Superheroes are fascinating. They’re ciphers for big ideas — Superman represents our hope that ultimate power and ultimate compassion can exist in the same person. Batman represents our anger at the injustices of the world. Spider-Man represents our struggle to live up to responsibilities. The X-Men represent our battles with prejudice, bullying, and sexual politics.
The not-so-sublimated big idea explored in “Captain America: Civil War,” which I saw over the weekend, is one that resonates with me.
The movie found a $182 million opening in the United States as comic book fans flocked to side with either Team Iron Man or Team Captain America.
The central conceit of the script is that the Avengers founders are at odds over how they should be held accountable for their actions (remember “Age of Ultron,” when they accidentally crash-landed a floating island on the heads of innocent civilians?).
Iron Man believes the heroes, who are basically a private militia with bigger guns than any government, should not be allowed to roam where they please, unleashing deadly powers domestically and abroad, answering to no one and operating outside the law. Captain America disagrees, saying he feels in his heart he should be able to hold the scales of justice in his own hands.
It goes a little something like this:
Iron Man: “Hey, we can’t just go blow things up whenever we want. It’s not ri…”
Captain America: “You’re not my dad! You can’t tell me what to do!”
It’s an oddly uncharacteristic tack for Cap to take. For decades, he’s been a New Deal liberal fighting for the little guy and holding lex rex — “the law is king” — as his highest ideal. But here the movie casts Cap as a libertarian god set on ignoring the rule of law, the very Constitution, when it’s convenient.
He wants the power to police without being policed. Or as Spidey might say, he wants great power without great responsibility.
There is a great quote uttered by Captain America in the comics and echoed in “Civil War”: “This nation was founded on one principle above all else: the requirement that we stand up for what we believe, no matter the odds or the consequences. When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth, and tell the whole world — ‘No, you move.’”
That message is tempting but hollow. It preaches that individuals have no moral responsibility to anyone but themselves.
And it’s measurably false. In truth, this nation was founded on one principle above all else: “…that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed….”
“No, you move,” sounds good because we want to hear it. But at its core, it is zealotry. It is a child’s temper tantrum.
I revere our heroes — police, military personnel, and other public servants — when they are the biggest supporters of the law. I revere them when they operate with transparency and openness and integrity. I revere them when they place upholding the Constitution above upholding their own personal beliefs.