This past weekend I enjoyed seeing the latest installment of Marvel’s Avenger franchise, Captain America: Winter Soldier. I must confess that I have a somewhat juvenile curiosity toward these recent rounds of “super” mania films. I don’t care so much for the over the top action and violence sequences, but it is quite intriguing to see how CGI technology has brought to the big screen what only imagination could grasp in my youth, although maybe that’s not such a good thing for young people today. As a moral theologian, however, the gratification of these movies extends deeper. The physics of Marvel’s universe is pretty awesome; but the ethics is even more thought provoking.
One thing truly appreciable in these films is their honest attempt to tackle some serious social issues. Whether it’s the problem of true justice vs. vigilantism in the recent Batman films, or the responsible use of power in the Spiderman franchise, or as we see in Winter Soldier, the trust issues surrounding information technology and government surveillance, the superhero industry is admirable in its engagement with some rather critical social problems.
The central motif in Winter Soldier is, as we would expect from Captain America, the totalitarian assault on human liberty, which for the screenwriters, originates today in the threat of political conspiracy and the hegemony of information technology. How do we preserve liberty in an age of industrial power, the web, world government, and the dictatorship of relativism? Is this even possible? In the movie, Captain America embodies the kind of moral and principled integrity that provides the only real hope for confronting the agents of evil. But here’s the question with which the movie left me wrestling. Is the affront to human liberty the root evil of our times? As Americans, we are always inclined to answer yes to that question. But is it so?
The first thing that struck me as I exited the theater is the irony of the Captain America narrative. Liberty is only ever destroyed by the conspiracy of modern industry coupled with the politics of power and social control—in a word, conspiratorial violence. Liberty is never lost by sensual desire and disordered love. And moreover, it’s ironic how the tactics of the enemy are the only available means for defeating the bad guys. To conquer evil and restore liberty, one just has to have more power at their disposal, although directed toward a good end. Because of this moral assumption, our beloved superheroes can only conquer evil by greater industry and power, assisted of course by more effective espionage and political maneuvering. In Winter Soldier we see this exemplified by those true conspirators of liberty that uphold the ideals of the S.H.I.E.L.D initiative. For those who have seen the film—though I dare not ruin it for those who haven’t—it is evident that the guardians of liberty are, in the end, able to triumph (kind of) because they prove themselves more powerful and clever than their adversaries. The further irony, though, is that evil is never finally eradicated—not that we really want it to be! That would be boring entertainment.
Here’s the problem with this moral scenario. Industry, power and espionage are methods that can always be surpassed by the power yielded from pushing technical progress and rational planning to the next threshold. That is, the enemy can always replicate technical know-how. Especially within the ever expansiveness of Marvel’s universe, there are always other forces out there that have harnessed greater technique and political savvy. Captain America’s nemesis The Winter Soldier is a formidable foe with that special (robotic?) arm of his, as is the Hydra collusion that hired him, but neither is a match for the Realm of Asgard, or Hulk for that matter. But, beyond them, there is yet a greater force of evil to contend with, of which Marvel offers us a brief cameo at the end of the first Avenger’s film. Is there any end in sight? Not likely.
But here’s the moral path to which Marvel finally commits itself in Winter Soldier. If the usurping of liberty is the root evil, and this is achieved through violence and deception, then obviously we can only restore our liberty by the same tactics. The drama surrounding liberty in our times is why we Americans love superheroes. They are our imaginary guardians of freedom, and we love freedom; so we love them. But how far do we have to go to harness (and defy) the laws of physics and athleticism, in the name of freedom, before we realize that the root of evil is spiritual and not physical. Can industry, technology, and politics ever deliver us from evil, be it advocated from either side of any ideological divide? Are there any weapons or marshal arts powerful enough to subdue sin? It seems not, because bad guys will always at least be able to replicate technique and continue the cycle of violence. In fact, they are sometimes better at doing this in real life. And are we not as fallen beings always tempted to sin by these same methods?
The conspiracy that opposes itself to liberty is not the root evil of our times but the symptom of a much deeper cause, namely, the human spirit’s loss of divine charity. As Augustine so clearly explains in The City of God, “Two cities have been formed … by two loves: the earthly by love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by love of God, even to the contempt of self…. In the one, the princes and the nations it subdues are ruled by love of ruling; in the other, the princes and the subjects serve one another in love, the latter obeying, while the former take thought for all” (Book XIV, ch. 28). We definitely see this disparity in the Marvel Universe, but it is never properly named. Rather, we see a war between two cities differentiated by whether the goal is a conspired world order or human liberty.
While we Americans value freedom—and rightly so—if we wish to safeguard this national treasure, we need to recognize that divine love is freedom’s true cause and only guardian. The deepest enemy of freedom is not the violent and deceptive establishment of world order. It is the absence of charity or narcissism, to call it by another name. The martyrs teach us that even in the face of violence, we can still love and thus conquer evil. And this love is our true freedom because charity turns us toward the God who saves us. What the Gospel teaches is that evil is self-annihilating in its resistance to charity; and this, precisely because evil is self-absorbed. It simply destroys itself as it seeks to destroy its enemy. It is a house divided.
But even more powerfully, once charity draws the person to God, evil vanishes altogether as light fills the darkness. Evil simply has no effective response because charity cannot be overpowered. And that’s not to say that we should forego legitimate self-defense. It’s merely to suggest that we should cling to the sobering (and admittedly less exciting) reality that self-defense cannot destroy evil, as does the love of Jesus Christ. “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter and like a sheep before the shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7). Not exactly what we call action, but it is the real power of divine love.
Marvel’s universe proposes a fundamentally human solution to the problem of evil—which in the end cannot succeed. The reason is the circular nature of violence. According to the logic of violence, there can’t be any reality other than a perpetual relationship of dialectical opposition or balanced tension between opposing forces—however one cares to conceive the matter. This view was re-imagined by Hegel’s philosophy of dialectical materialism, which I think stands as the preoccupation of Marvel’s universe and its originator’s intrigue with the industrial and scientistic ideologies of the Great War and its Cold War aftermath. For post-moderns, the fundamental theory of history is the cosmic struggle between opposites. Being unfolds in unending epicycles of violence. And thus, because history is not finally linear and ordered to an end, the cycle of violence has no resolution. Violence just begets more violence.
In the Christian universe, by narrative contrast, the root of every evil is the loss of charity. And while it is true that we experience epicycles of violence throughout history, there is an end to this madness. That end will be realized at the end not because time ceases, but because divine love has been fully restored to humanity in Jesus Christ and thus the root power of evil—disordered love—has been finally eradicated. Love moves toward an end. This end is the final communion of all true lovers in the eternal procession of charity we call the Holy Trinity. Evil can’t touch that, because charity doesn’t oppose evil by force. Rather, it confronts it on an altogether didn’t plane of reality, which proceeds from the actual first principle of all being, the Love shared by the eternal Father and his only begotten Son. Evil always looks for the next move on the game board, the upper hand. Charity simply ends the game by removing the board altogether.
Winter Soldier actually does get this, strangely enough, but only as a subordinate motif of the film. Captain America proves himself guileless in loving the good for its own sake. He shows us that charity really is the only sacred trust of human liberty. As is evident by the film’s end, he is the only one who acts as true friend amidst the multiple webs of conspiracy. Quite a cool twist there at the end, I must say. Captain America sees the necessity of reaching out toward the only real solution to evil and actually exemplifies what the true cause and guardianship of liberty looks like. The influx of light that scatters the darkness at that moment—which I won’t give away—occurs precisely as he (momentarily) lays aside technique and force to choose the path of charity instead of violence. For the audience, we get a glimpse, if only briefly, of what salvation really looks like in its cruciform power.