As of this writing, Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War is 2016’s biggest movie worldwide. If pop culture is our public religion (as per scholar David Chidester, for example) this blockbuster, emerging from what’s been called a “second golden age” of superheroes, offers religionists a lot to think about.
Religion scholar Jeffrey J. Kripal has called comics a “modern living mythology,” announcing the godlike potential of human beings. This idea resonates with famed comic-book writer Grant Morrison’s book Supergods, which argues that superheroes are “archetypal forces” suffusing human destiny with the divine.
According to these accounts, the culture of superheroes—or “enhanced” humans, in the parlance of the Marvel universe—is thus religion-inflected; superheroes help us envision and manifest our sacred selves, transcending the boundaries of the all-too-human.
And what of the superheroes in Captain America: Civil War?[Spoilers ahead…! –Eds.]
Here, these “enhanced” humans offer a kind of lens on the human, enlarging, for critical visibility, not only the virtues to which humans may aspire, but also human foibles and fallibility. In the narrative, Captain America‘s superheroes are called to account for the massive collateral destruction wrought by their well-intended efforts to save humanity from supervillains and otherworldly invasions.
The “civil war” announced in the title refers to a fracture within the “Avengers,” a rift between those superheroes willing to sign an accord to reign in their powers and those (like Captain America) who believe that doing so compromises freedom. The Avengers, a security force with beneficent intentions, has itself become a source of terror abroad, costing thousands of lives in the name of justice, security, and freedom.
The real-life references to American politics—with its entrenched fractures and factionalism devolving on debates around security and civil liberties—are not hard to discern. Arguments about the politics of the film are well underway.
Captain America is thus a complex moral tale and a multifaceted lens. But here I want to narrow the focus of this lens to a single, quiet scene within this cinematic spectacle, a scene with multiple implications for the convergence of religion, politics, and pop culture.
Captain America’s childhood friend Bucky, a.k.a. the “Winter Soldier,” is an enhanced human bearing a super strong metal prosthetic arm. Brainwashed by Hydra, a fascistic terrorist organization, Bucky has become a Hydra assassin. In the course of battle, Bucky’s super-powered arm is cut off. The last time we see Bucky in this movie, he has been rescued by Captain America and freed (for now) of the evil programming that has captured his mind. Lacking his mechanical arm, he decides to be cryogenically frozen, so as to ensure that his powers cause no further harm.
I take this scene to be one of several allusions in Captain America to the second, darkest installment of the original Star Wars trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back. In this movie, Luke Skywalker, having lost his hand to Darth Vader’s light saber, is fitted with a prosthetic that associates him with his machine-man father and nemesis.
The scene with Bucky both mirrors and inverts the scene from Empire—for Bucky’s arm is not restored.
The Winter Soldier’s absent arm (a clear and poignant reference to the many images of real-life wounded soldiers returning from their tours of duty) focuses attention on human vulnerability. At this moment, the hero renounces what makes him “super,” relinquishing the real and symbolic power of the super-arm. (The movie contains other such gestures: Iron Man’s glowing mechanized “heart” is crushed, his mask removed to reveal the human face beneath; Captain America abandons his American-flag shield, a defensive device that doubles as a weapon.)
This scene thus captures in miniature one important current in a movie querying into problems of power, security, and freedom: inverting Empire, it strikes back against empire, against any imperialist aspirations, precisely by embracing human fragility.
Captain America v. Batman?
This image of vulnerability speaks to (and against) the presence of another pop-cultural figure, one who is producing terribly real effects within and beyond the American political landscape: Donald Trump. The GOP candidate’s rhetoric of dominance; his pernicious promise to build a wall along the Mexican border; his pledge to “bomb the shit out of ISIS”; his self-celebrating proclamations of wealth; his sexist and racist flourishes: all these are points of bombastic but dangerous asininity underscoring a quasi-fascist authoritarianism, propagated via “popular culture.”
The civil religion thereby championed and intensified by Trump presumes the violent “goodness” and essential sacrality of American empire, here understood according to Jon Pahl’s characterization of empire as “the centralization of material resources around ‘American’ nationalism and its corporate extensions,” and upheld through military might.
Trump, the agent of empire, has comic-book counterparts. According to Jeet Heer at the New Republic, Trump is not only a political pop-culture figure, but one modeled specifically on superheroes and comic-strip/book characters like the moneyed weapons manufacturers Daddy Warbucks (caretaker of little orphan Annie) and Tony Stark (Iron Man), as well as the billionaire vigilante Bruce Wayne (Batman). (Trump once remarked, “Yes, I am Batman.”) “Donald Trump is a perfect superhero,” writes Heer. “The only problem is he’s real, and life is not a comic strip.”
Pointing out that Trump’s “public persona was formed in the matrix of professional wrestling and reality television—both serialized narrative forms that, like adventure [comics], depend on hooking the audience to follow along,” Heer argues that Trump “learned to reach a mass audience through popular entertainment. To understand Trump, we need to understand the pop-cultural mythos that created him and which he so cagily exploits.”
We need to understand and also to critique this captivating mythos. And critique means remaining vigilant, guarding against the “brainwashing” that popular culture can produce in its audiences (myself included; I say all this as a fan and avid consumer of popular culture.) We need to stay alert, even and especially as we partake of the pleasures of what media theorist Marshall McLuhan called the blissful “massage” of techno-entertainment, such as produced by the contemporary American movie-industrial complex.
Trump’s “superhero” mythos, disseminated through popular culture, affirms a violent imperialism in the name of “America first,” predicated upon “a muscular, unilateral foreign policy that included torturing and killing the enemies of the United States. His greatest worry was that the vigorous strength that made America great was waning.”
But by the present reading of Captain America, the figure of Bucky suggests that vigorous strength is precisely what must be relinquished in a renunciation of arm(s). Superheroic-triumphalist stances are not the “goods” to which we should aspire, but what must be guarded against.
The way to strike back against the empire, in this reading, is to refuse to strike at all. Rather, it is to invert empire’s own gestures by laying down arms, averting vengeance, and contesting claims to authority issued from “on high,” whether from the mouths of religious leaders, superheroes, or politicians.
In the pleasurable thrall of popular culture, it is easy to succumb to the charisma and authority of such figures, whether in the movie theater or the political theater. With this in mind, recall Bruce Lincoln’s distinction between the discourse of religion, and that of history:
Religion, I submit, is that discourse whose defining characteristic is its desire to speak of things eternal and transcendent with an authority equally transcendent and eternal. History, in the sharpest possible contrast, is that discourse which speaks of things temporal and terrestrial in a human and fallible voice, while staking its claim to authority on rigorous critical practice.
Countering claims of transcendence with a focus on the temporal, terrestrial, human, and fallible, while also “staking [one’s] claim to authority on rigorous critical practice”: this thesis applies beyond the domain of religious studies, extending to politics and pop culture as well. It amounts to removing the “super” from “superhero,” at least long enough to take account of the dangers of imperialist, triumphalist aims and claims.
There can be no doubt that future installments of Marvel’s franchise will see Bucky’s arm restored, and the fractious Avengers reunited to carry out their violent justice. And I look forward to watching those movies. But for the moment, the scene of a dis-armed soldier is worth pondering, for it both calls attention to the all too real price of America’s violence, while also offering an affirmation of human fragility.
In this way, Captain America: Civil War offers a vision of a civil counter-religion, one that is not erected on “greatness” of might, but on a shared acknowledgement that true sacrality may reside in vulnerability.