There are spoilers regarding the plot of Captain America: Civil War here.
Like a majestic bald eagle with an uncanny knowledge of the American health care system, my trusted colleague and Iron Man apologist Ezra Klein came swooping in on Wednesday with a declaration: Rooting for Captain America in Captain America: Civil War is un-American.
“I watched Captain America: Civil War and rooted against Captain America. His position was, quite simply, un-American,” Klein wrote, thumping the ideals of faith in government and the system. “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.”
Klein isn’t totally wrong.
America boasts a long history of keeping people safe through regulation. We make restaurant employees wash their hands so diners don’t get sick, we make our cops and firefighters undergo training programs before they’re allowed to do their jobs, and we maintain an extensive system of checks and balances that are baked into the federal government at every level, to prevent any one individual or organization from running amok.
These American values are what Iron Man stands for. But what Klein and Iron Man fail to recognize is that it’s not un-American to be skeptical of government, to be realistic about the fact that legislation sometimes fails, and to stand up against injustice. In the world Steve Rogers has known, these governmental structures have repeatedly proven themselves to be completely untrustworthy.
And perhaps Klein’s and our definition of being American sadly includes being part of, or taking advantage of, a system we know is broken — as Iron Man does time and again without punishment.
This happens a fuck-ton in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
In The Avengers, Captain America/Steve Rogers saw the government decide to nuke New York City. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, we and Cap saw how easy it was for Hydra to infiltrate S.H.I.E.L.D. and use the government organization to do its bidding.
In Captain America: Civil War, we see Iron Man — after hearing a sad story of a young man who died in Sokovia — go out and recruit an underage teen, Peter Parker, to fight against Captain America and the Winter Soldier, knowingly putting the kid in mortal danger (Iron Man knows Bucky Barnes’s capabilities and pits Parker against him anyway).
Iron Man also places Wanda Maximoff, another minor, under house arrest without a trial, just to appease government higher-ups (one of whom is Thaddeus Ross). In fact, Captain America is about to sign off on the Sokovia Accords (which would enact government regulation of superheroes) until he finds out Wanda is being held against her will.
These episodes of American error aren’t just fictional scenarios.
Throughout history, America has repeatedly used legislation to separate and segregate people it doesn’t trust, strip away their rights, and decide their fates and futures on their behalf. It’s a country in which people in powerful positions — like Tony Stark, for example — can often bend the law to work in their favor. Stark comes from a place of intense privilege, affluence, and ego; he wouldn’t know a fallacy if it sat on his sad excuse for facial hair.
If we’re stretching the idea of Marvel’s universe into real life, Japanese Americans could have used an “un-American” superhero like Captain America to stop FDR from implementing internment camps during World War II (Cap makes a reference to internment in Civil War). And in terms of our more recent history, it’s frightening to think about what would’ve happened if President George W. Bush had had the power to just deploy some American superheroes in Iraq.
But what Klein gets wrong about Cap/Steve Rogers signals a fundamental misunderstanding of the character. Rogers knows what it’s like to be weak and not have any power. Underneath the sheath of muscles and strength granted to him by the super soldier serum, he’s still a scrawny, awkward, emaciated weakling. That’s instilled him with empathy and shaped his heroism.
Cap’s original creators, Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, depicted Captain America/Steve Rogers punching Hitler nine months before American intervention in WWII. That’s the same man who stands against Wanda’s house arrest and Bucky’s haphazard incarceration. And the same man who inspires morality and empathy by example.
Captain America isn’t being contrarian and resisting government regulation of the Avengers because he wants to beat people to a bloody pulp for fun. He’s opposing the law because he’s been alive long enough to see how it can be manipulated and twisted.
He’s the man who stands in the way — he can do it all day — when people with power abuse it and lord it over the innocent and weak. If that makes him un-American, then we should perhaps rethink what being American means.