Captain America is a Big Screen Anarchist Superhero, How Fucking Weird is That?

civilwarposter

Directors: Joe Russo, Anthony Russo

Screenplay: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely

Recommended? Yes.

Is it weird to call Captain America an anarchist? Yes, yes it is. Of course, there’s a ton of different versions of the character throughout the canon, from the hyperpatriotic and jingoistic to the I-hereby-renounce-my-US-citizenship-because-I-am-so-disgusted-with-this-government. “Captain America” is not so much an embodiment of America as he is an embodiment of whatever version of America the creators who are working on him at whatever moment think would be the ideal. So even though yeah, we’re talking about a guy called Captain America who wears a red white and blue costume, we’re not talking about AMERICA.

I’m going to call him Steve, though, because as much as I like the guy, it’s still hard to be like “yay Captain America.” I’m here to talk about why Steve is definitely right in Captain America: Civil War. Not just right, but a solid anarchist. There will be spoilers, sort of, but I’m not going to tell you who wins or anything and if you’re not too uptight about such things you can probably read this without having seen the movie first. You should see the movie though, it’s a good time.

As you probably know if you’re reading this article, the conflict in Civil War centers around whether the Avengers will or will not agree to the Sokovia Accords, which would give government agencies the power to tell them what to do and essentially turn them into a military/law enforcement organization, with any superheroes who don’t sign on being subject to arrest. Tony Stark, Iron Man, is for it, Steve Rogers is against it. They fight.

Steve refuses to put himself in a situation where he would be following orders; he insists on maintaining personal accountability.

At first glance, Tony has a point. The Avengers are super powerful, and the idea of having their power limited and overseen by someone else is not an inherently bad one. The thing is, Steve’s position isn’t a simple, individualistic “I can do whatever I want and no one else is allowed to have an opinion on it” argument. Rather, he believes in total responsibility for one’s own actions. Tony wants to hand over control of the Avengers to a governing body so that he can avoid making hard moral choices, and so that the inevitable innocent bystanders who will be hurt or killed by giant Avenger vs aliens / random assholes / norse gods / whatever battles in the future won’t be his fault. Steve, in contrast, refuses to put himself in a situation where he would be following orders; he insists on maintaining personal accountability.

The histories of both characters (as portrayed in the Avengers films; I won’t be referring to stuff from any other canon) brings them perfectly to the point at which they find themselves in Civil War. That’s in contrast to the comics, where their actions are widely regarded as being grossly out of character. (Ok yeah I know I just said but that’s the last time I’ll do that I swear). When we first meet Steve Rogers, way back in the first movie and the early 40s, he is a highly moral person with a strong sense of right and wrong. What he lacks is any real power, because Chris Evans has had all his muscles and like 18 inches of his height digitized away. Despite that, he constantly does what he considers right and takes the consequences of doing so; he’s regularly beaten up by bullies he refuses to tolerate, even though he doesn’t actually have the physical strength to stop them, and he takes on constant humiliation and the risk of legal consequences as he tries to lie his asthmatic way into the army so he can fight fascism. Over the course of the first film, he gains the power to do what he knows to be right, and, in one of the most important lines of the series, Dr Erskine picks Steve to be the super soldier prototype in part because he is not “a soldier” who will do what he’s told but “a good man.” Even after the serum though, Steve doesn’t come into his true heroism until he stops doing what the army tells him to do, leaving his war-bonds-selling and troop-entertaining gig to rush off to help Bucky, his BFF/true love, depending on where you fall on the whole shipping thing, and essentially force the military to let him actually get on the ground and fight. Steve is defined consistently as a guy who will always do what he believes to be right, whether or not he has the ability to accomplish his goals, and whether or not anyone who is officially in charge of him actually wants him to do that.

Tony comes from more or less the opposite direction. When we meet him in the first Iron Man movie, he has immense power. He’s super wealthy, and also a genius. What he lacks is any sense of moral responsibility, and the first film deals with him coming face to face with the effects that the weapons his company sells actually have on the world. His response, to get out of the weapons business entirely, is not a bad one at all, but it proves to be the only type of response he knows how to make. When his suits become a problem, he destroys them. When, in Civil War, he realizes that the Avengers’ actions have killed innocent people, he frantically tries to hand over responsibility for the organization to someone, anyone, more trustworthy than himself. That’s not a bad impulse; it’s definitely motivated, at least in part, by a desire to see no more people harmed. But it’s also a cowardly, immature response, which fits with the way that Tony is set up throughout all the movies as stuck in a permanent adolescence. He may be smart, but the adult responsibilities that come with being a superhero (or just living a life, having relationships, etc) scare him. Ultimately, Tony’s way out doesn’t hold any real promise of preventing further harm, it just shields him from blame for the consequences of his actions.

When he refuses to submit to the Sokovia Accords, Steve is not being a cowboy; he’s being an adult.

Steve’s encounter with the harm done by the Avengers is actually much more direct than Tony’s. Tony is confronted by a grieving mother who lost her son to a battle between the Avengers and one of Tony’s science projects, and while he must have been aware that there were innocent casualties in that battle (a fucking city got ripped out of the ground and carried up into the sky; it was hard to miss), this seems to be the moment at which Tony start to feel bad about it. It’s significant that it takes a bereaved parent pushing a photo of her dead child into his hand for Tony to truly understand that his actions have consequences. In contrast, we see Steve standing right beside Wanda when she accidentally blows up a building while fighting bad guys. His response is to immediately call for EMS, which is a nice way for the filmmakers to let us know that, as soon as the mistake is made, Steve is looking for real ways to fix it rather than ways to distance himself from it, and that he’s able to instantly respond at all rather than just be paralyzed with horror and guilt, which, given her newbie status, is Wanda’s extremely understandable response. More importantly, when talking to Wanda about it later, even though he is trying to comfort her, he acknowledges that what happened was her fault, and his own as well. He knows they fucked up, and also that they need to own that, move on, and do better work.

When he refuses to submit to the Sokovia Accords, Steve is not being a cowboy; he’s being an adult.

And that right there is why Steve is right and Tony is wrong. Tony wants to dodge responsibility for his actions, and Steve knows that that’s not possible. Steve’s perspective is not only the more mature one, it also fits nicely with an anarchist outlook; he is fighting to keep his actions his own. He refuses to put himself in a position of taking orders simply to avoid the possibility that he might have to feel guilty for his own mistakes later. That’s anarchist as hell; his heroism and his mistakes have to be his own for any of it to have any meaning. He’s not going to put himself in a position of ever being tempted to say “it’s not my fault, I was following orders.”

Plus at the end he throws his red white and blue shield down on the ground and breaks his friends out of prison. He’s honestly one of the best role models you could hope to find.

3 thoughts on “Captain America is a Big Screen Anarchist Superhero, How Fucking Weird is That?”

  1. See, I was watching the whole movie thinking “You know, I thought I’d be rooting for Captain America, but he’s basically a super cop advocating less police supervision so the super cops can make the ‘right’ calls as their gut dictated, and Tony was advocating police oversight and accountability…huh.” And, while these super cops seem to have a decent moral compass, they leave the door open for not-so-good super cops to come in and bully people around.

    The article says “Rather, he believes in total responsibility for one’s own actions.” But, Steve Rogers doesn’t as he’s on the run from accountability. “Steve is defined consistently as a guy who will always do what he believes to be right, whether or not he has the ability to accomplish his goals, and whether or not anyone who is officially in charge of him actually wants him to do that.” —OR whether ANYBODY wants him to do that. He’s self-centered, entitled, and adjusts his internal narrative to counter logic. ‘He’s my friend!’ he said to Tony, to which Tony says, ‘So was I.’ Steve thinks in polar extremes, and Tony confronts the grey areas, ‘like and adult.’

    “…deals with him coming face to face with the effects that the weapons his company sells actually have on the world. His response, to get out of the weapons business entirely, is not a bad one at all, but it proves to be the only type of response he knows how to make. When his suits become a problem, he destroys them. When, in Civil War, he realizes that the Avengers’ actions have killed innocent people, he frantically tries to hand over responsibility for the organization to someone, anyone, more trustworthy than himself.”

    –See, I saw that as him taking drastic, morally-motivated action to overhaul his industry (losing billions!), and he happened to also have the power to enact what is right. (Through company overhaul, legislation, etc.) Steve Rogers on the other hand is motivated by a 1940s sense of right and wrong (even saying “There’s only one God” in one of the films!), and Tony evolves from a flawed womanizing alcoholic billionaire into a man that comes to terms with the gravity of his actions and how they affect others. Steve was just all, ‘Well, it’s necessary collateral in pursuing what I feel is right, everyone else be damned.’

    Also, Tony never said he was happy to have governmental oversight, but recognized it was necessary for ACCOUNTABILITY. If Steve were an anarchist, or really believed in accountability, to WHOM is he held accountable? Just himself. Not his community, obviously! Tony, also, in an anarchistic show of doing what is necessary despite legislation breaks his OWN agreement with the accords and government oversight by hiring young Spider-Man (who unless they go Ultimate Spider-Man cartoon show with him, you can bet Peter Parker did NOT sign the Sokovia Accords…). Just saying. Tony’s essentially a rich guy-turned-socialist (which is basically as close to large-scale anarchism as we’ll ever see). Hell, Tony even wants to provide free clean energy with his arc reactors…

    (For the record I wasn’t team Iron Man or Cap as they both had valid but flawed points; I just wanted to see super heroes duke it out.)

    Maybe, in hindsight I am pro-Team Iron Man now that I’ve sat down and thought this through (thanks!)? I like the individualistic approach Cap has, but at the end of the day, even though he’s not a bad person, it’s the same approach idiots like Trump and other bullies have. Brutish, arrogant, the will of the people be damned. Tony represents a better tomorrow in the MCU, with technology limiting ecological and social impact, and so on.

    1. I can understand reading Steve as a cop, though I interpret his role very differently. The thing is, the Sokovia accords would literally turn the Avengers, and all other superheroes, into law enforcement or military. Steve is trying to maintain independence from such agencies.
      You ask to whom Steve is supposed to be accountable, and say that he’s clearly not trying to be accountable to his community, but I think that’s exactly who he IS trying to be accountable to; himself, and his community, however he defines it, rather than to a political organization. Handing over decision making power to someone else is not the same thing as accountability.
      I think you misread Steve’s (and Tony’s) characterization here. There is absolutely no hint, in any of the films, that Steve takes collateral damage lightly, or that he does not consider the consequences of his actions. You also call him arrogant, which is…I mean, I’m not saying there are no versions of the character where that would be appropriate, but the one presented in the current film franchise just doesn’t fit that description.
      As for Tony, a rich guy giving out a ton of money to causes that interest him isn’t socialism, it’s philanthropy, and there’s a huge difference. Tony does nothing to threaten his own financial (or political) power. In fact, giving MIT students a ton of money is a way of boosting his own power, no matter what his motivation for it may be. It certainly doesn’t qualify him as socialist. You also argue that Tony hiring Peter Parker is “an anarchic show of doing what is necessary despite legislation,” but it looks a lot more to me like hypocritically breaking an agreement he already made to use his financial power to manipulate a kid who’s lack of experience and information made him easy to buy over onto his side. Plus, there’s that whole conversation that Steve and Tony have over the issue of Tony keeping Wanda locked up. Steve tells him “it’s interment.” Tony snaps back “she’s not a citizen!” That’s not anarchist, that’s fascist.
      As far as the “he’s my friend,” “so was I,” bit…I think this really gets back to Tony’s flawed understanding of personal responsibility. Remember, he’s attacking Bucky for something that happened while Bucky was essentially a brainwashed robot. Steve understands that once Bucky’s volition was taken away, he can’t be held responsible for what he did, because his actions were literally not his own; he had no power over his own behavior and no ability to resist his programming. Tony isn’t trying to kill Bucky for any reason of justice or what’s right, he’s doing it because he wants to, because he thinks revenge will make him feel better. It’s the same motivation that the villain of the film is motivated by. It’s not anarchist, and it’s not mature thinking.
      One thing I will agree with you on, very emphatically, is that the “there’s only one god” line was awful. I view it as the one really out of character moment for Steve, in this series.

  2. I’d agree with your interpretation, and add that the movie makes it even easier to side with Steve when they do their two-minute spiel on the Accords.

    First, it’s the fact that they are already written, with no input from the heroes (it’s unclear if Tony had any explicit involvement with them), and they are being ratified very soon, with no room for negotiation from the people it effects the most. Even if Steve reads through the novel-thick document and sees some decent accountability in there, it’s basically done without his consent.

    Second, they name the UN as the arbitrating power. Enormous red flag. The MCU has shown us no reason to trust the UN more than our own real United Nations, so I’m not clear on why they are the third party the world turns to in this case. The UN has intrinsic ties to some of the worst powers on Earth, and Steve immediately catches onto this, positing an easy-to-fulfill scenario where the Accords governing group ask them to do something unethical, or stop them from saving people. Just as the Security Council doesn’t really stop conflict, this proposed governing body would be tied to the powers that create the problems/problematic environment in which evils like HYDRA was born.

    Steve doesn’t want to be accountable to rules he had no say in establishing, and he doesn’t want to work for people who are fundamentally working against the interest of the majority of human beings. He can be part of my black bloc anytime.

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