by Luke Nelson

For the last year I have been haunted by a line of Roger Ebert’s Walk of Fame speech: “Movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts.” We often idolize empathy as a solution to social differences and social ills. But the paths of empathy – whether in our synapses or social media – can turn violent without much warning. Mimetic theory is uniquely suited to interpret our empathy for violence, especially as it thrives in our accepted “movie magic.”

The realism of violence is rarely a subject of critique or narrative, but 2016’s Captain America: Civil War may stand out as the most sober representation of violence in the “Marvel Universe.” 

At the end of the first obligatory action scene, where Captain America leads some Avengers against the enemy H.Y.D.R.A. in Lagos, a tragic mistake occurs: Hydra’s last incendiary device is deflected into an adjacent building, killing innocent civilian humanitarian workers from Wakanda, causing an international outcry.

Cut to Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) reliving his last fond memory of his parents before they were killed, through a hologram on a stage in front of graduates. His new tech is specifically designed to “hijack the hippocampus” to relive and deal with past trauma. Afterwards, he is accosted by a mother who lost her son to the Avengers’ prior collateral damage in Age of Ultron (2015): “You murdered him, in Sokovia. Who’s going to avenge my son, Stark? He’s dead, and I blame you.”

The beginning of Civil War takes a thoroughly confessional approach to a recognition of real violence in the Marvel Universe. As if watching their own highlight reel, the Avengers relive some absurdly violent moments of smashed cityscapes and civilian areas from prior movies; the dismay on their faces tells us it is time to reflect on the past trauma of the innocent others. Their overseeing body, S.H.I.E.L.D., and the governments of the world want the Avengers to agree to supervision, which would require the United Nations to grant approval before the Avengers can take action against any bad guys. 

Do superheroes need identity politics?

The cool reason of Vision (Paul Bettany) the European flying android, legs crossed, interrupts the two black men, Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and War Machine (Don Cheadle), in their escalating argument: “I have an equation… In the eight years since Mr. Stark announced himself as Iron Man, the number of known enhanced persons has grown exponentially. And, during the same period, the number of potentially world-ending events has risen at a commensurate rate.”

Captain America: Are you saying it’s our fault?

Vision: I’m saying there may be a causality. Our very strength invites challenge. Challenge incites conflict. And conflict … breeds catastrophe. Oversight…Oversight is not an idea that can be dismissed out of hand. 

Before the battle lines are too clearly drawn, Captain America, disturbed by seeing some of the Avengers so easily sign over their freedom to the political authority of the U.N., goes through a scene of soul-searching. At the funeral for Peggy Carter, one of Captain America’s military mentors from his 1940s life-span, her niece Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp) gives a eulogy: 

I asked her once how she managed to master diplomacy and espionage in a time when no one wanted to see a woman succeed at either. And she said, ‘Compromise where you can. Where you can’t, don’t. Even if everyone is telling you that something wrong is something right. Even if the whole world is telling you to move… it is your duty to plant yourself like a tree … look them in the eye and say “No, you move.”

This story of an early feminist battle against the war department’s glass ceiling is the inspiration the very white male Captain America needed—to take his stand against the U.N. He will not cloud his clear decision making with other voices, dead or alive: he will refuse to sign the Sokovia Accords. Captain America cannot afford to stress over his skewed sense of identity politics. The skill-set for super-hero narratives must condense, abridge, and abbreviate with sentimental symbolism—to get on with the action. 

Mimetic doubles

The pure and noble intent of the superhero vs. the decision making of a collective is the dispute that begins the Civil War in the title. The mimetic doubles of the Avengers, Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), will escalate an internal violence that threatens to tear the Avengers apart: between those who side with Iron Man and sign the Sokovia Accords with the U.N., and those who refuse, joining Captain America. 

On the level of personality, they are set up to be opposites. Iron Man pokes fun at Captain America’s squeaky-clean image, glowing with old-fashioned American values. Iron Man tends to over-talk, tell sarcastic jokes, and remain charmingly narcissistic. 

Conflict seems to arise from differences, when we focus on personality and our abstract ideals; but mimetic theory shows us that conflict arises from the similarity of desires; this similarity comes from our imitation of others. 

Iron Man and Captain America both have a shared experience with Iron Man’s father (John Slattery) who apparently loved to drop Captain America’s name around the house, which embittered the young Iron Man with jealousy. (For those unfamiliar with the Marvel Universe, Captain America was a WWII era-super soldier who was frozen after WWII and thawed out later.) Less like politically charged super-heroes, and more like brothers, the real envy comes from the imitation of desire, now in a closer professional proximity: Who received the greater admiration from Iron Man’s father? 

This original envy between doubles is a short-cut to grasping the triangular starting points of mimetic desire: a subject who imitates a model inevitably desires the objects possessed by the model, causing conflict. Mimetic theory uses the hyphenate “model-obstacle” to describe someone like Captain America, because the model of desire becomes an obstacle for anyone who is close enough to also desire the model’s objects (father’s admiration). The title also tells us that Iron Man must be the ultimate subject of the story: Captain America (an ultimate model) – Civil War (an ultimate obstacle).

Iron Man and Captain America are really fighting through their identical desires for authority. Whose leadership will define the Avengers?

Iron Man: I’m trying to keep you from tearing the Avengers apart. 

Captain America: You did that when you signed. 

A key imitation that leads to violence is that all enemies accuse the other of starting the conflict. The blaming tries to articulate a significant difference; who crossed the line first? Human conflict is why we tell stories, and it is foundational to our collective identities. Remus crossed the wall built by Romulus. But Romulus was not really playing fair when he changed the rules of augury. To make a short story shorter, you cannot visit a place named Reme, Italy.

At the U.N. meeting to ratify the Sokovia Accords, King T’Chaka of Wakanda tells us, “Victory at the expense of the innocent, is no victory at all.” This is the exact inverse of Captain America’s earlier rationale meant to encourage his fellow Avengers to accept the risks of collateral damage: “If we can’t learn to live with that [violence], maybe next time, maybe nobody gets saved.” Later, a terrorist bombing interrupts the meeting, killing King T’Chaka. 

The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) is spotted leaving the scene. This is another figurative brother to Captain America, Bucky Barnes, a childhood friend who was brainwashed by H.Y.D.R.A. into a secret assassin.  

Much of the action through the second act revolves around the caper to keep the Winter Soldier arrested, and team Iron Man’s efforts to arrest team Captain America. Both the Winter Soldier and Captain America’s team are outlaws, trying to solve a crime: Who brainwashed the Winter Soldier to destroy the Sokovia Accords? 

To make some very long action scenes much shorter, the Winter Soldier’s own personal history, brainwashed as he was to execute nefarious deeds, also ties back to Iron Man’s father, even the death of his father. But this painful truth is revealed by the new monster, Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl)—not an especially evil super villain from space, just an embittered special forces soldier who also counts his family among the collateral damages in Sokovia. It is Zemo who bombed the U.N., framing the Winter Soldier, only to infiltrate S.H.I.E.L.D. and take control of him in order to avenge his family by inspiring the Avengers to self-destruct.

Like the chaos of the war of all against all settling on a single scapegoat, Iron Man also solves the Helmut Zemo crime and joins Captain America and the Winter Soldier, temporarily ending their civil war/social crisis to engage in collective violence against the “real cause.” But Zemo’s final trickster move is the non-violent twist of showing footage of the Winter Soldier executing Iron Man’s father and mother. Captain America already knew that Bucky Barnes killed Iron Man’s parents, and kept it a secret from Iron Man for decades. The humiliating betrayal over the truth of his father’s murder triggers a new mimetic violence between them—which is just what Zemo wanted.

Captain America prevented Iron Man from reaching the same status of a justice-knowing leader. The mimetic doubles become obstacles to each other, which animates their differences. But these painful differences obscure the underlying similarity of imitated desire, especially for charismatic objects: the common enemy in Zemo, father’s approval, the power to determine the Winter Soldier’s fate, and—finally—leadership of the Avengers. As mimetic rivalry intensifies to physical violence, the objects fall away. Desire becomes imitation of violence between doubles trying to destroy each other.

Mimetic desire is not the concoction of a sociopathic special forces soldier, except in the movies. It is a bridge from biology to cultural formation which explains why groups of human beings have been scapegoating our monsters since the dawn of human groups. Civil War is an unusual Marvel movie that ends with two friends imitating each other’s violence, rather than joining forces to beat up the monster in a more glorious hero’s spasm of super-power. The palpable confusion of this tragic ending lasts for about five seconds. Then Captain America shares an “I’m sorry” letter in voice over. 

Empathy for violence

On one hand, Captain America: Civil War is a superhero story that nearly makes mimetic violence a theme, that at least provides an impressive dramatic weight for the critique of war. 

On the other hand, if we believe that mimetic theory should be the foundation of any cultural realism, then we might agree that the false move is when villain Helmut Zemo uses historical truth-telling to further enrage the heroes against themselves, and that this truth works so violently. It is not a mimetic truth, but a denial of it, as the revealed evidence regresses back down the path to destroy the original scapegoat and “cause” of the crisis: the Winter Soldier.  

The story began with sincere efforts to tell the truth about the collateral damage of collective violence, but historical truth-telling is a terrorist’s nuclear option that inspires our superheroes to lose themselves in the final frenzy of mimetic violence. Is this good writing, or just harmlessly ironic? Or is the story sociopathic in itself, to present a false cause and effect: the revelation of murdered innocence, and political attempts to limit violence, only leads the super-hero genre to civil war and battles to the death.

Vision’s insight is also a grim simplification, that a state of “strength” can “invite challenge, and challenge incite conflict.” It recognizes imitation in human desire, but ignores a superhero’s ability to control their own violence on the path to “world-ending events.” 

Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) seems to show the only restraint here in the end, however abruptly, denying himself vengeance against Zemo for his father’s murder and instead following procedure to arrest him. But in a world where the violence of good guys must be more effective than the violence of bad guys, acts of forgiveness and lawful procedure that seem to fall out of the sky only set up a villain’s violence for a sequel. If we can call a superhero’s self-restraint a deus ex machina, it does not really save the villain or the hero, because everything is done for the sake of the eternal return; it is empathy for violence. It may be worth further discussion, since it sets up two of the largest grossing films of all time, Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019) which defend good and necessary wars, but I think that despite some insight, Captain America: Civil War ultimately surrenders to our oldest genre rule: violence itself. 

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