While this summer’s Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ant-Man wrap up Phase Two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, next year’s Phase Three will rocket the MCU toward a tumultuous new status quo, one in which the superhero community will be cracked in half. Captain America: Civil War promises to adapt the popular comics storyline that pits heroes against each other over issues of oversight, use of force, and privacy vs. security. Should masked heroes have to answer to the government, or does that defeat their very purpose? It’s a genuinely interesting question that can be argued well from either side, and the comics never truly resolve it in a satisfying way. However, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the folly of an organized superhero army has been forecast from the beginning, as, time after time, large institutions of power have proven corrupt, ineffective, and lacking in humanity.
In the original comics crossover event, tragedy convinces Tony Stark to lead a movement that would compel all superheroes to join together as a government agency for better training and oversight. The issue creates a schism within the masked community, with Captain America at the forefront of a resistance that fears what will happen when secret identities become public record and the government dictates who the villains are. Over the course of the story, Stark undercuts his own argument by resorting to drastic, inhuman measures to win the war, while Cap eventually surrenders rather than prolong the destructive conflict. While Stark’s registration movement becomes the status quo for a short time, nobody walks away from Civil War looking like a hero, and the question of whether or not superhero registration is a good idea is never truly answered.
The morality at play in the Civil War storyline already seems much less ambiguous in the Cinematic Universe. It’s a theme that’s remarkably consistent throughout nearly all of the MCU’s films and television series that power corrupts sprawling organizations more easily than it corrupts individuals or small groups. This is a common, almost necessary conceit in superhero stories. After all, if the existing, real life institutions tasked with protecting the public (the police and the military) were totally effective and trustworthy, then there would be no need for superheroes at all. Portraying the military, police, and intelligence community as corrupt or paranoid also provides superheroes with a credible obstacle, allowing even gods from other worlds to play as underdogs in certain contexts. Superheroes function best as incorruptible icons, able to protect us without making the ugly compromises that our real defenders are forced to make on our behalf every day.
From the very beginning of the MCU canon, in the first Iron Man, Tony Stark represents the worst qualities of the military-industrial complex, before becoming something new and better. As an arms dealer, Stark feeds off the cycle of violence that pits endless throngs of “good guys” against unrelenting “bad guys” with no end in sight. He’s not interested in peace (“I’d be out of a job with ‘peace,'” he quips in the film’s opening minutes), he’s interested in providing the US military with the biggest, most advanced weapons, and in reaping a tidy profit as a result. It’s only after seeing the damage that his life’s work has done in Afghanistan—and how easily his weapons can fall into the wrong hands—that he really starts to care about making a positive difference in the world.
Tony orders Stark Industries to stop manufacturing weapons, instead focusing on energy and advanced technology. He builds the Iron Man suit, which has endless military applications, but a brief chat with his friend Air Force Colonel James Rhodes is all it takes to convince him that the military is too narrow-minded to be trusted with the technology. So, he goes it alone, liberating a village under siege by terrorists more efficiently and with less bloodshed than the existing military could manage. When the US government demands that he hand over the armor to them in Iron Man 2, he refuses, partly out of ego, but also because he knows that there’s a limit to the amount of damage that he, as just one man, can do, but that handing his tech over to an institution like the military, who wields authority over millions, could do far more harm than good.
And of course, in Iron Man 2, Tony is proven right, as the military’s attempts to replicate his Iron Man tech end in disaster. The government turns to the slimy, corrupt Justin Hammer to create a whole army (and navy, and air force, and marine corps) of powered mechanical soldiers. Hammer takes shortcuts, recruiting Russian criminal Anton Vanko to build his army for him, which is immediately hijacked and used for terrorism. The only other person who’s able to wield Tony’s power responsibly is Col. Rhodes, not because he’s a solider, but because he’s an honorable individual who can think for himself.
Independent thought is not something that’s valued very highly in the military, as the military depends on rigid adherence to orders and absolute trust in the chain of command. But while that trust can be a strength, it also means that one high-ranking individual with evil or misguided intentions can easily corrupt the group under their command, and cause a great deal of suffering on a large scale. In The Incredible Hulk, General Ross is dead set on capturing runaway scientist Bruce Banner and weaponizing his mutated, super-powered cells. It’s a personal quest for Ross, but he isn’t just one man on a mission, he’s a command-level officer with soldiers and advanced weapons at his disposal. In their pursuit of the Hulk, Ross’s forces invade Brazil, stage an assault on a college campus, and unleash an even worse monster—special forces fighter-turned-wannabe Hulk Emil Blonsky—into the world.
The short film The Consultant reveals that not only did General Ross suffer no serious consequences for these actions, but that Blonsky—who tore up Harlem just for kicks—is considered a war hero by the World Security Council, and is even on the shortlist to be an Avenger. (Knowing that this is a terrible idea, S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Nick Fury tasks Agent Phil Coulson to sabotage negotiations for Blonsky’s release, forcing the council to settle for Banner/Hulk instead.) These mammoth institutions of power cover for each other, ignoring and even endorsing reckless endangerment of the public as long the ultimate goal is to advance military interests. And the conventional military is hardly the only corrupt branch of public servants in the MCU: consider the Hell’s Kitchen precincts of the NYPD in Daredevil, the government-sponsored AIM in Iron Man 3,and the Nova Corps corrections officers in Guardians of the Galaxy, just to name a few.
That members of defense institutions can often prioritize their loyalty to one another over their responsibility to those they serve can have serious consequences. Nowhere in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is this more obvious than in the rise of the terrorist group Hydra from within the ranks of S.H.I.E.L.D., which came to a head in the first season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Over the course of decades, Hydra (a group that splintered off from the Nazis during World War II) manages to operate in secret within the ranks of the very institution tasked to destroy it. This doesn’t happen solely through outside infiltration; S.H.I.E.L.D. agents are often indoctrinated into Hydra by their peers and their immediate superiors. This is the case for Agent Grant Ward, who is recruited in secret by his supervising officer, John Garrett. Believing the best way to protect the public is to essentially enslave them, Garrett, Ward, and countless other agents rise up and use S.H.I.E.L.D.’s own resources to try to conquer the Earth for Hydra. They are eventually thwarted, in large part due to a small, independent team led by Captain America.
Hydra believes that order is only attainable through absolute control over the public, and they are willing to kill millions to do it. But the obviously evil Hydra isn’t the only institution to think in such cold, calculating terms. Throughout the MCU canon, the more lives an organization is held responsible for, the less value they find in each individual life. In The Avengers, the World Security Council orders a nuclear strike on the heart of Manhattan on the off chance that it will halt the alien Chitauri invasion. Tasked with safeguarding the entire planet, the loss of one of Earth’s most populous cities is considered acceptable collateral damage. S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Fury thinks differently, believing that his Avengers (just six people) have a better chance of saving both the city and the planet on their own, and they are ultimately successful.
A similar situation occurs in Thor: The Dark World, when Odin, King of Asgard, expresses his willingness to sacrifice each and every one of his soldiers if that’s what it takes to stop the Dark Elf Malekith from wielding the devastating Aether. Since success for Malekith would spell the death of every life across the nine realms, Odin’s approach isn’t entirely illogical—better to lose an entire army than the entire galaxy—but it isn’t a very compassionate one either. Thor, crown prince of Asgard, urges Odin to consider a more precise approach, in which Thor and his brother Loki would attempt to stop Malekith on their own. Odin refuses, but like Fury before him, Thor rejects cold pragmatism and attempts his own plan anyway. Again, Thor and Loki find success, and spare potentially thousands of lives in the process. Realizing that Odin’s numbers game may be a necessary tactic for a ruler, Thor abdicates the throne rather than accept such grim responsibility.
Within the logic of the real world, the idea that a handful of individuals who have neither legal authority nor real accountability would do a better job protecting the world than armies and governments may seem pretty laughable, but within the internal logic of the Marvel films, it’s reinforced time and time again. Superheroes are more effective at saving lives, making smart choices, and avoiding the temptations of absolute power than the defense or intelligence communities have ever been. Captain America can’t command armies to lay down their lives or commit atrocities because, technically, he can’t really command anyone (his former lives in the Army and S.H.I.E.L.D. notwithstanding). When Tony Stark goes too far, he doesn’t have a gallery of yes men to protect him; his fellow Avengers will call him out for it.
But once the Avengers stop being a small emergency response team and start becoming a bona fide army, subject to the whims of corrupt politicians and secure in an echo chamber of fellow supersoldiers, it’s inevitable that they’ll mutate into something ugly, even evil, and it’ll be up to other superheroes (as always, small, unaccountable teams and individuals) to stop them. That conflict is one we won’t need to simply imagine for much longer, as we’ll more than likely see it play out on the big screen in the spring of 2016 when Captain America and Iron Man square off in Civil War. But unlike in the comics, where both causes were proven to be equally wrongheaded, the MCU has subtly, gracefully forecast a clear right and wrong side to the conflict, and will likely demonstrate that Tony Stark’s vision of a registered and regimented superhero community is doomed to fail.