The Politics of Captain America: Civil War



This is PolCulture, our series examining books, films and tv from a politics-geek perspective.  You can read the previous entry in the series,
The Politics of Harry Potter, here.

Naturally, spoilers follow.

In the latest film in the Captain America series, Civil War, Captain America and his fellow Avengers are asked to sign a group of accords which would make them accountable to the United Nations.  These accords were drawn up as a result of the American superheroes’ habit of entering other countries and causing a ruckus, and then leaving without helping clear up after themselves. Signing the accords would mean the Avengers would only be deployed if there was international agreement that their involvement was necessary.  It essentially makes them democratically and politically accountable while restricting their freedom to do as they wish.

Those of you who are fans of Marvel will know that the film’s storyline is partly inspired by the Civil War storyline in the comics, but for the sake of simplicity we’re going to stick to this latest Captain America film.  What we’re mainly interested in is how each of the different Avengers react to the accords (whether they sign or not and whether they have any reservations) and what that says about their political views.

First up, we have the eponymous character, Captain America. Supported by Falcon, Cap’ is arguably the fiercest opponent of the accords. When the accords are first floated, the Captain attacks them vehemently, suggesting the Avengers won’t be able to go after the bad guys when they want or need to and that  they’ll have to wade through a lot of ‘politics’ before getting anything done.  His speech suggests a deeply-held scepticism of government, and a belief that his own judgement is superior to politicians’ and diplomats’.

In his heavy dislike of government involvement, Captain America comes across as a libertarian — a person who believes that any government involvement in their lives is an infringement of their freedom.  Ron Paul, the Republican hopeful in the 2012 Presidential elections, is perhaps the most famous self-styled libertarian in recent memory, though there are several politicians in the UK’s Eurosceptic camp who have libertarian sympathies (Captain America would probably vote for Britain to leave the EU if he were British or, indeed, not fictional).

However, where Captain America is quite different to libertarians like Paul is that the latter tend to think that countries shouldn’t militarily intervene in another country’s affairs unless absolutely necessary — Cap’, by contrast, has no qualms about entering other nations’ territory whenever he sees fit.  Perhaps, then, his belief in a small government combined with a willingness for military intervention suggests Captain America is a closer fit to a conservative like the former US President Ronald Reagan. Reagan believed in decreasing taxes (which are always seen as an infringement of freedom by the conservative-minded) while increasing military spending, suggesting his temperament fits Cap’s on both counts.  Indeed, in their “good v. evil” rhetoric, there appears to be a lot of parallels between Captain America’s view of the accords and many Reagan-like conservatives’ worldviews.

Captain America’s view of the accords most heavily contrasts with that of War Machine.  Iron Man’s best friend is heavily in favour of the accords, and gives two speeches in support of them — one at the beginning and one at the end of the film.  War Machine argues that the accords will make the world safer — they ensure the Avengers are deployed when necessary, but are given specific targets and accountability so that innocent lives aren’t lost as a result of their intervention.  In essence, War Machine’s argument centres on three beliefs: that governments can be a force for good; that military force should be used sparingly; and that diplomacy can be effective in solving conflicts.

In this way, War Machine’s philosophy seems to be very similar to those of a modern liberal — he could be considered the Barack Obama to Captain America’s Ronald Reagan, or Justin Trudeau of Canada.  Both Obama and Trudeau aimed for larger government investment in their economies, limited their military footprint compared to their predecessors, and wholeheartedly engaged in the diplomatic process (the Paris Climate Change talks being one of many examples).  As diplomacy and accountability’s biggest advocate, War Machine seems to belong in this camp.

Stuck between the two extremes is Iron Man, whose guilt leads him to sign the accords, but perhaps reluctantly — he seems to have the same sympathies towards military intervention as Cap’, but feels the accords are a necessity given past failures.  This on its own doesn’t tell us that much about Iron Man — is he a conservative with liberal leanings, or a liberal who believes in military intervention?  Looking at the evidence a little more widely, we can see that it is probably the latter.  Iron Man’s guilt stems from the disastrous consequences of building Ultron — a robot designed to bring about world peace.  It’s the idea of Ultron that reveals most about Iron Man — he ultimately believes that technology holds the key to society’s problems.  This faith in technology is a hallmark of liberal free-market thinking.

At the same time, the final quarter of the film (where Iron Man pursues Captain America and the Winter Soldier) shows that, despite his lingering guilt, Iron Man has no problems with intervening without authorisation, as long as it’s for a good cause.  This combination of pro-military intervention and a faith in technology has been a feature of many liberal-minded leaders since the 1990s — Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton and Tony Blair are probably its biggest advocates. This philosophy combines a bit of both the stances taken by War Machine and Captain America — hence why Iron Man is so torn.

Many of the other characters either side with one of these three stances or are rather hard to pin down (Black Widow’s motives are particularly difficult to gauge).  The only other character whose view we get a specific insight into is Black Panther.  Intriguingly, Panther appears to dislike politics and diplomacy as much as Captain America does, but is a big fan of the accords themselves.  This appears to be based on the belief that the Avengers shouldn’t be able to enter another country without permission.  This idea is muddied slightly later on in the film, though, when Panther seeks down the Winter Soldier in Germany. So we can’t say for sure — we look forward to the upcoming Black Panther film (in 2018) and hope it offers some more clarity.

The Avengers and other characters in Captain America: Civil War have a range of political beliefs, from Captain America on one side through to War Machine on the other, with Iron Man and everybody else somewhere in between.  And these disputes are not limited to Stan Lee’s fictional universe — they’re the type of conflicts that people in power grapple with all the time.  Though thankfully having a massive superpowered fight isn’t an option to real politicians…

So, are you on #TeamCap or #TeamIronMan?  You decide — but your decision may mean more than you think it does.

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Jon Holiday

Jon commentates on the ways culture and politics interact.

One thought on “The Politics of Captain America: Civil War

  1. It’s challenging to find well informed individuals on this subject, but you
    sound like you understand what you’re talking about!

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