NATO forces to assist Libyan rebels in the ousting of Muammar Gaddafi.
All superhero movies often have something inherently hawkish and/or libertarian about them, sometimes occupying various ideologies at once. Some may have a more activist streak (many are vigilante stories, after all), while others are more authoritarian (many are world police stories, after all), and these Avengers movies tend to be all about the positive things that the Earth’s mightiest heroes can do even when they accidentally kill innocent people. As our own Jackson Tyler pointed out last year, The Avengers is all about American exceptionalism, unable to commit to a full critique of its own ideological foundation. They’re power fantasies, after all, and like fairy tales or myths or any fantastical stories that are told, maybe there are certain limitations in what can be addressed. These are simplifications of conflicts, and rarely with a one-to-one conversion regarding its real world referents. Superheroes can do a lot when it comes to embodying certain aspirations, ideals, and anxieties, but there isn’t much room in a tentpole blockbuster to address the complications and nuances of real world national and international politics.
The closest Captain America: Civil War can get to nuance is its ambivalence about the #TeamIronMan v #TeamCap argument. It comes down on neither side explicitly, allowing both to exist as the correct solution to a narrow hypothetical situation involving the world of the film. These are still heroes (again, the foundation remains), but one is a sheriff while the other is the gunslinger who turns in his tin star, one is the by-the-book cop while the other is the loose canon who lost his badge. This isn’t neocons taking on liberals, it’s more like Buzz Lightyear v Woody. Similarly, Captain America: Civil War isn’t a diagnosis and treatment of the current state of the world but more of a collection of symptoms.
I’m reminded of a two-page Superman story from 1940 by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. The Man of Tomorrow soars through the air, kidnaps Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, and then brings them both to justice before the League of Nations. All that power, and he rights major wrongs so easily and justly, preventing the deaths of countless millions in the process. If only real world foreign policy were that easy.
In retrospect, it’s a very sad Superman story.