2016 has been a garbage fire of a year. The sentiment borders on cliché by this point, but it doesn’t ring any less false. Many noteworthy individuals have died, countless economic, social, and natural disasters have plagued the world over, and perhaps most troubling, the United States has endured a long, bitter presidential campaign that culminated in the election of despotic bigot and fascist who threatens to undermine the foundations of American democracy and destabilize the world as we know it.
But there’s one area where 2016 hasn’t been a total loss: cinema. There have been many great movies in the past year, including a culmination of the superhero genre: Captain America: Civil War. Much more so than that other superhero v. superhero cinematic experiment, Civil War is a masterwork of extended serialized storytelling, at once succeeding as a climax of many films’ worth of world-building and telling a tight, personal story amongst all the grandeur and spectacle.
Civil War is more than just entertaining. It taps into strong themes that obviously resonate with audiences more than just spectacle can account for. But sadly, it seems that a lot of people missed some of the film’s key messages as they left the theater. Civil War is an expression of mutual acceptance that runs counter to the bigotry that pushed Donald Trump to the White House, including policies of Muslim registration and restriction on Muslim immigration.
“But wait! Part of the point of Civil War is that both Captain America and Tony Stark have a valid position with regards to the Sokovia Accords. How can you claim that the film has a strong viewpoint?” To that, hypothetical reader, I say look first and foremost to the title of the film. Captain America: Civil War. Not The Avengers: Civil War. Not Captain America v. Iron Man: Dawn of Friendly Disagreements. Despite all the marketing hubbub of “Team Cap” and “Team Iron Man” being valid moral choices, when you sit down to watch the film, it’s the struggles of Steve Rogers we’re watching, and though Tony Stark’s motivations are presented sympathetically, he is the antagonist preventing Rogers and company from stopping the apparent threat posed by Zemo.
But what is it that Stark is advocating exactly? To refresh your memory, The Sokovia Accords are a superhero registration act enacted by the United Nations with the intent of preventing superpowered cataclysms like the one perpetrated by Ultron in Sokovia. According to Stark and U.S. Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross, the sponsor and biggest advocate of the Accords, the reduction in liberty and increase of mission control is a necessary precaution in ensuring heroes are not held to blame for those who would do wrong and are held accountable when they do cause harm. What this basically amounts to is blaming the saviors for the collateral damage necessary in doing their jobs, but at least in the case of Ultron, it’s clear that Stark has some accountability for creating such a dangerous force to begin with.
So how does this relate to the real world? Well, let’s look at the Trump administration’s proposed Muslim registry, an act that would potentially infringe upon the privacy and liberty of millions of Muslim Americans. Much like the superpowered individuals in Civil War, Islam has become the face of terror and mass destruction in American media and popular culture, but when you get right down to it, the overwhelming majority of Muslims are peaceful, average human beings. The reason Islam is the face of terrorism is that radical terrorist cells have co-opted Islam as both a recruiting tool and as an ideological scapegoat in the hope that Western powers will react in such a way as to justify their incitement. And actually, a Muslim registry would play directly into that objective, preventing the millions of Muslims who seek only prosperous lives and healthy communities from making positive change in the world. I’m talking about the real life heroes: Muslim police officers, Muslim firefighters, Muslim teachers, imams, and virtually any member of the Muslim faith who is true to that faith’s peaceful ideology.
Toward the end of Civil War, Captain America’s team is imprisoned in a secret detention facility for not registering with the Accords and for assisting the escape of Captain America and the Winter Soldier. Despite Stark’s insistence that the imprisonment of superpowered individuals like Wanda, the Scarlet Witch, is for their own protection, Hawkeye says it best when he points out that they have been made into criminals merely for being who they are and doing what they do. It’s no big secret the purpose of any registry of a so-called dangerous class of people is formed with the intent of removing those who pose a “threat” to the general populace (or, more likely, the governing administration).
And what about the relationship between Wanda and Vision, the former of whom feels her freedom slowly stripped from her while the latter fully supports the Accords because he believes they will protect Wanda from harm? Vision acts from a caring place that borders on paternalism, but it denies Wanda the autonomy to grow as a person or the freedom that non-superpowered individuals take for granted. Vision appeals to the uncontrollability of a person’s fear response, claiming that humanity can’t help but be afraid of Wanda, but it’s how humanity handles that fear that determines their moral standing. Wanda is right to fight for her freedom, despite how benevolent Vision is in his intentions, just as even if we give Trump and his supporters the benefit of the doubt, their desire to restrict the freedoms of an entire class of people is morally repugnant.
So why is it then that so many millions of people went to see Captain America: Civil War last May—some of them multiple times—only to turn around and vote against the morality of the film they loved so much? Civil War actually provides an answer for this as well. Take the film’s fantastic climax, wherein both Captain America and Iron Man discover that they have been manipulated against one another by Zemo. When this final battle begins, the logic of why the opposing sides shouldn’t be fighting ceases to be the driving force behind the conflict. Instead, raw emotion takes over, and Iron Man lashes out against people he intellectually knows aren’t truly to blame for his parents’ deaths, yet he feels are the ones responsible.
This is partially what happened in this year’s presidential election. Years of conservative media punditry and political scapegoating have painted the Muslim community as a violent and malevolent force, so when millions of Americans don’t feel their voices are being heard politically or that not enough is being done to contain a force they have been continually told is evil, they will vote for the person who claims they will take action against the scapegoat. Rationality dictates that Islam isn’t responsible for the collapse of some American industries, and common sense says that a community of over a billion people worldwide cannot possibly be an organized terrorist movement. And yet, rationality isn’t the driving force by which most people act. Emotions are.
Now, of course Captain America: Civil War is not an intentionally direct allegory to the American political landscape. That would be both remarkably prophetic and incredibly reductive. There are many reasons why people voted for Donald Trump, but it’s hard to argue that conservative scapegoating of the Muslim community isn’t one of them. And I won’t say that the morality of Civil War is a one-to-one commentary on American religious intolerance. As stated before, Stark does have a point about the inherent danger in superpowers, even if he is motivated by his own lack of poor judgment in using his own capabilities in creating Ultron.
But the villain Zemo said it best: “An empire toppled by its enemies can rise again, but one which crumbles from within? That’s dead… forever.” Say what you will about the polarity of the political party system in the United States, only one of those parties was openly advocating the reduction of liberties for entire classes of people. Our country is divided along racial, religious, and heteronormative boundaries, and we are witnessing our destruction at the hands of those who would divide us. If there is anything to take away from Civil War after the election, it’s that this gap needs to be bridged; but the Tony Starks of the world need to offer the first olive branch. Put the Thaddeus Ross on hold, Trump supporters. The rest of the country is awaiting your call.