My 11 year old son asked me what I thought of Captain America: Civil War, upon leaving the cinema. What follows is approximately what I told him (and consequently, perhaps such questions are a mistake he will not make again). SPOILER ALERT
Near the opening of Captain America: Civil War we are transported to a TED talk given by Tony Stark, the genius playboy billionaire technologist that doubles as Iron Man. The talk could be fairly referred to as an expression of the “The Silicon Valley Ideology”. His audience is the alumni of MIT – the perfect representatives of our film’s notion of who represents the people of importance – tech savvy innovators. Tony’s personalised narratives of hardship emotionally manipulate the audience as he alludes to the promise of triumph over adversity through technology. It is just as it should be in any TED talk worth its salt.
Tony Stark muses that, if immediate returns on investment were his only concern, he would never have invested in his unique device – a personal psychoanalytic technological aid. We are shown that the value of the billionaire investor transcends the mechanical realisation of profits. His role as a mere emissary of capitalist accumulation is overcome through individual philanthropic enterprise. In his conclusion, he magnanimously acts as angel investor to the entire audience, allowing them emancipation through the realisation of their own innovations.
Afterword, when a woman confronts him about the death of her son, to which the actions of the Avengers were certainly contributory, he finds himself face to face with the central problematic of our narrative. Stark is clearly moved by her pain.
In a similar vein a long litany of questionable activities and reckless damage which the Avengers could potentially be held responsible for is presented to them by the US Secretary of State. This vigilante group, whose actions are not accountable to any state or super-state whatsoever, and who are entirely unregulated, are asked to submit themselves to some restrictions. The adventurous (ahem) might suggest a metaphor with international capital and its attempts to supersede all borders and the current confusion within liberalism of whether to attempt to regulate it or not.
The “civil war” of the film title refers to the split which develops among the Avengers because of their differing opinions on political accountability. The feelings of guilt which Tony Stark experiences are the driving motivation behind his decision to submit, and he leads the pack of those who decide to sign an international accord of accountability. Captain America leads the dissenters and he becomes the avatar of a very Randian ultra-individualism.
Predictably, this submission to political accountability turns out to be grossly misguided. Captain America sees through the red-tape and concludes that only the individuals should be able to make decisions about how to exercise power. Our Randian Avatar is the true bearer of truth and justice, unbound by the distortions of politics and guided only by his own moral compass and super-human physical prowess. He is truly the übermensch in this epic.
Later in the film, Captain America teams up with the Winter Soldier. A former soviet soldier who did terrible evils under the regime because he was, literally, brainwashed. Here we see the ideology of communism was not a mere confusion, but a totalitarian manipulation of consciousness itself. There is also a hint of a close relationship between the fascist Hydra organisation and the functioning of the USSR itself, a staple of the narrative used by the liberal and conservative centrists in Europe, and one promulgated by Radio Free Europe (the CIA).
The Winter Soldier, is liberated (at least temporarily) from his conditioning in order that he can team up with Captain America to make things right again, after defeating the misguided Tony Stark. The humorous parallel between the Winter Soldier and Russia is striking. Briefly a great ally to Captain America, at the end of the film it is agreed that the Winter Soldier needs to be “put on ice” because he can’t even trust himself not to revert to his former evil ways.
In the final scene of the movie, Tony Stark finds redemption as he finally sees the error of his way. He realises that he too, as a billionaire genius innovator, should never be answerable to mere politics. It is hard not to see these heroes as psychic projections of the “entrepreneur” and silicon valley innovators. This narrative fits their understanding of the role of the state: as an inconvenient fact at best, and something to be eluded whenever possible in order to get on with the business of doing the right thing (or at least not being evil).
Captain America: Civil War is certainly not a work of art, and neither is it meant to be. If you like action films, epic fight scenes, reasonably coherent plots and passable dialogue then you could certainly do worse. The point of such super-hero films is to present action packed entertainment with the subject matter of the fight of good against evil – they are modern epic myths. These avatars of humanity represent our impulses to fairness, ethics and righteousness. In doing so, super-hero films are often excellent mirrors in which to see clearly the dominant ideological currents within society which define our sense of what is right.
The expression of ideology in the arts holds a certain fascination for me. If I were employed to construct propaganda for advanced capitalism, I could hardly do better than the narratives which we find here. And yet it seems likely that much of the narrative is produced unconsciously by the authors. A regurgitation of what is imbibed; the meat of what is floating about in the hegemonic ideological soup of advanced capitalism.
My son’s response was: “So does that mean you thought it was good, or bad?”