no choice at all: the subtle feminism of captain america: civil war

Over the past few weeks, I’ve seen a number of articles floating around about the politics of Captain America: Civil War. From its US-centric viewpoint on global conflict resolution, to its potential signaling of a conservative swing in Marvel’s messaging, to its friends-turned-enemies similarities to Hamilton (fortunately without any of the emotionally shattering Hamilton-lyrics-imposed-over-Marvel-gifs images that are all over my dashboard on Tumblr), it seems like half the internet has an opinion on the deeper meanings that can be found within the script. As a comics geek and a political junkie, I’m 100% here for it, and hope to see a lot more of the same as more people see and discuss the movie. The Russo brothers did a fantastic job of creating a film that, despite previews suggesting that it might be a too-busy mess, explored a multi-faceted conflict with a complexity and attention to character over witticisms, which isn’t something you see a lot in superhero movies.

There’s one viewing of the film that I haven’t seen discussed, though, and considering how clearly it stood out to me, I’m surprised.


Unlike the Civil War storyline of the comics, which explored superhero registration and was a clear allegory to civil rights and liberties written at the height of the Patriot Act publicity and the early years of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the conflict of the film centers on the Sokovia Accords, a document placing the Avengers under the oversight of the United Nations. Written and signed by one hundred and seventeen countries following an incident in Nigeria resulting in civilian casualties, the Accords give the Avengers three options: operate under UN supervision, operate without sanction and face prison, or retire. The Accords are presented to the Avengers by Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross, who you might remember from The Incredible Hulk as the guy who thought Bruce Banner should become government property, and who doesn’t make many more friends on the Avengers team following his meeting with them. In favor of the Accords is Tony Stark, fresh from a run-in with a grieving mother of one of the victims of Age of Ultron‘s final battle in Sokovia. Pushing back is Steve Rogers, who, between the US government, SHIELD, Hydra, and the World Security Council, has understandably had enough of government oversight to last a lifetime.

Taken at face value, the disagreement over the Accords is a binary: to sign or not to sign, accept oversight or not. And, in all fairness, both sides make legitimate points: just as it is dangerous for a group of superheroes to be operating without supervision or accountability, it’s just as dangerous for world-saving action to be dependent on the bureaucracy inherent in government process (I think we can be fairly sure that NYC would have been leveled in Avengers Assemble if the team had to wait for the green light from a committee of 117 countries). But as the conflict unfolds, it’s clear that there’s another central aspect to the decisions the characters make: choice.

While Tony is the one who brings Ross to the Avengers compound to present the Accords to his team, it’s clear from the start that he didn’t have a part in writing them. The rest of the time meets the idea of the Accords with reactions ranging from open-mindedness (Rhodes) to fear (Wanda), from calculated equations (Vision) to apprehension (Sam), from careful consideration (Natasha) to immediate resistance (Steve). Steve’s reticence seems to come from his previous experiences with the World Security Council and Hydra’s hidden presence within SHIELD–he doesn’t trust a supervising body to make choices better than they could make them themselves. He asks the question directly: “What if they send us somewhere we don’t think we should go? What if there’s somewhere we need to be, but they won’t send us?” But before that, when Tony points out that perspectives change over time and that he shut down the weaponry division of Stark Industries when he realized it was causing harm, Steve delivered the line that set my little feminist heart to dancing:

“You chose to do that. If we sign this, we surrender our right to choose…We may not be perfect but the safest hands are still our own.”

Steve, along with Sam and Wanda, is already foreshadowing the potential pitfalls of the Accords. And less than an hour further into the movie, when Tony admits that he’s had Wanda confined to the Avengers compound under Vision’s watch before she’s made her decision on the Accords, Cap’s argument gains another point in its favor:

Steve: I’m not saying it’s impossible. But there would have to be safeguards.

Tony: Sure. Once we put out the PR, there’s documents that can be amended. I file a motion have you and Wanda reinstated.

Steve: Wanda? What about Wanda?

Tony: She’s fine. She’s confined in the compound currently. Vision’s keeping her company.

Steve: Oh God, Tony! Every time. Every time I think you’re seeing things the right way…

Tony: It’s a 100 acres with a lap pool. It’s got a screening room. There’s worse way to protect people. She’s not a US Citizen and they don’t grant visas to weapons of mass destruction.

Steve: Protection? Is that how you see this? This is protection? It’s internment.

With the Accords in place, Wanda not only loses her freedom, but her humanity–she is reduced to her powers, her agency and personhood stripped away.

This wouldn’t be the first time that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has dealt with agency and control–from Hawkeye in Avengers Assemble to Black Widow in Age of Ultron to the Winter Soldier in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Civil War, Marvel’s heroes have had their choices stripped away in one way or another throughout the films. But this is the first time that we see a “good” character in their right mind have their rights taken away by a governing body, and had that decision depicted as a legitimate action. As the movie goes on, and we see the rest of Team Cap (Hawkeye, Falcon, Scarlet Witch, and Ant-Man) thrown into the RAFT prison–aptly described by a Tumblr user as “the place the government puts you when they want to kill you but they can’t”–presumably without trial or legal representation, the consequences of the Accords keep spiraling.

Here’s where the underlying feminism–specifically the underlying pro-choice ideology–of this movie comes into play. When the Accords are first presented, both sides seem to be, if definitely opposing, at least fairly reasonable. There are arguments to be made for government oversight, just as there are arguments to be made for the Avengers operating on their own terms. When anti-choice ideologies began picking up statutory support in after the 2010 midterm elections, pro-choice activists warned that the consequences of such legislation, from clinic regulations to waiting periods, could have a devastating impact on individual and public reproductive and economic health. Regardless of whether the intention behind the legislation was motivated by concern for fetal life or a desire to restrict reproductive freedoms (and there’s a venn diagram there, no matter which side of the divide you’re on), the side effects have been nightmarish: women have been jailed for miscarrying, forced into c-sections, and charged with feticide following suicide attempts unrelated to pregnancy. The relative absence of women on the committees and legislatures at both state and federal levels that draft and pass these bills has been cited as a major factor in the lack of empathy for pregnant people often shown in the language and consequences of the legislation, but at the heart of the matter is the prioritization of the perceived interest of the state over the agency and choice of individuals.

As with most issues–the conflict of Civil War included–whether or not either side is “right” at the beginning of a debate becomes less and less important as consequences begin to spiral out of control. Over the course of the years of the abortion debate, the few legitimate arguments in favor of restricting reproductive freedoms prior to viability have been entirely eclipsed by the sexist, often violent rhetoric of its advocates and the acts of violence and domestic terrorism against healthcare providers. The salient points that Tony makes when he introduces the Accords at the beginning of the film are quickly overshadowed by the way Ross and Stark enforce them: putting Wanda under house arrest, refusing legal counsel to Steve and Sam, imprisoning Wanda, Clint, Sam, and Scott in the sort of prison designed for life-sentence prisoners without human rights. The hypothetical benefits of the Accords are outclassed by its methods, and there’s no indication that the civilian bystanders of the world are any safer at the end of the film than they were at the beginning–one could argue that they’re less so, with at least one superhero grounded due to spinal trauma and several more with varying degrees of personal trauma and increased distrust in their fellow heroes. Maybe the Avengers completely governing themselves with no oversight wasn’t the perfect course of action, but by the end of the film, it’s damn clear that the enforcement of the Accords was the wrong one.

I don’t believe that the Russos set out to write a movie about personal agency that subtly lent support to the pro-choice position by showing the immediate and sometimes deadly consequences of creating legislation that undermines agency, personhood, and choice. The world of the MCU isn’t safer with Wanda Maximoff in a cage, and the world isn’t safer when pregnant people are stripped of their bodily autonomy and reproductive freedom. Civil War might not have passed the Bechdel Test, but as far as I’m concerned, it gave us a pro-choice Captain America who was willing to fight for the importance of choice. That’s a feminist movie to me.


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