Despite the big “Whose Side Are You On?” marketing campaign, the Captain America: Civil War didn’t really do much to sell us on the merits of either side. Choosing a side was about as nuanced as “Which Hero Is Your Favorite?” And that’s fine. These movies aren’t trying to be ponderous explorations on what it means to be a hero. They’re rollercoaster rides of one-liners, fanservice, and face-punching. They keep the story breezy, the action flashy, and they dial everyone’s personalty up to 11 until the different character archetypes bounce off of each other.
But the debate of what should be done with super-powered heroes in a world of super-powered villains is a good one. So let’s go over it. This will just cover act one spoilers for the movie and isn’t going to get into the twists of the story or how it all turns out. I don’t think I’m going to spoil anything that hasn’t been shown in the trailers.
The Avengers show up and stop bad guys. That’s their job. But sometimes there are casualties, and there’s always expensive property damage.
Whether or not those casualties are the fault of the Avengers or whether they could have been prevented is largely irrelevant to the in-universe debate. It’s an important point for the audience, but we have a view of the proceedings that nobody else in the world has. The people who live in the Marvel Cinematic Universe just turn on the news to see a bunch of shit all blown up and are left to form their own opinions.
Note how anytime there’s a major disaster in the real world, the news inevitably turns to the question of “What could our leaders have done to prevent this?” Even if the standing leaders did as good as could reasonably be expected under the circumstances, the opposition party will probably try to make the case that their party could have done better. There will always be the expectation that leaders “do something” or “have an answer” for how they can “make sure this never happens again”. Without getting into politics, I’m sure we can all think of examples without needing to bring them up.
So it’s reasonable that governments in the MCU will feel the need to “do something”, even if that something is uninformed, an over-reaction, or symbolic.
I don’t think the UN is ever mentioned by name, but you can see the UN-ish influence to the proceedings. A bunch of countries get together and make a gigantic document – the Sokovia Accords – that says that The Avengers need to be put under the command of some governing body.
Iron Man agrees. Captain America disagrees. The first thing this new governing body wants to do is kill the Winter Soldier, who looks pretty damn guilty of trying to sabotage this international treaty / agreement / whatever this thing is. Captain America is convinced he’s innocent. Just to keep things interesting, The Winter Soldier really is a crazy assassin who can be mind-controlled in certain situations. Steve Rogers (Captain America) and Bucky Barnes (Winter Soldier) were childhood friends, and also served together in World War II. Everyone else they knew from their youth has long since died of old age, which gives them an emotional connection that is probably complicating an already muddled situation.
So Iron Man and Cap are at ideological odds (pro / con Sokovia Accords) and are also opposed in short term goals (neutralize / protect Bucky) and each of them thinks they’re on the right side.
Bucky complicates this debate quite a bit. Whether or not he’s guilty of the attack in this movie, it’s common knowledge that he’s guilty of a lot of other killings. Technically he’s been mind-controlled and is thus not totally responsible. But that doesn’t mean he should be running around free. But brazenly assassinating him – which some people are trying to do – isn’t really an acceptable alternative.
Ideally you’d want to bring someone like that in for observation, debriefing, and detainment. Bucky’s presence in the story creates various situations where everyone is wrong due to overly-emotional decisions. Screen Rant makes a pretty good case that the Sokovia Accords is actually just a great big red herring and the real plot of the movie is just a battle of emotions between Rogers and Stark. So let’s remove the emotional stuff – and the Winter soldier in particular – from both sides of the equation and think about this debate without everyone’s unresolved grief and PTSD creating situations where everyone needs to punch each other.
Case for: Captain America
What They don’t say: In the previous Captain America movie, Cap found that the U.S. government had been infiltrated by Hydra and he’d been working for the bad guys all along. Not just any bad guys, but the group that is literally worse than literally Hitler. This fiasco nearly caused the death of millions. That’s a pretty good reason for staying independent.
What They Say Instead: Captain is mostly focused on saving Bucky. He offers a few platitudes about doing the right thing and not wanting to sign an agreement that would make him compromise his principles, without getting into a discussion of what that situation might look like or how likely it is.
This is a tricky problem. Even setting aside that the USA of the MCU was infiltrated by super-Nazis, governments are not always awesome at governing. A hundred different countries are in on the Sokovia Accords. It’s reasonable to assume a few of them are sketchy third-world hotspots with corrupt leaders and a long history of internal turmoil.
Maybe the corrupt nation of Elbonia will let Hydra forces build a base inside of their borders, where the Avengers – bound by the limits of the Sokovia Accords – won’t be allowed to attack. All it takes is for one of these hundred or so countries to find a loophole in this massive document and they will be able to keep the Avengers from doing their job. And this document was written quickly, as a reaction to public outcry, by a committee. The chances of this document being perfect are much lower than the chances of the Avengers being perfect.
Imagine Admiral Nefarious is our super-villain of the week. The Avengers get intel that he’s planning to attack some rural hospital in Elbonia to kidnap the virtuous Dr. Helpless McDamsel. The Avengers request permission to go to the hospital and thwart this plan.
The Elbonian government doesn’t give a shit about Dr. Damsel. What they’re worried about is that the Avengers will see the new palace that the king of Elbonia is building with all of the foreign aid money that he’s supposed to be using to feed his people. Maybe the Avengers will see the mines that run on slave labor. Or the military base the government insists is a milk factory. So the Elbonian leaders start asking questions: When will your operation take place? What is your target location? How will you get there, and what locations do you need to fly over? Which Avengers will you send? Also please don’t enter any of the ten dozen “nature reserves” within our borders. Also you’ll need to submit for a search before you leave. This negotiation drags on for hours or days, and in the meantime Admiral Nefarious enacts his plan and escapes.
Then later some “terrorists under the command of a super-villain” (meaning a local militia of abused workers under the command of an escaped political prisoner with an eyepatch) attack the train that carries the ore from the Elbonian Unobtainium mines. Elbonia demands that the Avengers come and save them from this “super-villain”. The mines are the backbone of the wealth that keeps this rotten government in power. It’s a safe guess that the Avengers wouldn’t want to go around knocking over local governments, even if they are corrupt. But defending those governments? That’s arguably even worse.
The point is: If you allow yourself to be controlled be evil people, then evil people will co-opt your power and only allow you to use it when it benefits them. You will become an agent of oppression.
Case for: Iron Man
What They don’t say: In the most recent Avengers movie, Tony was fooling around with super-science and accidentally made an army of killer robots that wanted to destroy the world. The Avengers stopped Ultron, but hundredsThousands? I don’t remember. Anyway. Not important for our discussion. died in the fighting. This makes a really good case that there needs to be someone responsible babysitting the Avengers. Tony would be attracted to this idea because it would allow him to displace a bit of the blame and soul-crushing guilt that would naturally be bearing down on him. It’s not my fault for being irresponsible, it’s society’s fault for not having good government oversight and policy! I can’t do this on my own!
What They Say Instead: “We need to be put in check”, and “Without limits, we’re no better than the bad guys.” Iron Man expresses guilt over one person who was collateral damage in one of their fights. That’s about the most inept way you could possibly argue this point. I understand why. We need Captain America to be the good guy for the audience, and we don’t want to muddle that with nuance.
It’s pretty unreasonable to expect that super-beings should be allowed to run all over the world, killing people and blowing stuff up without any regulation or oversight. They routinely cross national borders without asking for permission or even identifying themselves. Like I said above, only the audience knows that the Avengers are actually good people who are doing their best. To the rest of the world, the Avengers are a bunch of English-speaking westerners. You’ve got a billionaire, a guy who wears the American flag, a guy who turns into a monster that can do Godzilla-level damage to a city, and a bunch of other unidentifiedTo the public. operatives of unknown abilities and loyalties. Lots of people around the world could come up with reasons to hate these people, even before they start wrecking cities.
So of course there needs to be someone watching over them.
Even if the governments of the world accept that the Avengers are flawless (which they certainly don’t) there still needs to be someone keeping track of where the Avengers are going and why. If Elbonia calls up and asks why four city blocks of their largest city was trashed, you can’t just reply with “None of your business.” You need to explain what the Avengers were trying to accomplish and what reason they had for doing all of that property damage. The people of Elbonia don’t get the awesome ringside seat that we do. They just know the Avengers beat up some loony in a funny costume.
Even if the Avengers are flawless now, the fact that Hydra infiltrated SHIELD shows that pretty much any organization can be compromised. The more power the organization has, the more tempting a target it will be.
What if The Avengers are infiltrated by spies? What if someone gives them bad intel that sends them on a mission that ends up doing more harm than good? What if one of the heroes gets mind-controlledLoki, Scarlet Witch, and Hydra have all demonstrated mind-control abilities.? What if one of them goes rogue? Without someone to hold accountable, you run the risk of a bunch of quasi-invincible people will end up causing chaos all over the world and you won’t even be able to tell the bad guys from the good guys.
Actually, They’re Both Right
If you wanted to be snarky, I suppose you could argue that Tony Stark needs supervision and Steve Rogers doesn’t. The ending seems to agree with this conclusion, although I don’t know if that’s deliberate. In any case, this dodges the question. Which is fine. The movie does, too.
The argument – which the movie doesn’t deal with – is over whether the super-team as a whole should be regulated. The problem you run into is the same problem you get when you create any kind of regulatory agency.
A world with no police is bad, but a world with corrupt police is worse. A world where we don’t have soldiers to defend the borders of our kingdom is bad, but having those soldiers under the command of someone evil is worse. Having restaurant inspectors is a good way to keep our food safe, but having corrupt restaurant inspectors that just extort money from eateries without actually inspecting the place is worse. Having unregulated, unaccountable Avengers would be irresponsible, but having an Avengers answer to a corrupt leadership would be worse.
You can put your governing bodies under the control of another governing body, but then who will govern them? Another governing body? Congratulations, you just created a bureaucracy. Their sheer size makes them more vulnerable to bribes and coercion, and even when everyone is honest you still have trouble making decisions and adapting to problems because of organizational momentum. Maybe that’s okay if we’re just talking about traffic laws and building inspectors, but when we’re talking about aiming the wrath of the worlds mightiest heroes, you really don’t want to have to submit an operation proposal to the review board and wait for the Avengers Action Committee to convene before you can decide if you should go punch Thanos in the face.
There is no good answer. Especially since this is a fictional universe that runs on conflict, so all roads lead to chaos. If you leave the Avengers free, that will lead to more super-fights. If you regulate them, it will lead to more fights.
Although given the damage they did at the airport, putting them under the command of a random boob off the street would probably be better than allowing them to continue blowing shit up with their temper tantrums.
 Thousands? I don’t remember. Anyway. Not important for our discussion.
 To the public.
 Loki, Scarlet Witch, and Hydra have all demonstrated mind-control abilities.
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