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The un-American Captain America

Captain America: Civil War
Captain America, hanging out with a witch who helped Ultron, a longtime killer for the Soviet Union, and a mercenary with a cloudy past. What could go wrong?
Marvel Studios

"It's impossible to watch Captain America: Civil War and root for Tony Stark/Iron Man," writes my colleague Alex Abad-Santos.

Challenge accepted! I watched Captain America: Civil War and rooted for Iron Man. But let me go further: I watched Captain America: Civil War and rooted against Captain America. His position was, quite simply, un-American.

A quick recap for those unfamiliar with the films or who didn't pay super-close attention to the expository dialogue (spoilers follow, obviously): Captain America leads a team of (mostly) superhuman warriors who possess the power to level cities, topple governments, and create world-threatening AIs. Yes, they've saved the world (see the first Avengers movie), but they've also imperiled it (see the second Avengers movie).

It's canonical that the state holds a monopoly on the use of major force. And so the governments of the world eventually decide, reasonably enough, that the Avengers need some oversight: They propose placing them under United Nations auspices, and suggest that the team could only be deployed amidst international agreement.

I can imagine plenty of arguments against this arrangement. The UN is a bureaucratic mess, and I'm not sure it makes sense for the Avengers to be subject to Russia's veto. Perhaps the Avengers should be part of America's arsenal instead — their oversight could come from a special congressional committee, or a branch of the military.

But Captain America's position is that the Avengers should have … no oversight at all. Cap, you see, prefers to place his faith in people, not institutions or governments. He was friends with Bucky Barnes as a kid, and so he knows that Bucky — despite his multi-decade interregnum as a brainwashed Soviet soldier — couldn't have detonated that bomb. And what, he asks, happens if the UN tells the Avengers to go somewhere they don't want to go, or to avoid a fight they want to join?

What's striking about this position is how fundamentally un-American it is, on two levels.

The first is that America is a country that rejects placing unlimited faith in extraordinary individuals as opposed to (often cumbersome!) institutions and processes. We broke away from a monarchy, and we revere George Washington for stepping back from the presidency. We've created a political system so pockmarked with checks, balances, and veto points that even our most powerful, skilled, popular leaders can only expect to accomplish a fraction of their agenda. We built, by world standards, an unusually weak presidency, and then we further amended the Constitution to limit presidents to two terms.

Then, as we grew into the greatest superpower the world has ever known, we decided that the best way to legitimize our might would be to voluntarily constrain ourselves within a web of multilateral institutions. Yes, there are examples of unilateralism in our history, but even George W. Bush's "coalition of the willing" was a coalition, and involved extensive UN consultation, in an effort to legitimize our actions. Far from seeing the limits and compromises of institutions like NATO and the UN as corrupting, strengthening those institutions has been the core of America's post–World War II foreign policy.

The counterargument here could be America's gun culture. Don't we revere the Second Amendment? Don't we permit citizens to stockpile individual arsenals? We do, and in the comic version of Civil War, there was an analogy to be made: There, the Superhero Registration Act meant every powered person had to register with the government, sign up for training, and so on.

But in the film, all that falls away. As I understand it, the Avengers are allowed to simply stop being Avengers if they don't want oversight — Cap can keep his shield, Black Widow can keep her stingers, Iron Man can keep his suit, and they can go on and live normal lives. What they can't do is act as vigilantes. That's more or less the equilibrium in America, too, where we let people possess mind-boggling amounts of weaponry but have pretty strict laws about whom they're able to shoot.

What Iron Man is advocating is a system based on America's traditions: our skepticism of imbuing individuals with unrestrained authority, our belief that great strength needs to be legitimized through process and restraint, and our faith that a cumbersome political process is preferable to the mistakes made when passion meets power.

In response, Cap says he prefers that the only restraint he trusts or even accepts is his own conscience. I recognize the majority of Cap's life was spent before the end of World War II, but that's not how America has seen its role in the world for a long, long time.

So, yes, I rooted for Tony Stark in his fight against Captain America. But I only did it because I'm a patriot.

Watch: We’ve hit peak lens flare. Here’s how it started.

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