The directors of Marvel’s “Captain America: Civil War” say they wanted to create a movie that reflects some of the ambiguities of real-world politics. The movie is very good and highly entertaining. However, its understanding of politics ducks the real political issues that superheroes would pose.
Nobody elected the superheroes
The famous comic book author Frank Miller has attracted a lot of controversy for depicting DC superheroes such as Batman as authoritarian fascists. Even if Miller’s personal politics are dubious, he has a very good point. No one elects superheroes or gives them a democratic mandate. Instead, superheroes grab authority for themselves. This is why superhero movies and comics are often set in situations where democratic politics is failing or has failed. If society is collapsing, then any source of order (even if it’s individuals donning capes and becoming vigilantes) may be better than chaos. Superheroes are nearly always individualists — something that science fiction author China Miéville parodies in Scrap Iron Man, where a collective of unemployed Michigan steelworkers combine “to face down the sociopathic authoritarian fascist arms-dealing corporate billionaire who left Flinton to rot,” Tony Stark.
Democratic politics and superheroes have an awkward relationship. It’s notable that supervillains often try to build political influence (think Kingpin in Netflix’s “Daredevil” TV series), but superheroes pretty well never do. Having a democratic office — in which voters give the elected official a mandate of authority and limits on that authority — is pretty well antithetical to what superheroes do.
Superheroes can super-size global problems
The individualism of superheroes works even worse with global politics, which are based on the core idea of state sovereignty. On the one hand, state sovereignty means that outsiders aren’t supposed to intervene in other states’ internal affairs. As international relations scholar Steve Krasner has argued, this ban is partially hypocritical and is often broken by powerful states. It still offers some protection from outside interference. On the other, state sovereignty implies that states should have a “monopoly on legitimate violence” within their borders. Individuals should not be able to legitimately engage in violence without official state sanction.
The Avengers challenge both of these core assumptions. They are based in the United States but seem happy to intervene in other countries — for example, setting up a covert operation in Lagos, Nigeria, at the start of “Captain America: Civil War,” apparently without the permission of local authorities. Even within the United States, they act violently without any official sanction. Their intervention would be very damaging for international norms and politics, suggesting that individuals have unlimited authority to do whatever it takes, without asking the permission of states, as long as they have fancy suits or powers and are pursuing tesseracts, genocidal robots, mercenaries and the like.
“Captain America: Civil War” talks about how superheroes might be perceived as vigilantes. There’s an even uglier word for someone who jumps into a political situation, blows things and people up and disappears again — terrorist. When Thomas Barnett writes about “super-empowered individuals” in world politics, he isn’t talking about Ant Man and Spider-Man. He’s talking about Osama bin Laden and the Sept. 11, 2001, plane hijackers, who acted as individuals to change the shape of global politics. The Avengers have better intentions but the same potential for causing chaos without accountability. Even if they’re acting to save the human race, it’s unsurprising that governments should be angry and unhappy at their willingness to intervene across the world, regardless of the collateral damage.
International institutions could provide a solution
The political fight in “Captain America: Civil War” concerns a United Nations accord intended to restrain superheroes, which is supported by the U.S. secretary of state. Some Avengers are willing to sign on to this accord, while others are not. The movie’s picture of the United Nations owes a bit more to black-helicopter mythology than it should. The U.N. imprisons Bucky Barnes without access to lawyers and seems to be involved in a secret Guantanamo-style prison beneath the sea.
Perhaps this portrayal isn’t completely indefensible — there is a new body of work on international law that argues that international institutions such as the United Nations are becoming more supportive of oppressive security measures. Even so, the real United Nations is not a shadowy surveillance and covert operation organization like S.H.I.E.L.D. It is an organization with flaws, but its conventions form the basis for international law on human rights, armed conflict, genocide, the rights of children and much else besides. It’s hard to imagine any other organization that could build an international consensus among states on the responsibilities of superheroes.
One shouldn’t demand too much realism from a Hollywood blockbuster, but a more accurate portrayal of the U.N., with all of its flaws, would have made for a more politically interesting movie. The battle over whether to trust the U.N. or instead to trust superheroes to exercise their own best judgment about how to intervene would have been more interesting if the other side of the argument had been properly aired. States may reasonably believe that they are the best judges of the interests of their people, not superheroes.
“Captain America: Civil War” would be better if it weren’t so America-centric
The most fundamental problem of the movie is that it looks at the world through an American lens. For sure, it is skeptical about the consequences of the Avengers’ actions. In the first Avengers movie, the Avengers were created because the world needed superheroes to fight back against enormous external threats. By “Captain America: Civil War,” the Avengers are causing collateral damage to civilians (this is the key reason that Stark agrees with the creation of a U.N. convention) and creating their own villains. Helmut Zemo is radicalized when his family is killed in the Avengers’ battle with Ultron. The key argument — between Stark and Captain America — is an argument between two Americans with different visions of the role of government and how America should act in the world.
Yet those are not the only possible points of view. Daryl Gregory’s extraordinary short story “The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm” presents a thinly disguised version of Doctor Doom’s Latveria, in which ordinary people have to suffer the aftermath of repeated invasions by American superheroes looking to avenge this or that slight. By focusing on these interventions from the perspective of the non-Americans who have to endure them, rather than the Americans arguing over whether they are justified, it provides a different — and far more emotionally powerful — account of blowback than “Captain America.”
One potential way to do this in forthcoming movies might be through Black Panther. Black Panther is not only non-American but the leader of a sovereign nation. “Captain America: Civil War” hints that his country has a quite different perspective on the accord, and on the role of superheroes, than do the Avengers. The Black Panther comic books are currently undergoing another renaissance, thanks to Ta-Nehisi Coates, a writer who has been highly skeptical of standard verities of American political culture. The forthcoming Black Panther movie (and other Avengers universe movies that feature Black Panther) might provide an opportunity to lay out a non-U.S. perspective on superheroes, intervention, accountability and political consequences, and see how it complicates the argument.