Posted May 10, 2016. Updated Tuesday afternoon, May 11.
Which side are they on? Team Cap.
Ok. Now on to the important stuff. Captain America: Civil War.
Seems there are people who think Cap is on the wrong side on this one. They're not wrong exactly. Trouble is there isn't a right side.
It’s odd to me that anyone would think the right side is the side that has Thunderbolt Ross as its spokesman, but I think their point is that the Avengers should answer to a democratically elected civilian authority. This is more than just a matter of keeping a group of superpowered vigilantes in check. It’s a way of making them responsible to the people they’ve dedicated themselves to protecting, that is, the People. It lets the People decide when and how they should be protected and gives them the power to protect themselves from their “protectors.” A good democrat (and Democrat) like Cap shouldn’t have a problem with that.
And in principle, he doesn’t.
But Cap is a product of a different time. The civilian authority he answered to during World War II was Franklin Roosevelt’s. We don’t know who’s the President in the MCU. It may be Barack Obama or someone very like him. (Update: See note below.) You have to wonder, though, and worry about the kind of president who’d make Thunderbolt Ross Secretary of State. Doesn’t matter who the president is, however; he or she would always feel like a mere stand-in to Cap. In his heart and even still in his head, Franklin Roosevelt is his president and he’s loyal to FDR. And he didn’t enlist to fight for the United States government anyway. He enlisted to fight on behalf of everyone everywhere being “bullied” by the Nazis.
“Do you want to kill Nazis?”
“I don’t want to kill anyone. I don’t like bullies.”
That answer’s what convinces Dr Erskine he’s found his super soldier.
But our Captain America-to-be adds something telling to his declaration about bullies.
“I don’t care where they’re from.”
In submitting to the authority of the United Nations, he’d have to care where the bullies are from. The UN would be telling him which bullies he officially disliked and, it follows, which bullies he was to ignore or even treat as fellow good guys.
Then there’s the promise he made to Erskine who asked him the night before he took the serum and became Captain America, which was also the night before Erskine dies:
“Whatever happens tomorrow you must promise me one thing. That you will stay who you are. Not a perfect soldier, but a good man.”
Cap recognizes at once that if he accepts the UN’s terms he becomes a member of a peacekeeping force---in other words, a soldier.
Worse. It’s clear from what Ross says about the missing Thor and Bruce Banner, the UN regards the Avengers as weapons.
On top of this, Cap has recently finished working for a government agency. S.H.I.E.L.D. And look how well that turned out.
Now, it’s likely he only signed up with S.H.I.E.L.D because he had no one but Nick Fury to turn when he woke up from his 70 year nap and he needed a job and somewhere to start in getting used to life in the 21st Century, but he was almost certainly drawn to SHIELD because it was founded by Howard Stark, General Philips, and, of course, Peggy Carter. So he wouldn’t have regarded himself as a typical government agent. In his view, he’d have been continuing to do the work for them he’d done during the war.
What this all amounts to is that in his heart Cap has always been answering to his own conscience and principles and subjecting himself to the guidance, counsel, and approval of FDR, Erskine, Stark, Phillips, and Peggy, and Nick Fury.
He’d see signing up with the UN as something of a betrayal of himself and all of them.
Still, he knows he messed up in Nigeria. (I’d have written fucked up, but...language.) He feels guilty for the deaths he takes responsibility for causing and there’s a part of him that doesn’t think it should be his responsibility to take. I mean, he doesn’t think it should have been up to him to decide Wanda was ready to be in the field. This isn’t because he doesn’t want the responsibility of command. It’s because he doesn’t trust himself anymore.
This was one of the themes of Avengers: Age of Ultron. Cap’s growing self-doubt.
Self-doubt bordering on self-loathing.
So he’s torn between following his conscience, even though he’s filled with self-doubt, and answering to the will of the People through their elected representatives, even though he has good reason to suspect those representatives might not think they have to answer to the people who elected them.
Neither choice feels right.
That's Cap's dilemma. He doesn't know what to do. When it gets down to it he can only do the one thing he knows is right.
Try to save his friend.
The other Avengers who join him are doing the same, they're trying to save their friend Cap.
But that's what Nat is doing by siding with Tony, trying to save Cap from himself.
Meanwhile, Tony isn't on the right side either. There is no truly right side for him. If putting Iron Man at the disposal of the government is a matter of principle with him, it’s a new principle. This is the guy who boasted he’d privatized world peace and built Ultron because he decided on his own that it was up to him alone to save the planet. An unexplored irony in Civil War is that it’s Tony not the other Avengers who needs to be reined in, and it’s nice of Cap that he doesn’t bring this up. But even if Tony really has come to believe that about himself, when it gets down to it, he’s not really on the side of the government. He's on the side of assuaging his guilt. Which puts him, as usual, on the side of his own ego and vanity. To his credit, he seems to realize this, and it makes him almost as torn about what’s right as Cap.
His determination to get Cap to join him, though, is really a determination to get the better of Cap for once.
Again, and as always, vanity and ego. Tony’s fatal flaws.
That’s another theme. Tony’s and Cap’s fatal flaws mirror each other’s. Tony’s is his ego. Cap’s, his self-doubt.
Of the other members of Tony's team, only Rhodey is on the side he knows to be right...for him. Cap, Sam, and Rhoadie are the three soldiers. But Cap is a citizen-soldier. Sam is a disillusioned veteran of Iraq. Rhodey's the professional. Subordinating his judgment to that of civilian authority and following orders is right for him. He's being what he is, a good soldier.
Spidey is on the side of his idol, Tony, whom he assumes must be in the right, but what does he know? He's just a kid.
Vision is along to save everybody from themselves, especially Scarlet Witch. And of course Black Panther just wants revenge.
So what you have is a situation in which nobody's truly in the right and nobody is completely in the wrong.
This is what caused the breaking of the Round Table. (With luck, we're going to get some of that in Star Wars Episode VII.)
In short, what we're presented with in Civil War is the stuff of tragedy.
The makings of the tragedy have been in the Avengers movies since the beginning of the series when Tony announced “I am Iron Man” and declared himself a superhero before he’d proven himself in fact a real hero.
Presidential update: Ken and Oliver Mannion have pointed out that we do in fact know who the President is in the MCU and I should have remembered. He's an important character in Iron Man 3. I completely forgot one of the best scenes in that movie! His name's President Ellis and he's played by William Sadler, one of my favorite character actors. He's also a recurring character on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. but I don't watch the show which I know is supposed to take place in the same universe as the movies but so far that's been irrelevant to understanding and enjoying the movies.
Update to the update: Longtime blog pal and Mannionville's resident comic book librarian and archivist also reminded me about President Ellis. Gary also corrected me on the spelling of Rhodey.
Previously on this blog: