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Henry Farrell on What Captain America: Civil War Gets Wrong about Global Politics

May 12, 2016 by Andrew Young

In a piece for The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog, Henry Farrell examines the new Marvel Comics movie Captain America: Civil War through a lens of global politics. While the filmmakers set out to make this outing of the Avengers as realistic in its portrayal of the likely real-world ramifications of superheroics as possible, Farrell finds that, although the film is “very good and highly entertaining,” it does does not always succeed in accurately portraying the likely global impacts of the Avengers’ exploits.

First, Farrell notes the tension arising from a group of unelected vigilantes playing an outsized role on the global stage:

“The famous comic book author Frank Miller has attracted a lot of controversy for depicting DC superheroes such as Batman as authoritarian fascists. Even if Miller’s personal politics are dubious, he has a very good point. No one elects superheroes or gives them a democratic mandate. Instead, superheroes grab authority for themselves. This is why superhero movies and comics are often set in situations where democratic politics is failing or has failed. If society is collapsing, then any source of order (even if it’s individuals donning capes and becoming vigilantes) may be better than chaos. Superheroes are nearly always individualists — something that science fiction author China Miéville parodies in Scrap Iron Man, where a collective of unemployed Michigan steelworkers combine “to face down the sociopathic authoritarian fascist arms-dealing corporate billionaire who left Flinton to rot,” Tony Stark.”

“Democratic politics and superheroes have an awkward relationship. It’s notable that supervillains often try to build political influence (think Kingpin in Netflix’s “Daredevil” TV series), but superheroes pretty well never do. Having a democratic office — in which voters give the elected official a mandate of authority and limits on that authority — is pretty well antithetical to what superheroes do.”

He then describes the likely political ramifications of a superhero team with little concern for  national sovereignty:

“The individualism of superheroes works even worse with global politics, which are based on the core idea of state sovereignty. On the one hand, state sovereignty means that outsiders aren’t supposed to intervene in other states’ internal affairs. As international relations scholar Steve Krasner has argued, this ban is partially hypocritical and is often broken by powerful states. It still offers some protection from outside interference. On the other, state sovereignty implies that states should have a “monopoly on legitimate violence” within their borders. Individuals should not be able to legitimately engage in violence without official state sanction.

The Avengers challenge both of these core assumptions. They are based in the United States but seem happy to intervene in other countries — for example, setting up a covert operation in Lagos, Nigeria, at the start of “Captain America: Civil War,” apparently without the permission of local authorities. Even within the United States, they act violently without any official sanction. Their intervention would be very damaging for international norms and politics, suggesting that individuals have unlimited authority to do whatever it takes, without asking the permission of states, as long as they have fancy suits or powers and are pursuing tesseracts, genocidal robots, mercenaries and the like.”

Read more here.