Movies

Captain American Exceptionalism

Civil War's political divide pits unilateralism vs. multilateralism but still takes a back seat to personal loyalties

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If there's a dividing line between art and entertainment, a good candidate for it is whether there can be competing interpretations—art is open to them while "mere" entertainment isn't. And if that's the case, then despite all the complaints coming from critics grown weary of reviewing them, the best of Marvel Studios' superhero movies certainly qualify as art.

That's no less the case with one of the best-reviewed of the bunch to date, Captain America: Civil War. That said, not all interpretations are created equal. And so we have Amanda Marcotte writing in Salon and doing what Salon writers seem contractually bound to do: burn straw men.

"Steve [Rogers, aka Captain America] suddenly turns from a level-headed liberal to a Ayn Randian libertarian douchebag who throws tantrums because he has to do grown-up stuff like share power instead of make unilateral decisions for other people," Marcotte complains. "It was a betrayal of the character and made the movie less fun than it should have been."

One could chide Marcotte for her limited knowledge of Captain America, who, since the 1970s, has spent nearly as much time going against the U.S. government as working for it.

I've lost count of the number of times he's turned in his shield or even gone so far as to assume a completely new identity. But why resort to comic book esoterica when there's plenty of evidence to contradict Marcotte right up on the movie screen?

Cap's big libertarian moment comes not in Civil War, but in the franchise's previous installment, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It happens early on, when he confronts SHIELD Director Nick Fury about Project Insight, which combines the worst of ubiquitous surveillance and the worst of drone warfare. And that happens when Cap still thinks of SHIELD as the good guys—before he and the audience find out the organization is shot through with villainous HYDRA agents.

If there's a lesson here for a democracy, it's that you can't give Barack Obama unlimited surveillance and assassination power without giving the next Republican that power, too, and that next Republican might be Donald Trump.

But Marcotte characterizes this as Cap being a good liberal and being concerned with privacy and oversight by democratic institutions, as if those institutions are not just as much in question. But Cap's disagreement with Fury goes well beyond that.

"This isn't freedom," Cap tells Fury. "This is fear."

Sure, plenty of liberals are concerned about overreaching surveillance and disdain stoking fear of terrorism for political gain, but then there's Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the liberal California Democrat who never saw a surveillance program that went too far until she found out the CIA was spying on her.

If you want to talk about the politics of Marvel's superhero movies, you need to keep in mind the actual political context in which they're made—not some fairytale version in which liberal Democrats—and democratic institutions and oversight panels—have an unblemished record on civil liberties. This is not The West Wing.

Beides, if there has been a Randian among the Avengers, it has, up until Civil War, been Iron Man. Tony Stark's testimony before a Senate committee in Iron Man 2 and his insistence on keeping control of the armor technology he created could have come out of the mouth of one of Ayn Rand's heroes—if any of Rand's heroes were capable of humor or sarcasm, which they're not. And Stark at that point wasn't out to make "unilateral decisions for other people"; he wanted mostly to make decisions about and for himself.

In any case, seeing Steve Rogers in Civil War as a libertarian is only one possible reading. It's just as easy—easier perhaps—to view the conflict between Rogers and Stark as pitting conservative unilateralism vs. conservative multilateralism.

The main charge leveled at the Avengers in Civil War is they act unilaterally, without regard to national sovereignty, and too often leaving behind collateral damage. That could easily be read as a libertarian critique of neoconservative foreign policy, especially when we learn all the events of Civil War qualify as blowback from the Avengers' actions in Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Against this, a chastised Stark, comes down in favor of multilateralism, even if that means going through a decidedly less-than-ideal mechanism such as the United Nations, which Stark clearly hints can be gamed, anyway.

The ideological divide in Civil War may not be all that large. It may stretch just from neoconservative unilateralism to realist-conservative multilateralism.

With that small an ideological chasm between our heroes, it's no wonder the main conflicts of Captain America: Civil War come down not to political differences but personal ones, with Cap's old pal Bucky Barnes (aka the Winter Soldier) at the center of it all.

Ultimately, the personal is not the political.

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80 responses to “Captain American Exceptionalism

  1. “I’ve lost count of the number of times he’s turned in his shield or even gone so far as to assume a completely new identity. But why resort to comic book esoterica when there’s plenty of evidence to contradict Marcotte right up on the movie screen?”

    Sure, but the reason he assumed a new identity was because he was pissed off with Richard Nixon. That was okay because Nixon was evil. The problem is that the new Captain America movie has him expressing skepticism of the righteous progressives at the United Nation and also came out during the noble Obama Administration. The idea that you could imply that these groups are anything other than brilliant fighters for truth and justice is abhorrent.

    1. Too Personal and esoteric;

      ‘ego’ war + collateral damage = bad.

      ‘policy’ war + unintended consquences = good.

      Duh.

  2. Tony Stark: Who said we’re giving up?

    Steve Rogers: We are, for not taking responsibility for our actions. This document just shifts the blame.

    Lieutenant James Rhodes: Sorry, Steve, That. That is dangerously arrogant. This is THE United Nations we’re talking about. It’s not The World Security Council. It’s not SHIELD. It’s not HYDRA.

    Steve Rogers: I know. But it runs by people with agendas and agendas change.

    Tony Stark: THAT’s good. That’s why I’m here. When I realized my weapons were capable of in the wrong hands, I shut it down; stop manufacturing.

    Steve Rogers: Tony. You CHOSE to do that. If we sign this, we surrender our right to CHOOSE. What if this Panel sends us somewhere we don’t think we should go? What if there’s somewhere we need to go and they don’t let us? We may not be perfect but the safest sands are still our own.

    1. Having said that, Cap does act arrogantly. He ends up being right in the end, but that’s because he’s the hero. This is an action movie first and foremost, after all.

    2. We may not be perfect but the safest sands are still our own./i

      FUCKING NATIONALIST!

    3. I had no issue with how Cap behaved. Just saw the movie this morning. Had me feeling my libertarian oats completely. Which is rare from Hollywood.

    4. CORRECTION: Cap’s line is, “…. the safest HANDS…”

    5. Interesting they chose the UN as the villain. A group that won’t even take a strong stand against Islamic terrorism, because the UN itself is no friend of Israel. Cap and Michael Badnarik and Ron Paul are right to be skeptical of the UN.

      1. The UN couldn’t break up a pillow fight between the Olsen twins.

        1. Nor should they.

          Sorry. I encountered 20 year old, blonde, leggy twins a few days ago. Very pro twin for the remainder of the week…hooray twins.

          1. Really? Incest turns you on?

    6. This is THE United Nations we’re talking about. It’s not The World Security Council. It’s not SHIELD. It’s not HYDRA.

      It’s the ruling apparatchiks. They *are* HYDRA. They are the chief menace we face.

  3. I wouldn’t trust Amanda Marcotte’s film criticism any more than I’d trust her ability to judge the truthfulness of rape allegations.

    1. Marcotte’s insistence on how bad Captain America was in this film makes me suspect the movie never happened.

    2. Marcotte’s understanding of Libertarianism is severely lacking.

  4. Sure, plenty of liberals are concerned about overreaching surveillance and disdain stoking fear of terrorism for political gain…

    Plenty, eh? Well, there suddenly will be if Trump gets in.

    1. They were so very concerned from 2001 until the end of 2008. They seem to have forgotten about their fears after that. Not sure why…

    2. Democrats, like Republicans, are best when they are out of power. With Trump in office both will be out of power.

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  6. Everyone wants to believe the good guys are on their side.

    1. Well, if they aren’t on my side, they obviously aren’t good.

  7. Cap’s big libertarian moment comes not in Civil War, but in the franchise’s previous installment, Captain America: The Winter Soldier

    So, like our libertarian moment, done and gone.

    1. But just like Rand Paul, Cap destroyed the domestic drone program.

  8. Liberals care about privacy?

    1. Sure. They care about their privacy. Yours? Not so much.

    2. If dollars aren’t being exchanged and sex isn’t involved, sometimes.

      1. Or when the guy living in the White House has an R after his name.

    3. Liberals care about privacy?

      Only its penumbra. I think that’s the part around the nipple.

  9. Sure, plenty of liberals are concerned about overreaching surveillance and disdain stoking fear of terrorism for political gain, but then there’s Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the liberal California Democrat who never saw a surveillance program that went too far until she found out the CIA was spying on her.

    Principals, not principles. Liberals don’t give a shit about overreaching surveillance in principle. They only care when it affects them.

  10. “If there’s a lesson here for a democracy, it’s that you can’t give Barack Obama unlimited surveillance and assassination power without giving the next Republican that power, too, and that next Republican might be Donald Trump.”

    Am I the only one old enough to remember the previous president and the “unitary executive”? People switched sides of the debate so fast it makes your neck hurt.

    The only lesson here is people are too. damn. stupid. to ever get this fact about power.

    1. The only lesson here is people are too. damn. stupid. to ever get this fact about power.

      Don’t confuse ignorance for apathy or an involuntary condition for a voluntary one.

      1. Or a short memory.

  11. Marcotte is a stupid whore and should stick being a whore instead of pretending to be some deep political philosopher.

    1. Whoring is an old and honorable profession.

      Marcotte is not honorable, she is dumb and vicious.

      1. “Marcotte is not honorable, she is dumb and vicious.”

        Sounds like a future politician!

  12. One could chide Marcotte for her limited knowledge… on anything.

  13. Captain America’s character arc has been a long road to, if not libertarianism, skepticism of authority and distrust of its intentions.

    Avengers 1 – “We have orders. We should follow them.”

    Winter Soldier – Skepticism of SHIELD grows at the beginning, by the end he’s in favor of tearing it down altogether.

    Avengers 2 – Not sure he really “grows” in this movie. But accepts his role as “head” of the Avengers – “let’s go to work.”

    Civil War – rejects the attempt of corruptible political bodies to bring the Avengers to heal. Leaves the scene altogether.

    At what point was he a “good liberal?” Even at the beginning, he was a soldier fighting for general American ideals, not the New Deal.

    1. His best arcs portray him as a martial, traditionalist patriot. Marcotte’s simply retarded.

      1. The great thing about Captain America is that he’s a courageous, unapologetic soldier conservatives can admire, and a courageous, unapologetic defender of (classical) liberal American values that libertarians and reasonable liberals can admire.

        1. You mean he’s a white nationalist cis-gendered shitlord?

          /prog derp

    2. Not sure he really “grows” in this movie.

      Joss Whedon’s too-precious-by-half, teenage-girl dialogue doesn’t help in that regard. No way in hell could he write the screenplays for Winter Soldier and Civil War, which cover more mature themes.

      Even at the beginning, he was a soldier fighting for general American ideals, not the New Deal.

      The scene where Stark tries to appeal to Cap’s emotions with FDR’s Lend-Lease pens really underscores this. Having actually lived through it, not the post-WW2 FDR-slurping that took place by subsequent historians, Cap points out that Lend-Lease was seen as an unofficial act of war and was seen by some as the catalyst for American involvement. Stark never understood that Cap’s worldview was always rooted in pre-1960s assumptions about Americanism, not the relativism/”pragmatism” of the post-60s era that Tony grew up in.

    3. At what point was he a “good liberal?”

      Avengers 1 – When he was the least happy.

      1. that’s from the first Captain America, fyi.

    4. Steve Rogers is in no way a liberal.

  14. Steve [Rogers, aka Captain America] suddenly turns from a level-headed liberal to a Ayn Randian libertarian douchebag who throws tantrums because he has to do grown-up stuff like share power instead of make unilateral decisions for other people,” Marcotte complains.

    Oh for fuck’s sake… I’m glad other people read her horseshit so I don’t have to. If this is representative of her typical “thinking” I doubt I could make through a whole article without putting my fist through the screen. What a stupid cunt.

    1. But liberals want the UN to control everything and suspects like Bucky to be shot on sight and dangerous weapons (like the Avengers) to only be controlled by the government.

    2. Yeah the self-projection game of this douchette is stroooooong!

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  17. Marcotte characterizes this as Cap being a good liberal and being concerned with privacy and oversight by democratic institutions

    Marcotte is proven wrong then by Civil War. Cap comes out strongly against putting the Avengers under UN control.

    Of course, the UN isn’t exactly a democratic institution, since none of its members are elected.

    1. Is there a lot in this movie about Trannies using the bathroom?

  18. Captain America wouldn’t have to be libertarian at all to get a Salon writer to see him as such, since they don’t know jack shit about libertarians. To them, people who want to make any decisions for themselves rather than let Top. Men. do it are horrible evil libertarians.

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  19. I only saw the first iron man movie and never read comics so I feel like a minority who is being kept out of the discussion since I have no clue what is happening in the comic book world. Thats a triggering micro aggression proving reason is racist

  20. I got into it with some moron on the AVClub’s comment board for that site’s review of the film, which similarly suggested Cap flip-flopped his worldview in-between films. I stated the review was wrong because Cap’s general position has pretty consistently been to err on the side of freedom, which means there may be collateral damage sometimes.

    Note that both the review and I agreed about Cap’s viewpoint on the potential for civilian casualties, but then some left-wing loon replied that I was wrong because he believed I was suggesting that Captain America would support the real-life War on Terror. When I pointed out Captain America’s own dialogue showing he believed in helping people be free, this guy said that there’s no way Cap would be suckered into an undefined war in the name of freedom. But no one was arguing he would be. To this guy, because the U.S. had used buzzwords such as ‘war on terror’ and ‘freedom’ to promote a conflict he didn’t like, suddenly anyone using those words even in a general context must support that conflict.

    Like a typical leftist, he believed that the only solution to a problem was his own, and to suggest otherwise, or simply to explore the fact that there may be opposing points of view, was morally repugnant to him.

    1. You ARE morally repugnant to him, Vader! He finds your preference for personal freedom and willingness to speak out against his groupthink a social atrocity of the first order!

    2. What’s interesting is how much people care that a fictional character is on their side.

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  22. If you want to apply a political philosophy to Captain America, it’s pretty easy: authoritarian. Throughout the five movies he’s been in, he’s been moving from taking orders to giving them, and ignoring and blatantly violating orders he doesn’t like. By Age of Ultron you see his most emotional moments are when someone does things against his orders.

    In this movie? He really, *really* hates the idea that anyone would have the audacity to tell him what to do or what not to do. He’s very comfortable in the “I’m right, and so laws don’t apply” headspace. All those talks about how the Avengers are vigilantes? That’s MCU Captain America to a tee. He took apart the only organization that could/would give him the authority to do what he does, and then continued to violate international laws, ignore national borders, hop skip and jump over questions of jurisdiction and so-on.

    Quite simply, MCU Captain America only respects his own authority, and thinks everyone else should be comfortable with him having no accountability to anyone (accountability to the man in the mirror isn’t accountability).

    So yeah, as far as you can apply political ideologies to him, I’d say he’s an authoritarian, but only so long as he’s on top.

    Of course, the writers encourage this behavior because every time he goes off on his own, he’s always proven *right*. And when you’re always *right*, regardless of the laws/rules/orders/lives you break, why *shouldn’t* you believe that you continue to do so?

    1. Not following orders that contradict one’s principles is not authoritarian. Neither is proceeding down a path led by your moral and ethical philosophy. Authoritarianism requires the subjugation of others. How is following your own principles in how YOU act in any way subjugating others?? It isn’t. Only governments, villains and stark try to forcefully get people to comply with his wishes. Not Cap. I’m assuming you are either going full Troll or my sarcasm meter is in bad need of calibration

      1. Cap unilaterally decided to dismantle SHIELD. This has far-reaching consequences for the rest of the world that they are forced to go along with.

        Cap apparently (off screen) reformed the Avengers to ignore internal borders to pursue his hobby (fighting Nazis), establishing the precedent that “because I’m a good guy” makes international crimes okay. He repeatedly forces the rest of the world to go along with his choices. And based on Stark not being at the center of the world’s biggest “Negligent Homicide” trial at the start of Civil War, apparently no one was held accountable for their parts in anything.

        Cap inserts himself into a police operation because he has a crush on the suspect, and then unilaterally decides that he’s the only one that should be investigating the international criminal and assassin. As he accumulates more information that casts doubt on the original crime, he tells… no one. He has time to call in reinforcements from half the world away, but can’t send a text to Romanoff to “check out that psychologist, he had some trigger words that gave him control over Bucky”.

        So yeah, he forces people to go along with his decisions, his deadly consequences, and accept that the rule of law has no sway over him.

        I don’t actually care if you call it authoritarian, but make no mistake: Cap certainly *does* “forecfully get people to comply with his wishes”.

    2. He really, *really* hates the idea that anyone would have the audacity to tell him what to do or what not to do.

      Sounds libertarian, not authoritarian.

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  27. Loved this article. When I first heard about Civil War I thought Stark would be on the anti-government/registration side and Captain on the other side, given comments made by Captain in the earlier films and Stark’s stand at the Committee hearing in Iron Man. The flip was interesting, but I enjoyed it. Captain America should always represent the values of freedom, which are always opposed to government. Also worth mentioned is the “all-knowing” and “logical” character Vision takes the side of government. To me, this was the biggest slap in the face to any libertarian view: that the government being big is logical. Marcotte ignores this part and instead focused on a know-nothing liberal critique of Captain America’s perspective. To me, Vision’s views on the issue in the movie is downright propaganda and makes for a larger endorsement of government than any endorsement of anti-government made in the film by Captain or otherwise. Vision is suppose to be smarter, more logical and more advantaged than the rest… and he endorses government.

    1. Also worth mentioned is the “all-knowing” and “logical” character Vision takes the side of government. To me, this was the biggest slap in the face to any libertarian view: that the government being big is logical.

      Actually, that’s *good*. The logical machine which takes control for “our good” is a standard villain.

      People hate rationality. Logic. Reality. Putting The Logical One on the side of Government makes government the bad guy.

  28. Progressive pissed off at Captain America. Why am I not surprised?

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