By: Dustin Cranford, Doctoral Candidate at the University of Maryland, College Park
Featured Image: Screen shot from Captain America: Civil War.1
The central theme of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) 2016 film, Captain America: Civil War, is the conflict between individual freedom and collective accountability. The opening scenes of the movie depict the Avengers on a mission to stop a group of international terrorists led by former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent (and HYDRA infiltrator), Brock Rumlow/Crossbones (Frank Grillo), from stealing biological weapons in Lagos, Nigeria. During the ensuing melee, a misdirected explosion inadvertently results in the deaths of several civilians, leading to international outcry. In response, the United Nations drafts the Sokovia Accords, a resolution that would officially place the Avengers under the direct supervision of a UN panel, thereby attempting to bring accountability to the destructive potential of their heroic efforts. The Avengers are immediately divided in their response to the Sokovia Accords. On the one side, many of the Avengers, led by Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), reject the imposition to sacrifice their freedom of action in what started as a private initiative. The other side, led by Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), is motivated by a sense of responsibility and duty, which had indeed spurred many of the heroes to action in the first place. This disagreement eventually escalates into open conflict, leading to the apparent dissolution of the Avengers.2
Much like the Avengers themselves, the subject matter of Civil War has also split fans of the MCU down the middle, begging the question: “Who was right? Captain America or Iron Man?” As I argue, Rogers’ stalwart defense of individual freedom and choice is an attractive notion but is ultimately untenable in the long run. In short, Captain America is wrong. Personal choice, freedom, and autonomy are all fundamental necessities for individuals in any society. Indeed, they are basic human rights. But within any community or society, individual freedoms cannot eclipse the collective responsibility shared among members of that community. When one person’s freedom of choice comes at the expense of another person’s autonomy, then true freedom and equality cease to exist. The issue is far from simple, however, and so it is necessary first to analyze the arguments of each side in detail in order to understand the complexities of the dilemma fully. Following this, I draw comparisons to the Greek tragedy, Antigone, to underscore further the potential socio-political implications of holding individual freedoms over collective stability.
Steve Rogers emerges as the de facto leader for the opposition against the Sokovia Accords, arguing that they fail as a provision for accountability and only “shifts the blame.”3 Furthermore, in signing the Accords, the Avengers would lose their autonomy, the right to choose where they could be sent and what they could do. To Rogers, autonomy is necessary for accountability, and sacrificing autonomy to a higher authority would simply defer accountability upward. From the very beginning of his time as Captain America during World War II, it was his unwillingness to surrender individual choice and moral conviction that led Rogers to defy orders and mount a rescue of POWs in Austria, among them his friend, Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan).4 In the present day, when Barnes reemerged as the brainwashed Winter Soldier, Rogers’ moral conviction moved him once again to defy orders and save his friend.
Opposite Rogers and his compatriots, Tony Stark took the de jure lead of the remaining Avengers who did sign the Sokovia Accords. Arguing for the necessity of the Accords, Stark points out that civilian casualties are a frequent consequence of the Avengers’ battles, citing the destruction of Sokovia itself as an example.5 He goes on to argue that the notions of accountability and restraint are actually synonymous with the values the Avengers fight to defend. As Stark says, “We need to be put in check! Whatever form that takes, I’m game. If we can’t accept limitations, if we’re boundary-less, we’re no better than the bad guys.”6 Just as with Rogers, Stark’s argument in favor of accountability is nothing new for his character, despite his own characteristic egotism. In fact, it was a burgeoning sense of responsibility that motivated Stark to shut down weapons manufacturing within his company almost a decade earlier.7 Confronting the consequences of his actions remained a consistent theme throughout Stark’s tenure as Iron Man.8
The true complexity of Civil War’s debate between individualism and accountability is the fact that neither argument is without merit, nor free of fault. In the spirit of a true Greek tragedy, the conflict is essentially one of “right versus right.”9 Steve Rogers/Captain America stands as a champion of freedom and a bulwark against oppression. The story of Tony Stark/Iron Man, on the other hand, is one of redemption and the ability of a powerful individual to restrain their full potential voluntarily in obligation to the greater good. It is true, as Rogers states, that corrupt institutions had often enabled many of the MCU’s antagonists, but he forgets that those same antagonists were almost always powerful individuals who acted without restraint in pursuit of their ambition.10 This is the crux of the issue in Civil War that Steve Rogers fails to acknowledge. When powerful individuals, even heroes, act without restraint, then the limits to their actions are only determined by their own personal inclinations or coercive force. If the inclinations of those heroes were to become contrary to the general will of humanity, there would be nothing to stop them.
We see a similar dilemma play out in Sophocles’ tragic play, Antigone, written around 441 BCE. Set in the ancient Greek city of Thebes, two brothers and co-kings, Eteocles and Polynices, kill each other after fighting on opposite sides of a civil war, which forces their uncle, Creon, to take the throne as the sole remaining male heir. In an effort to promote unity in the fragile state, Creon grants an honorable burial to Eteocles, who remained loyal to Thebes, but decrees that the rebellious Polynices was to be left unburied as a warning to other potential insurgents. Their sister, the eponymous Antigone, defies Creon, however, believing that the desecration of Polynices’ corpse is an affront to divine law and tradition; that is, morality. When Creon condemns Antigone to death for breaking the law and burying Polynices, his wife and son are so devastated with grief that they commit suicide.13 Because of the play’s emphasis on filial piety and its critique of authoritarian government, many modern, western audiences sympathize with the individualistic, stubborn resilience of Antigone, and for understandable reasons. Creon’s draconian inflexibility is downright tyrannical.14 What is often overlooked, however, was that Thebes stood in ruins after the civil war, and Creon (for all his faults) was attempting to keep the fragile city from falling into further disarray. By defying Creon’s law, Antigone knowingly endangered the lives of her fellow citizens in the name of her individual view of morality.15
Thus, it is not necessarily the civil strife between the two brothers that parallels the dilemma in Captain America: Civil War, but rather the principles addressed in the conflict between Creon and Antigone. Like Stark, Creon’s insistence on obedience to the law is motivated by a desire for the collective good.16 In the spirit of Rogers, however, Antigone retorts that every person has an obligation to do what they know to be right and moral, even in defiance of a government.17 Similarly, both sides of the argument couch their positions in the name of the greater good, but their refusal to compromise in the defense of their beliefs results in the suffering of everyone around them.18 We may sympathize with the intractable defense of what is morally right, but this is precisely what makes Rogers’ stance dangerous.18 Much like Antigone, Rogers’ defiance of the Sokovia Accords endangers the lives of innocent people and threatens to tear the Avengers apart.
Aristotle famously stated that mankind is by nature a political animal.20 By “political” (politikon), Aristotle was not necessarily saying that humans are inherently inclined toward government, but rather that we are naturally designed to live in communities. Now, to be sure, the existence of a community does not erase personal freedoms; in fact, they become even more important.21 Communities are formed by individuals pledging to uphold each other’s fundamental rights. This is one of the central components to Rousseau’s discussion of liberty in the “social contract,” where people do lose the “unlimited right” to do whatever they want without restraint, but in exchange gain the assurance that fundamental, inalienable rights will be respected.22 The existence of a society requires the voluntary collective agreement among its members to adhere to the laws they create.23 Consistent, unrepentant defiance of the law undermines the bonds of unity in society, potentially to the point of dissolution.24 And yet, in any society, individual freedom and norms of morality must be preserved. The question, then, is one of balance.25
The problems addressed in Captain America: Civil War have no simple solution. On one hand, Tony Stark’s defense of the Sokovia Accords is not above reproach. Governments and law are as imperfect and prone to corruption as the humans who create them. On the other hand, Rogers’ defiance of the Sokovia Accords constitutes a betrayal of his own principles. This is because laws are created to promote equality between all members of a society.27 When laws are willfully disregarded on a whim, that equality disappears and allows coercive force to become the determinant factor in the extent of personal freedoms.28 In refusing to accept restraint over his actions, Rogers threatens to become no different than the villains he fought as Captain America. In the end, the best possible answer to the dilemma in Civil War is stated by Vision, in his arrival to the battle between the Avengers at a German airport: “Captain Rogers. I know you believe what you’re doing is right. But for the collective good you must surrender now.”29
Dustin Cranford received his BA’s in History and Classics and MA in History from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He is currently a doctoral candidate in the History Department at the University of Maryland, College Park. Dustin focuses on ancient political thought, legitimacy theory, and law, especially in the context of the crises of the Late Roman Republic. His dissertation, “Seeds of Discord,” examines the use of extraordinary commands and their effect on the institutional stability of the Roman Republic. His pop culture interests include all things fantasy and science fiction, especially Marvel Comics and the MCU, as well as various aspects of the horror genre.
- Captain America: Civil War, directed by Anthony Russo, Joe Russo (Marvel Studios, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2016)
- Tony Stark: “The Avengers broke up. We’re toast.” Captain America: Civil War, directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo (Marvel Studios, Walt Disney Studios, 2016). It must also be noted that the subject matter of this article is concerned solely with the MCU production of Civil War and not the events depicted in the Marvel Comics crossover event of the same name, which follows a substantially different plot. See Mark Millar, Steve McNiven, Dexter Vines, Mark Morales, John Dell, Tim Townsend, Morry Hollowell, and Chris Eliopoulos, Civil War: A Marvel Comics Presentation (New York, NY: Marvel Publications, 2007).
- Captain America: Civil War, 30:18-20.
- Captain America: The First Avenger, directed by Joe Johnston (Marvel Studios, Paramount Pictures, 2011; Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2013).
- Avengers: Age of Ultron, directed by Joss Whedon (Marvel Studios, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2015).
- Captain America: Civil War, 30:09-17.
- Captain America: Civil War, 30:36-39; Iron Man, directed by Jon Favreau (Marvel Studios, Paramount Pictures, 2008; Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2013).
- Iron Man 2, directed by Jon Favreau (Marvel Studios, Paramount Pictures, 2010; Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2013); Iron Man 3, directed by Shane Black (Marvel Studios, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2013).
- Sophocles, Theban Plays, trans. Peter Meineck and Paul Woodruff (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2003), xxii.
- Captain America: Civil War, 30:41-45.
- Tiepello, Giovanni. Eteocles and Polynices. 1725-1730. Oil on canvas. 383 x 182 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
- Captain America: Civil War
- See the translation of Antigone in Sophocles, Theban Plays, 1-60.
- Philip Holt, “Polis and Tragedy in the Antigone,” Mnemosyne 52, 6 (1999): 658-659; Paul R. DeHart “The Dangerous Life: Natural Justice and the Rightful Subversion of the State,” Polity 38, no. 3 (2006): 383-384, 390-393; Bonnie Honig, “Antigone’s Laments, Creon’s Grief: Mourning, Membership, and the Politics of Exception,” Political Theory 37, 1 (2009): 5.
- Sophocles, Antigone, 135-178; Holt, “Polis and Tragedy in the Antigone,” 667-668.
- Sophocles, Antigone, 525-540.
- Sophocles, Antigone,358-374, 394-402.
- Rosanna Lauriola, “Wisdom and Foolishness: A Further Point in the Interpretation of Sophocles’ Antigone,” Hermes 4 (2007): 390.
- Steve Rogers: “Stark tell you anything else?” Peter Parker: “That you’re wrong. You think you’re right. That makes you dangerous.” Steve Rogers: “Guess he had a point.” Captain America: Civil War, directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, 1:37:14-27.
- Aristotle, Politics,1.1253a.
- Benjamin Straumann, Crisis and Constitutionalism: Roman Political Thought from the Fall of the Republic to the Age of Revolution (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2016), 8.
- Jean-Jacques Rousseau, On the Social Contract, trans. G. D. H. Cole (Mineola, New York: Dover Publications Inc., 2003), 12-13; Straumann, Crisis and Constitutionalism, 17. See also Andrew Lintott, “Aristotle and Democracy,” The Classical Quarterly 42, 1 (1992): 123; Aristotle, Politics, 6.1318b.38-40.
- Indeed, this is an essential component of constitutional thought. Straumann Crisis and Constitutionalism, 32.
- N. W. Barber, The Constitutional State (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 71-72.
- Andreas Hess, “From Antigone to Martin Luther King: Moral Reasoning and Disobedience in Context,” in Between Utopia and Realism: The Political Thought of Judith Shklar, ed. Samantha Ashenden and Andrea Hess (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019), 221-222.
- Captain America: Civil War
- Lintott, “Aristotle and Democracy,” 117.
- Straumann, Crisis and Constitutionalism, 31.
- Captain America: Civil War, 1:34:23-33.