The central concern of modern politics is the extent to which the destructive, anti-social effects of neoliberal capitalism – most obviously those produced by the financial sector and fossil fuel industry – should be subject to public regulation. The most life-threatening activity within modern America—wide-spread and easily accessible gun ownership—is a relic of rampant free-market individualism. The results are grim.
The superhero genre (comics or film) cannot avoid the issues raised. Most superheroes, after all, are vigilantes. They have no legal sanction to do what they do, yet because the rules of the superhero story function in their favour they are seldom hunted down and arrested. The threats they respond to are always real, the actions they take avert a far worse injustice or disaster (sometimes genocidal), they never accidentally kill someone, and thus their actions are justified in the terms of the world they inhabit.
In the most famous example of police-vigilante collusion, Batman is given tacit authorisation for his activities by Gotham’s senior police official. In recent Batman stories Commissioner Gordon is criticised for this by the media and politicians, even investigated by antagonistic colleagues, but he always prevails, usually after a homicidal psychopath like the Joker is brought to heel by Batman. Christopher Nolan’s trilogy of Batman films placed its hero’s relationship to the law front and centre.
DC and Marvel rarely do the same. Superman, the Flash and Green Lantern carry on regardless. Grant Morrison’s iconic run on the Justice League simply made the League’s threats so cosmic they either never took place on Earth, or if they did there was self-evidently no other body than the League who could deal with them. Warren Ellis’s The Authority addressed it by frankly admitting that the Authority – An alternate version of the Justice League with added sexual diversity, radical politics and ultra-violence – were imposing their power on “bad guys”, and bad governments, simply because they could. As a limited series outside DC continuity it could do that. Mainstream heroes cannot, or at least not without raising intractable problems that would dominate future storylines.
Marvel has a double standard. On the one hand its “street level” heroes – Spiderman, Daredevil, Luke Cage – are routinely harassed by the media, the most obvious example being the Daily Bugle’s editor J. Jonah Jameson’s obsessive pursuit of Spiderman; and the X-Men are frequently persecuted by anti-mutant forces within government. On the other its premier superhero team, the Avengers, is granted enormous latitude.
Although the Avengers’ team roster continually changes it revolves around the “big three” – Captain America, Iron Man and Thor. Given the iconic nature of these characters, and the manner in which the Avengers operate openly from Avengers Mansion or Stark Tower in New York, a dramatic device is needed to explain their freedom to operate. Thus, since the 1980s, the Avengers have been a semi-official arm of first the American government and then the UN. They have official license to respond to major threats. Their status dwarfs that of local law enforcement or even national armed forces, and ensures support from inter-governmental bodies such as SHIELD.
The only real political difficulty was in Kurt Busiek’s daring 2001 storyline in which the Avengers’ government liaison insists they meet diversity criteria and have more black and minority ethnic heroes in their main 7-person roster. “All the founding Avengers were white,” he points out, “even the Hulk, when he’s not green”. Thor, not of this earth, finds the demand incomprehensible. Captain America frankly admits he is of a different era and not the man to oversee it. Iron Man concedes the group should be more representative of society but prefers “…it happen naturally, rather than by quota”.
Busiek carefully balances the issue by including a demand from anti-mutant bigots that the Avengers actively exclude mutants like the Scarlet Witch. For all the subtlety of the storyline, the main Avengers (Thor aside) are presented as well-meaning liberals, assailed by petty ideologues on both sides.
It is the great merit of the 7-issue Marvel “event” comic Civil War (first published in 2007) that it directly addressed, in a relatively adult and sophisticated manner, the politics of superhero regulation. Significantly, it was written by a non-American writer, Mark Millar, whose Kick-Ass and Wanted also gleefully deconstructed the tropes of the genre.
In Civil War a crisis of confidence in superheroes arises when a second-tier band of heroes, whose adventures are filmed for a reality TV show, attempt to take down some “super-villains” who are out of their league in order to secure higher ratings, leading to a catastrophic explosion in a suburban town which kills hundreds of people, including an entire infants school.
The disaster starts a public debate about the need to “register” superheroes to ensure they are trained and accountable to the public they are supposed to serve, encapsulated in the proposal for a “Superhuman Registration Act” (SRA) under which all who wish to behave as a superhero must first divulge their identity to the government, which will then train and license them.
The proposal splits the superhero community down the middle. At a meeting called by the Fantastic Four to discuss the issue, the Wasp (who is independently wealthy) decries the absurdity of “turning us into civil servants” with “pension plans and vacation time”. Others disagree. Interviewed on Larry King Live, She-Hulk – aka lawyer Jennifer Walters – asks of super-heroes, “Training them up and making them carry badges? Yes, I’d say that sounds like a reasonable response”.
The debate polarises around Iron Man (Tony Stark) and Captain America (Steve Rogers), with Stark regarding the accident as a “wake up call”. “Becoming public employees makes perfect sense if it helps people sleep a little easier” he tells his colleagues. Rogers, the man from the 1940s, sees the demand that superheroes disclose their identities and work only to government dictat as a fundamental attack on civil rights.
Significantly it is Stark, not Rogers, who has the personal effect of unregulated superheroics brought home to him. At a memorial for the dead, the mother of one of the children killed in the explosion slaps his face and blames him for her son’s death. Stark is shaken by the encounter and forced to re-think his assumptions. Rogers never has such an encounter.
Instead, his crucial moment is a stand-off with the new Director of SHIELD, Maria Hill. At first Hill believes that Captain America will help SHIELD enforce the new law, simply because it is the law, but Rogers disabuses her. He insists that superheroes must “…stay above all this stuff, or Washington starts telling us who the super-villains are”, to which Hill responds “I thought super-villains were guys in masks who refused to obey the law?”. Rogers then breaks out of the SHIELD Helicarrier and forms a group of underground heroes who refuse to abide by the SRA whilst continuing their activities.
Interestingly, the common position amongst American readers was that Stark was the “villain” and Rogers the “hero”. But the text does not bear this out. Stark’s arguments are logical and reasonable, whereas Rogers’s are emotional and dogmatic. It is clear that Stark is simply trying to control an impossible situation and respond to public concern. Later in the story the argument is skewed because Stark and his main supporters (Reed Richards and Hank Pym, the “intellectuals” of the Marvel universe and therefore, by implication, lacking Rogers’s simple humanity) make some dubious decisions and catastrophic mistakes.
After it becomes clear that the two sides are evenly matched Richards and Stark make a cyborg clone of the absent Thor to take down Rogers’s team, but it malfunctions and accidentally kills the second-stringer hero Goliath. Stark and SHIELD then grant a special license to jailed super-villains such as the homicidal Bullseye and Venom (controlled by nano-implants to ensure they do not go too far) to enforce registration. At this point Stark loses the moral high-ground.
But Millar is careful to balance every decision and compromise. Even the flinty integrity of Captain America is tainted when he allows the mass murderer Frank Castle, the Punisher, to fight for his side. Castle, who is already a wanted fugitive, joins Captain America’s team after Stark starts using super-villains to enforce registration. When two minor villains come to Rogers’s team for help against the government the Punisher casually shoots them both dead, whereupon an appalled Captain America beats him to a pulp. When one of the team wonders why Castle refuses to strike back, another answers “Are you kidding? Cap’s probably the reason he went to Vietnam”.
Millar’s most effective device (impossible to replicate in the film version as the Fantastic Four belong to another studio) is to bring the division in the Marvel fraternity down to the most intimate level – the marriage of Mr Fantastic and the Invisible Woman, Reed and Sue Richards. Sue, appalled at her husband’s complicity in creating the Thor-clone that killed Goliath, and after penning a poignant goodbye note, leaves Reed to his “graphs and social projections” and joins Captain America’s underground network.
Sue is presented as more emotionally empathetic, but is Reed actually wrong? In discussion with She-Hulk, who feels that he and Stark “gave us a future”, he cites massive public approval for the SRA and a subsequent decline in crime rates after the new “50-state Initiative” (a different team of registered super-heroes assigned to every U.S state) is rolled out. His points are never answered or refuted.
This is rich source material for a film, and is the basis of the recently released Captain America: Civil War. In the film the main issue is not superhero “registration” in the sense of revealing secret identies, but the need for the Avengers to place themselves under the “Sokovia Accords” agreed by 150 countries – in effect UN oversight, with the Avengers only allowed to do what an inter-governmental panel authorises them to do. As in the comic, Stark (who in the last Avengers movie created the Ultron robot that led to mass destruction in Sokovia) agrees that this is for the best. Rogers does not.
Naturally, in a film intended for a mass audience, the nuances of the comic are simplified. The final confrontation between Stark and Rogers, seemingly averted after they realise the entire situation has been stoked by a hidden villain, erupts because Rogers’s brain-washed friend the Winter Soldier is revealed to have killed Stark’s parents.
But neither Civil War the comic or Captain America: Civil War the film can disguise the vital political issue they raise, which is the extent to which important public functions should be publicly controlled and accountable, not privatised or subject to “light-touch regulation”. The notable achievement of the comic – and the film, to a lesser extent – is to base its drama around a real philosophical and political argument, and to give the protagonists on either side credible, understandable positions, neither of which is entirely “right” or “wrong”.
The final word should rest with Maria Hill, the salaried civil servant possessed of no super-power except her democratic political mandate. When Captain America stands before her in all his glory and tells her “Masked heroes have been a part of this country for as long as anyone can remember”, she brusquely replies “So’s smallpox. Now grow up and stop being an idiot”.