To the non-comic book initiate, such as myself, Steve Rogers’ transformation from true blue American hero to civilly disobedient libertarian surprised me, but it really shouldn’t have. In Captain America: The First Avenger, Dr. Erskine asked Steve Rogers; “So you want to go overseas and kill some Nazis?” to which Steve responded; “I don’t want to kill anyone. I don’t like bullies, I don’t care where they’re from.” Steve hates when some people use force to dominate over other people. Understanding that stopping bullies, no matter where they’re from has been his motivation throughout the Marvel Cinematic Universe, what’s surprising is how long it took him to realize that government is the biggest bully of them all.
Steve Rogers’ Anti-Authoritarian Journey
Steve Rogers’ greatest moments are when he defies authority. After the experiment to turn him into a super-soldier succeeded, the Army put him on stage and toured him across the country as “Captain America” in order to sell war bonds. He knew that anyone could play “Captain America” on stage, but he had a special set of skills that the Army wasted by ordering him to perform. While on tour in Europe to boost troops’ morale he discovered that his best friend Bucky Barnes and hundreds of other men were captured by Hydra forces, and against the orders of his Superior Officer he decided to rescue the captured men. Coming back with all of the captured soldiers was enough to convince the Army that he would be a valuable asset in the war and he fought as the Star-Spangled hero until a he was forced to crash a plane into the arctic with himself aboard.
In “The Avengers” a research team found Captain Rogers and discovered that he’d been in suspended animation for 70 years. They thawed him out and woke him up and recruited him to work for SHIELD. When Loki steals the Tesseract from SHIELD Steve dedicates himself to helping SHIELD and stopping Loki, but he doesn’t even question SHIELD’s motives until Tony Stark points out that the story Nick Fury tells them doesn’t hold water. Steve defends SHIELD to Steve, but the seed of doubt had been planted and he goes snooping around the helicarrier anyway, and discovers that SHIELD had been reverse engineering Hydra weapons in order to use the Tesseract to make weapons of mass destruction. Though Tony is unsurprised at the government’s seediness, Steve feels betrayed.
Captain Rogers, despite feeling some malaise, continues working for SHIELD in “Captain America: Winter Soldier”. He discovers with Natasha Romanoff that Hydra had grown as a parasite inside SHIELD because the US had brought over Hydra scientists during “project paperclip” (which really did happen during WWII with Nazi scientists). Armed with that knowledge, Steve begins to understand that SHIELD is too dangerous to exist and insists, against the protest of Nick Fury that SHIELD and Hydra must both fall.
After Ultron destroyed Sokovia, in “Avengers: Age of Ultron”, politicians decide that Superheroes have acted independently for too long and the Avengers are faced with three options; submit to the UN’s Sokovia Accords (which would deploy the Avengers only at the vote of a UN council), retire, or continue operating at the risk of being imprisoned. Steve knows after his experiences with SHIELD, that government bodies like the UN are not only aggravatingly slow, but also dangerous. The Accords are meant to hold the Avengers accountable, but who holds the UN council accountable? The council will vote on when to send the Avengers out, but what makes a UN council’s judgement any sounder than the Avengers? Steve realizes that the stated goals and the effects of the Sokovia Accords are drastically different, which makes his opposition to them the clear choice. Despite the Accords prohibiting him from interfering, he still tracks down Bucky, defends him from Black Panther, recruits others to help him, and flies to Siberia to stop what he thought was Zemo’s plot to unleash evil super-soldiers on the world, and to top it all off he ends up breaking his friends out of a prison they should never have been sent to. Throughout the film, Steve takes civil disobedience to a super-heroic level by flatly rejecting to be controlled by arbitrary government edicts.
A Real World Anti-Authoritarian Journey
Captain America’s journey to rejecting political authority mirrors many people’s real world path, including mine. In October of 2008 I turned 18 and voted for Barack Obama. I was enchanted by his soaring speeches and his apparent concern for the least well-off in our society. I got emotional when I heard him give his acceptance speech. I was a true blue believer in government’s power to defend the little man against the bullies of society. In June 2009 I left to serve a 2 year overseas mission where I focused only on religion. I didn’t read any current events or political philosophy at all (much like Cap’s 70 year nap after downing his plane in the arctic). When I returned things hadn’t gotten noticeably better. “Surely” I thought, “2 ½ years is enough to effectuate the hope and change we were promised.” Nevertheless, I still believed in the federal government’s power to help people.
A while later I had a roommate who explained to me that President Obama had just signed the 2012 NDAA, which authorized the president to kill anyone without a trial as long as they are designated as a terrorist threat. I felt betrayed. Obama had taken a tactic I would have expected from Bush (my own personal vision of Hydra at the time) and amplified it to even more terrifying extremes. My trust had been shaken.
After this betrayal I was given a book that tore down my belief in government as the savior of the poor and the downtrodden. This was “The Law” by Fédéric Bastiat. He explains that the protection of Life, Liberty, and Property are why laws exist in the first place, but that laws often go beyond that end, thereby threatening the Life, Liberty, and Property of the very people it was set up to protect in the first place. The scales had fallen from my eyes. Like Captain Rogers after “Captain America: Winter Soldier”, I could see government for what it was; an organization of bullies.
The final shots of Marvel’s “Captain America: Civil War” show Steve Rogers emerging from the darkness to liberate his fellow superheroes from a prison specifically designed to hold those who broke the Sokovia Accords. When he emerges he no longer sports his Star-Spangled uniform, but wears all black. He still fights for freedom, but he understands that fighting for freedom and defending your government are inimical.