Once again, I will remind you guys that I do not read comic books (nothing against the medium—it just doesn’t do it for me), so all of my opinions are based off the films alone or the occasional factoid that I have gleaned over the years. Before seeing the film, I was Team Cap, remained so after seeing it (I’m also Team Free Will for the Supernatural fandom, so this is hardly surprising), and, in a nutshell, the following post will answer why.
At heart, I believe that Team Cap represents a core belief in freedom, specifically the individual’s freedom of moral choice and personal agency—a person should be allowed to make their own decisions. Fundamentally, the situation set up in Captain America: Civil War, would have denied the individual members of the Avengers their right to decide whether or not to engage in particular missions and would have denied certain members their personal liberties and freedoms (Wanda and Bucky in particular). First, I know that Bucky is not an Avenger at the time set forth in the film, but I also believe that he deserves to have a say in how he conducts his life—a right that he was denied by Zola, agents of Hydra, and the Soviet Government. Like Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, he was used and abused as an assassin by a corrupt government and an evil organization; he did not choose to become a weapon, but was exploited as one. So long as he were to continue to live quietly and peaceably—as we must presume he has in the scene that depicts him shopping for food—I think he has earned the right to live on his own without any government or individual looking over his shoulder.
But he’s done horrible things, J.J.! He killed Howard and Maria Stark! (In part because I love the character created by James D’arcy in Agent Carter, I was insanely relieved to see that Jarvis was not driving the Starks on that particular night. I fully admit, this is a fairly ridiculous rationale, but it certainly helps me land on the pro-Bucky side of the coin.) He’s a weapon of mass destruction! While his body has certainly been used as a weapon and has committed atrocities, James Buchannan Barnes did not willingly become a Hydra experiment/agent and his free will was high-jacked through brainwashing; therefore, I do not believe that Bucky should be held responsible for the crimes committed while he was “the Winter Soldier” and, thus, technically not himself. The actions he committed while under Soviet/Hydra control are the moral responsibility of the people who were controlling him; rather, and I know this statement is controversial, like it is not the gun which kills someone, but the malice and intent to harm of the individual directing the gun.
Let’s take Bucky out of the equation for a second and take a look at one of the actual Avengers: Tony Stark/Iron Man. Much of the story revolves around the conflicting sources of angst for both Cap and Iron Man; both of them feel guilt over the collateral damage created when they saved various world cities (and, realistically, the whole planet). In Tony’s case, I would argue, his guilt is justifiable and rightly felt, to an extent. His company created weapons, which were then acquired and used for ill by people opposed to America and American ideals; he made the right decision when he forced Stark Industries to stop producing those weapons, but it was his choice to make whether or not to cease production. It was also the choice of his board of directors, aided and abetted by Obadiah Stane, to have Tony declared incompetent and reverse his decision. That was their right as shareholders in the company and as individual moral agents; like Tony before he was forced to see the harm his creations were causing, the people who ran Stark Industries viewed their profit margins as being more important than any idealistic, moral stance. Human beings, while capable of great good, are also capable of great evil and of disinterest and apathy; we can be just as selfish or just as selfless as we want, depending on how we were raised or how we actively choose to be on a daily basis. That is our great triumph and our great tragedy.
Pushing forward in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the collective decision of the Avengers to go to New York City to stop Loki’s (in reality, Thanos’) alien army from invading probably did cause a lot of casualties in terms of human life and in Manhattan’s iconic cityscape… But they stopped a freaking alien army from invading and taking over the planet! Regardless of who fired first, one of the tragic truths about war is that innocent people often suffer and die through no fault of their own. Had the Avengers not stepped in, there would have been more lives lost, more cities destroyed, and if any portion of humanity was spared, they would have become slaves to the invading alien race. The Avengers stopped this bleak future by their decision to intervene and fight. Then there’s Sokovia… where Ultron decided to instigate a planet-wide catastrophe, an extinction event aimed specifically at the human species, but which would have caused thousands of plant and animal species to be annihilated as well. Once again, the Avengers could have chosen to stand down and not intervene, but the cost would not merely have been the lives of the people of a single city. The same holds true for Cap’s decision to fight against Hydra in Winter Soldier; yes, there were undoubtedly plenty of people who died in Washington, D.C. the day that Cap destroyed the Triskelion building and the Project Insight heli-carriers, but those machines were arming up and targeting millions of individuals across the planet (Tony Stark included, I might add) for extermination. Ultimately, the Avengers chose to intervene and save billions of lives at the cost of perhaps thousands.
However, the stipulations of the Sokovia Accords would require the collective Avengers to operate under government oversight, with all of the inherent bureaucracy and political soft-shoeing that implies; even if they felt morally obligated to intervene, they would need to get permission from a committee first. The problem with this? People who are simply intent on seeing the world burn do not ask for permission before they start shooting at innocents. Terrorists do not telegraph their movements so that they are easily discovered and prevented from setting off bombs. Because our world is much more interconnected than ever before, global terrorism is quite simply that—global. Yes, this means that stopping attacks requires a greater degree of integrated diplomatic efforts and inter-governmental cooperation, but how often has the refusal of one nation to aid others resulted in atrocities? Probably more often than our governments are willing to admit.
And, ultimately, this is where things solidified for me in terms of supporting Cap—I don’t trust the government. Governments, even world governing bodies like the United Nations, are fundamentally made up of people with their own agendas, their own ideas of the “right” way to do things. I think this film in many ways speaks to the current political climate within the United States itself and the world at large, with many people advocating for increased global integration and assimilation. And while I know that humanity is capable of great things, I believe that most people are not concerned with the greater good—so long as we are prosperous, so long as we are comfortable, we do not care what happens or how it happens. I think that the average person is more than willing to let the government take care of them, let the government make decisions for them, rather than to take a stance on something. It’s easier to accept that the government, that the politician knows what is “best” for us rather than to think about the moral consequences of our inaction or than to critically examine our own blind faith in the people who write our laws and enforce them.
As Michelle has pointed out to me more than once, we can’t exactly live without governments; I know this, I accept this, but that doesn’t mean I have to like (or trust) it. And I understand why the world, as represented by their supposedly duly elected officials in the U.N., would want a say in how the Avengers are utilized to protect them. I simply feel that within the context of the film, the emphasis was on controlling and limiting the Avengers rather than on making them a more effective unit or respecting their individual decisions; it should be noted that I would have no problem with the Sokovia Accords being implemented, so long as the Avengers were allowed to make amendments and alterations (which, is in fact mentioned as being possible, but not really stressed as an option)… but then we wouldn’t exactly have a main conflict for the film. Yet this does present me with another point of difference between Cap and Iron Man, and where I once again support Cap’s side of the argument.
While a lot of jokes have been made at Cap’s expense for being outdated, I don’t think that the various writers and directors have fully explored just how different his mindset is because of the generational gap between him and the other members of the team. I lost both of my grandfathers when I was still very young, but through other family members’ recollections about them and knowing several of their contemporaries through church, I know a fair amount about the mentality and ideals of the men who grew up in the inter-war period. Compromise, especially moral compromise, was not highly valued; a man’s word was his bond, and once given could not be retracted. For Cap, the idea of signing the accords and then working from the inside to fix them sounds like a coward’s move. Didn’t Hydra itself survive by such underhanded maneuvers? He believes in establishing the rules and then playing by them. End of story.
However, between his growing up in inter-war Brooklyn and his being rescued from the North Pole and thawed, social expectations and codes of conduct changed dramatically, so that it’s okay to put your name to paper and then to retract your agreement/assent later. At his core I think, Cap is uncomfortable with lying; when the mission calls for an outright lie—as seen in his interactions with Natasha and Sharon Carter especially in Winter Soldier—he acts incredibly flustered or uncomfortable. He even gives Sharon the cold shoulder after realizing that she’s lived in the apartment across from him as part of a covert security detail and isn’t friendly nurse Kate. He’s a soldier, not a spy, but he’s also not going to blindly follow the orders of his superiors without questioning their motivations. To me, he fully embodies the mantra of hope for the best but expect the worst. For him compromise on a political scale is still a very nasty idea, because in his experience the last time a people were willing to compromise was when Hitler was coming to power; for Cap, compromise sounds and feels much more like collaboration with and sympathy for the enemy. Just as he felt that Project Insight would have violated personal liberties and controlled people through fear, so too does signing the Accords turn the Avengers into a weapon that can be used against people and their freedoms.
I’m not going to try and pretend otherwise, but Cap is far from disinterested or unbiased in his decision-making here. As a recipient of a government-funded serum, he owes a great deal (indeed, the very fact that he is currently alive) to the United States; because of this, there are those who would categorically state that he belongs to the U.S. government and that he should obey every order given to him by a suitably authoritative representative of said government. The same would also be true of Bruce Banner/The Hulk, and Wanda—although she is still a Sokovian citizen and the result of Hydra experimentation. For Cap, the choice to not sign is his declaration that he is still a free and independent moral agent and to sign would be to relinquish his personal freedom—and he would feel honor-bound to perform every mission he was sent on because he had given his word. He does not begrudge Natasha’s decision to sign, nor does he try to talk her out of it because he respects her right to make her own choices. He simply wants the freedom to make the choice, and he wants Bucky and Wanda and any other future enhanced individual to be given the same rights. They may have super-human abilities, but that does not make them “nuclear warheads” or “weapons of mass destruction”; it does not make them objects rather than people.
The fly in the ointment comes when he starts using violence against others in order to ensure that those rights are protected; he was breaking the law when he started brushing aside the German police to aid Bucky’s escape, and later turned an airport into a battleground. I fully respect that he was trying to help his friend, including making sure that Bucky’s life wasn’t ended prematurely and erroneously by the Black Panther (whose motivation in tracking Bucky was revenge, not altruism, and thus should have been prosecuted accordingly), and attempting to clear his name; however, using violence was not the answer to the problem. Because while the Avengers and all enhanced humans are free moral agents, they also live in a reality where social contracts and laws exists and breaking those laws de facto makes you a criminal, someone who has forfeited their rights and is thus liable to punishment by the state. If you live in a country where you have a legitimate moral disagreement with the laws, you can and should remove yourself from that country and find one whose laws do not violate your conscience, or you should work to alter those laws; that, in brief, was the whole reason that America was founded.
Even if Cap were to take his team to another country/continent and buy some land and declare that to be his own, independent country, he would still need to engage in diplomatic discourse with other nations. Most places on the planet lack some necessary resource or another, which would require international trade agreements, etc. So, I do recognize that Cap needs to learn a lesson or two about the nature of compromise, as well as develop some political savvy. Where Wanda is concerned, I think he feels a certain paternal responsibility for her because he knows what it is like to be treated like a freak of nature; he also sympathizes with her desire to protect and serve her country, to the point of risking her life by letting government scientists experiment on her, because that is precisely what he did. He cares about Tony as a brother in arms, but he doesn’t approve of his moral flexibility when it comes to giving his word; he’s also, unfortunately, probably comparing him to Howard and finding Tony wanting, which certainly doesn’t help the situation (especially if that is Tony’s perception of how Cap still feels about him). But Bucky is Cap’s last living link with his past, his only true family during his first life and his best friend… Asking him to stand aside and let Bucky go to prison is not destined to go down well. If Michelle and I were in this same situation, I’m sorry, planet Earth, but you’re screwed.
Granted, having discussed multiple global pandemic, unnatural disaster, alien occupation, or genetic experimentation/mutation scenarios, I know where Michelle stands on the need for ensuring the greater good and would/will act in accordance with her wishes. It would probably kill me to do so, because I am human and selfish and I love her more than almost every other person, but I would respect and honor her free will choice to sacrifice herself for others (as I don’t fear death, and Michelle knows this, I wouldn’t mind sacrificing myself either… I just don’t want to have to live without my Michelle.). I hope you all appreciate that we have had the courtesy to discuss these eventualities at length already, because seriously guys… Michelle versus world? Always Michelle.
So when Cap’s answer to Tony about why he protected Bucky, about why he didn’t tell Tony that his parents’ death was a politically motivated assassination rather than an accident, is “he’s my friend”, it makes perfect sense to me. Is it selfish? You betcha! Is it human? Absolutely. Cap himself is just as far from perfect as Tony Stark is, as Iron Man is, as any human being is. But at the end of the day, I trust Captain America more than I trust Tony Stark; I trust certain, proven individuals more than others and even unproven individuals more than others. And while I fully respect the mindset which strives for the greater good, I am always going to question (and probably mistrust) the people responsible for ensuring that greater good, I will always question their motives, and I hope that when someone comes along trying to deny me my rights and freedoms as an individual—provided I am not endangering or harming anyone—someone else will step in to help me defend myself. But preferably with words and not guns.
Keep calm (and free), and geek on! —J.J.