A recent post by fellow MoviePilot contributor, Trevor Norkey, looks at the upcoming movie Captain American: Civil War. While I personally lean a little to Captain America's side, analyzing the events of Marvel's Civil War is complex and contains no easy answers. At the heart of the question is the role the state plays in keeping us safe and how many rights we are willing to take away from ourselves and others to make this happen.
To understand what this all means, we need some context. I will use examples in history and popular culture to bring across some of these points. The plot of the movie promises to be different from what transpired in the comics. As we do not much of the movie's details, references to both the comics and movies will be made.
Comparing the Events of 9/11 and Marvel's Civil War
In a paper titled Marvel Comics’ Civil War: An Allegory of September 11 in an American Civil War Framework, Duke University historian, Max Erdemandi, explores the parallels of Stamford and 9/11 and what it means for both the Marvel Universe and ours. The tremendous loss of innocent lives at Stamford spurred discussions about the broader implications on humans with superpowers, just as the 9/11 attacks led to debates about personal freedoms versus national security in the United States.
To address some of the security concerns of its citizendary, the US government passed the Patriot Act and, in the process, lead a full-scale war against terrorism. This war was unlike any other war the US had been in. While the tragedy itself had a lasting mark, the Alternate History Hub points out in their youTube episode, What if 9/11 Never Happened?, the conflict that started one month after the terrorists attacks is the same one being fought today.
There are several reasons for this. In another video, Why is 9/11 Still So Relevant?, the Alternate History Hub suggests there are several reasons for this but one they mention stands out. While there are similarities to 9/11 and Pearl Harbor, the difference lies in the fact that while the US was able to avenge Pearl Harbor, it was unable to do so with 9/11. The eventual closure a nation got by helping to win World War II and defeating the Japanese did not happen with 9/11. And it probably never will.
Just as in our universe, the captured superheroes suffered a similar fate to that of terrorists. The "War on Terror" led to the creation of untouchable and inaccessible detention facilities outside the rule of law. In the Civil War series, non-registered superheroes are similarly imprisoned in the Negative Zone, a detention that is intended to be permanent. Erdemandi points out that,
The allegorical narrative of Marvel’s series includes metaphors of post-9/11 unrest, the “War on Terror,” and a changing American identity. Just as the reactions of a scared and angry nation authorized the government to pursue a war on terrorism, in the Marvel universe the fictional US government issues legislation authorizing a war against rebellious superheroes, fueled by public fear of superhumans.
The majority of Americans did not object to the government's increased surveillance, even if it did mean limiting their own personal liberties. This also meant that law enforcement agencies were given more power to acquire information about individuals within the US, as well as making it easier to detain and deport immigrants who were suspects of terrorism-related activities.
In the comic book universe, the government signs the Superhero Registration Act (SRA) into law, requiring superheroes to register their real identities to the government. There is likely going to be some deviation in the movie universe but similarly super-powered individuals, probably the Inhumans, will be targeted by a similar legislation.
Though there is no event at Stamford in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there is likely to be one, or several, events that will lead to the SRA. In the Netflix series, Jessica Jones, there are hints that not everyone sees superpowered humans as a good thing after the Battle of New York seen in The Avengers. It is likely that the event that leads to the SRA is yet to happen, but we are seeing a world frustrated by the actions of superheroes.
The reactions in the comic book universe were similar to those in own our universe. Erdemandi points out that in our universe, the United States was seen as isolated, untouchable, and so strong that no one would dare attack it. After 9/11, the nation realized this was not entirely true, and the government would be unable to stop it.
The Marvel superheroes struggle with the same dilemma and this makes it difficult for readers to choose sides. It is likely viewers of the upcoming movie will be faced with a similar problem. Should they choose between Tony Stark, who supports broad government regulations to protect civilians, or Steve Rogers who believes registration will take away personal freedoms. By asking people to choose a side, they are being forced to question their own values.
Give me Liberty or Give me a wiretap
Just as in our universe, citizens of both Marvel universes felt vulnerable and frightened by the attacks and did not object to the government's increased security measures. In the case of the Patriot Act, this meant law enforcement agencies had more authority to acquire information about individuals within the United States. In a similar fashion, the SRA meant that superheroes needed to register their identities with S.H.I.E.L.D., the government supervised espionage and law enforcement agency.
Although the Patriot Act was criticized, the Marvel universe's SRA didn't receive the same level of criticism. This was not the first time Americans faced the polarizing question of government regulation and personal freedoms. The Lincoln presidency is known for having a "dark side," as he suspended the writ of habeas corpus in the first year of the Civil War in response to riots and militia activity in border states. This gave Lincoln supreme power to detain "disloyal persons" at will, indefinitely, and without trial. We see a similar thing happen in our universe with Guantanamo Bay, and in the Marvel comic universe with the Negative Zone.
A house divided against itself cannot stand... I do not expect the Union to be dissolved - I do not expect the house to fall - but I do expect it will cease to be divided.
Marvel's choice to call the multi-series crossover event Civil War was obviously deliberate. The series plays upon the idea that the nation was polarized between slavery and freedom in the same way people were divided during the American Civil War; the notion of "brother against brother" is a predominant theme. Abraham Lincoln's famed House Divided speech summarizes what both teams are trying to achieve.
The Dual American Identities
To further understand the conflict between the two sides, we must understand the symbolism of the two main sides: Captain America and Iron Man. Both men are metaphors for the opposing shifts in the American identity. Iron Man is the technologically advanced, space age America while Captain America is the older World War II veteran.
Captain America can be seen as a product of the American nationalism that came about after World War II. This image of a man who stands for his ideals and is willing to die for his country is something that connects him to most readers. In contrast, Iron Man is a product of a technologically advanced United States where both foreign and domestic policies are heavily influenced by scientific advancements. In this way, Iron Man represents a post-World War II United States, rich in technology and opportunity. Captain America on the other hand represents the traditional America.
Can the Government protect us?
Norkey's post shows several examples where widespread destruction was the result of super human activities but as we have seen above, whether government action could have prevented this is difficult to answer. We have come to realize, both in our universe and within the Marvel universe, that no country is isolated from the other.
Even if our urban areas are not isolated from the geopolitics of the world, does this mean the goverment can train individuals to make society safer? To answer this question, Norkey turns to the wizarding world of Harry Potter and Hogwarts. I contend that this example is not valid because the schools in Rowling's wizarding world does not exist to protect people in the way Trevor is suggesting.
While there are legal limits on underage magic use, the reasons are more to protect Wizarding society from being discovered by Muggles. The Decree for the Reasonable Restriction of Underage Sorcery is enforced by the Improper Use of Magic Office which is charged with enforcing and regulating the violations of the International Confederation of Wizards' Statute of Secrecy.
Children do not go to Hogwarts because of the threat their powers post to a wider society, but rather to gain the skills they need to survive in the wizarding world. The Ministry of Magic regulates education in the same way many governments do to ensure that children have the necessary skills to survive and flourish upon graduation.
The reason why sending children to Hogwarts is not like the SRA is choice. Parents can choose to send their children to any of the wizarding schools across Europe, e.g., the Beauxbatons Academy of Magic or the Durmstrang Institute. The government does not force children to go to Hogwarts and neither do they force them to take particular jobs upon graduation; a particularly gifted child is not forced to become an Auror by the state as in the case of the SRA.
Code Reds and never-ending wars
We see that final scene in A Few Good Men where Lt. Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) goads Col. Nathan Jessup (Jack Nicholson) into admitting he ordered the "Code Red" as a debate on the lengths the state must go to protect its citizens and an individual's right to personal freedoms. As Jessup points out, while what he does is seen as despicable, what he does is necessary. The lesson we can draw is that there is always going to be a balance between personal freedom and security; we give up a little of one to have the other.
In the case of the SRA, it goes so far on protection side to the point where it violates individual rights. Unfortunately, the people likely to support this are the ones who lose the least personal freedoms. We see an example of this with the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Former Supreme Court Justice Tom C. Clark writes in the epilogue to the 1992 book Executive Order 9066: The Internment of 110,000 Japanese Americans
The truth is—as this deplorable experience proves—that constitutions and laws are not sufficient of themselves...Despite the unequivocal language of the Constitution of the United States that the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, and despite the Fifth Amendment's command that no person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law, both of these constitutional safeguards were denied by military action under Executive Order 9066
This is one of the reasons why the comic book Luke Cage finds the SRA so deplorable, calling it nothing more than slavery. Superpowered individuals are given no choice. If you are deemed too powerful, you must be trained and work for the government. Not only that, but your powers and abilities are made known to the public which may be a violation of an individual's right to privacy.
Again, this raises even more concerns and questions. How much information about someone do you have a right to? Do you have a right to know about a person's sexuality? Or perhaps what diseases they may be predisposed to? Do we have a right to decide whether any of this makes someone a danger to society when that danger can not be demonstrated beyond our irrational fears and personal prejudices? We have, in the past, used our fears and prejudices to discriminate against individuals powerless to defend themselves and this is something we should never forget or be proud of.
It's not that we do not acknowledge that some very powerful individuals need to be trained or can be of service to their country but the danger comes in the way it is implemented. It treats people who are different as threats, forments distrust, and puts citizens against each other.
Brian Swafford, in his article "The Death of Captain America: An Open-Ended Allegorical Reading of Marvel Comic's Civil War Storyline," describes Marvel's Civil War as an open-ended story because the conflict remains unresolved and readers are left with unanswered questions. While Swafford my be referring to the divided superhero community in the Marvel comic universe, the same applies to Americans.
Who do you stand for?
Civil War is unique in that its narrative draws on recent historical events and illustrates that comics can be used to convey complex ideas. (Really, why isn't this on school's reading list?) Both the real events of 9/11 and the fictional events of Civil War focuses on the dilemma any nation faces over the debate on individual freedoms and security.
While it may be easy to call one side right or wrong, in reality it is far more complex. Some may think that Captain America is fighting against the government and its attempts to protect the people, but that could not be further from the truth. He is fighting against the restrictions on civil liberties and freedom of what can be deemed a minority group. Yes, in this case the minority group can be powerful enough to wreak havoc, but is that enough of a reason to take away the rights of all?
This means that support of Captain America or Iron Man is not a binary answer, but a sliding scale with both men at opposite ends. In that case, I lean slightly towards Captain America.