ptain America: Civil War posits a really interesting question: Can superhumans be trusted with their powers, or should society try to control them? It’s a topic that’s worth exploring, and the film itself actually didn’t explore it nearly enough. I thought it was fantastic, but it still developed more into a character-driven conflict far more than any ideology-driven conflict; it became a very personal fight between Captain America and Iron Man, and the actual question was left in the air. It’s even more interesting when you consider how it would affect our own world. So let’s talk about it.
This isn’t a review of Captain America: Civil War, and while I’ll try to keep spoilers to a minimum I will talk about some of the events in the film. So here’s the answer.
Cap was right, for the wrong reasons. He made his choice based on his tendency towards headstrong independence, and stuck with it out of almost purely personal loyalty to his friend, but ultimately he was still right. Society cannot control superhumans, at least not in the way the Sokovia Accords planned to (or the Superhuman Registration Act, the cause of the comic book Civil War event on which the film is loosely based, which also included things like releasing secret identities). This doesn’t mean that superhumans can be necessarily trusted with their powers, only that they can’t be controlled.
I believe in a technocratic monarchy, in theory. In theory. The concepts of an enlightened despot and a technological hierarchy that can produce the best and most fair outcome for a society are really appealing. They’re also touched upon with Wakanda, but we don’t actually see much of that little high-tech nation outside of T’Challa and his rad vibranium suit. If we could have a power that we could count on to be better than the people looking after the people, it would be a great system.
Of course, that’s impossible and ridiculous, which is why democracy is the preferable system of government. We can’t count on an enlightened ruler looking after all of us with greater wisdom. We can’t count on captains of technology to guide society to a brighter age. Because those rulers and captains are, like us, only human. And even if they were superhuman, they still would be deeply flawed as people (again touched upon with the Black Panther’s rip-roaring rampage of revenge). No leader can be trusted to be morally superior to the people he leads, and a tyrant is just as, if not much more, likely to take a throne than a saint. We can’t trust a single force to look over us and our best interests, so we distribute power to the people and elect representatives at regular intervals to make sure the people are actually represented.
So, when dealing with people who have a great deal more power than the rest of humanity, they can’t be trusted to have that power, right? Well, that’s where the big problem with most superhumans comes in. Those people also generally didn’t choose to have that power, and can’t relinquish it. The Hulk can’t stop being the Hulk. Captain America can’t go back to being a gawky wimp. Tony Stark, a “mere human,” can’t even cut out the pieces of his brain that know how to make repulsor technology (and yes, I know all three of those things have happened in the past in the comics, but they never stick). And mutants/Inhumans can’t stop being what they are.
They’re also more powerful than pretty much any human being. Armies can’t take down the Hulk or Iron Man. Rogue Inhumans can infiltrate the most high-security locations on the planet. Even Captain America can disarm an entire police station if they try to take him in. In a world where superhumans exist, regular humans have to watch helplessly as gods walk among them (in some cases literally, depending on whether you think Thor is a god or just a poorly translated alien with great hair).
That’s where the question in Civil War leads us. What do we do with these superhumans who can’t stop being superhumans? That much power wielded by a handful of seemingly random people sounds like a recipe for disaster. And it is. But the alternative is much worse, especially when you go by comic book logic. Push the morality of locking up superhumans aside and consider the Sokovia Accords/Superhuman Registration Act and what they do. They put superheroes on a leash held by the UN in the movies and the US government in the comics. The power to command super powers is distributed so the decision can be reached by consensus. It’s another solution that sounds great on paper. It just invites catastrophic disaster when implemented.
What happens if a world-threatening force appears and there’s little intelligence to show to the people in control? They hem and haw and refuse to pull the trigger until buildings start falling. When you’re dealing with a Hydra plot or an alien invasion where only a few hints are being picked up by the Falcon who’s running on a hunch, the Avengers won’t assemble until it’s too late. Bureaucracy ends us all. With that sort of scenario, we need to count on Steve Rogers or Tony Stark to be, in the limited scope of commanding the Avengers, the enlightened despot the situation requires. Thanos doesn’t wait for a committee to vote.
That’s not even the worst case. In Captain America: Winter Soldier and the first season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., it was revealed that Hydra infiltrated the highest echelons of power. They controlled S.H.I.E.L.D., the World Security Council, and had plenty of agents walking the corridors of power in Washington. Even in Civil War, the ink was barely dry on the Sokovia Accords before Zemo managed to sneak into one of the most secure locations in Europe to steal his own super soldier. Captain America might be incorruptible, but the people who would give him orders certainly are. Steve made his decision based partly on pride, but after dealing with Hydra revealing it’s been pulling countless strings for decades, his refusal to follow another group of suits in a Skype chat is understandable.
After all of that, there’s still the fact that superhumans can’t be readily contained. It’s a good thing Thor and Bruce Banner bowed out of this discussion because their very presence would have broken it. The entire might of the U.S. military and S.H.I.E.L.D. has tried to put a leash on Banner and it’s failed. Sometimes it just used conventional weapons of war and Hulk shrugged them off, sometimes it made a monster nearly as strong as the Hulk but with even less of a moral compass to lead him. The really big guns can’t be captured unless they want to be, or unless the government gets equally big guns (which would involve something hilariously stupid like giving Norman Osborn carte blanche to remake S.H.I.E.L.D. in his own image).
Less powerful superhumans can be contained, but only at ridiculous expense in both money and morality. The Raft, a massive underwater prison, can hold people like Ant-Man, Scarlet Witch, and Falcon. If you have a mid-tier Inhuman, you can probably contain them in a padded white box in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s basement. But it isn’t right. This was a much bigger problem in the comics, which expanded the scope of the proposed superhuman regulations to all superhumans rather than just the Avengers, but either way it boils down to locking up slightly more-powerful-than-normal people in solitary confinement in an ultramax megaprison for refusing to take an oath, wear a badge, and follow a committee’s orders.
That leaves us with superhumans walking the streets. That isn’t a great situation, especially in New York where on Earth-616 you can expect to see Spidey fighting the Shocker or Big Wheel or Stilt-Man about as often as you walk by a Duane Reede. You’re dealing with lots of danger. At the absolute worst, you have an incident like Sokovia (or Genosha or Slorenia in the comics), where a city- or nation-leveling attack could kill hundreds of thousands.
Once again, we have the answer in the MCU. The death toll in Sokovia ended up being 177 when it could have been millions. That’s thanks to the Avengers, responding to a crisis quickly and using powers that simply cannot be commanded by any government. They neutralized Ultron and kept the deaths below four digits. That’s a victory, even if it led to the nations of the world trying to put a leash on them.
In a world with superhumans, we need Avengers, and we need them to be free from any sort of government or military structure. Because you can’t take superhumans out of the equation when they’re already there. You can only have a similar force ready to respond as soon as they can, to save as many people as they can. Every step you take to control the good guys weakens them, and the steps you take to control the really powerful bad guys without the help of those good guys just gets people slaughtered, either by those bad guys or by your own mistakes in trying to counter them by making your own pet super powers.
It isn’t perfect, and people will die from superhuman attacks and mistakes. No superhero group can save everyone, but they can at least be ready to try. And while they can’t save everyone, at least they can avenge them.