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The Post-9/11 Ethics of ‘Captain America: Civil War’

Marvel’s Civil War comic series was an allegory for a traumatized moment in American history. Professor Mark D. White explains why its focus on liberty and security still feels so urgent.
Captain America: Civil War pits one vaguely libertarian superhero against one rich Democrat with strangely George W. Bush-like tendencies.

Captain America: Civil War pits one vaguely libertarian superhero against one rich Democrat with strangely George W. Bush-like tendencies.

The original Civil War comics series is 10 years old, not that you would know it from the new film adaptation, which feels very much a product of the current cycle. In Captain America: Civil War, Marvel’s superhero dream-team, The Avengers, divides along familiar ideological lines when the Secretary of State asks the group to sign the “Sokovia Accords,” a regulatory measure that would put the group under United Nations supervision.

Captain America opposes the Accords, viewing them as an infringement on the group’s liberty and ability to save anyone in harm’s way; his teammate Iron Man, however, believes the pact is a necessary and inevitable safeguard against collateral casualties.

Centering on an epic battle between regulation and deregulation, the storyline echoes the political divisions characterizing the 2016 presidential election, while remaining, of course, a reliably preposterous affair centered on a rivalry between a billionaire-genius playboy and World War II soldier who has recently awoken from a 70-year-long cryogenic sleep.

If the film’s topical bent hasn’t impressed all critics—“I’m not really feeling it,” A.O. Scott wrote in the New York Times—that may be in part because the original story speaks to an earlier American moment.

Marvel’s Civil War has its ethical roots firmly in the months and years after 9/11, as Mark D. White, the professor and chair of the Department of Philosophy at the College of Staten Island (CUNY), argues in his book A Philosopher Reads Marvel Comics’ ‘Civil War’: Exploring the Moral Judgment of Captain America, Iron Man, and Spider-Man, released this March. White argues that the battle between Captain America and Iron Man is a fictional allegory for the “battle of ideals” in Patriot Act-era America, when citizens were divided over the consequences of increasingly muscular government action meant to enhance national security. The series, White writes, ultimately pitted two fundamentally post-9/11 American principles against one another: the competing values of liberty and security.

Captain America: Civil War makes some slight changes to the comics—replacing the Registration Act with the similar federal regulation measure the Sokovia Accords, for instance, and broadcasting the inciting tragedy on the news instead of reality television—but ultimately preserves the spirit and rhythm of author Mark Millar’s original story. In a phone interview late last week, White talked to us about deontology, good-versus-good storylines, and why it’s counter-productive to be #TeamCap or #TeamIronMan.

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Tell me a little bit about why you originally decided to study the Civil War comics series through a philosophical lens.

Civil War was actually the story that brought me into the Marvel Universe. I loved that it had this amazing ideological content right on the surface. You had one character fighting for security and another for liberty, and they’re making arguments that have existed in political philosophy for hundreds of years, but all in the context of a wonderful, action-packed superhero story that covered over a hundred issues of comics across the Marvel Comics line over that year.

I’d written occasional essays and things on different aspects of the story in various books, such as Iron Man and Philosophy and Spider-Man and Philosophy, and I covered it a little bit in my book The Virtues of Captain America, but when the Civil War movie was announced, I was contacting publishers that day to find out who would let me write a book on it. Since I got whole-heartedly into [Marvel] comics about 10 to 12 years ago, it’s the book I really wanted to write.

In your book on the Civil War comics, you call the 2006–07 comics “a battle of ideals.” What were the ideals at stake in the series, and have they changed at all in this movie?

In 2006 when the [Civil War] story started, there had been a recent streak of superhero-related disasters that caused the public to build anxiety and distrust toward their superheroes. In the context of saving people and defeating the villain, there had been a lot of collateral damage in terms of lives, not just in terms of property. It finally reached a head when a team of inexperienced young heroes messed up fighting a villain and caused the death of 60 people in Stamford, Connecticut. This prompted the United States government in the comics to pass the Superhero Registration Act, which required all superheroes to register with the government, submit to training, reveal their identities to the [authorities], and basically be held accountable for their actions should anything go wrong.

This caused the split among the superhero community that later became known as the civil war. Iron Man didn’t like the idea of registration, but once he knew it was coming, he decided to get ahead of it and make sure it was done right, mainly in the spirit of not only enhancing the security and the peace of mind of the public, but also to protect the heroes from something worse, such as a complete government ban of superhero activities. He was the pragmatist, or, in philosophical terms, the utilitarian—trying to take the world as it is, and make it as much better as you can.

On the other side, you had Captain America, who traditionally always stands up for principle and what’s right. He saw [the Superhero Registration Act] as a violation of civil liberties, and worried that if politicians required superheroes to reveal their identities to the government, data might get leaked, and leave the heroes and their loved ones susceptible to the bad guys. This reflects Captain America’s grounding, in philosophical terms, on matters of deontology, which focuses on matters of right and wrong, instead of better or worse.

Civil War goes back to these classic ideas of liberty versus security that we, at least in America, have been dealing with intensely since 9/11. When it comes to the Patriot Act, the National Security Agency, and the Transportation Security Administration, how far are we willing to go to weaken or sacrifice our personal liberties in the spirit of increasing our security? That’s a constant battle, often put in terms of silly things like, should we have to take our shoes off in the airport? But now it’s becoming more issues of surveillance—take the controversy about having cell phones locked against government surveillance.

In your book on the Civil War comics, you depict the 2006 comic book series as Marvel’s allegorical response to 9/11. Have the symbolic resonances and parallels changed in Captain America: Civil War?

Even though Captain America: Winter Soldier was also a few years on from 9/11, there were more echoes of 9/11’s aftermath, with themes of surveillance and preemptive punishment, in that film than in this movie. But this movie didn’t have to be as closely tied [referentially] to post-9/11 as the comic book story was because the issues in this movie are very much still in the air. The comic book story is a bestselling title on Amazon and the movie will be number one for the weekend because the basic idea of freedom versus security is a perennial issue. Now it’s mainly in terms of surveillance rather than actual physical limitations of action—now we’re talking about Edward Snowden, the NSA, and cell phones.

One [noticeable] change was that, in the comics, Spider-Man was perhaps the third leg in the story. He starts out on Iron Man’s side, but then Peter Parker starts noticing that Iron Man is doing all this sketchy—deonotologists would say immoral or wrong—actions. A lot of them are further analogs to post-9/11 America: the Registration [Act] was just a version of the Patriot Act, legislation which was rushed through the process, trying to shore up security, but missing some subtleties along the way. And Iron Man instituted a prison in an anti-matter dimension to hold un-registered heroes without trial indefinitely, which is clearly Guantanamo Bay in comic-book form. So Peter Parker starts looking at Captain America’s side.

The fascinating thing is not which side Spider-Man ends up on, but that this [struggle] is uniquely personal to him. In the comic books, no one has guarded his secret identity more than Spider-Man has. Because he’s got all people who are important to him, Aunt May and Mary Jane Watson, he feels this conflict between liberty and security more personally than either Captain America or Iron Man do. Spider-Man is, then, the person on the ground through which the reader sees a conflict between [ethical principles] going on. Unfortunately, since Spider-Man’s put in late in the game, and because he doesn’t play a really important role in the storyline, you kind of miss this point-of-view aspect in the movie.

A salient theme of the movie is a deep concern for the far-reaching consequences of collateral damage, even when heroes are trying to save people. What does it say about America in 2016 that superhero movies are expressing some compassion for the civilians caught in the crossfire? Usually in these films, exploding buildings and screaming crowds are just throwaway shots; that isn’t the case here.

This was also a theme this summer in Batman v Superman,which started with Bruce Wayne visiting the climactic battle at the end of Man of Steel, where Metropolis is basically laid to waste. I don’t want to speculate, but there’s obviously controversies such as police actions, especially in racially tense situations and the growing awareness of the impact of drone warfare on innocent civilians that resonate in these scenes. There is this greater awareness that, just as the destructive capabilities of our enemies have increased, the destructive capabilities of our response has as well, and we’re not necessarily using that responsibly, whether that’s domestically or internationally. That may be part of it.

You reminded me that the Civil War series isn’t the only one to pit heroes versus heroes this summer—not only in Batman v Supermanand Captain America: Civil War, but also in X-Men: Apocalypse. Why do you think these stories of heroes versus heroes have hit the zeitgeist now? Is that coincidence?

Well, if you read comics long enough, there are so many coincidences between what the big two companies do. I’m very hesitant to attribute to them zeitgeist or something in the air.

[The hero-versus-hero storyline] has been going on ever since the Thing started fighting the Hulk back in the ’60s, but it seems to be happening more and more in the comic books these days. One theory why is that the traditional costumed super villain just looks ridiculous now: In the old days, villains would rob banks, but superheroes have real-world threats to deal with these days, like Iron Man fighting rogue states. So when [comic houses] want to have superheroes fight someone who’s challenging, who do they fight? The heroes.

I think it’s lazy, personally, except in the case of something like Civil War, where they’re really fighting for good reasons. Iron Man, Captain America—both have good causes [undergirding] their fights. The problem is these causes, which are both important, have to be balanced somehow. If heroes are going to fight, I’d rather have them be for ideals.

Civil War almost seems to invite its viewers to read into its take on contemporary events. Is there a point at which we should be cautious or critical about blockbusters’ attempts to parallel the present day?

Let me say, instead, why I think it’s good. I think that’s good because [these movies] make you think about the issues in a context that’s somewhat separated from the real world. Any good fiction, any good art, is going to give us different ways to think about life, and that’s what these movies do. It’s not that they parallel or accurately represent real-life situations: They construct a world in which something’s going on that has some analogy to what’s going in the real world. Then we use these movies to think about how we deal with these [issues] in the real world. That’s really what my [Civil War] book is about, trying to draw out the different approaches, the different schools of moral philosophy, that lead the characters to do what they do.

People obviously shouldn’t take [these films] too literally or directly. But I don’t think there’s much danger of that. I think the greater danger is that people won’t take it seriously enough.

Team Captain America or Team Iron Man?

I’m neither. The whole point of my book is that both [Captain America and Iron Man] have good arguments behind them. Instead of fighting, they should be talking about how they can balance their concerns — we can’t have liberty without security, and we can’t have security without liberty. We have to decide how to balance them. That’s what we’re doing in the real world.

One danger the movie poses, actually, is forcing people to pick sides. The point is you’re supposed to realize both ideas are important, and every society has to decide how they’re going to balance them. How far are we going to go in restricting liberties to boost security? Or how far are we going to go in terms of sacrificing some security to grant people their freedoms? Forcing people to pick sides is counter-productive.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.