Does Justice Depend on Government Oversight?
SPOILER WARNING FOR PLOT ISSUES IN CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR
Marvel Comics distinguished themselves from their competitors in the 1960s by giving their characters a little more complexity and depth, and their stories a little more realism and social and political relevance. These are fantasy tales of superheroes and aliens, to be sure, but connected enough to allow exploration of serious themes. The films from Marvel Studios based on these stories continue this tradition. In the second Iron Man film, for instance, a Senate panel tries to force Tony Stark to turn over his superhero technology to the government, prompting characters and viewers to consider the principles behind and ramifications of doing so. When a government contractor does get hold of the technology, it turns out he’s a bad guy, so Stark’s reluctance turned out to be justified. Indeed, the Senator who was leading the panel turned out himself to be a criminal. In the second Captain America film, Steve Rogers discovers that SHIELD, the government agency he nominally works for, has developed a system for “eliminating” threats before they happen, using airborne, satellite-guided surveillance and weaponry. When shown this system, Rogers and the director of SHIELD, Nick Fury, have a difference of opinion as to the propriety of such pre-emptive strikes and massive surveillance, again prompting the audience to consider the issues. Is this, as Fury says, a necessary tool in combatting global terrorism? Or is Rogers correct when he counters “This isn’t security, this is fear.” Of course, here too, it turns out that the airborne strikes would be controlled by a global terrorist organization, and Fury finds out too late that his superiors are bad guys.
These issues are still up for consideration in the newest Marvel film, Captain America: Civil War. The “civil war” refers to the various superheroes finding themselves on opposite sides of a theoretical argument that leads them to actual fighting. As is often the case when this happens in comics, it turns out that they have been manipulated into fighting against each other by the bad guys, but the theoretical disagreement is quite real. Despite his earlier reluctance to place his technology under government control, Tony Stark has come to think that at the very least, government supervision of superhero activity would be a good idea. This is partly because he feels guilty about his role in creating Ultron, a sentient robot that caused a lot of death and destruction in a previous movie, and partly because of the general collateral damage that results from things like fighting off sentient robots (or alien invasions). His guilt is exploited by the new Secretary of State, who has negotiated a UN accord to the effect that all superheroes must work for the government. Captain America senses this is a bad idea – he’s concerned that politics would trump his own judgement about right and wrong. He is worried both that they will be obliged to fight where it’s not justified, and that they will be forbidden to fight when it is needed.
The fundamental issue at stake here is not particular to superheroes: does your independent judgment about right and wrong trump government dictates? Or does the rule of law require precedence over individual judgment? Sometimes, the individual judges right and wrong incorrectly. But it’s also true that governments are imperfect judges of right and wrong. Complicating the matter is that governments sometimes act not out of a flawed judgement about right and wrong, but for expediency or for the gain of someone with influence.
In the film, Captain America’s oldest friend, Bucky Barnes, is framed for a bombing at the UN. This causes the government overseers that Iron Man and others have agreed to work under to order Barnes to be shot on sight. Later this is amended to indefinite detention at a secret base with no trial and no access to lawyers (sound familiar?). Captain America sees this as wrong. Although innocent of the UN bombing, Barnes did in fact murder many people – but under the influence of HYDRA mind-control. Does this mitigate his responsibility? Rogers thinks it does, saying it “wasn’t really you” who did the killings. Bucky feels guilty about them nevertheless, and it is an interesting dilemma in personal responsibility. But this is precisely why no-trial detention (or a shoot-on-sight order!) would be unjust. So Rogers defies Iron Man and the government and tries to save Bucky, which leads to the “civil war” of the title. The various other superheroes each ally with one side or the other and fight. As with all such conflicts in the comics, one suspects that they will eventually make peace and work together again (there are hints of this at the film’s end).
But the central issue remains, for us as well as for them: is it more dangerous for the superheroes to work for the government or to trust their independent judgment? I find the collateral damage argument, which causes Stark such guilt, to be a red herring: when the Avengers fought the alien invasion in New York City, did a lot of buildings get destroyed? Of course, but if they hadn’t been fighting, the aliens would have taken over the planet. And what was the government’s preferred solution? Kill the aliens by launching a nuclear strike on New York. The “World Security Council” that ordered the nuclear attack had one member who turned out to be an operative of Hydra, but all of them favored the nuclear attack. Government supervision is hardly a guarantee of either moral correctness or tactical efficacy. Fortunately for New York, Stark defied government orders and diverted the missile away from the city. Fortunately for a million other people, Rogers defied government orders and disabled SHIELD’s “Project Insight.” In both cases, the presence of Hydra influence exacerbates, but does not create, the problem. If Rogers had not disobeyed orders in his first film, Hydra would have destroyed much of the United States. If Thor had not disobeyed his government’s orders, Malekith would have destroyed Earth entirely. If Stark had not disobeyed government orders, either New York would have been leveled or the aliens would have taken over.
The point is not that the superheroes always make the right decisions – Stark’s role in creating Ultron would be an example of making a wrong decision – but that the government agencies that would have oversight are much less likely to do so. This can be explained by the differing motivations of each. Superheroes are not only super, they’re heroes – i.e., the reason they’re engaged in their activities is precisely to help those in need and pursue justice. Government agencies, as has been well-documented, often has motivations that belie the rhetoric of “justice and the common good.” By the time of this film, the government has been shown on several occasions to have been co-opted by a global terror network, but besides that, it is likely to be used to advance a personal agenda or to promote its own narrowly-conceived political interests. Killing or detaining suspects without trial? As the Captain might put it, that’s not justice, that’s fear.