Saturday, May 7, 2016

#TeamIronMan, #TeamCap, and the Power of the Law

I'm a late-blooming fan of comic books. Actually, you could say that I've not really arrived as a fan yet, since I still don't read comic books. But I love the Marvel movies (DC has some good ones--I'll admit, but the fan-love isn't as universal for me), and particularly I love the way the Marvel movies wrestle with human flaws in the face of problems that are already too big to handle (human ego, conflict, and agendas notwithstanding). (No spoilers unless you didn't watch trailers)

Captain America: Civil War is no exception. It may actually be the best to come out of the Marvel studios yet. The division of an entire fan base into #TeamIronMan and #TeamCap (and those thoughtful souls who remained undecided) has created an entirely new kind of conversation in the comic book mainstream (of course, the comic book elite were discussing these things years ago). That conversation might take begin with the rights and privileges of heroes, and who gets to judge them, but it's filled with the nitty-gritty of human life: friendship, loyalty, conflict, leadership, revenge, and the ever-elusive notion of forgiveness.

My friend Ivan reflected well on being #TeamCap, and unyielding commitment to second-chance grace. Full disclosure: Cap definitely has that quality. That said, I went as #TeamIronMan and came home more convinced that I belonged to #TeamIronMan. Because the kind of grace and the kind of one-way love that can rescue Cap's friend, Bucky, cannot come from being held "not responsible" by his friend. It's admirable, loving, and a testimony to the power of friendship, but it isn't the whole story.

Civil War doesn't stand on its own-- there are are host of films that provide its wider context: two Captain America films, three Iron Man films, and two Avengers films (to say nothing of Ant-Man and the TV show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.). 

There's a long history already in place of Steve Rogers and Tony Stark trying to find their right place in the world and to understand their responsibilities and liabilities. They're two otherwise all-too-human men wrestling with the "weight of the mask" and they come to two radically different opinions on it. For Steve, the mask is his absolution, his call, his tool to use again and again to save a world he's still rediscovering. For Tony, the mask offers no such freedom and the power that it represents weighs him down (which is on full display in Iron Man 3); instead of absolution, it's the source of guilt and condemnation.

A lot has gone into making Civil War into Iron Man vs. Captain America. The trailers pivot on the heart-rending exchange of Steve and Tony:

 And we could stand around arguing their respective virtues, the rightness of their political philosophies and ethics, and generally cool abilities. But judging between these heroes is just plain dissatisfying, and doesn't do any service to the story. Because the real conflict isn't in vindictive statements, but in actual guilt. Tony, Bucky, and other heroes have a burden of guilt and responsibility. What makes me #TeamIronMan started with a general loyalty to the character. What closed the deal for me is the unwavering awareness of guilt Tony has--whatever the legal realities. Tony Stark knows that he is a man under the Law, and that under that Law, he stands condemned.

What's the fundamental difference between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark? Well, in their actions--and the consequences of death, loss and (to use a movie word) catastrophe, there isn't really a difference. But their confessions are a bit different, and while I am loathe to suggest that Steve Rogers is saying the prayer of the Pharisee, his self-justification has just enough of a tinge of "I thank you that I am not like other men" to deny the Law. What Tony Stark (and Bucky Barnes!) "get" is that they are responsible--culpable--for the things they have done, whether or not they were free to choose otherwise. Whether Steve will ever hear the voice of the Law and realize his own helplessness remains an open question--but his belief in the stalwart goodness of the human individual will have a high cost, if not.

So, I stay with #TeamIronMan because Bucky Barnes isn't the only one who needs a word of grace. Tony Stark, Natasha Romanov, and any number of the Avengers (whether or not they were in Civil War) are "hugging the cactus" and what they desperately need--like the rest of us--is radical absolution and one-way love to confront their guilt and set them free. That word isn't there for them in Civil War, but for the sake of all of us who have labored under guilt and tried to do good, I hope they get those Comfortable Words soon.
"Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." Matthew 11:28
"If anyone sins, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world." 1 John 2:1-2