Matthew Rozsa explores the political lessons in the upcoming “Captain America” sequel.
When future cultural historians look back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I suspect they will find the character arcs of Iron Man (aka Tony Stark) and Captain America (aka Steve Rogers) to be particularly fascinating. Whether intentionally or otherwise, each superhero has wound up embodying distinct aspects of our contemporary political zeitgeist, and I suspect that by the time “Captain America: Civil War” hits theaters next year, one message in particular will be prescient – namely, that ideological evolution is necessary for personal growth.
We can start with Captain America. When filmgoers were introduced to this new version of the character in 2011’s “Captain America: The First Avenger,” he was a wholesome and idealistic patriot, determined to enlist in the military and fight Nazi Germany during World War II. Over the next two movies, however, he gradually discovered that the institutions he once venerated could not be trusted: In “The Avengers” (2012), he learned that SHIELD was secretly developing super-weapons using alien technology; then, in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (2014), he uncovered a massive and unconstitutional government surveillance program that was covertly operated by the neo-Nazi organization HYDRA. By the end of “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” (2015), Rogers had become the official leader of a newly-reorganized SHIELD – and no doubt believed that, in light of the skulduggery he has seen over the past few years, real power could be more safely entrusted with him than anyone else.
This brings us to Tony Stark. In the first “Iron Man” movie (2008), Stark is depicted as the quintessential egomaniacal genius – casually brilliant, infuriatingly arrogant, ready with sarcastic quips and staunchly unwilling to subordinate his judgment or stifle his opinions. Despite evolving into a superhero by the end of that film, Iron Man doubled down on these qualities in its sequel (2010’s “Iron Man 2”), particularly in his steadfast refusal to turn over his suit to the United States government (these scenes, for what it’s worth, were almost certainly inspired by the right-wing individualism of Ayn Rand). Although he learned some humility in “The Avengers” and “Iron Man 3” (2013), Stark nevertheless retained this anti-authority streak throughout those stories, with his character arcs focusing more on his inner life than the external consequences of his actions.
“The Avengers: Age of Ultron” changed all of that. In his zeal to create a new kind of artificial intelligence, Stark unwittingly unleashed a force that nearly destroyed the human race. Clearly that experience taught him a powerful lesson – namely, that one man’s ambitions and ideals, no matter how meritorious, should not be allowed to go unchecked. As he aptly puts it in the recently released trailer for the new movie, “If we can’t accept limitations, then we’re no better than the bad guys.” The actor who plays him, Robert Downey Jr., offered additional insights in a recent interview with Empire Magazine:
“The clues are in Ultron about where we might find him next, but what would it take for Tony to completely turn around everything he’s stood for, quote-unquote, because he was the right-wing guy who could still do his own thing. The idea of Tony being able to march into Washington and say, ‘I’ll sign up’, wouldn’t have made sense if the political climate in the real world hadn’t shifted the way it has. It’s a little bit of things following a real world continuum in, ‘What would you do?’”
Considering that the 2016 presidential election will be fully underway when “Captain America: Civil War” is released into theaters, it’s likely that political commentators will ascribe left-wing and right-wing motives to the various superheroes in that film. While such analysis is hardly unwarranted, though, it will be useful for them to remember that the two main characters each held their opposite’s position only a few movies earlier. Even as Stark and Rogers literally duel over their conflicting regulatory and libertarian principles, the two implicitly agree that it is necessary to reevaluate one’s views when life experience seems to indicate the necessity for doing so.
Similarly, I suspect that the 2016 presidential election will force many Americans to seriously examine their own ideological assumptions. On the Democratic side, the likely nominee is Hillary Clinton, who embodies (albeit imperfectly) the left-of-center ideology that became America’s political status quo after the election of Barack Obama in 2008. The Republicans, meanwhile, are vacillating between three equally radical right-wing alternatives: Donald Trump, the business entrepreneur turned outspoken racial reactionary; Ted Cruz, a champion of the Tea Party with a knack for self-promotion and Machiavellian maneuvering (hence why I personally suspect he’ll be the GOP’s ultimate pick); and Ben Carson, a darling of the Christian Right whose campaign is currently imploding before our very eyes.
In light of the stark contrast (no pun intended) between the ideologically conventional Clinton and her extremist counterparts on the right, it stands to reason that this will be an election in which every thoughtful American needs to carefully weigh their options. It will not be enough to simply rely on traditional partisan allegiances; because our era is going to provide us with such a drastic choice, every one of us needs to be open-minded about who we are, what we believe, and how we want those beliefs to shape the future of our country.
This is the lesson that we can learn from Captain America and Iron Man next year, regardless of which side wins that particular civil war… or, for that matter, the impending titanic struggle between Clinton and Cruz/Trump/Carson for national power. If there was ever a superhero movie that matched its moment in history, it will be “Captain America: Civil War.” One can only hope that history is listening.