Why The Avengers Are All Anarchists
If I were to ask you what comic book-based movie franchise hates government the most, what would your answer be? V for Vendetta? Joker? Halle Berry's Catwoman? All wrong, I would say. Because the correct answer, of course, is the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
As much as it might seem like quippy heroes, shiny spandex, and intergalactic bad guy-punching is as inoffensive and politically middle-of-the-road as it gets, it turns out that the MCU's code of ethics leans a lot closer to several anarchist philosophies than, say, "America, fuck yeah!" And I'm talking Nietzschean levels of damn the man.
Let's start with the quick disclosure that anarchism probably isn't what you're thinking. While the popular notion is of spikey-haired punks who want the world to burn just for the sake of the fire, the truth is more nuanced than that. Most anarchists aren't anti-authoritarians just for the giggles, or for their own self-interest, but because they don't trust said authoritarians to take care of their fellow man. Theirs is an -ism "based on mutual aid, cooperation, and radical democracy." I mean, they start soup kitchens for refugees, for crying out loud.
So where do the superheroes come in? Well, despite being comprised of twenty of the biggest, most mainstream movies ever made, the MCU really, explicitly does not trust the American government -- or any governing body, really. Like, not even a little. The fact that Kevin Feige and the Russo brothers aren't on some kind of Pentagon watchlist is honestly a little surprising.
In the MCU's very first movie, 2008's Iron Man, Tony Stark fashions a murder-machine from scrap metal and uses it to blow up terrorists. The United States government is concerned, to say the least, but Stark doesn't care -- he believes he can do more good on his own. Iron Man 2 makes this even more obvious; in court, Stark argues against giving the government his armor because, quite frankly, he doesn't trust them.
Admittedly, Stark comes at the decision from a privileged billionaire "I can do whatever the hell I want" position, rather than true social anarchism, which we'll get to, but he's still laying the groundwork for distrust of the government in the series. Tony Stark is clearly the hero in these moments, and the U.S.A. is the enemy.
The natural progression of this belief -- that Stark, himself, is the world's only defense -- leads to him having a nervous breakdown in Iron Man 3, and then creating Ultron, an artificial intelligence that, in true summer movie fashion, immediately turns evil. Ultron is defeated (with teamwork!) and Stark learns a valuable lesson about individual exceptionalism. A lesson that, not coincidentally, is one of the core tenets of social anarchism.
See, while historical anarchist theory is certainly muddled together with Nietzschean philosophies, including his ubermensches proposition, that's another one of those things everyone gets wrong. The common misconception of the ubermensch -- that if there are "overmen" than there are, by necessity, "undermen" -- is a dangerous interpretation, giving us not only sentient robots that want to kill all humans, but also things like shitty Superman movies where he's basically a god, and, uh, real-life Nazis.
The truth, though, is that Nietzsche believed there would be "a new human who was to be neither master nor slave." Someone who, essentially, was better than the average man in all metrics, but didn't act like an asshole about it.
Like Iron Man before him, Captain America is anti-government right from the get-go. The United States gives him the super soldier serum, sure, but then it sidelines him, using him for jingoistic, morale-boosting plays. He starts selling war bonds -- a literal government shill. Steve Rogers doesn't become a true hero -- doesn't really earn the title of Captain America -- until he starts doing the right thing, orders be damned.
I mean, literally, his first act as a Big Damn Hero is one of insubordination. After learning that his BFF James "Bucky" Barnes has gone MIA, Rogers sweet-talks Peggy Carter and Howard Stark into defying the top brass and dropping him behind enemy lines to rescue good ol' Buck and a bunch of other prisoners. It's only then that Rogers gets his shield.
Even the modern-era, no-swearing, Grandpa-yet-Boy Scout version of Captain America makes his name shitting all over the government he's supposed to be synonymous with. He gets into an argument with federal agent Nick Fury about S.H.I.E.L.D.'s fleet of flying assassination boats, disagreeing with them so hard that he digs up top-secret information and outs the organization as a Hydra shell company. For his troubles, he's told that he now has to register himself with that very same, recently-infiltrated government and do whatever he's told. Obviously, this doesn't sit well with Captain Anarchy, so he ditches the American flag duds and toodles off to fight evil with his friends, on his own terms.
And then there's the fact that Captain America only becomes "worthy" of lifting Thor's magical, integrity-powered hammer Mjolnir after said disavowal (and continued cold-shouldering) of the government.
What makes Steve Rogers different from Tony Stark, though, what makes him a true anarchist, is that he's not going against the government for his own selfish gains. He's not screaming "You can't have my property!" and then convincing himself it's for a good reason. He's not, like Stark, ceding responsibility for his actions to a higher power after a string of screw-ups, desperate to free himself from blame. Rogers knows that the government will, inevitably, do what is best for the government, and not the people. And that's just not how Captain America rolls.
It's not just Marvel's Big Two, either -- anti-government sentimentality runs deep in the MCU.
The Hulk is constantly on the run from a government that wants to cage him and experiment on him. Black Widow is filled with nothing but regret after being turned into a walking weapon by a shadowy Russian government organization, and then hired to murder people by a shadowy American government organization.
War Machine, the most pro-government hero on the roster -- so American he was even briefly branded as the Iron Patriot -- is the only hero to get permanently injured in Civil War. By Infinity War, he's defected from the government entirely.
Captain Marvel, meanwhile, is exploded while in the employ of the United States military, then has her disappearance covered up them. She's lied to, restrained and used by the Kree military, only to find true hero-dom once she flips the finger to everyone -- including Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. -- and starts saving entire planets on her own terms.
Even the Asgardian monarchy isn't exempt: In Thor: Ragnarok, it's revealed that good-dude Odin was actually a terrible king, who built his throne on the blood and bones of millions, imprisoned his own daughter and then lied about all of it. Thor's then sent to an alien world where the ruling class pits fighters against one another in vicious gladiatorial combat. Shit's so bad, that, at the end of Endgame, Thor relinquishes the Asgardian crown -- both because he realizes he'd be a bad king, hurting more than he was helping (and also because he wants to go hang out with the Guardians of the Galaxy).
The Guardians, by the way, exist in the farthest reaches of a galaxy that doesn't seem to have any kind of centralized government at all -- and they are, clearly, having the best time being heroes out of everyone.
And on the rare occasions governments do show up, they're made up exclusively of assholes.
And, I mean, I'm not even going to get into all the twists and turns and governmental red-tape of S.H.I.E.L.D., suffice it to say that the later seasons of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. saw the federal agents split so hard from the United States that they created their own timeline.
But, again, anarchism isn't just anti-authoritarianism. Many a true social anarchist would point out that actual heroes would go after the root of society's evils, rather than just occasionally decapitating purple, butt-chinned overlords.
An excellent point, and one that I'd argue is happening -- just, y'know, offscreen.
Killmonger and the events of Black Panther leave the isolationist nation of Wakanda convinced to fundamentally change how it functions, in order to better address the greater good of the world. In Endgame, in the absence of any kind of government following the Snap, Black Widow sends out the remaining heroes to, y'know, do hero stuff and help the downtrodden -- more of the quotidian tasks, arguably, then they did when they were only hanging out together to fight robots. And it's not impossible to think that the retired, time-traveling version of Captain America was off protesting during the sixties as normal citizen Steve Carter -- honestly, it makes more sense for his character than him just hiding from the world forever.
Even Tony Stark tried, eventually: he created the Stark Relief Foundation, "to provide relief to the needy as well as to handle any casualties incurred during battles involving the Avengers," and the September Foundation, to nurture young geniuses.
Well, young geniuses that he would eventually lure into combat against preternaturally-abled heroes and villains, drag into space and then gift with control of a planetary system of murder-satellites and no instruction manual. So, OK, maybe Iron Man's more like the Joker than I thought.
Eirik Gumeny is the author of The End of Everything Forever, a collection of five books and twenty-plus stories about a post-apocalyptic world littered with fallen gods, cloned queens, telekinetic squirrels and Dr. Vanilla Ice II. He's also on Twitter.
Top image: Walt Disney Studios