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Iron Man was right


Spencer Ackerman's adjudication of the dispute between Captain America and Iron Man is some of the most relevant punditry you'll read today. And, incidentally, I agree with Spencer entirely: Iron Man was unequivocally right in the argument over superhero registration. I'm not even sure what the case for the other side is, and the libertarians I've asked haven't been able to come up with one. If the state has any legitimate function at all, it's to train and regulate people who could accidentally kill everyone in a hundred-mile radius.

Photo credit: Zade Rosenthal/Marvel

By Ezra Klein  |  February 12, 2010; 2:00 PM ET
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"and the libertarians I've asked haven't been able to come up with one."

You probably need to ask The Anarchist Tike Alicar.

Posted by: bgmma50 | February 12, 2010 2:34 PM | Report abuse

If I read Mr. Ackeremom correctly, he describes "A walking American flag and war hero who still manages to find Nazis to beat up. If that’s not an editorial thumb on the scale, I don’t know what is. Cap’s right because he’s Cap. It’s downright un-American when you think about it, but there it is."

When he makes his conclusion -- "Captain America, like America, belongs to all of us and shouldn’t be used for any political gamesmanship" -- is saying that Pelosi and the militant House members who refuse to bring health care reform to a fair up-or-down vote are doing wrong in an un-American sense? Or is he saying that members of the Democratic Caucus, like Weiner (D-NY) are un-American for identifying Pelosi's rather unusual behavior?

As the President mulls a middle-class tax increase to pay for bigger government, despite objection from the party of "no", who should we believe? Captain America or the militant members of the Democratic who now are (quoting Ackeremom) "are acting against the best interests of the country" as Hank Aaron described in his New England Journal of Medicine article quote earlier today on this blog?

Where are the __real__ members of the Democratic Party? Who will help dislodge Pelosi and her cronies from their roost?

Posted by: rmgregory | February 12, 2010 2:40 PM | Report abuse

Ironically, a better case against registration could have been made in the pre-"House of M" Marvel Universe. Shortly before the "Civil War" storyline, Marvel basically wiped out all of the mutants in its universe, leaving only a small number remaining, plus other non-mutant super-powered heroes and villains.

The original world would have required a massive registration and surveillance state in order to keep a large number of genetically different people under control. In the post-"House of M" marvel universe, the only people left to register were a bunch of costumed vigilantes, and I don't think anyone has any problem with cracking down on them.

Another possible pro-Captain America argument, unexplored in the Civil War storyline, is that supervillainy (or regular villainy) is essentially local in nature, and there's no guarantee that a federally controlled and operated superhero bureaucracy is willing to be bothered with a supervillain in Podunk, Illinois, but at the same time, all local superpowered people willing to put on a costume and fight him are going to end up criminalizing themselves. But maybe that's the point: they're _all_ societal menaces acting outside the law, and maybe it's better for the government to make that clear and say, "engage in self-style superheroism at your own risk."

Posted by: tyromania | February 12, 2010 2:49 PM | Report abuse

The case against the SHRA is two-fold: first, that it didn't, in some incarnations of the act, apply only to *superheroing* activities, but required the systematic registration and regulation of anyone with super powers; those who declined to register were held, bereft of their civil rights in a prison outside United States jurisdiction (that is: in the Negative Zone). This is a broad expansion of the racist policies Reagan pioneered under the Mutant Registration Act of 1981. It's no accident that the SHRA of 2006 lead directly to the mutant-sterilizing 'Proposition X' of 2009, and thereby to the secession of Utopia.

The practical case against the SHRA is essentially a Burkean one argued by Tony Stark himself, prior to his post-Stamford conversion. There are no fewer than thirteen verified incidents in which superpowered individuals ('superheroes') outside the government's control have prevented the conquest or total destruction of the North American continent or the population thereof. It may be that effective organization of the defense of society in the so-called 'Age of Marvels' demands flexible, multi-layered defenses above and beyond that which the state is able to provide. It is a tradition we tamper with at our peril.

Now, of course, that does rather seem to concede that the Initiative plays a valid national security function; it was humiliating when Kang declined to accept a treaty signature from the President of the United States (following the destruction of Washington), demanding the acquiecence of Janet vanDyne (then leader of the Avengers) instead; however, government superprograms from X-Factor, to the Thunderbolts to Freedom Force to the Avengers (as constituted under National Security Director Osborn) have a checkered history at best. Recent events with regards to the unilateral invasion of Asgard (to say nothing of the earlier 'Secret War' in Latveria) suggest that Captain America may not have been entirely wrong on these grounds.

Posted by: adamiani | February 12, 2010 2:52 PM | Report abuse

It's been a long while since I kept up on Marvel universe politics (the conclusion of "Civil War" was it, actually), but didn't the Registration Act require registration of any super-powered individual, regardless of whether they were acting as a vigilante? If so, then merely breathing without the proper paperwork made someone a criminal. Seemed like it would lead to some Nazi-esque, "Where are your papers?" type of stuff.

If the Registration Act were only a requirement for licensing/training/direction before engaging in crime fighting, I don't think there is a legitimate argument against it.

Posted by: jerryravens | February 12, 2010 2:59 PM | Report abuse

I wrote a thorough (read "long") essay about this for SpiderFan back in 2007 that tried to do justice to each side's point of view.

Ultimately, though, I had to conclude that - as my title had it - "Tony Stark was Right."

Posted by: andrewmiller2007 | February 12, 2010 3:06 PM | Report abuse

Yeah, although I didn't really read the Civil War, my understanding is that the main problem is that (within the context of the story) the bill was horribly implemented and (within the real world) the authors wanted to make the Civil War as a metaphor for the Bush administration, even though the relevant policy issues are completely different.

Posted by: usergoogol | February 12, 2010 3:44 PM | Report abuse

The largest problem with the SHRA is that it was never written down within the universe. Individual writers interpreted the act differently within their own books. At the most extreme, anyone who had super-human abilities had to be registered and if they weren't they were sent to a prison in the Negative Zone. At the least extreme, people had to be registered and superheroes had to be certified via training.

Also, the pro-registration side had a murderous Thor clone on their side. And the anti-registration side had Captain America initially. Then Spider-Man after he found out more about the registration act.

Then a bunch of 911 responders (cop, firefighter, and ambulance driver) tackled Captain America.

Posted by: Alexander-S | February 12, 2010 4:16 PM | Report abuse

Maybe I have a different view simply because I saw this through the lens of the Spider Man comics, but the law they were talking about there wasn't, at its heart, about training and supervision of vigilantes - it was about criminalizing status. If one had powers that some governmental body could construe as dangerous then one had to register those powers with the government or risk being immediately incarcerated without trial. In Spider Man's case, this involved having to reveal his identity, and thus exposing his family to risk. In his case, this actually resulted in yet another death for Aunt May and, ultimately, a reset of his timeline and the loss of MJ.

The silliness of how it actually played out in the Marvel Universe aside, the real issue seemed to me about privacy and criminalization of status, as opposed to behavior, that was entirely beyond the control of the individual. Captain America, seemed to me to take the more mainline American view - skepticism about potential governmental overreach.

Posted by: dcmike2 | February 12, 2010 4:33 PM | Report abuse

Think of it this way: a terrorist with Down's syndrome blows up the Brooklyn Bridge; in response the federal government compels the registration and licensing of all persons with Down's syndrome; any person with Down's syndrome who fails to comply is imprisoned. According to Ezra, the federal government has not exceeded its lawful authority.

Posted by: Commenter6 | February 12, 2010 5:27 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Klein, I'm afraid that you and Mr. Ackerman are both wrong, primarily because the premise of "Civil War" contradicted the reasons for writing a story about the classical superhero, who fights menaces that normal humans can't handle. Such stories succeeded as morality plays with the heroes overlaid on the "real world"; the current stories, which depict the heroes as threats, along with the villains, result in stories without themes. If the hero isn't a symbol, then he and his milieu have to be rationalized to a degree much greater than anyone at Marvel has done -- or is capable of doing. Superheroes should be written as superheroes. More commentary at


Posted by: StevenRStahl | February 13, 2010 1:29 AM | Report abuse

I'm not a libertarian and I wouldn't necessarily disagree with the Tony Stark side, but especially given how things turned out in Marvel continuity, one could make a typical Second Amendment argument against registration. Because Tony won, the feds gained a monopoly on superpowers that left the citizenry in a weakened position to fight back against abuses of government. And sure enough, that power was immediately and catastrophically abused, not once but twice -- first by foreign inflitrators (Secret Invasion) and then by the appointment of villain Norman Osborn to head the superhero initiative (Dark Reign).

I have been thinking a lot lately about how Marvel's Dark Reign reflects my disappointment as a progressive since Obama took office. Obama is president in the Marvel universe too, but he is a virtually powerless background figure. Norman Osborn, who wrapped himself in the flag and redubbed himself the Iron Patriot, sets the agenda for this fictional America. Not only does Osborn use much of the same right-wing rhetoric as real Republicans and tea partiers, he gets his way by employing total uncompromising ruthlessness. The whole Dark Reign storyline captured my fear that Obama's agenda and governing style are ill-equipped to withstand right-wing opponents who are much more coordinated, relentless, and unscrupulous than Obama and the Democrats are prepared to match. Of course I don't equate Republican obstructionists with murderous supervillains, but I also think it's naive and a waste of time to trust or partner with either of them.

Posted by: David_Allen | February 13, 2010 2:04 AM | Report abuse

The best I can do for a libertarian argument is that vigilantism is already illegal. If someone gets powers and wants to fight crime, they can join the police or military, where they will receive training and a command structure. Those who have powers thrust upon them through no fault of their own, particularly mutants, whose powers are a genetic trait, should not be forced to endure government scrutiny into their private lives nor the heightened danger to their friends and family that would exist if their name was on a list somewhere in S.H.I.E.L.D. just waiting for a super villain to steal. This is especially true for people with benign powers like being able to change the color of their hair or something. If the government, or better yet some charitable person, wants to start a place that helps people cope with their powers in every day life, then that's ok.

As others have said above, the biggest problem with critiquing Civil War as an event is that it's so fluid. There were many different writers contributing to many different books and everyone had a different angle on it that they pushed.

Tony Stark came out pretty well in his own book. In others, it was implied that he was a war profiteer. In some books the SHRA was a horribly broad law that would force people with completely benign powers and no intent to act as a vigilante to register with the government. In fact, I'm pretty sure that in at least one story the SHRA would allow any registered person to be called up into S.H.I.E.L.D. if necessary. I may be wrong on that, but that's the point: there is no one answer to even the basic facts of the argument, let alone who was really right.

Clearly, Tony Stark had a point that there were people with the power to level cities running around unsafely and without training. But imprisoning people without due process in Space Guantanamo because they refuse to sign a piece of paper, even if they're just sitting in their home like Luke Cage was, is clearly problematic as well. Tony underplayed the fact that many of these people can't risk being publicly outed because they have friends, family, and enemies, while Cap seemed to be fighting against the SHRA because it changed the way things had always been.

Then at one point there was an implication that the Skrulls had had a hand in amping up the Civil War to prepare for their invasion and everything goes batty.

And look, even though it took Marvel forever to get the series out, Civil War was their big summer event series, so even though it was based on some interesting concepts it was ultimately way too much about having dudes hit each other to really flesh the ideas out.

Civil War would have been a much better comic if it had been done as a maxi series with original characters and one writer.

Posted by: MosBen | February 13, 2010 2:08 AM | Report abuse

Wow, I did not mean to write that much. I guess I want Ezra to post about comics more.

Posted by: MosBen | February 13, 2010 2:09 AM | Report abuse

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