Read Part 1 Here.
Before we start: I am only going by the Marvel Cinematic Universe Captain America and Iron Man so that you don’t have to read 70 years of comics to understand this article and I don’t have to deal with all the people pulling counter-examples from stupid crap writers have done to the characters, like building an extrajudicial prison which basically trapped people in a perpetual nightmare (Iron Man) or accidentally taking a ton of meth and pretending to be a chicken (Captain America). I’m mostly going to be focused on the film Captain America: Civil War, but, I’m also going to have to address the Endgame in the room, meaning spoilers for the MCU through that. If you haven’t seen any of them, you’re okay, I’m gonna summarize the important parts.
Sometimes the movie poster says it all. (Insert poster image underneath. Remember to delete this reminder before posting. Remember this commentary is not funny no matter how meta.)
Two heroes standing in conflict over their deeply-held ideals. A shield for protecting the innocent against a weapon for punishing the guilty. Two hours of fighting and the audience is left with both sides still believing that they’re doing the right thing. Both sides have points that support their opinions and both sides have disadvantages that they know they have to address. Ultimately, they never really determine what the right answer is, as the coming of Thanos renders the whole thing moot and bigger fish had to be fried. So, why did everyone pick the side they did? Well, let’s take a look through the lens and see what the movies tell us up to this point.
Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), the invincible Iron Man, spent three solo movies and one Avengers film proving that he is the absolute last person who should have the ability to act as an international agent of justice. In all three of his movies and Age of Ultron, he either A) creates the villain, B) gives the villain the technology they need to be effective, or C) there is no third option because he’s literally that bad at his job. And that’s completely in line with his character. Tony doesn’t have strong moral principles to shape his actions. Instead, he views everything in terms of solvable problems because, above all things, he’s an engineer. That works fine almost every time, particularly when you’re a super-genius but, like Oppenheimer and Nobel before him, sometimes he doesn’t really consider the possible consequences of his actions. So, after he almost lost the love of his life to a villain he’d empowered and his creation Ultron almost destroyed Earth, Tony was finally ready to accept that, maybe, he needed someone else to watch over his decisions.
Steve Rogers (Chris Evans and his muscles) learned the opposite lesson. In the first Captain America movie, he learned that the US was planning on abandoning probable POWs behind enemy lines (which is a thing that happens in war) so he risks his life to rescue them, believing that his way is right above the Army’s. In The Avengers, a shadowy group almost nukes Manhattan as a solution to an alien invasion that the group was, at that point, dealing with pretty successfully. In Winter Soldier, Cap learns that HYDRA, the secret Nazi cabal that he thought he beat in WWII, has actually infiltrated the American secret agency S.H.I.E.L.D. and all but taken them over. So, the one organization that he trusted to safeguard America and tell him where to go and who to fight was run by the last people who should have been doing that. So, Steve learned a valuable lesson about not giving too much of your own power up to groups.
They’d managed to deal with these differences up until the point where Captain America and his… mini-Avengers? I’m going with mini-Avengers… mini-Avengers went into a sovereign nation and accidentally blew up a building containing a number of humanitarian workers from another country. Was it all their fault? Oh, hell no. Did it save lives? Almost certainly. Was it the right thing to do? Well, that’s what the rest of the movie is about.
If you think what Cap did was absolutely correct, let’s flip the scenario around. Let’s suppose a paramilitary group from Lagos (country picked at random) comes into the United States, armed, and uses military force to stop a robbery but incurs collateral casualties. Was that okay? Well, if not, why not? Oh, right, because every country on Earth has a sovereign right over anything that happens within their borders. That’s literally what they’re there for. However, the Avengers (and S.H.I.E.L.D.) pretty much ignore that all the time because it’s inconvenient for the films… and it would be inconvenient for them to deal with customs.
The movie Civil War has General Thunderbolt Ross (William Hurt) outline that, even between films, going into other countries without permission is exactly what the Avengers do and basically no one on Earth has any control over them. So, the United Nations proposes the Sokovia Accords, an international agreement which would create a branch of the UN to oversee the Avengers. Tony agrees with the Accords, because he believes that the Avengers need to be accountable and have oversight. Steve doesn’t agree with them because he believes that A) they would limit the effectiveness of the team, B) the people above them would also have agendas which would shape how the team is used, and C) that would put his personal actions at the disposal of others. So, we have a huge fight over this which blows up an airport and drags a teenager in as a soldier, with all of this supposedly orchestrated by a pissed-off soldier who lost his family to the Avengers’ actions in Age of Ultron.
Now, consider this for a second: what if all of this was completely f*cking stupid because they both know the other is also right and that there are practical solutions that would address both of their problems? Oh, right, that would have been a boring movie. It would also have been accurate, because the idea of a vigilante group with no accountability acting internationally and leaving huge amounts of collateral damage is not a thing we should debate. It’s fundamentally against the entire concept of national sovereignty, almost every international agreement in history, and, oh yeah, almost every anti-terrorist resolution. How do you think America would feel if a group of Chinese superheroes showed up and blew up a city block in the name of “stopping crime?” Or just one flew in wearing a suit of armor and just killed a bunch of citizens he deemed to be “terrorists.” Hell, how about just trying to bring the firepower equivalent of a small army into another country? Smaller things have started wars, not conversations. (Full credit to the Russo brothers, however, for having both main characters be in emotionally vulnerable states so that the ensuing plot is more justifiable.)
Imagine if everyone thought that it was okay for them to beat the hell out of cops for trying to arrest a suspected terrorist just because they believe their friend is innocent or that it was okay to steal a multi-billion-dollar fighter jet. Because that’s what Cap does in the film. Captain America is absolutely in the wrong not just for doing these things, but even for his assertion that it’s okay for him to do them… except for the part where he’s Captain America. Steve Rogers is a moral juggernaut. He will ALWAYS make the right decision, morally, when he is presented with it. He is accountable to himself, something that is a much higher standard than any law or nation. So, when he decides he has to intervene in a situation, it’s basically a certainty that it is a situation in which he is right to intervene. If everyone held themselves to his standards of personal responsibility and morality, laws would be unnecessary, because people would be answerable to a higher authority. The Doctor from Doctor Who said it in the catchiest way possible “Good men don’t need rules.”
Unfortunately, we don’t live in a world filled with Captain America-level saints. In fact, I’d say that people of his level of personal accountability are like a virgin prostitute. Hypothetically, one exists, but I’d be very surprised if you can find one and if you think you are one, you’ve more likely misunderstood at least one fundamental concept. So, because of that, we have to put rules and systems of enforcement in place to hold people accountable for actions which cannot be allowed in a social setting. These range from things like “you can’t take stuff that isn’t yours” to things like “necessity cannot be a defense for murder.” If you don’t agree with these rules, there are ways to change them within the system, but that doesn’t give you the right to ignore them.
However, sometimes situations aren’t going to fit into the mold that the creators of these rules conceived of, and they’re going to become a hindrance. For example, “don’t kill anyone” becomes a problem when someone else is going to kill your family and you don’t reasonably have the ability to non-lethally prevent them. Sometimes, we craft exceptions directly into the laws (more on that later this week), but sometimes we haven’t thought of those exceptions yet or even putting an exception in fundamentally conflicts with a bigger principle. On those occasions, people are faced with a choice: Break the rule to serve a higher good or follow the rule and allow the bad to happen.
If the Sokovia Accords had been implemented, this would have been the choice Captain America is saying he’d have to make constantly: To hope the UN would allow him to intervene in situations or to ignore the UN and do it anyway and deal with the legal consequences. If only there were some kind of thing that the UN could put into the system which would allow them to deem certain actions worthy of foregoing punishment based on the context in when they were taken. If only some handsome bastard had put that thing in the title to a series whereby he relates it through pop-culture.
While the real UN doesn’t have any actual ability to pardon people (due to the nature of the organization), they also don’t do anything that’s like the Sokovia Accords (though, they could). Additionally, there is nothing preventing a commission or group being able to encourage or force clemency (which, while a little different, is the typical term for a pardon around the globe) within a nation as part of their signature on the Sokovia Accords. Countries routinely give up some of their sovereign authority in exchange for a benefit from the UN. We literally have clemency laws in place in almost every country on Earth already, because we know this is what can happen. So, countries might be giving up a little bit of their ability to enforce their own laws, but, in exchange, they get the benefits of having the Avengers be able to respond to threats. Seems like a reasonable trade in a world of alien gods and killer robots. So, Captain America could, if he disagreed with the UN, still act, with the understanding that, if they agree that it was justified afterwards, he would be able to avoid being punished and NOT have to be a fugitive.
Even simpler, you could just make conditions in which the Avengers could respond and the permission could be decided retroactively after the intervention, without any form of punishment if the action is in good faith. Hell, under certain circumstances, you can ask for a warrant up to 24 hours after you should need it, and that’s NOT dealing with supervillains. And yet, nobody in the movie points out this would be an easy way to both hold the Avengers accountable and also allow Captain America to act when he feels it’s appropriate. This wouldn’t even require extra clemency decisions, though that could also be incorporated into the system.
But all of this is in the world of fantasy, where the point becomes moot when Angry Grimace steals the rocks of plot convenience. When would you ever need to address concepts like this in the real world? Has anything ever actually been brought up like this? Does anyone have a guess about what the next entry is about?
Don’t eat anybody, I’ll see you in two weeks.
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