Just five years ago, we'd never seen Chris Evans as Captain America. One the eve of the release of the other Cap films, I came here to pen an ode to my favorite superhero. The first was about Cap's incorruptible moral compass, focusing on a pivotal moment from my childhood in "X-Men vs. the Avengers". The second focused on Cap's value in the MCU and especially why Cap 2: Winter Soldier was one of the best films yet.
And now we have "Captain America 3: Civil War". This film is near perfect for so many reasons, and all of them have to do with Cap. But before I go into that (including some mild spoilers-- I'll warn you again before we go into them) I want to talk about what's been happening in the comics.
In my Part II of my ode to Cap, I talked about how in the aftermath of the death of Steve Rogers, Bucky-as-Cap made the Cap comics better than they had been in years (Winter Soldier as an obvious exception). And in the last year, we've seen Steve Rogers de-powered and his best friend Sam Wilson take up the mantle of Captain America.
One of the best things about Captain America is that anyone can be Cap. Except not really. Not at all, in some ways.
It's hard to be Captain America, and most of the others who have worn that cowl will agree-- they spend most of their time asking "What would Steve Rogers do?" and feeling inadequate in the role. But they manage to find a way and blaze their own unique path, making them heroes as much as Steve was.
It's great to see others pick up the shield and star spangled costume and try to do what Steve Rogers does. And try is the operative word. One memorable moment of Cap 2: Winter Soldier is Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) saying "I do what he does, only slower." Watching Cap 3: Civil War you see that Bucky's enhancements have, in many ways, made him even stronger and faster than Cap.
Enhanced or not, what makes Cap who he is comes not just from powers, but from that moral center and the mission of trying to stand up to bullies and fight for what's right, no matter the cost. And now extending the mantle of Cap to a black man says something about the expanding diversity of our comics universe. Just like we now how teenage Muslim Kamala Khan as Ms. Marvel and a teenage Dominican Miles Morales as Spider-Man and Jane Foster as Thor, anyone can be one of our heroes. And Captain America is no different. So next. . . a Latina Captain America? ¡Si, por favor! ¡Andale!
This is what makes Cap so important to me-- is since anyone can be Cap, then maybe this middle-aged overweight nerd can be Captain America, too-- at least in my own way. And the way to do that is through that moral compass. Ask myself "What would Steve Rogers do?" and try to follow that.
And that brings us to Civil War.
In case you can't tell, I'm so #TeamCap that I've been vomiting red, white, and blue in excitement for this movie. And the film delivers in every way.
[Again, minor spoilers hereafter]
The main moral conundrum of Cap 3 centers around the Sokovia Accords-- designed to create accountability for The Avengers by placing them under the control of the UN Security Council.
To understand this argument, let's talk about philosophy and social theory for a little bit.
A group of social and cultural psychologists have come up with a theory of six "Moral Foundations" that explain the differences in our political ideology. These six values help explain a lot of the differences between liberals and conservatives, populists and fascists, collectivists and individualists, etc. For more information on them, see MoralFoundations.org. But these value sets are:
Let's talk about the ethical dilemma of the Sokovia Accords along these lines. Both Tony and Steve care and want to reduce harm equally. Hence, Avenging. Both believe equally in fairness. Sanctity doesn't really come into play here. But where the rubber meets the road are the other three.
At surface level, the argument seems to be about liberty/oppression and authority/subversion. Steve is arguing for liberty. Tony's arguments for "accountability" are really no more than pleas for government control. This is a complete 180 from Iron Man 2, when he told the Senate that military control of Iron Man would be a form of slavery and/or prostitution. What made Tony change his mind? The final moral dimension: loyalty/betrayal.
Speaking of betrayal, pardon me for a moment while I diverge from talking about Captain America to talk about Iron Man. Because we can't truly appreciate the quality of Steve's argument without first understanding Tony's side.
It is unnatural for Tony Stark -- TONY EFFING STARK!!! -- to be arguing for someone else to call his shots. His money funds The Avengers. He was the first modern Avenger, until someone found and unfroze Cap. And in "Age of Ultron", it is the vision inspired by Scarlet Witch's power that sets everything in motion. This vision had all the Avengers dead, and seeing Cap dead and his shield broken especially took a toll on him. Loyalty-- nay, love. Hence his desire to move the Ultron idea forward. And when it caused the terrible damage in Sokovia, he feels that same guilt when he saw militants using Stark-manufactured weapons in the first Iron Man.
Robert Downey Jr's acting here is phenomenal. You can see just how difficult it is to ask for compromise, to bend to sign the accords. But he worries about the care/harm dimension and all the collateral damage and friendly fire that Avenging entails. More than that, he understands he has no play to make. His choices were either sign the accords or see them all become fugitives and criminals.
And when Steve disagrees, he appeals to the one moral dimension most driving him here: loyalty. To Tony, The Avengers is the last family he has. He's just trying to keep the band together.
For Cap, loyalty means something else. Specifically, his loyalty to Bucky. His first friend, his only friend when he was that skinny kid in Brooklyn, Steve will stand by him. He fought his way behind enemy lines to save him from Nazis and Hydra, he'll most certainly make sure he is brought in alive. Cap believes that most fundamental principle of criminal justice: innocent until proven guilty. And he will protect his friend when no one else will.
And this is where the moral dimensions of authority and liberty come into play for Captain America. When asked by Dr. Erskine at the draft board if he wants to go kill some Nazis, he says he doesn't want to kill anyone-- he just doesn't like bullies. It is a quintessentially American trait to be concerned that government authority can be that bully.
Thomas Jefferson, when facing the Alien and Sedition Acts of the late 1700s-- an attempt by his political rivals John Adams and Alexander Hamilton to criminalize dissent against the government (and the Federalist Party)-- called out this egregious overreach of government and called on states to refuse to enforce these unconstitutional laws. [Yes Hamilton fans visa a vis Lin Manuel Miranda-- your hero played on fears of immigrants and tried to quash dissent and started having journalists arrested for printing mean things about John Adams. Just FYI.]
Cap fought the Nazis, a cautionary tale of how a democratically elected government can shift into a genocidal war machine so quickly that is now so cliched that it has its own internet law (Godwin's Law). Cap knows we must be ever vigilant, or else we run that risk, too. (Look how quickly we went from Mitt Romney to Donald Drumpf as the standard-bearer of one of our political parties)
Regardless, the point is that while government's main duty is to protect the liberty of its citizens, sometimes it becomes the tool that oppresses instead. In fact, that was the major lesson of Cap 2: Winter Soldier and Project Insight, wasn't it? These are the same governments who thought it preferable to nuke Manhattan than allow the Avengers to fight the Chitauri. And that's what Cap will fight against.
Cap believes it is ok to subvert authority in order to protect liberty. Tony does not, and thinks we must respect authority, because "accountability" and "oversight" is better in the long run to protect the people of the world.
The question, though, of whether or not The Avengers need oversight and accountability is the most foundational and fundamental question of government. It is the key question of Plato's Republic. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who will guard the Guardians themselves? Or, to bring it back to comics: Who Watches the Watchmen?
In Plato's Republic, Socrates and Plato engage in a thought experiment to try to define what "justice" is. To get at the definition of justice, they "build" a city that is "just" and explain why it embodies justice. Their city ends up being ruled by a class of "Guardians" also known as Philosopher Kings. They spend equal time exercising their bodies and their minds so they may be protectors in word and deed. They are also penniless, so they are not tempted by the corrupting influence of wealth, that they would steer government rather from the protection of justice to the service of commerce and making the ruling class more rich.
So, in Plato's Republic, they come to the question-- who will watch over the Guardians? Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? The answer they come to is that the Guardians have the capacity to guard themselves. Having been educated in philosophy and other learning, they posses all they need to keep from being corrupted.
Steve Rogers is the Socratic ideal of a Philosopher King.
So when the issue comes up of the Sokovia Accords, Steve's answer is that "The best hands are still our own." In that, he is 100% correct. Because, to put it very simply:
And Cap is right. The best Guardians against a Guardian going bad are the Guardians themselves. Besides Steve Rogers, no one else represents the totality of the Socratic ideal of a philosopher king better than T'Challa, The Black Panther.
And T'Challa does his damndest to put Cap in check. Of course, it's worth pointing out that the information T'Challa, Tony, and the rest of Team Iron Man are going off of is incomplete and in many ways false. They were set up. He was vindicated on Bucky's innocence.
And then we have what is at stake in the final battle of Civil War. MAJOR SPOILER AHEAD. DO NOT READ FURTHER IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN THE FILM.
"I know we're not perfect, but the safest hands are still our own."
Cap isn't perfect. And in keeping what he knew about the death of Tony's parents from him in order to protect Bucky amounts to a major betrayal. He messed up. He compartmentalized information just as well as Nick Fury ever did, betraying not only his friend Tony Stark, but the memory of his friend Howard Stark, and his own most personal ideals of honesty.
Unfortunately, he also made the right call. It's obvious Tony couldn't handle that information, as evidenced by his reaction to it. He would lash out at Bucky in grief the same way T'Challa did. It's only human nature.
Again, going back to classic Greek philosophy and Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, you are not morally responsible for actions where you had no choice. James Buchanan "Bucky" Barnes is innocent of these crimes. He did not murder the Starks. His government handlers did.
While Cap can compartmentalize that information, it's still a betrayal, and not one that we should gloss over. Cap's amazing moral compass falters. But that doesn't mean he's wrong on the larger point.
I'd rather have Steve Rogers be wrong one time out of 100 than have Vladimir Putin anywhere near the command structure of The Avengers. Hell, I'd prefer Tony Stark's faltering moral compass being wrong one time out of 50 than that. Team Iron Man was full of mistakes. Vision got distracted and ended up almost killing Rhodey. But I'd still prefer them to the military who decided it was a good idea to turn Emil Blonsky into The Abomination, try to nuke Manhattan, and launch three Insight helicarriers with the ability to kill millions from the air pre-emptively.
"I know we're not perfect, but the safest hands are still our own."
Accountability can take many forms. And being accountable to oneself, one's friends, one's colleagues, to a higher purpose and goal, is far more effective than letting the tendrils of the military-industrial complex anywhere near The Avengers.
To hear me make this case (and some counterarguments by my co-hosts) check out this week's edition of the Bored as Hell movie review podcast and watch for a spoiler-filled throwdown coming soon.