Is it weird to call Captain America an anarchist? Yes, yes it is. Of course, there’s a ton of different versions of the character throughout the canon, from the hyperpatriotic and jingoistic to the I-hereby-renounce-my-US-citizenship-because-I-am-so-disgusted-with-this-government. “Captain America” is not so much an embodiment of America as he is an embodiment of whatever version of America the creators who are working on him at whatever moment think would be the ideal. So even though yeah, we’re talking about a guy called Captain America who wears a red white and blue costume, we’re not talking about AMERICA.
I’m going to call him Steve, though, because as much as I like the guy, it’s still hard to be like “yay Captain America.” I’m here to talk about why Steve is definitely right in Captain America: Civil War. Not just right, but a solid anarchist. There will be spoilers, sort of, but I’m not going to tell you who wins or anything and if you’re not too uptight about such things you can probably read this without having seen the movie first. You should see the movie though, it’s a good time.
As you probably know if you’re reading this article, the conflict in Civil War centers around whether the Avengers will or will not agree to the Sokovia Accords, which would give government agencies the power to tell them what to do and essentially turn them into a military/law enforcement organization, with any superheroes who don’t sign on being subject to arrest. Tony Stark, Iron Man, is for it, Steve Rogers is against it. They fight.
At first glance, Tony has a point. The Avengers are super powerful, and the idea of having their power limited and overseen by someone else is not an inherently bad one. The thing is, Steve’s position isn’t a simple, individualistic “I can do whatever I want and no one else is allowed to have an opinion on it” argument. Rather, he believes in total responsibility for one’s own actions. Tony wants to hand over control of the Avengers to a governing body so that he can avoid making hard moral choices, and so that the inevitable innocent bystanders who will be hurt or killed by giant Avenger vs aliens / random assholes / norse gods / whatever battles in the future won’t be his fault. Steve, in contrast, refuses to put himself in a situation where he would be following orders; he insists on maintaining personal accountability.
The histories of both characters (as portrayed in the Avengers films; I won’t be referring to stuff from any other canon) brings them perfectly to the point at which they find themselves in Civil War. That’s in contrast to the comics, where their actions are widely regarded as being grossly out of character. (Ok yeah I know I just said but that’s the last time I’ll do that I swear). When we first meet Steve Rogers, way back in the first movie and the early 40s, he is a highly moral person with a strong sense of right and wrong. What he lacks is any real power, because Chris Evans has had all his muscles and like 18 inches of his height digitized away. Despite that, he constantly does what he considers right and takes the consequences of doing so; he’s regularly beaten up by bullies he refuses to tolerate, even though he doesn’t actually have the physical strength to stop them, and he takes on constant humiliation and the risk of legal consequences as he tries to lie his asthmatic way into the army so he can fight fascism. Over the course of the first film, he gains the power to do what he knows to be right, and, in one of the most important lines of the series, Dr Erskine picks Steve to be the super soldier prototype in part because he is not “a soldier” who will do what he’s told but “a good man.” Even after the serum though, Steve doesn’t come into his true heroism until he stops doing what the army tells him to do, leaving his war-bonds-selling and troop-entertaining gig to rush off to help Bucky, his BFF/true love, depending on where you fall on the whole shipping thing, and essentially force the military to let him actually get on the ground and fight. Steve is defined consistently as a guy who will always do what he believes to be right, whether or not he has the ability to accomplish his goals, and whether or not anyone who is officially in charge of him actually wants him to do that.
Tony comes from more or less the opposite direction. When we meet him in the first Iron Man movie, he has immense power. He’s super wealthy, and also a genius. What he lacks is any sense of moral responsibility, and the first film deals with him coming face to face with the effects that the weapons his company sells actually have on the world. His response, to get out of the weapons business entirely, is not a bad one at all, but it proves to be the only type of response he knows how to make. When his suits become a problem, he destroys them. When, in Civil War, he realizes that the Avengers’ actions have killed innocent people, he frantically tries to hand over responsibility for the organization to someone, anyone, more trustworthy than himself. That’s not a bad impulse; it’s definitely motivated, at least in part, by a desire to see no more people harmed. But it’s also a cowardly, immature response, which fits with the way that Tony is set up throughout all the movies as stuck in a permanent adolescence. He may be smart, but the adult responsibilities that come with being a superhero (or just living a life, having relationships, etc) scare him. Ultimately, Tony’s way out doesn’t hold any real promise of preventing further harm, it just shields him from blame for the consequences of his actions.
Steve’s encounter with the harm done by the Avengers is actually much more direct than Tony’s. Tony is confronted by a grieving mother who lost her son to a battle between the Avengers and one of Tony’s science projects, and while he must have been aware that there were innocent casualties in that battle (a fucking city got ripped out of the ground and carried up into the sky; it was hard to miss), this seems to be the moment at which Tony start to feel bad about it. It’s significant that it takes a bereaved parent pushing a photo of her dead child into his hand for Tony to truly understand that his actions have consequences. In contrast, we see Steve standing right beside Wanda when she accidentally blows up a building while fighting bad guys. His response is to immediately call for EMS, which is a nice way for the filmmakers to let us know that, as soon as the mistake is made, Steve is looking for real ways to fix it rather than ways to distance himself from it, and that he’s able to instantly respond at all rather than just be paralyzed with horror and guilt, which, given her newbie status, is Wanda’s extremely understandable response. More importantly, when talking to Wanda about it later, even though he is trying to comfort her, he acknowledges that what happened was her fault, and his own as well. He knows they fucked up, and also that they need to own that, move on, and do better work.
When he refuses to submit to the Sokovia Accords, Steve is not being a cowboy; he’s being an adult.
And that right there is why Steve is right and Tony is wrong. Tony wants to dodge responsibility for his actions, and Steve knows that that’s not possible. Steve’s perspective is not only the more mature one, it also fits nicely with an anarchist outlook; he is fighting to keep his actions his own. He refuses to put himself in a position of taking orders simply to avoid the possibility that he might have to feel guilty for his own mistakes later. That’s anarchist as hell; his heroism and his mistakes have to be his own for any of it to have any meaning. He’s not going to put himself in a position of ever being tempted to say “it’s not my fault, I was following orders.”
Plus at the end he throws his red white and blue shield down on the ground and breaks his friends out of prison. He’s honestly one of the best role models you could hope to find.