Civil War: Icons vs. Iconoclasm
I think I’ve finally realized why I’ve been so unimpressed with the Captain America movies, and it came after watching Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and the recent Captain America: Civil War. If you’ve followed comic book history and lore, then you can probably notice the common threads between Captain America (Steve Rogers) and Superman (Clark Kent). For the most part, they are both heroes of superior physical strength and have become known for their equally superior moral fiber.
But their recent representations in film have lead to some interesting conversations. One in particular centers on whether or not Superman is being torn apart as a character in the most recent films. Now I’m sure this conversation has extended to the depiction of Captain America.
Since their conceptions, Superman and Captain America have represented hope, justice, and bravery. They’ve been bastions of morality and truth. They’ve been symbols for the most part. However, that’s the thing. They’ve been icons, and I use that term in all its senses, including religious.
For those that don’t know, icons were an art form made popular by the Byzantine and Eastern Christian Churches to depict heavenly figures. In the past, it was angels and biblical figures. In the 20th century, we have Superman and Captain America coming to life, and today, we have a problem. As much as we have veneration for icons now, we also have an abundance of iconoclasts. Iconoclasts are those who question the status quo and that includes the icons that have taken a stable place in our collective imagination.
Which leads me to my main point; Batman vs. Superman and Man of Steel are excellent representations of Superman and his narrative, and Captain America: Civil War is the best representation of Captain America and his narrative. Why? The main reason is because both of these icons are represented in a manner that is realistic.
Pause. I’m going to wait for the wave of screaming and scoffing to subside. Are you done? Good. Now as I was saying, the two recent films have done a great job of representing Superman and Captain America in a way that replaces the iconic image with one that explores their actual psychology and realism as characters.
Let me make this clear. There’s nothing wrong with a hero being morally upright. There is something wrong with no one questioning what makes that character’s moral stance the right one.
Both BvS and Civil War center on the idea of superheroes being restrained because of their power. They feature institutions that ask crucial and realistic questions. What gives these individuals the right to take matters into their own hands and subsequently change the world in the process? And who is going to hold them accountable if something goes wrong?
That’s where the iconoclasts come into play, the characters like Batman (Bruce Wayne) and Iron Man (Tony Stark). In their respective films, both of these characters represented the perspective that challenged the moral authority exercised by characters like Superman and Captain America. They represented a side that can often be pushed out of the frame when it comes to maintaining an idealistic vision of iconic characters.
The thing about BvS and Civil War is that these movies actively question their protagonists’ positions. They don’t subtract the moral fiber of Superman and Captain America, but instead they add aspects of their characters that might be deemed unappealing. They add aspects that bring these icons down from their exalted versions. They acknowledge that a moral compass can be subjective even when it’s possessed by a great figure.
For Superman, it’s his sense of doubt and questioning his effect on the world that makes him more human. He genuinely doesn’t know if he’s doing the right thing. He’s demonstrating the behavior of an individual that was raised by humans and has lived among humans, and we must also remember that Kryptonian behavior doesn’t stray too far from human patterns. Compassion has been a cornerstone of Superman’s heroism. Now self doubt is joining it, thus making Superman into a fully developed character that is easier to connect with. Despite his greatness, Superman has moments of not quite knowing what to do, just like any other person.
Now for Captain America, it’s his sense of loyalty to his friend and his blatant trust in his own moral compass that makes us and the characters around him question him. The superhuman patriot made the decision to circumnavigate established institutions and did it successfully. Sure, he was right about trusting his friend, but at what cost? People were afraid of Bucky for good reason, yet Captain America valued protecting his friend over that fear. Iron Man’s criticisms are rooted in the human perspective that has a necessary concern with the superhuman.
Both of these instances show the icons taking questionable actions where they lose a central aspect of most iconic heroes: confidence. It’s often overlooked, yet expected, that our heroes have a confidence about them that encourages us as fans to have confidence in them. It’s the only way we can accept this one individual asserting a position of authority in such matters.
Now, as much as longtime fans of both characters criticize this version of Superman and any other hero that has been seen as idealistic, I hope they understand that this sentiment is the same as finding out that your longtime hero is flawed just like the rest of us. Superman lacking confidence in some of his decisions makes him realer, and Captain America not being on the right side of the law, if there is a right side, also makes him realer.