The latest superhero blockbuster Captain America: Civil War opened to a huge box office as well as to critical acclaim last weekend. The basic dynamic of the film focuses on conflict between authority and responsibility. The film could well be understood as an extended reflection on Edmund Burke’s observation: “Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without.”
Tony Stark, the billionaire playboy and superhero Iron Man, leads a group in favor of greater governmental oversight of superhero activity. Steve Rogers, better known as Captain America, heads up the opposition to such regulation, leading to, as the film’s title suggests, a war between superheroes.
The differences between the two men and their respective approaches to controlling power are on full display in this film. Where Stark, dogged by a series of misjudgments and mistakes, no longer trusts in his own judgment, Captain America remains committed to the truth of his ideals. It’s easy to understand what drives Cap: his patriotism, his loyalty to his friends, and his devotion to the American Dream. One of Cap’s most iconic lines from the comics captures his basic credo: “I’m loyal to nothing, General, except the Dream.”
Cap might just as well have been addressing General Ross, the nemesis of Bruce Banner (the Hulk) and, in Civil War, the representative of governmental attempts to reign in the Avengers. “You’ve operated with unlimited power and no supervision,” says Ross. “That’s something the world can no longer tolerate.” Echoing Ross’s sentiments, Tony Stark contends that “if we can’t accept limitations, we’re no better than the bad guys.”
“I know we’re not perfect, but the safest hands are still our own,” says Captain America, whose moral compass always points due north. In this exchange we find the core disagreement between Stark and Rogers. Where Stark mistrusts his own judgment and would trade away sovereignty for external oversight, Rogers contends that a moral self-government is the surest path to oppose tyranny.
In this way Captain America champions the rights of conscience and roots the legitimacy of the Avengers in their responsible autonomy.
In Civil War, then, we find an expression of the perennial conflict between individual conscience and communal coercion. Cap represents the best of the liberal tradition in his emphasis on virtue, responsibility, and well-formed moral action. By contrast, Stark represents the temptation to outsource moral government to others, effectively indenturing the Avengers in servitude to some impersonal, international governmental panel. “We need to be put in check. Whatever form that takes, I’m game,” says Stark, and in doing so he cravenly abdicates the central duty of superheroes to be good stewards. This is a lesson which Spider-Man, who also appears in the film, knows well: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
Captain America works from the assumption that such autonomy, once given up, is perhaps impossible to regain. In a display of incisive political insight, Cap also recognizes the public choice realities of all governmental regimes. The government “runs by people with agendas and agendas change.” He thus realizes the complexities of what might happen when partisans vie for power over the Avengers, and the dilemmas they would face when ordered to engage or to disengage when their own judgment would lead them to do otherwise. The truth that Captain America recognizes is that you can never really outsource the responsibility to obey your conscience. Or as the Dutch politician and theologian Abraham Kuyper put it toward the end of the nineteenth century, “The conscience marks a boundary that the state may never cross.”
Civil War also provides some indication of how a conscience ought to be formed and informed. It is not enough to simply fall back on a general or abstract notion of “conscience” as the insuperable barrier of tyrannical regimes. A person’s conscience must be properly oriented towards the obligations of the moral order, to God and to others. Perhaps the strongest articulation of one’s conscientious duties in the film comes in the context of a religious ceremony, the funeral for Cap’s long-lost love, Agent Peggy Carter. Carter’s niece, Sharon Carter, testifies to her aunt’s lifelong commitment to standing up against tyranny and injustice. In her eulogy, Sharon Carter passes along Peggy’s words: “Compromise where you can. Where you can’t, don’t. Even if everyone is telling you that something wrong is something right. Even if the whole world is telling you to move, it is your duty to plant yourself like a tree, look them in the eye, and say, ‘No, you move.’”
This guidance comes from a pulpit, like the word of God, at a critical point in the film, solidifying Steve Rogers against whatever doubts he has concerning his opposition to Stark’s plan. Captain America realizes that legitimate and limited government is only possible in the context of a virtuous people, and that such virtue is only possible within communities that inculcate moral discernment and among individuals who have the courage to exercise it.
Civil War exemplifies the difficulties attending to conscientious action and the inevitable conflict between powers of coercion and conscience. We can well imagine Captain America observing with Alexis de Tocqueville, “Despotism may govern without faith, but liberty cannot. How is it possible that society should escape destruction if the moral tie is not strengthened in proportion as the political tie is relaxed? And what can be done with a people who are their own masters if they are not submissive to the Deity?”
Originally published at Acton Commentary