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The Avengers was an authoritarian fantasy. Captain America: Civil War challenges it.

Captain America: Civil War.
Captain America: Civil War.
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Spoilers: This article discusses the plot of Captain America: Civil War.

It's impossible to watch Captain America: Civil War and root for Tony Stark/Iron Man.

Steve Rogers/Captain America knows who the real bad guy is, knows that Bucky Barnes didn't bomb the United Nations, and is completely right when it comes to the failings of government bureaucracy — that in this case, superheroes' calls are the best ones. Meanwhile, Tony — even with his billions of dollars, his cutting-edge technology, and his high-powered friends — can't see the problems staring him in the face.

It's common for superhero stories to portray government as useless; in a world where certain individuals can control the weather or transform into megaton hulks, the National Guard is rendered moot. When telepaths put people to sleep with a thought, you don't need cops. And when you have icemen and aqualads, the fire department becomes a bit redundant.

But there's a fascinating extra layer to Civil War that paints the government as not just faulty but suspicious too. Specifically, it asks: What happens when you can't trust the government?

Superhero movies have been attempts to confront 9/11

My colleague Todd VanDerWerff has posited that superhero films and franchises like The Avengers, Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, Superman Returns, and even Spider-Man have allowed filmmakers to rewrite the 9/11 terrorist attacks, mainly by imagining gigantic disasters and having superheroes show up to avert the crisis.

In 2012's The Avengers, a giant hole opens up in the sky, raining alien destruction onto the skyscrapers above. Our heroes, the Avengers, protect the world below. VanDerWerff wrote:

There's no real reason for the scene to be structured and shot this way, beyond the idea of aliens coming from above. Indeed, most pre-9/11 superhero films featured more earthbound supervillain plots. But it is structured and shot this way. Even though this is a cosmic war, it's staged with the intimacy of a terrorist attack.

But these films don't just invoke the imagery of the attack. They also attempt to show how 9/11 changed our psyches.

Marvel's next big superhero team-up after The Avengers, 2015's Avengers: Age of Ultron, represents a more pessimistic turn, suggesting that no amount of surveillance can keep the world safe. Ultron was supposed to be a global defense program that incorporated drones, but it ended up becoming a sentient AI hell-bent on vaporizing the planet. It's a stark reminder that even with all the surveillance in the world — a parallel to the NSA security state — attacks aren't always preventable.

And now with Civil War, Marvel is showing us a world where the only people who can keep us safe — superheroes — are being handcuffed by the government.

Captain America: Civil War is about what you fear

It's hard to think about the glut of superhero movies without considering the rise of American authoritarianism — a mentality where people want a strongman leader to control what they perceive to be chaos, usually by way of extreme, decisive policies. For an apt real-life example, look at the most fervent Donald Trump supporters, those who believe in his plan to build a giant wall between the US and Mexico and support his promise to ban Muslims from entering the country.

It's easy to transpose that mentality onto superheroes. Because of life-or-death situations like an alien invasion threatening to wipe out Manhattan, the civilians in superhero stories need strong men and women to protect them from evil and restore order.

This sentiment doesn't get any clearer than in The Avengers, when everyone begs Bruce Banner to transform into the Hulk — literally a man with the power (and unquenchable rage) to wipe out cities — to help them win the fight. Meanwhile, New York's police and fire departments (as well as its citizens) only exist to take orders.

Yet there are millions people who enjoy The Avengers but wouldn't ever dream of voting for Donald Trump.

Superhero stories, like other pieces of art, have the ability to transcend real-world partisanship, allowing everyone to take part in authoritarian-esque fantasies. But what drives authoritarianism, in both real and fictional settings, is trust.

It comes down to fully trusting the heroes you believe in, and fearing anyone you don't trust. It's tremendously easy to root for our superheroes, because the lines of good and evil are so clear-cut, and there aren't any rules — besides good versus evil — that apply to them. In superhero stories, no one ever imagines being the civilian or the cop or the firefighter — we're all imagining ourselves as the Avengers, and the only people we trust are ourselves.

But in Civil War, the unchecked authoritarianism of the Avengers gets more complicated (don't get me wrong, it still exists). Instead of destroying alien invaders or a robot army (in Age of Ultron), Captain America and the audience must come to terms with a more human enemy — a friend, actually — in Bucky Barnes.

Marvel has explored Bucky's backstory in the previous Captain America movies (Captain America: The First Avenger, Captain America: The Winter Soldier), and fans have come to know his history with Steve Rogers, the friendship those two cultivated, and Bucky's brainwashing at the hands of Hydra. When you take that into account and see Bucky as the victim, it's not so easy to put all your faith in Tony Stark and the federal government.

And by the middle of the movie, once we've learned that Bucky is innocent and Cap is right, Tony Stark and his government backers make one mistake after another. Granted, a different movie from Tony's point of view would change this portrayal. But at the heart of it, Tony and the government don't trust Bucky the way Steve (and the audience) does. They're looking for simple answers and simple justice, when the situation is anything but.

By the end of Civil War, the Avengers are sick of fighting for other people's causes

When comic book writer Mark Millar penned the Civil War crossover comic arc that Captain America: Civil War is loosely based on, he wanted to tell a divisive story about politics.

Millar, who is from Scotland and identifies as left-wing, might agree with Iron Man's political lean in the comic book (Iron Man favors regulation, legislation, and the balance of power), but he says that if he had to choose a side, he would have joined Captain America's. He says it's because he wrote the story from the point of view of George W. Bush being commander in chief.

"There's no way I'm working for the government, because the next thing I know I'm on a plane to Iraq and I'm going to be invading Syria on behalf of the American government, so no, thank you," Millar told me during a recent interview.

Though Captain America: Civil War only loosely borrowed elements from Millar's comic, that idea — that people with agendas will make you fight their wars — is central to the movie.

By the end of the film, Iron Man's team has disintegrated. Peter Parker/Spider-Man has gone home to Queens. Rhodey/War Machine is shot down and paralyzed by friendly fire, downed by a call he made. Vision is throttled with anxiety when he realizes he possesses imperfections. Black Widow has a disagreement with Tony, imploring him to check his ego.

And then there's Black Panther/T'Challa. He's positioned as the most noble and logical character on Iron Man's side. He's avenging the death of his father and cannot be sidetracked in his mission to take down Bucky (he goes for him in every team fight). But he isn't involved in the contracts the other Avengers sign with the United Nations, nor does he seem interested in any other agenda.

By the end of the movie, he realizes that nothing will be gained by killing the man responsible for his father's death. And in the film's post-credits scene, we see him giving Bucky a safe haven — granting the Winter Soldier a chance at rehabilitation.

In giving Bucky a chance at a new life, T'Challa puts himself in a precarious position with Iron Man and the UN. The last time Black Panther saw Iron Man, Iron Man was reeling from the revelation that Bucky, while brainwashed, had killed Iron Man's parents, and was trying to kill Captain America out of retaliation. And if Iron Man finds out Black Panther is harboring his parents' murderer, there will no doubt be hell to pay.

T'Challa's act is honorable as it is defiant — a message of healing after Iron Man and Captain America wreak physical violence upon one another. And it also shows that Black Panther isn't ready to, as Millar wanted to portray it in the comic books, put himself and his country in wars decided by other people.

Civil War confronts the aftermath of 9/11

Despite the two most recent Avengers movies, and the first two Captain America films, the Marvel Cinematic Universe isn't all war, all the time. In fact, there's a mix of the weird and joyful on the horizon.

Doctor Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Spider-Man: Homecoming are all on the way. And, of course, these are all just precursors to the forthcoming Avengers extravaganza known as Infinity War — a two-part, all-out cosmic battle that promises to dwarf every Marvel movie that came before it.

Judging by the title alone, Infinity War will make Civil War seem sort of tiny or inconsequential. Yet Civil War is anything but.

The overarching 9/11 story Marvel is telling isn't just about the attack — it's about what has happened since then. The Avengers have moved on from representing American resilience, and have evolved into a cautionary tale about American retaliation and vengeance.

It's a progression and evolution that we're seeing in Marvel storytelling — confronting the questions about what happens to American responsibility and policy in the wake of 9/11.

And it wouldn't surprise me if 2018's Black Panther tackles a different facet and considers what that devastating terrorist attack on American soil means to nonwhite Americans, non-Americans, and nonwhite non-Americans. If the film follows Civil War's Black Panther–focused mid-credits scene, then it would seem like the idea of political sovereignty would also come into question.

Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, the creators of Captain America, are famous for depicting their hero punching Adolf Hitler nine months before America entered World War II. It's only fitting that superheroes of today, including Kirby and Simon's Captain America, have continued that tradition — becoming vehicles to tell a story about war, its violence, and its repercussions.

We've reached peak lens flare. Here's how it started.