Andrew Raves: Tony Stark Was Right

 In: Rave > 2007
 Posted: 2007

The advertising tagline for Marvel's Civil War crossover event is "Which Side Are You On?" As taglines go, it's not bad. It's intended to resonate, I think, with the often-inchoate feelings Americans have about their own historical Civil War: namely that each side had important values and ideals for which it fought; that the conflict involved good people, who held sincere and well-thought-out moral positions; and that those positions ultimately could not be reconciled. That is to say that Americans feel their own Civil War was quite literally a tragedy.

The reasons these feelings are usually inchoate is because it's hard to come out into the open and say that the American Civil War was a conflict between two sides whose positions were of equal merit. One side in that war fought to abolish slavery; the other fought, sometimes only implicitly but often explicitly, to defend that institution. And today slavery is something that seems indefensible. So these days, even though Americans often refer to the American Civil War using language that suggests it had a tragic dimension-- usually in deference to the feelings of Southerners-- it is also usually the case that Americans speak of the North as being on firmer moral ground. However one feels about the people who lost, there's no doubt that the good guys won.

A similar dynamic is at play in Marvel's own Civil War. Again there are two sides, each lined up for a principle. Tony "Iron Man" Stark's pro-registration forces argue that superheroes should register their secret identities and their powers with the government. Superheroes should do this not only because the law says they must, but also because it is the right thing to do: power must be held to account if it is to be exercised justly. Steve "Captain America" Rogers' anti-registration forces argue that superheroes act to preserve the public good. If superheroes register with the government, they will perforce become part of the government. They would have to fight to preserve the government, not the country... and there will often be a distinction between the two.

Because Captain America serves as a metaphor for American liberty, Marvel's writers have typically cast the debate as a conflict between liberty-- superheroes acting privately as they see fit, because they are free-- and accountability: superheroes acting on the behalf of the state, and accountable to it. But in this context speaking of liberty is muddying the waters: what is at stake here is actually a conflict between justice-- superheroes acting to secure what is right as they see it-- and law: superheroes acting within a public framework to achieve what is right as described by the state.

The resonance with the American Civil War is that while the rhetoric surrounding the story implies a moral equivalence, in practice the storytellers know for sure which group is on the side of the angels. In a neat inversion, while in the American Civil War it was the rebels who were in the wrong, defending what was indefensible, in Marvel's Civil War it is the rebels who are in the right: Captain America and his band defy U.S. law and refuse to register. It doesn't matter that both public opinion and the government insist on superhero registration: Cap and his band are following their own consciences. They know the pro-registration side is wrong on the issues, and they refuse to obey an unjust law. (Because of this inversion, Civil War finds support for the anti-registration heroes by drawing allusions to other key periods in the American historical imagination: the American Revolution and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.)

One doesn't need to read Civil War very closely to figure out which side the writers are on. Captain America, the character who has long served as the moral centre of the Marvel Universe, was opposed to registration from the very beginning and serves as leader of the anti-registration forces, while the morally ambiguous Iron Man leads the other side. Marvel's most popular superheroes, Spider-Man and Wolverine, were initially pro-registration, but later changed sides, and their defections proved to be key dramatic climaxes of the story. Steve Rogers' behaviour has been portrayed as selfless from the very start: the most damning charge laid against him (in Civil War: Front Line and Civil War: Casualties of War-- Rubicon) is inflexibility: he stands for what he thinks is right, and damn the consequences. But if this sort of inflexibility is a vice, it is a vice that pretty closely resembles courage, valour, and all sorts of virtues, so much so that it seems a mild condemnation.

Tony Stark's motives, on the other hand, have never seemed pure. In fact Marvel's writers have been so eager to portray him in shades of black that they can't seem to agree what his sin is. Just why does Stark believe so firmly in registration? Some writers say it is a desire for self-aggrandizement, to gather more power for himself. Some say it's greed: registration has provided Stark Enterprises with a host of government contracts, making Stark himself an even richer man. Or maybe it's not no-bid contracts, it's stock-market manipulation, with Stark using his inside knowledge of the government and the superhero community to engage in a binge of insider trading. The most charitable account is that it's the sad circumstances of his own history. As an aristocrat, born to money and power and adept at gaining more money and power, Tony simply can't disentangle what is good for him personally from what is good for everyone else. As a dry drunk-- an alcoholic who abstains from drinking-- Stark has good reason to mistrust unfettered power in his own hands, which leads him to want to take power out of everyone else's hands too.

Interesting as these insights into Tony Stark's psychology are, they are immaterial to the philosophical problem that Civil War poses. Either Stark is right on registration, or he isn't, and the content of his character has nothing to do with the matter. Much the same may be said for the methods he's chosen to adopt. As we've seen in the main Civil War books and in Amazing Spider-Man, the pro-registration forces are using extremely questionable means to pursue their ends: superheroes who refuse to register have lost the right to legal representation and due process, and are subject to indefinite detention in extra-national, extra-legal detention camps. Those camps are in the Negative Zone, not Guantanamo Bay, but they might as well be.

As a commentary on contemporary developments in real-world American policy, this portrayal is as stinging a critique as the funnybooks can deliver. As a contribution to the philosophical debate at the heart of Civil War, it's beside the point. Certainly what Tony Stark is doing to opponents of registration cannot be justified. But the reasons he's doing it cannot be rejected. Upon close examination, it's clear that the right answer to the question "which side are you on?" is "Tony Stark's."

The short version of the argument would go like this: what superheroes do is use violence. Sure, sometimes they avert or mitigate disasters or catastrophes, but mostly what they do is hit people. (Or fry them with lightning bolts, or optic blasts, or some other hugger-mugger.) In a moral sense, the question of which people they hit is very important-- the answer is what divides heroes from villains, for example-- but in a political sense, it doesn't matter at all: what matters is that superheroes are using violence. And it's been a fundamental principle in the West for centuries that violence is exclusively the prerogative of the state. In some political traditions this principle emerged earlier or later, but in the Anglo-American tradition it dates back to the sixteenth century at the latest, well before the emergence of British America, to say nothing of the United States. In Anglo-American political theory the state derives its legitimacy from a very small set of sources, one of which is that it protects citizens from violence. Private use of force, except in cases of self-defense from imminent harm, is thus unacceptable. The citizen's renunciation of violence is among the most important of civic duties.

Citizens don't give up recourse to violence lightly. They do it because they expect that in return for their forbearance, the state will use violence on their behalf. They also expect that when the state does use violence, it will do so at the right time, in the right way, and against the right people. What citizens expect is the proper use of force, and the only way to be sure that force is wielded properly is if it is wielded by institutions which can train their members in how to use force appropriately, and can hold those members accountable if they fail to do so. The cops and the army don't hand out sidearms to anyone who wants to join; one has to be trained first. And if their recruits use that sidearm improperly, the institutions will not only take it away, they'll punish those recruits too.

All of this is elemental political theory, and it's all on the pro-registration side. What are the arguments against registration? They're pretty threadbare. Registration with the government is an infringement of liberty. Yes, it is, but so is paying taxes or submitting to a driver's test. No one seriously disputes those infringements on liberty as being unjust. So the real question is whether registration with the government is an undue infringement of liberty. And if driving a car is sufficiently dangerous to the public as to merit government oversight, than surely so is super-strength or the ability to shoot venom bolts.

But registration entails being drafted into SHIELD. Isn't that an undue infringement? Many countries, notably Israel, still impose a military draft on their citizens, and the USA, the UK, and Canada all had a draft within living memory. Such a requirement, though out of step with the drift of public life in recent years, hardly seems outrageous or unthinkable.

Registration implies treating citizens differently because of their genetic (and in some cases, even ontological) backgrounds. Such treatment, just like racial profiling or eugenics or Jim Crow laws, is inherently unjust. Justice, of course, implies treating equal things equally and unequal things unequally. It's clear that the colour of one's skin or the nature of one's religious confession or one's sexual preference for one gender rather than another does not affect one's ability to fulfill one's civic duties or participate in the life of the community. That's why limiting people's civil rights on the basis of those qualities is unjust. But, again, super-strength and venom blasts are another matter. Treating people differently on the basis of these qualities doesn't seem unjust to me. What matters is how you treat them differently. Forcing metahumans to register doesn't seem unjust to me because it speaks to the way they are different from other citizens. But denying them due process does because it doesn't speak to that difference.

But doesn't registration expose superheroes to danger on behalf of their enemies? Marvel readers who occasionally stray to the other side of the street may remember DC's recent series Identity Crisis. In that story the Justice League's secret identities became known to some of their foes, who were poised to take advantage. Some Leaguers proposed using hugger-mugger to erase that knowledge from their foes' minds; but Superman demurred. "We freely chose to become heroes," he said (I'm paraphrasing) "and we have to bear responsibility for that choice. We can't make others take on that responsibility for us." Superman plays the role of moral exemplar to the DC Universe, and I think he did a better job in this instance than Captain America has been doing recently. If Peter Parker, say, isn't comfortable doing his job in public, where he may be held accountable, and responsible for his actions, and yes, putting his loved ones in some degree of risk, then he shouldn't be Spider-Man. To be Spider-Man in that surreptitious fashion would actually be irresponsible, which Peter, if anyone, should appreciate. J. Michael Straczynski, speaking in Aunt May's voice, made this argument in recent issues of Amazing Spider-Man, and did so very effectively.

The arguments fall heavily on the pro-registration side. So why are Marvel's editors and writers refusing to engage them, and setting up the anti-registration folks as the real heroes? Not because of the strength of the anti-registration case. And having established that the arguments on offer here are flimsy, we're now safe in looking to the psychology of the case. Not the characters' psychology, of course, though certainly we can imagine that a number of Marvel's characters would in no way be inclined to register, especially at the point of a legal bayonet. No, the psychology in question is that of Marvel's creative team.

I don't know any of the folks who make up that team, of course, but I have a few armchair theories. One would be that these people are strongly influenced by their sense of what superhero comics are all about. Secret identities and vigilantism have been fundamental tropes of the superhero mythos from the very beginning. Secret identities allow readers a way to identify with superheroes imaginatively. They make it easy to balance the fantastic elements of the story against a mundane grounding, so the fantastic doesn't become stale. Combine secret identities with vigilantism, and they allow us to fantasize about escaping into a world of power and drama while retaining a link to our everyday lives. The Spider-Man mythos has until very recently depended on the dichotomy between the day-to-day grind of Peter Parker's life-- sick aunts, girlfriend troubles, marriage troubles, employment and money troubles-- and the far-out, wondrous world where Spider-Man spins webs, crawls up walls, and fights guys who can throw lightning bolts, turn into sand dunes, and wear fishbowls on their heads. It's the loss of that dichotomy that so disturbed the fan community in the wake of Civil War #2: what has heretofore been the heart of the character seemed to have been ripped out.

It's reasonable to ask what the long-term consequences of Spider-Man's unmasking will be to the stories we tell about him. I haven't been disappointed so far, though: the ramifications of Peter Parker becoming a public figure have been the most interesting things to happen in the Spider-books for years. So I'm unconvinced that respect for these tropes can carry all the explanatory weight in this case. What else might there be?

Ultimately it comes down to the fact that Marvel is an American comic book company whose primary market consists of American consumers. As literary critics have long observed-- Toni Morrison and Richard Slotkin come to mind immediately-- the most deeply rooted American cultural values are mistrust of authority and mistrust of institutions. From the Puritan captivity narratives through the tales of the frontier to the Western, and in turn to the private eye, American heroes have always been self-sufficient loners. Institutions hold them back, blunt their creativity, fence in their freedom. American heroes know that institutions are at best inherently stifling; at worst, they're actively oppressive and dangerous. This attitude is so common as to have become cliche. Consider American comic books, or television, or genre fiction. When was the last time you can recall a government, a military, or a large corporation being portrayed as straightforwardly benign? Not recently, I bet. The closest I can come to such portrayals is of World-War-Two-era platoons, or police-department squadrooms: small bands of people loyal to each other more than to the institution in which they live (World War Two platoons are these days always portrayed as bands of brothers who have little use for any officer above the rank of NCO, for example.)

As go the soldiers and cops go the superheroes. They spend their days fighting rapacious corporations, tyrannical or corrupt governments, bloodthirsty militaries. The argument that they should in fact join the military-industrial complex, instead of maintaining a wary distance, is extremely at odds with the attitudes of people writing the stories and the people who buy them. This last explains why a Briton like Mark Millar can be head writer on Civil War; he knows which side his bread is buttered on. Not to mention the fact that Millar, like the other writers and editors on the project, is in essence a freelancer in the notoriously cutthroat publishing industry. Such people come by their suspicion of corporations honestly.

Civil War #7 comes out soon, and will provide some resolution to the registration crisis (or at least I hope it will). I've avoided ferreting out spoilers of what's going to happen, though I suspect they're out there if you want to find them. So I don't know how this Civil War is going to end... but I do know how I hope it will end. I hope it will end with the closure of the Negative Zone gulags. I hope that Marvel's version of the United States restores due process to its extraordinary criminals. (Actually, I hope that the actual United States does the same thing.) But I also hope that, while the story firmly rejects any suggestion that these proceedings were appropriate or necessary, it also affirms that the side that introduced them was right to insist that superheroes exercise their power in a responsible and accountable fashion. I hope that, in the end, Civil War suggests that Tony Stark was right.

 In: Rave > 2007
 Posted: 2007