Warning: some spoilers for the new Captain America film follow. Oh, and the Civil War comics, but those are like a decade old now so who cares.
Ezra Klein has a column up at Vox wherein he explains that Captain America is in the wrong in Captain America: Civil War and Iron Man is the actual hero. This is in fact not the first time Klein has written about Civil War; in 2010 he expressed his agreement with Spencer Ackerman (whose column about Civil War seems to have disappeared when Firedoglake collapsed):
And, incidentally, I agree with Spencer entirely: Iron Man was unequivocally right in the argument over superhero registration. I’m not even sure what the case for the other side is, and the libertarians I’ve asked haven’t been able to come up with one. If the state has any legitimate function at all, it’s to train and regulate people who could accidentally kill everyone in a hundred-mile radius.
I’m not a libertarian; I’m your bog-standard sorta-socialist liberal. I am also rather famously on record with respect to my opinion as to Civil War being a not-entirely-competent story.1 That having been said, the case for the other side is really quite simple: these are stories set in a universe where superheroes exist, and the normal balance of security versus liberty is accordingly upended.
Political pundits like to take Iron Man’s position for two reasons: first off, Iron Man is unequivocally the villain (or at least the antagonist) of both the comic and film versions of Civil War, and there’s a certain sort of contrarian glee to be had in saying “no, the bad guy of the story is right,” which is why every new Star Wars movie generates a fresh flood of why-the-Empire-were-actually-the good-guys columns despite the fact that the Empire are Space Nazis who murder billions of people both onscreen and off. The second reason is because Iron Man’s regulatory position makes sense when you assume that some of the elements of a comic book universe apply but don’t follow through wholly with the logic.
Klein’s argument that Iron Man was “unequivocally right” about the original Civil War dispute is one that relies on the assumption that Iron Man’s concerns about unregulated superheroes are valid and that Captain America’s concerns about the tyranny of the state are overblown. Now, because I’m a sorta-socialist liberal I can understand this position, because in the real world, the closest analogue to Captain America’s position is one expressed by gun nuts and idealistic-but-stupid libertarians, whose concerns about the tyranny of the state are (usually) overblown. But Civil War is a comic in a superhero universe, and in a superhero universe Cap’s concerns are entirely valid, because in a superhero universe as the powers of individuals grow to ridiculous proportions, so does the power of the state.
The amazing thing about Cap’s argument is that I don’t really have to make it. It’s already been made for me. Christos Gage wrote a superb one-shot Civil War tie-in comic, Casualties of War, which is mostly just an extended conversation “mid-war” between Tony and Cap as they each try to convince the other of the rightness of their position. Tony’s argument is, for the most part, the one Klein makes, along with the argument that he and Cap have a responsibility to make sure that the next generation of young superheroes is properly trained; he cites Spider-Man failing to save Gwen Stacy as his primary example. Cap refutes that argument by pointing out that Gwen Stacy didn’t die because Spider-Man failed to save her – that’s an argument that places blame unfairly on Spidey – but properly assigns the blame for that death to the person who actually caused her death: Norman Osborn.
He then points out that Osborn was able to do this because he knew Spider-Man’s secret identity, and discusses other times when superheroes’ loved ones were threatened or even killed because of secret identity leaks. And then points out – entirely correctly – that any database of registered superheroes could and would be exploited by supervillains, and actually cites moments from both Tony and Cap’s individual careers where their own information was used against them to discredit/frame them for crimes they did not commit – and even if supervillains didn’t do it, there’s no guarantee that a future administration with regulatory oversight wouldn’t do it, which for Cap is particularly relevant since the government had forced him to stop being Captain America more than once.
The crucial distinction between Tony and Cap’s positions, in the comic, is that Tony’s position is grounded in our real-world experience of how regulation generally works. Cap’s position is grounded in his unreal-world experience of what actually happens when external authority is applied to superheroes: the result is inevitably a slide towards tyrannical behaviour, regardless of the intent of the regulator, or the allowance of threats to superheroes so intense that they would be forced to abandon their duties as protectors.2
And here’s the kicker: in the comics, Cap is proven completely and utterly right by the events following Civil War. Iron Man’s side “wins,” and for about two years of comics, they mostly do all right: Tony sets up government-sanctioned superteams all over the United States (why Wyoming needs its own superteam I don’t know, but they supposedly had one) and they prevent a lot of threats. But even at this time, Tony – who is supposed to be the hero, remember – has set up the Thunderbolts as a covert team of super-criminals who have been coerced into government service. (It ends up being a spectacular failure, because psychopaths don’t make good government functionaries.)
But Tony’s moral failings aren’t the worst part – the worst part is when he loses power as a result of a crisis (a Skrull invasion) and Norman Osborn is given control of the regulatory regime. Osborn then uses his new state-sanctioned power to remake SHIELD into HAMMER, which is essentially a death cult loyal to Osborn alone, and viciously and relentlessly persecutes the superheroes – including Tony! – who won’t play ball with him, which is most of them, because Osborn is an evil man not interested in the general welfare of society at all, but only really in power for its own sake, in glorifying himself and in murdering Spider-Man, with whom Osborn is obsessed.
So Tony’s belief that a less-intrusive regulatory regime can assuage Cap’s concerns about its potential for misuse is just wrong; wrong on the evidence of what had happened before, wrong on the reasoning of what is happening currently at the time, and wrong as to what happens when it is enacted. That’s the argument for Cap’s position. And Cap is completely right.
So that’s why Klein is wrong about the comics. Why is he wrong about the film? That’s easy. First, everything I wrote above still more or less applies in the movie: Cap has real-world experience of the dangers of giving organizations too much control over superheroic quantities – that was what Winter Soldier was about, remember.
Secondly, let’s go to his column:
As I understand it, the Avengers are allowed to simply stop being Avengers if they don’t want oversight — Cap can keep his shield, Widow can keep her stingers, Iron Man can keep his suit, and they can go on and live normal lives. What they can’t do is act as vigilantes. That’s more or less the equilibrium in America, too, where we let people possess mind-boggling amounts of weaponry but have pretty strict laws about who they’re able to shoot.
The problem with this understanding is that it is wrong, because it skips over the part where some of the Avengers can’t actually stop being Avengers in a way which would satisfy the concerns of the state. It is made extremely clear in the film that the Scarlet Witch is not going to be allowed to go on and live a normal life; she is going to be imprisoned. The prison might be a particularly nice prison, but it will be a prison nonetheless, and that is Cap’s sticking point. Remember, in the film, Tony almost convinces him to work within the Sokovia Accords at one point – until Cap learns that Wanda is going to be a prisoner.
And Cap knows that Wanda isn’t the only enhanced human out there – Bruce Banner is still out there, Quicksilver was one before he died, and it is safe to assume that there are others. It is fairly obvious what would happen to them as well, and the film shows us explicitly what happens when anybody resists, regardless of whether they have powers or not – they’re sent away to an extrajudicial mecha-Guantanamo in the middle of the ocean without the burden of due process. Wanda is fairly obviously doped out of her mind to prevent her from using her powers, which is by any reasonable standard cruel and unusual punishment. And it’s clear from Tony’s reaction that he obviously didn’t know this was happening, despite his assertions that with his participation such abuses would be prevented.
Bottom line: Cap is right in Civil War, both in the comics and in the film. He’s right because although our everyday reality is that governmental regulation is, by and large, a net positive, his everyday reality is different from ours in very significant ways – and that makes all the difference.
- Years later, I still think it’s a pretty bad story, but I will say that unlike a lot of event comics, there was a coherent idea at the root of it that was worth exploring, which is more than you can say for a lot of event comics, and it at least has a lot of exciting action parts. But it’s still not a good comic. [↩]
- Tony actually admits in Casualties of War that his push for regulation is a half-measure intended to try to prevent the government from taking more drastic measures, such as the Sentinel program in the X-Men comics, which was intended to control citizens at the genetic level. [↩]