The long-anticipated Captain America: Civil War has just hit Australian cinemas. The latest instalment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe brings to a head a problem that has been brewing for years: whether superheroes should be directed by government organisations.
The movie carries on from a disastrous battle in the fictional country of Sokovia in Avengers: Age of Ultron. In response to the enormous loss of life and property detailed over the previous Avengers movies, the United Nations demands the superheroes submit to registration and oversight by a UN committee.
The Avengers split into two duelling teams, led by the anti-authoritarian Captain America (Cap) and the pro-regulation Iron Man. A vast supporting cast brings in heroes from across the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and a political and personal crisis plays out in a series of knockout fight sequences.
Superhero movies – at their best – reflect the political anxieties of our time through a lurid mythology. This movie grapples with governmental control, overextended police powers and bloated bureaucracies that protect their members from any personal accountability when things go wrong.
The very premise of a superhero narrative, after all, is political. It relies on a recognition of the state’s insufficiency: if the authorities were doing their jobs, why would we need superheroes?
Captain America: Civil War doesn’t rely on super-villains to endanger humankind: the real enemies are power-hungry politicians, and the heroes themselves as their personalities clash in some of the best choreographed action scenes since The Raid (2011).
Heroes have always been part of our cultural imagination, adapting to fit contemporary ideologies. This is particularly true of the Captain America character, whose very name is politically loaded.
Cap’s anti-authoritarian streak has been stirring since Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). In The Avengers (2012), we saw the shady World Security Council authorise a nuclear attack on Manhattan.
In Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), Cap discovers that SHIELD, the organisation he works for, has been corrupted by Nazi splinter group HYDRA. The World Security Council is helpless to stop them. Cap’s distrust of oversight indicates that administrators are not objective. Nor are they incorrigible or accountable.
The problems the authorities are trying to fix in superhero vigilantism aren’t solved by creating more bureaucracy, but transferred to committees that lack the personal accountability of individual heroes.
Despite good intentions, Cap’s movie history shows that any organisation can be corrupted – and, ultimately, individuals have to decide if their leaders are trustworthy. While other characters would ask: “Who watches the watchmen?” Cap asks: “Who watches our watchers?”
Both previous Captain America movies (and the comics they’re drawn from, published in 2006-7) have echoed the real-world War on Terror and the increased state powers assumed since the PATRIOT Act.
Cap has previously rejected increased surveillance; criminal profiling; data collection; and pre-emptive strikes. Most of all, he denounces using fear as a tool to control a society.
Captain America: Civil War is similarly coded with terror culture. Cap objects to declaring uncontrolled superheroes as criminals; to imprisonment without trial; the over-arming of soldiers and police; and inevitable subsequent deaths.
These are real anxieties of our terror age, articulated through superhero mythology.
The Civil War story is only the most recent example of Cap’s resistance of the state. He’s rebelled against political regimes in comics released during the Nixon, Reagan, and Bush Jr. administrations.
In these comics, corrupt politicians attempt to harness him as an agent, but Cap goes rogue, fighting for his own ideals. He rejects the assumption that the name “Captain America” is a conservative moniker, and uses his own cultural leverage to publicly criticise the state.
Captain America: Civil War is definitely designed for fans who’ve been following the Marvel Cinematic Universe for some time. For the faithful, there’s an emotionally charged narrative, a complex political crisis, a witty script, and a genuinely intriguing plot between its phenomenal action scenes.
To dismiss superheroes in blockbusters as superficial ignores the fact that these movies can be meaningful, both personally and politically. Civil War manages to fit all this together. Despite being about a team divided, the movie unites its many ideas.