This post discusses plot points from “Captain America: Civil War,” which arrived in American theaters on Thursday night.
As part of the marketing for “Captain America: Civil War,” fans have been asked to pick sides. Are you #TeamCap and opposed to efforts to put superheroes under some kind of governmental oversight? Or #TeamIronMan and in favor of the Sokovia Accords backed by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and American Secretary of State Thunderbolt Ross (William Hurt), which would place the Avengers under control of a United Nations panel?
If one were to choose solely from the comic book event from which “Captain America: Civil War” draws its name, the choice would be a no-brainer: All right-thinking people are #TeamIronMan. In the series — which is legitimately dreadful and borderline incomprehensible, as most such comic book crossover events tend to be — a team of superheroes filming a reality TV show attacks a team of supervillains hiding out in the suburbs. In the course of the battle, hundreds of kids are killed, and the public, angry about years of collateral damage, finally demands that costumed vigilantes be subject to some sort of accountability.*
Congress swiftly passes an act requiring all would-be superheroes to register with, and work with, the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division (SHIELD). Since they’re effectively government agents — or, at least, operating under the auspices of a government agency — Iron Man hoped “the kids, the amateurs, and the sociopaths are getting weeded out.” Though Captain America throws a hissy fit about it, Stark and the government’s plan strikes me as relatively noncontroversial: You shouldn’t be operating under the color of law to uphold order if you’re not, you know, authorized to do so.
The movie takes this basic idea and makes it all a bit more complicated (and, therefore, more interesting). Following a series of catastrophic battles featuring massive amounts of collateral damage — the invasion of New York in “Avengers”; mass destruction outside Washington in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”; the carnage in Sokovia in “The Age of Ultron”; and the killing of a number of civilians in Lagos at the start of “Captain America: Civil War” — the world has decided it has had enough. More than 100 nations sign on to the Sokovia Accords, which would place the Avengers under the auspices of the United Nations.
Stark, fresh off a tongue-lashing from a State Department employee who lost her son in Sokovia and still suffering from no small amount of guilt for having created Ultron in the first place, backs the plan. Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) is unimpressed by the Accords and refuses to sign on, suggesting that the team is better equipped to decide when and where it should act. More important, he criticizes the panel that would be governing them, suggesting it would be prone to political pressures and not the general welfare (again, as Cap and company define it).
The movie doesn’t really get into this, but Cap’s objection in the film — what authority does the U.N. have to regulate us? — raises a deeper philosophical question than his objection in the comics (which boils down to, “Masked heroes have been a part of this country for as long as anyone can remember,” right before he assaults a dozen SHIELD agents). He’s asking us to consider whether the U.N. has a legitimate monopoly on force.
The so-called “monopoly on violence” is a foundational aspect of the state, as a concept; Max Weber used it to define what a state actually was, as Encyclopedia Britannica notes. Tony Stark is right insofar as the Avengers operating as a highly lethal power around the world sans oversight or state sanction — any state sanction — is an unacceptable position. Steve Rogers goes out of his way to prove Stark correct by acting like a loose cannon throughout the film: protecting a wanted terrorist from capture and instigating a battle that destroys a major airport.
But Rogers’s implicit rejection of the U.N. as the final arbiter of when the most powerful peacekeepers in the world should go to work isn’t unreasonable either. After all, this is an organization with a serious anti-Semitism problem, one whose peacekeepers have been accused of sexually assaulting the very civilians they are supposed to protect, one whose most powerful body has given veto power to authoritarian regimes like China and Russia. The U.N. itself has no legitimate monopoly on force because the U.N. has only as much legitimacy as the United States and other members of the Security Council allow it.
The compromise solution, it seems, would be to eschew the U.N. and simply hand oversight of the Avengers to the only nation on planet Earth trustworthy enough to wield their power responsibly. I speak, of course, of the nation that gave Steve Rogers’s alter ego his name and rank: America.
International law is a travesty, one easily manipulated by rogue and dictatorial states for their benefit. America, on the other hand, has grown rather used to its place as the world’s policeman. And if any other nations were to take issue with the way in which the U.S. of A. deploys its cadre of super-powered peacekeepers?
Well, they can feel free to take it up with the Avengers.
*DC Comics’ Kingdom Come series tells a very similar, far superior version of this story, by the way. I highly recommend it.