Captain America

The Superhuman Registration Action was the main bill passed by the US Congress that caused the Marvel Civil War in the comic books. We here at The NYRD loved every minute of that comic crossover, and some of our best debates are still over whether or not registering super humans with the government is a good or bad idea. So with the arrival of Captain America: Civil War this weekend in theaters we thought now would be a good time to get together as a staff and lay out the arguments for this fictional government mandate in our two-part series. And remember to make sure to join the debate in the comments below and let us know where you stand, with Captain America or with Iron Man.

Registration Lists
The Superhuman Registration Act forces any super human to reveal their identity to the government, even if they are not openly working as a hero or villain. That means if you are just some individual with a job, a house, and a car payment -but you happen to glow in the dark- you still need to register your name with the United States government. People want to make the argument that forcing super powered individuals to surrender their identity is equivilant to registering handguns and firearms, but there is a difference. Owning a weapon a is choice, being born a weapon or accidentally being turned into one by the bite of a radioactive iguana is not. Creating a database of super humans is not a database of weapons but a database of individuals who will find themselves on a government watch-list, many of whom who have committed no crime or done anything other than exist.

Similarly, the argument could be made that there are many instances where individual citizens relinquish their rights for the betterment of the society as a whole, but those usually refer to criminals and terrorists. Monitoring and jailing super humans just for being super human or for refusing to have their name on a watch list should not be considered a criminal act. Terrorists and criminals made choices that led them to relinquish their rights, but -for the most part- anyone with super powers did not. You could make an allusion to mental patients being forced into hospitals for their own good, but even with that metaphor patients go into hospitals with the hope of getting better. Super humans have no such cure for being what they are, thus a registration act is a permanent jail sentence or a permanent life on a government list, always being forced to carry a special ID that marks them as different.

Superhero Arms Race
It would be too easy to make allusions to Nazis and other governments that have singled out a small minority for government-sanctioned exclusion or monitoring, so instead it might be better to address the issue as it affect heroes. These are the people who choose to put on a mask or cape and try to make the world a better place, and are suddenly told that they cannot continue in that line of work unless they reveal their identities to the government. Putting aside that in the Marvel Universe the government is regularly infiltrated by Hydra, Norman Osborn, and other villains, trusting them with the secret identities of heroes means creating a list of names and leverage that could be easily exploited by even your averagely corrupt politician.

Even more worrying, cosigning superheroes to government-backed worked -even domestically- leads to several other problems. How far is that from giving the government a cache of super weapons. After all, The United States Government spent years and billions of dollars trying to recreate the super soldier program that created Captain America. So what happens when they have a ready list of super humans on their payroll? Why would they not feel tempted to use those heroes and the leverage they have over them to turn them into soldiers on foreign soil instead of just peacekeepers on America soil? Someone once said, “with great power comes great responsibility,” but it is one thing to have an individual hero carry the responsibility of his own powers. What happens when a President or a Congress get a hold of hundreds of super powered agents to use as they see fit?

Just as important, being a superhero means doing what is right. It means making tough decisions that may not always be politically savvy. Yet, under government control heroes will find themselves making decisions based upon the instructions and desires of those in power. If you start tying the hands of heroes with politics and bureaucracy, than it will be harder for them to make the tough calls they may have to make. After all, the government is not perfect. In fact, a lot of heroes get into the game because of the negligence or corruption found in local police forces. In the comics, people like Daredevil or the Falcon started their careers in order to protect their low income and minority neighborhoods, the kind of places that governments generally ignored or exploited. Yet, as government-sanctioned agents would they be allowed to continue protecting people from the corruption and ineptitude of the system they are now a part of?

What is Superhuman?
Another problem with creating definitions about people is that they are sometimes incomplete. After all, what do we consider superhuman? Are heroes like Hawkeye or Black Widow super powered or just skilled? What about Tony Stark, who has no innate powers. Maybe his power is that he is a brilliant engineer, capable of creating a mechanized suit that can do incredible things. Does that mean he is super human or not? Does he register based solely upon his Iron Man suits or upon his intellect, because if the latter is the case than we need to start giving IQ tests to everyone in America. If your IQ is above a certain amount than congratulations, you might have a super power, and you will need to register with the government and carry a special ID card. What about if you are an Olympic level runner or jumper? Suddenly, achieving mastery of a certain skill or quality might qualify you to land on a government watch list.

This has always been a classic problem whenever we try separating “us” from “them.” Where do we draw the line? And often times it is those gray areas where true problems begin. For example, in South Africa, during Apartheid, police officers would put pencils in children’s hair to check if they were “black” or “white.” If the pencil stuck then they were “black,” but if it fell out they were “white.” That meant an entire population of people was oppressed because they failed some arbitrary and ridiculous test. We do not want to make light of that terrible time in South Africa’s history by comparing it to the fictional discrimination against superheroes, but this argument is still worthy as a thought experiment. In fact, this entire scenerio was always meant to have real world equivalents.

The Patriot Act
Tragedy has a way of affecting us all. After 9/11 Congress implemented the Patriot Act, which began limiting the freedoms on all Americans. It led directly to increased airport security, internet surveillance, and even warrant-less wiretaps. These are the kind of things that would have been unfathomable even twenty years ago, but are now so commonplace we do not even recognize them anymore. It is no different with something like a Superhuman Registration Act, especially since super powered individuals are the minority. One of the reasons why the Patriot Act passed into law was because the majority of people collectively went, “It’s not going to affect me. It’s going to affect terrorists.” A superhuman registration would similarly cause the vast majority of Americans to say, “It’s not going to affect me. I’s going to affect super humans.” Yet, if we start oppressing people -any people- simply because of fear, regardless of whether it is because of their skin color or their laser eyes, where does it stop? Where can it stop? Restricting the rights of a “super human” is still restricting the rights of a “human.”

Any violation of the rights of a small and undeserving population is a violation of rights for everyone. Civil liberties are not selective. They cannot apply to one group and not another, or they are not “rights” at all. The real point of this argument is not so much about Captain America or the Marvel Civil War, but as a way to get us to talk about larger issues going on in our country and our world. Superhero Registraion may not actually affect us, but there are plenty of things that do, which we have ignored for far too long. Just remember that if the idea of a fictional government restricting the rights of people like Spider-man or Captain America is not unbelievable, than maybe it is also not unbelieveable that our real government could do it to others, immigrants, minorities, or anyone.

“Genius. Billionaire. Playboy. Philanthropist. ”

That’s Tony Stark in his own words, a man who never shies away from immodesty. With one statement he basically claims that he has hit every mark of modern-day American success. He’s smart, wealthy, has a rock star-like sexual prowess, and is a humanitarian, but is that all he really stands for? With the conclusion of Avengers: Age of Ultron, and the building anticipation of Captain America: Civil War, it seems like as good of a time as any to try and understand who really is the man behind the iron armor.

CEO America?
When people think of a superhero that best represents America, Iron Man is not always at the top of the list, but the truth is that Stark and his alter ego represent aspects of this country as much as anyone else carrying a star-spangled shield. First and foremost, Tony Stark is a capitalist, and there is nothing quite so American as that.

A billionaire industrialist, Anthony Edward Stark and his family made their money from weapons’ manufacturing and technology. Even once Tony made the move away from arms dealing he never lost his company or his wealth. In fact, the first Iron Man debuted in 2008 during the American recession, when over 7% of Americans were out of work and floundering for money. Yet, we cheered on the wealthy Stark all the same, because that first movie is basically a tale about how Tony must make himself worthy of his family’s company and wealth in order to prove that he is more than just a genius trust fund screw-up. It is like a version of the American dream, the self-constructed superhero. At a time when so many of America’s wealthy were practicing immoral acts against the public, it was nice to see a fictional one who was trying to do good. Iron Man was an idealized capitalist, but that has always been a basic fact of the character.

The best comic heroes are icons of something greater. For Tony Stark, his comic came along at a time when the “First World” was struggling against the evils of the “Second World,” the Cold War. Stan Lee designed Iron Man in 1963 to be the “quintessential capitalist.” He was designed to be a businessman and a weapons manufacturer. At the time capitalism was in direct opposition to communism, and Tony came to represent everything that struggle had to offer. Stark fought villains like the Mandarin and the Red Dynamo, using his wealth, and his technology to save the world, but if Captain America is a symbol of American ideals, than Iron Man has become a symbol of America’s pragmatic reality.

Ever since the end of the Cold War, our favorite shellhead has found himself floundering for villains to fight and most of the time he ends up being his own worst enemy, whether through alcoholism or blind ambition. If that sounds familiar, then congratulations you have been paying attention over the last thirty years of global politics. In modern times, Iron Man now represents more than just capitalism. He represents an America that is continually falling toward unfettered security. Of all the Marvel heroes we have seen on the big screen, Tony Stark has been the most dynamic. Captain America is a good guy, Bruce Banner had rage issues, Thor is a god with family problems, but Tony has shown the most growth, and not always for the best.

An Armored Allegory
As stated earlier, Iron Man was about Stark proving his worth. By the beginning of Iron Man 2 Tony was flying high. People loved him like a celebrity, and his enemies hated him like a devil, but most were too powerless to do anything about it. Technologically, he was so far beyond them that none of them could even begin to challenge Iron Man. The CEO of Stark Industries even gave the finger to Congress in a cinematic scene that would have made Ayn Rand stand up and cheer. The movie ended with Stark defeating some personal problems and some soviet sins from his family’s past, but Iron Man was still on top of the world. He was literally the world’s only superpower, like America after the Cold War. Times were good.

The Avengers changed all that. Tony was no longer alone and suddenly he faced a tragedy in New York City that completely shook his world view and his faith in himself. In the end, he saved the day, but he was never quite the same again. Iron Man 3, was about a new Tony Stark who suffered from panic attacks and became so obsessed with security that he built several dozen new Iron Man armors, new security systems, and even automated his suits to protect his home. Yet, when threatened by an enemy carrying out terrorist attacks, he blindly and immediately jumped to a stance of false bravado and strength. He paid the price for it as his technology failed him, and we learned that the terrorist he thought was his enemy was in fact nothing more than smoke and mirrors to hide the real threat presented by a fellow CEO of a powerful corporation that had been pulling the strings on both sides of the war.

In a way, this country has built more suits of armor than anyone else. Since 9/11 The United States has spent nearly 800 billion dollars on homeland security. Our own tragedy in New York has changed us, and given us justification to do as much harm to ourselves as anyone else. Stark has mirrored the American journey from the Cold War to the present almost precisely, the bravado, the fear, the heroism, the celebrity, and the wealth.

However, he is also coming to represent what the future of what America might become, if we keep on our current path. If Tony in Iron Man 3 represented the USA in modern times, than his role in Avengers: Age of Ultron represented what we could be in danger of becoming. Tony creates the Ultron Project to “put a suit of armor around the world.” He shows a favoritism toward security rather than freedom, and unsurprisingly it is an initiative that ends less than stellar for the Avengers and one small European country. This is a trajectory that promised to only increase in captain America: Civil War, where Tony’s fear and pragmatism will directly conflict with the old American idealism of Captain America.

Iron man Chart

Great Iron Men of History
Part of Mr. Stark’s problem is his capitalistic tendencies. We would not go so far as to say that he fits the bill of Ayn Rand’s ideal hero, but he does seem to prescribe to the Great Man Theory of history and culture, where all the world’s history is nothing more than the biographies of great men, one of which is Tony himself. He sees himself as the savior of the world, and that is something we cannot always fault him for. We have watched the struggles of Iron Man for more than five movies, and each step he has taken is incremental and almost understandable considering what he has faced.

America has taken a similar journey, and so often we see it as our duty to be the world’s policeman, but our power is fading and paranoia is starting to take hold. Like Tony Stark we have gone from an invincible technological superpower to a country willing to sacrifice freedom for safety. It is also worth mentioning that at the end of Iron Man 3, Tony literally had his heart removed, the very heart that made him Iron Man in the first place. The symbolism of that is about as heavy-handed as you can get.

Thus, the stage is set for this greater conflict of Civil War, but also for some real-world tensions that have sat at the core of our nation. The issue of this coming conflict will be between more than just two titans of Marvel comics. Is our modern system mutually exclusive to a idealistic belief in total personal freedom and equality? Have we allowed our own fears and ego to drive us to become something we no longer recognize? We are not the villain, but we may need to confront the fact that we may no longer be the hero either, at least not a hero like Steve Rogers.

Captain Idealism and Iron Reality
Calling Captain America an allegory for anything is almost an understatement less subtle than taking a red, white, and blue shield to the face. Yet, what a lot of people do not understand is that Cap is not really a representation of America as a whole, but a representation of an idealized America. He doesn’t represent the government, or the Army, or even democracy. Instead, we should look at Steve Rogers as a walking Bill of Rights: freedom, liberty, and equality.  He is not a cynic, nor is he a satirized symbol. Captain America is genuine, at least as genuine as his own belief that all men are truly created equal, regardless of race, color, religion, or even nationality. It is a trait he demonstrates in both comic and movie form, most notably by dismantling SHIELD when he sees them as having too much power over the ordinary citizen. In Avengers: Age of Ultron, it is Cap that first lends a voice of understanding to the Maximoff twins, even when he still thinks of them as his enemy. He does not revel in war, but understands its necessity.

Civil War will not just be a battle between two friends, but a battle between ideals: order versus freedom, safety versus privacy, and our new American reality versus our most sacred beliefs. Each side will have a point, and if done right each side will not be entirely wrong. If nothing else, we hope it is a movie that will spark debate among audiences, and not a debate about who is stronger physically, but who is right in their judgment.

It will be easy to paint Stark and his arguments as the villains, after all Captain America represents the best of us, the ideal we want to live up to, but should we always live our lives in a world of ideals? Iron Man would probably say that he sees people as they truly are, and he believes he is doing the best he can for the world as it stands, not as he hopes it will be. Is that wrong? There are no easy answers, and we each must struggle with them for ourselves.

Both Stark and Rogers represent different Americas, but the current conflict will be as much about their disagreements as it is about what our country will chose to become. The United States is still a young nation, and its role both domestically and in global politics is always changing. We live in a time of turmoil where technology moves faster than moral progress, we strive between our ideals and our fears. We are a country founded on opposing forces, liberal and conservative, security and liberty, democracy and capitalism. They all pull at each other like an arc reactor fighting to pull shrapnel from a wound, but much like that arc reactor these forces also act at the heart of our nation. They keeps us going and force us to continually confront the future with new and evolving ideas.