In 2011, shortly before her Massachusetts Senate campaign, Elizabeth Warren attempted to shake the nation’s core belief in autonomy and individualism. Addressing those who believed that their fates were solely the result of their own sheer will, Warren countered by offering a narrative that suggested that our paths are always bound up in those of one another. “There is nobody in this country that got rich on his own. Nobody,” she stated.
Even if you thought you built something from the ground up yourself, it turns out that you really didn’t. Taken to its logical end, Warren’s narrative suggested not only that people’s successes were contingent on the assistance of others, but their very ability to make choices was limited by their social contexts. In short, freedom, defined popularly as a state of nature free from coercion, was a myth.
Warren’s language was soon picked up by President Obama, and hopeful intellectuals like myself thought libertarianism might have met its match. But there was a voice that summer that may have been just as loud that summer: the first Avengers movie. The top grossing film of the year in domestic and global markets, The Avengers fetishized the liberal Enlightenment conception of freedom by making the sole motivation of its enemy, the intergalactic Norse god Loki, the desire to strip earthlings of their individual autonomy.
In the sequence of The Avengers where Loki arrives on Earth, he delivers a speech to a crowd in Germany that summarizes his motives. Loki has to come to free humans, he states, by making them unfree. “Is this not simpler?” he asks after directing the crowd to kneel before him, arguing that “the bright lure of freedom diminishes your life’s joy.”
Loki’s speech presents him as a simple totalitarian, one who seeks to convince the people that autonomy and individualism impose a too-heavy burden, that of free choice. He is challenged by a frail old man, who retorts in a German accent, that they have seen Loki’s kind before. Following this allusion to Hitler, Captain America appears on the scene, declaring that the last time he was in Germany he had faced a similar foe. After all, the superhero had been cryogenically frozen after serving in World War II. The scene is brief, but it sets the stakes for the entire film. In Hollywood’s terse and economical language, The Avengers are freedom fighters.
In the subsequent 2014 Captain America film, The Winter Soldier, the villainous organization Hydra is similarly obsessed with abolishing liberty. According to one of its diabolical scientists, “Hydra was founded on the belief that humanity could not be trusted with its own freedom” and that it must be undermined. In the world of The Avengers, it is revealed, every global conflict, economic bust, and environmental catastrophe since World War II has been the result of the clandestine machinations of this evil organization. It had been attempting to sow enough chaos that humans would give up freedom willingly and consent to tyranny.
Now it’s 2016, and another progressive politician has challenged America to rethink what we mean when we talk about freedom. On May 5, National Public Radio aired an interview with Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, in which the senator challenged the primacy of freedom as it is popularly understood. “The right-wing has done a very good job” of defining the term, he suggested, in terms of liberal market autonomy. Then he countered: “You can be a free guy and work for $4 an hour – aren’t you a lucky guy?”
Sanders was suggesting that for such a worker, one whose choices were undoubtedly circumscribed by social forces beyond his control, “freedom,” meaning the absence of influence or coercion, was a cheap, hollow concept.
Two days later, perhaps unfortunately, another Avengers film opened in theaters everywhere. This one, Captain America: Civil War, sees the crew of superheroes divided over whether or not they should surrender their own freedom to a new United Nations initiative that hopes to oversee the Avengers’ operations, which as Black Widow explains it, have up to that point been “private.”
Tony Stark, who was once a libertarian entrepreneur arms dealer but has since reformed, believes the Avengers should share power and consent to oversight by the international governing body. But Steve Rogers, Captain America’s alter ego, bristles at the thought. To relinquish power, he states, would be to “surrender” their “right to choose.” Autonomy, for Rogers, is more important than listening to and compromising with those reeling from the death and destruction that the Avengers have had a hand in causing.
There are moments when Captain America: Civil War takes seriously the idea that we are the products of a world that we in turn shape for one another. A woman whose son was killed in collateral damage created by Tony Stark’s alter ego Iron Man confronts him by delivering a photograph of her son to Stark, and he is clearly shaken by the event. But the film ultimately tips the scales in favor of Rogers’s side.
Rogers is put at odds with the director of the United Nations’ superhero oversight program, who is played by William Hurt. Resisting the UN’s agenda to constrain the Avengers’ power, Rogers goes rogue, and takes several superheroes with him on the run. In a detail sure to delight Agenda 21 conspiracy theorists, Hurt’s character appears just slightly power-hungry and malevolent. He is convinced that Rogers’s friend Bucky Barnes is a menace, but Rogers and the other rogue Avengers that resist government oversight know the truth.
The Avengers are thus proven to be too exceptional, too intelligent, and too right to have to compromise their freedom of independent choice. What makes them heroes is their agency, their ability to act ungoverned by external forces, and their ability to remain “private.” If William Hurt’s figure is enigmatic and mistrustful, the film stops short of declaring him a villain. But even Tony Stark, sympathetic to international governance and regulation as he is, decides to thwart the director in the end.
By going rogue, Steve Rogers invokes a familiar narrative trope, one that has seen increasing popularity in post-Vietnam cinema. This turn in the story recalls the anti-authoritarianism of John Rambo and later Chris Kyle, both soldiers that rebel against their stuffy superiors. But it also recalls the anarchic individualism of films such as MASH or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Like the reigning philosophy of his namesake, Rogers (Captain America) rejects hierarchy not because he favors participatory democracy, but because he sees his own “right” to choose as deserving priority over the wishes of others. Banding together with the other Avengers that have rejected the United Nations’ agenda, they exercise their free will in a celebration of individualism over governance. And in doing so, they also present such acts as normal and natural. In other words, by choosing individual choice, they gesture towards an argument for its very existence.
A century ago, writer Randolph Bourne challenged popular ideas about “freedom” in a manner that echoes in Sanders’s NPR interview. Bourne charged that there were two competing definitions of freedom, one which “means the right to do pretty much as one pleases,” and another that “means democratic cooperation in determining the ideals and purposes and industrial and social institutions of a country.” Bourne was concerned that there was too much of the former and not enough of the latter among immigrant communities in the United States in the early twentieth century.
At the same time, Bourne’s mentor and pragmatist philosopher John Dewey rejected both the pursuit of unfettered individualism and the very idea that such a thing existed. “The non-social individual is an abstraction,” wrote Dewey. Later scholars, influenced by Michel Foucault’s concepts of “biopower” and “governmentality,” have critiqued the ways in which the idea of individual freedom is not only an abstraction, but also a technology of governance in itself. In the circulation of ideas that fetishize individual freedom, conditions are nurtured that favor certain neoliberal regimes of order and social relations. Sociologist Nikolas Rose argues that “notions of freedom, with the associated celebration of the powers of the individual, of autonomy and choice” are at the heart of efforts to preserve the “wealth of nations” and the “productivity of enterprise.” Freedom of choice is not a state of nature for Rose, but rather a way of conducting oneself that is taught and learned.
If the first Avengers film taught us that freedom is the absence of government coercion and totalitarian tyranny, Captain America: Civil War works to celebrate the roguish, rugged individual who seeks to exercise such personal freedom of choice without concern for others’ wishes. As if inspired by the works of Ayn Rand, it suggests that government committees and public institutions shackle exceptional individuals. But even more importantly, both films tacitly suggest that being able to exercise freedom becomes a problem only when a malevolent government institution or tyrant seeks to take such so-called “natural rights” away.
It’s a strange juxtaposition in these films that those who are the most able in the Avengers films, the superheroes, are the defenders of the common people’s freedoms, and yet the films never pause to question the contingencies upon which common people are able to exercise such things. Choice is preserved only by elevating the choices of those who are the most free and unrestrained, and treating them as sacrosanct, the wishes and needs of others be damned. Because after all, in the Avengers’ world, freedom of choice is only threatened by those forces that seek to destroy liberal individualism itself.
Of course, The Avengers and Captain America films represent only a few of many discursive and ideological spaces in which the primacy of the liberal individual self has been offered both descriptively and prescriptively. To their credit, they’re entertaining movies. And it’s only fair to add that the authors of the film’s script were most likely not primarily concerned with theories of freedom. More accurately, they were grabbing from the air what was already “common sense,” that is, what is tacitly understood as true by those who live their lives within a hegemonic cultural and ethical framework.
There have always been rogues and rebels in the movies. But the contrast between those prior to the ascendancy of libertarianism is striking. Consider the era of America’s “Popular Front,” a time when mass culture reflected the popularity of the Congress of Industrial Organizations and Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. The filmic rogues of the late thirties and early forties, such as Henry Fonda in Grapes of Wrath or Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, rebelled in search of a collective purpose, driven by understandings of a social self. Their onscreen voices echoed, amplified, and influenced the political discourse that sought to ameliorate inequality and defeat fascism.
If the frameworks that govern us today are going to be overturned, such understandings need to be revived — not just in the words of our progressive politicians, but in the movies, too.