Listen, I feel it too. It’s a tightness in our chests that is coming from the politics of the last few years. It’s scandal after scandal. Even 3 minutes on Facebook or Twitter threatens to turn you either into the Hulk or a sobbing gelatinous blob, so you instead become numb to it all.
We’re all dreadfully, painfully, wearingly tired of our current political discourse. But I’m hoping you can stay with me for just 800 more words, because Captain America: Civil War can help us understand our current politics by calling back to the politics surrounding America’s Revolutionary.
To do that, we need to dig into Hamilton the Musical. But the timing on that is ideal, as it is being released on Disney+ on July 3, 2020. (View trailer.)
Did Hamilton the Musical SPOIL the Script for Captain America: Civil War?
Like it or not, politics are often presented through pop culture, and comics have been no different. In fact, Stan Lee’s Soapbox often discussed the politics of the day in clear, direct, and uncompromising terms. So it’s not surprising that a movie such as Captain America: Civil War or a musical such as Hamilton has on-the-nose political theming.
First, let’s learn some nitty-gritty history. Between the years 1787-1789, statesmen like James Madison and Alexander Hamilton supported the proposed Constitution of the United States and were called Federalists.
They published The Federalist Papers, which documented the tenets of this early federalist political movement in an effort to promote the proposed Constitution and push it toward adoption. This is all covered impressively in Hamilton the Musical, and if you haven’t been able to get tickets to that, you’ll have to listen or catch it on Disney+.
The Federalist Papers were written because the authors believed in a strong and effective central government. Inspired by philosopher Thomas Hobbes, the Federalists aligned lockstep with the Hobbesian view of a social need for government.
This is important to note, as the Federalist view argues that the only way to secure a civil and just society is through willing submission to a set of checks and balances, which would provide a counter-balance to the self-centered nature of human beings. Accountability for the greater good, in other words.
If you can’t fully recall the movie, Captain America: Civil War begins with some nice explosions and punch ’em ups, then quickly begins to focus on the Sokovia Accords, which is an international agreement to provide oversight and accountability to superpowered individuals. A set of checks and balances, in other words.
The Avengers were torn on the Sokovia Accords and their disagreement split the Avengers into two groups. Iron Man signed the
Federalist Papers Sokovia Accords, hoping that submission to accountability would preserve trust among the world’s population, who has begun to see the Avengers as dangerous because of heavy civilian casualties.
Iron Man was chastened by the events in Avengers: Age of Ultron and was willing to submit to increased accountability and oversight. The drafter of the Accords, General Ross, spoke of the danger of superpowered individuals and the need for accountability: “If I lost a 30 megaton nuclear bomb, there would be consequences.”
But Captain America, using very Libertarian language, was adamant that sacrificing any freedom to the government creates bureaucracy or potential corruption that could undermine their ability to protect the people who needed them.
Iron Man could be seen to represent the Federalist belief that a strong central government is essential to preserving the trust and the will of the people. Captain America, on the other hand, represents other figures of American history.
There were Anti-Federalists in 1786, who were led by Patrick Henry of Virginia and Aaron Burr of New Jersey, among others, and they published their own papers, the appropriately named Anti-Federalist Papers. The Anti-Federalists wanted more power to the states as they feared that the presidency would drift into a monarchy.
The Anti-Federalists argued that when people lost any freedoms, it allowed the government to be masters of the people. Captain America says to Tony, “If we surrender, we give up our right to choose.” The Anti-Federalists rejected any idea in which individuals lost their voices.
Iron Man attempted to reason the importance of accountability and oversight, echoing the words of Thomas Hobbes, Alexander Hamilton, and the other Federalists. Indeed, Iron Man’s rationale resonated so well with these early Federalist ideals that one would certainly think this part of history was included in the writer’s research as the screenplay was being written. At the very least, the writers must have listened to Hamilton the Musical!
History shows that Alexander Hamilton responded to the Anti-Federalist arguments, offering assurances that the new nation described by the Constitution would indeed fully represent individuals despite its size and centralized structure. (Think: Individual voting, First Amendment, Bill of Rights, etc.) But says Tony, “If we can’t accept [some limitations], we’re no better than the bad guys.”
While there weren’t any pistol duels in Captain America: Civil War, there was some popcorn-worthy punching in the movie, and I’m thankful for that. In fact, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison predicted this conflict way back in 1787. In Federalist Paper #10 they wrote that “human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.” Called it, right there, they did.
But the fact that I write this from the United States of America and not the Confederated States of America is historical proof that the Federalist argument won the day, although it must be said that the Federalists genuinely acknowledged and compromised with the Anti-Federalist side of the argument, the proof being documents like the Bill of Rights that protected individual freedoms.
Yet, today, we are no longer as aligned with Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and the other Federalists as we thought. After all, Captain America: Civil War was a Captain America movie and not an Iron Man movie. This is significant. Had it been the name ‘Iron Man’ on the movie poster, the de facto hero of the story would have been Tony. But it being a Captain America movie implicitly grants a bias toward Cap, positioning Captain America on the “right” side. Binaries of good-bad are just the way narratives work in movies. At least Tony Stark wasn’t shot by Aaron Burr.
Particularly, Captain America represents not just perfect teeth, but as the following 200+ years only served to produce a deepening of this sense of individuality, most of us see strong individual freedoms as the pure and perfect American ideology, and bristle deeply at anything that could remotely be considered surrendering to group accountability.
So, Captain America went Anti-Federalist, saying that individuals (states in terms of history; superheroes in terms of the movie) needed to have full autonomy. Again, the fact that Captain America had his name on the movie poster (and the fact that his character is designed to embody America idealism) made this the through-line narrative.
Indeed, American history (and present demographics) clearly illustrate that different states have different needs. Anyone who has been to both West Virginia and California will tell you that those are two entirely different cultures and a one-size-fits-all model wouldn’t jibe.
In movie terms, Captain America’s team could operate like loosely confederated states with an Anti-Federalist agenda due to their own unique motivations. In short, the superhero community had no formal structure other than coming together when aliens invaded.
But the goal of Iron Man and his team in signing the Accords was to submit to a set of norms and rules to follow to insure they would have accountability and never operate in their individual interests, choosing instead to serve and submit to the greater good.
Interestingly, the story beat that Bucky was brainwashed by Russia (the Cold War subplots in the movie feel crazy relevant to current events, do they not?) was meant to serve as proof that Captain America was right. The movie showed us that only by going against the world’s governments was Captain America able to come at the truth. Fighting against political authority is a time-honored, audience-pleasing Hollywood trope, after all. Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists would be so sad right now.
The movie presented a narrative that positioned the heroic individual versus the heroic institution. Tony was willing to give up a little of his personal freedom in order to keep the team together and to maintain the optics of the Avengers as heroes in the eyes of the public. Cap was willing to punch others in order to not do that.
As a side note, the comic book version of Civil War had Tony set up a 50 state Initiative where each state had their own superhero team. This would have pleased the Federalists, who believed strongly in a centralized accountability, while also pleasing the Anti-Federalists, as it could give individual states more direct contact with their own superheroes.
The comics then ended with Cap surrendering as he recognized that the greater good and the safety of the public was more important than his ideological beliefs.
Yet the movie ended with Cap doubling down on his belief in the individual. “[Individuals] haven’t let [him] down yet,” he says, a “Stark” contrast as viewers had seen two Captain America movies in a row where governments had let Cap down.
There are no heroic governments or institutions, only heroic individuals, Captain America and his movie seemed to say. Ironically, it was written in The Federalist Papers that “if men were angels, no government would be necessary.”
Still, it’s interesting to see how our beloved movie franchises interact with history and the lofty ideals of Alexander Hamilton, who had a sincere belief that we are better united together than we are as individuals. In fact, I imagine that Alexander Hamilton would be really sad at the state of American politics right now.
But none of that matters because Anti-Federalist Aaron Burr shot him dead.