Hollywood, typically regarded by those of us on the political right as a bastion of hedonistic leftists, has lately been flouting that stereotype. Still in theaters, Disney’s The Jungle Book boasts subtle but articulate themes affirming human liberty and the value of capitalism. Dropping over the weekend from the related Marvel Studios, Captain America: Civil War likewise takes a firm philosophical stance in favor of choice over control. Its politics prove so prominent that they moved Salon writer Amanda Marcotte to denounce Captain America as “a douchey libertarian.”
Exploring the politics of the film will require delving into some particulars of the plot. So be warned: spoilers will follow. Marcotte provides the context in her piece:
In “Civil War,” the Avengers are facing growing international criticism for the way they handled the events in “The Avengers” and “Avengers: Age of Ultron”. Many people are arguing that they are operating without government oversight and innocent civilians are getting killed in the process. While it’s true that those civilian casualties are not the fault of the Avengers — they were fighting off serious threats and unfortunately, in war, civilians get killed — there are nonetheless growing demands for some kind of accountability and oversight.
Marcotte goes on to argue that such oversight proves appropriate. Yet the facts presented in the film prove otherwise. From the inciting incident during which a bombing claims the lives of international diplomats, straight through to the film’s resolution, government “oversight” gets everything wrong. They accept fraudulent evidence without pausing to evaluate it, and end up enabling the film’s true villain. We see the ulterior motive of Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross manifest as he eagerly captures and imprisons any Avenger he cannot directly control. In the final analysis, there is no ambiguity regarding who was right or who was wrong in this “civil war.” Tony Stark, leading Cap’s opposition as Iron Man, admits that he was misguided.
This all flows naturally from themes which have been consistently developed throughout the franchise, and that’s part of Civil War’s brilliance. Steve Rogers and Tony Stark have been at odds from the moment their relationship began. Yet their philosophical positions regarding government oversight have largely reversed. In Iron Man 2, it was Tony who addressed Congress as the “douchey libertarian,” arguing that he had “privatized world peace.” In Avengers, it was Rogers arguing that the team should blindly follow orders from S.H.I.E.L.D. Both men, through their separate narrative journeys, have been given cause to reevaluate their politics. They each now come at a new proposal with fresh eyes. Rogers has good reason to regard government oversight with skepticism, and Tony’s desire to be held accountable makes sense from his perspective.
Meanwhile, we the audience know from our position of relative omniscience that government interference in the Avengers’ operations would have been disastrous. What was government’s answer to the Chitauri invasion of New York? They launched a nuclear bomb. What was government’s answer to the rising threats emerging from that incident? They “aimed a gun at everyone’s head” in The Winter Soldier, an approach Captain America rightly decried when he noted, “This isn’t freedom. This is fear.” Lest we forget that S.H.I.E.L.D. thus enabled the villainous Hydra.
It would be a mistake to think of Captain America as anti-government. These films are not preaching anarchy. Rather, Steve Rogers employs a well-developed sense of skepticism when considering both people and institutions. If someone wants control, it is right to question their motive. As Rogers puts it in the film, government is “run by people with agendas and agendas change.” We must be careful not to cede control over our lives to people whose schemes would deprive us of liberty or deny us justice.