Spoilers for Captain America : Civil War
As always, I feel like I should preface this with the note that I am not a big superhero fangirl. I don’t know the backstories; I don’t read the comics. I have a husband (hb) who does, but I only have room in my heart for so many fandoms, and there is no vacancy for superheroes, with their wonky plotlines and ham-fisted attempts to make statements about modern times.
I’ve always been slightly amused that hb’s particular favorite amongst Marvel or DC offerings was Captain America. Seriously, the flag-waving WW2 pin-up boy? That’s your go-to for in-character integrity? It’s particularly odd given our progressive politics, the relatively conservative chunk of the country (if not the town itself) we live in, and the frequency with which gorilla-esque chest-thumping nationalism runs up against the equally stubborn and narrow-minded distrust of everyone and everything that characterizes the paranoid culture of, for example, the co-op community. We live, as do most Americans, in a country of polarities, and Captain America as a concept seems situated far on the right side of that dumbbell-shaped spectrum.
But of course, that’s Cap as a concept. Not as a character. The very last lines of Captain America: Civil War articulate perfectly the newly-founded (since, I imagine, the launch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe — so, perhaps not that new) appeal, not just of Captain America but of this particular take on the Civil War arc:
“I guess I put my faith in…people.”
As opposed to, say, institutions. Or concepts. Which is to say, the concept of nation — the very thing Cap was concocted to stand for in the first place.
Marvel is smarter than to jeopardize their earnings by making this statement baldly apply to those in the military, but you can’t grow up surrounded by military people in the 1990s-2000s and not see them have to make a choice: blind frothing-at-the-mouth nationalism, or deep-seated cynicism about the state of the country they’d signed up to serve however many years ago. The very way they are trained — and the phrases they bring from that training into everyday parlance — downplay people as individuals and extoll the virtues of nation-as-concept. That, after all, is how you get people to die for you.
But when you’re a concept there is no singular you, after all — no individual deserving and receiving what is given, and thus no heart . However delicately Marvel makes the point, and however safely they couch it within a world of random fucking powers (don’t get me started on Scarlet Witch) and dime-a-dozen boy geniuses (more Spider-Man? someone get me a can of Raid ffs…!), they can in fact be read to be making it: placing your faith, trust and dedication into an institution, however necessary in modern times, will ultimately result in loss. Whether that loss is merely personal (the regret over decades’ worth of work destroyed in a single election year) or global (another war, and another, and another…) varies. But the net loss is there. That they choose no less than the golden boy of the Greatest Generation to be the instrument of this lesson is deliberate.
And it seems likely, whatever liberties they’ve already taken with the adaptation of the Civil War comics to movies, that Captain America will pay dearly for the teaching of it.
The explosion of posts about Civil War I waded through seeking that quote are, when critical, critical of there “being no contest” between Iron Man and Cap on this issue. I think that’s more telling of the people writing than their audience, honestly. I know plenty of people who would, and do, still come down on the institutional side of a concept-vs-individual trust model. The reasons they’ll give you supporting this choice tend to run along the “necessary evil,” “have to have faith in something,” “need to be part of something bigger than yourself” lines. It’s the kind of language you see everywhere, from Go Army ads to college brochures to church billboards.
But that’s the point: they’re all advertisements. Seeking to get something out of you. For however lofty the cause, what they seek is for a concept, an idea, which — as a concept or idea — stand ready to distance themselves further and further from the humans they purport to support, defend, or empower. That distance is why institutional loyalty is doomed to disappoint. The longer an institution exists, the more artificial an organism it becomes, growing away from those it was intended to help; turning in on itself, in a quest to become a kind of self-reproducing entity. I in no way think burning all institutions to the ground is a correct or helpful response to this — nor does Marvel draw Cap as someone who comes to this conclusion either. But I do think, at the end of a life, you will feel more full having put your trust in people, rather than investing all your love and devotion and loyalty into concepts like nations and organizations. They will not be there by your bedside.
Or, if they are, they’ll be holding a pen in your hand for you, guiding it steadily over the lines in your checkbook, telling you all the while what a great person you are.