(This post contains spoilers for CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR and DOCTOR STRANGE)

One of the most consistent criticisms facing the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that the films lack strong, memorable villains. They certainly found a winner in Tom Hiddleston’s performance as Loki, and while this writer certainly finds some villain performances to be underrated (Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer, Daniel Bruhl’s Zemo, Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull), it’s a criticism that holds up upon reflection on many of the Marvel films. That’s not entirely the fault of the studio, however. The truly memorable and iconic Marvel villains are currently wrapped up in legal rights with other franchises, and we have yet to see how the team at Marvel Studios will bring to life Spider-Man’s rogues gallery, which is easily one of the top three groups of villains in comics. This “villain problem” is really a byproduct of Marvel’s flawed hero archetypes. In other words, the good guys in Marvel comics are often their own worst, and most compelling, enemies.

Sure, Iron Man might have to do battle with Whiplash, but as an audience, we’re more concerned about how Tony Stark will overcome his self-destructive tendencies. Ant-Man will fight Yellowjacket, but we’re more compelled by Scott Lang’s battle to prove he can move on from his criminal past and be a good father to his daughter. Many Marvel films are straightforward dramas that also feature people with experimental supersuits and fight sequences. It is the internal conflicts of the characters that make the audiences empathize and connect so strongly with them. This internal strife was at its strongest this year as Marvel’s 2016 offerings of CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR and DOCTOR STRANGE saw our characters facing off against the philosophical idea of Objectivism.

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Developed by author Ayn Rand through works like THE FOUNTAINHEAD and THE VIRTUE OF SELFISHNESS, Objectivism is a philosophy that celebrates the individual and encourages a laissez-faire attitude towards capitalism. It’s a belief fueled by the idea that a person should be rewarded for their own accomplishments and that the success of the individual comes purely from what they can achieve with their own skills. It’s a philosophy that seems to go against the moral codes of many superheroes whose primary job it is to defend the weak. In spite of this contradiction, this philosophy is closely tied to one of the most important figures in the history of superhero comics: Steve Ditko. Whether intentional or not on the part of the filmmakers, these two films both use the Objectivist philosophy in their conflict, but also feature two of Ditko’s most popular creations: Spider-Man and Doctor Strange.

The aspect of this philosophy that is most present in Ditko’s comics is the Objectivist moral sense of right and wrong. In the Objectivist philosophy, there is a belief that all knowable things have an objective truth to them. Ayn Rand once said “Reality exists as an objective absolute—facts are facts, independent of man’s feelings, wishes, hopes or fears.” To an Objectivist, there is no moral relativity. Committing a crime makes someone a criminal, regardless of the justification for that crime. Ditko leaned into this idea with his character Mr. A, a crime fighter who relentlessly pursued and harshly punished criminals regardless of their crimes.

Objectivism
Art by Steve Ditko

It is this sense of moral objectivity, this ideal that ethics can only be interpreted one way, that drives the characters to schism in both CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR and DOCTOR STRANGE.

Hero vs. Hero

CIVIL WAR finds the Avengers at odds over the Sokovia Accords, a U.N. sanctioned agreement that would make the Avengers government agents again and only allow them to intervene if given permission by the U.N. itself. The Avengers find themselves split down the middle over the Accords, with Tony Stark leading the team for the agreement, and Steve Rogers, Captain America, leading the team against it. The objective belief in their choice being the right one causes the breakdown of the team, but also highlights how both Stark and Rogers have evolved since the start of the MCU back in 2008.

Stark is the most Randian of heroes: a self-made man whose success is a product of his intellect and ingenuity. While he was bestowed a company by his father, his work as the superhero Iron Man is wholly his own achievement. Rogers, on the other hand, is the antithesis of the self-reliant ethos of Rand’s philosophy. Rogers is someone who was blessed with great power from external forces to bolster the potential within. A true Randian would echo Stark’s line from THE AVENGERS: “Everything special about you came out of a bottle.” It’s a stinging verbal barb, but something the audience knows is not true. Rogers’ greatest superpower is his empathy, and the Super Soldier Serum simply made the size of his physical body match the size of his compassion.

Due to his incredible physical prowess, the greatest challenges that Rogers faces are often moral ones. In both THE AVENGERS and CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, Cap has to come face to face with the compromises that America has had to make in order to better protect itself, especially from super-powered threats. Cap’s rigid moral code pushes back against those ideas, and both films acknowledge that his condemnation of SHIELD is morally just. However, CIVIL WAR presents Cap’s moral superiority on much shakier grounds. This is the film where we see that Stark and Rogers have been heading in opposite moral directions this entire time.

Objectivism

As Stark becomes more and more invested in his responsibilities as Iron Man, he starts to see that he can’t be entirely self-reliant and that his belief that he alone can best protect the world (“I’ve successfully privatized world peace” he announces during a Senate hearing in IRON MAN 2) is ultimately wrong. Tony can’t allow himself to give up being Iron Man, due to a combination of altruism and guilt, but he knows that he can no longer be a “lone gunslinger” as Rhodey once called him after seeing the catastrophe he caused through the creation of Ultron. All of this regret pushes Stark to sign the Sokovia Accords to keep him and his fellow Avengers in check. It’s a way for Stark to ease his own fears about being responsible for another catastrophe.

By contrast, Captain America has gone from being the ultimate soldier working with the Howling Commandos- a group of eclectic men representing various nations- to being unable to trust the government structure at all and operating with certainty that he knows best and he has the superior morals needed to make difficult choices.  This is why in CIVIL WAR he’s willing to risk everything for Bucky, a man with whom he knows he shares the same level of moral convictions. Rogers can’t bring himself to sign the Accords because he no longer believes that a government structure can maintain ideological purity without being bogged down by the agendas of the people within it. He has gone from idealist to cynic following his emergence from the ice.

CLICK: How will DOCTOR STRANGE and THOR RAGNAROK change the future of the MCU?

This is also why Cap surrounds himself with other heroes in CIVIL WAR who do the right thing but operate outside the structures of the government apparatus (“chaotic good,” to use the parlance of our times). Ant-Man and Scarlet Witch are both ostracized for past transgressions and seek redemption while remaining wary of official agencies that may try to control them. The Falcon, who hasn’t been give a ton of backstory in the MCU, likely has a healthy and appropriate level of skepticism towards authority considering his reference in CIVIL WAR to the infamous Mark Fuhrman (“you’d have to go Mark Fuhrman on my ass to get information out of me”), poster child of police brutality and institutional racism exposed in the LAPD during the late 90’s. These three characters are undoubtedly morally just in their actions, but Rogers is borderline reckless with their faith in his leadership. Rogers’ steadfastness blinds him to his own privilege. He doesn’t recognize that a convicted felon, a Romani-Jewish woman, and an African-American man have far more to lose in a prejudiced judicial system if Cap’s refusal to bend to the pressures of the Sokovian accords leads to repercussions.

Objectivism

Neither Stark nor Rogers can compromise their beliefs. Their own subtle Objectivism causes the schism of CIVIL WAR and, regardless of Zemo’s behind the scenes machinations, finally brings the conflict that had been inevitably brewing over the last several movies to the violent forefront.

Good Magic/Bad Magic

In the latest Marvel film, DOCTOR STRANGE, Baron Mordo, one of the oldest enemies of the Sorcerer Supreme, has been reinvented into an ally of Strange. In the original comics, both were once pupils of the Ancient One, but Mordo quickly betrayed their teacher to gain greater dark power. The film portrays the dissolution of that relationship quite differently. Though Strange’s background is explored in great depth, the film only hints at a terrible past for Mordo, one that required the intervention of the mystic arts to restore his purpose. This dedication to the mystic arts gave Mordo great power but also, as the Ancient One herself notes, a moral rigidity. Mordo becomes the avatar of Objectivist philosophy in the film. He even carries a weapon named for The Living Tribunal, the entity in the Marvel universe that oversees judgement and justice in all things, emphasizing his belief in the moral balance of only two perspectives: right and wrong. Mordo repeatedly decries the actions of the sorcerer Kaecilius who draws his power from the Dark Dimension. To Mordo, this choice to use magic for an unnatural end, to provide immortality for humanity by surrendering existence to Dormmamu, is against the code of the sorcerers.

CLICK: Want to know our thoughts on the latest Doctor Strange comic series? Click here to check it out!

Mordo’s own moral code is tested in the last act of the film when it is revealed that the Ancient One has been drawing power from Dormammu’s dark dimension- an act that she explicitly forbid. As she explains to Strange in her final moments of life, she made this choice in order to prolong her life and continue to fight against evil forces like Dormammu. Strange, himself a man who has made less than morally sound choices, understands and forgives her, while Mordo’s worldview is shattered. He cannot understand how the person who gave him new purpose and shaped a new moral code for him could be so deeply flawed. For the Objectivist, “things are what they are…they possess a specific nature, an identity” (Objectivism 101). If Mordo based his identity in the teachings of the Ancient One, and she proves to be imperfect, then he can only conclude that his own code and beliefs have been lies. Because Mordo draws his power from a binary force of Justice, he can only make the judgement of guilty or not guilty. His refusal to accept moral subjectivity drives him away from his path as a sorcerer and the mystical forces that saved his life.

While the friendship may not have run as deep as that of Iron Man and Captain America, Mordo’s inability to compromise juxtaposes Strange’s willingness to bend the rules to protect others. As a doctor, Strange is dedicated to his Hippocratic oath, first do no harm, to ensure the safety of the world. Strange is willing to trap himself within a time paradox and die over and over at the hands of Dormammu to protect the world. His ability to bend the rules allows him to achieve a new level of selflessness that Mordo once thought he had through his uncompromising morals.

Objectivism

In fact, Captain America and Mordo share similar arcs in their respective films. Both find themselves confronted with an extreme moral question, both feel betrayed by someone close to them, and both choose to walk away from their adopted path. What differs is their reasons. Mordo chooses to declare war on all sorcerers by the end of the film for their hypocrisy. He becomes a Javert-like figure who cannot accept that anyone is willing to take the great power they are given and not obey the objective laws of nature with those powers.

Captain America, on the other hand, chooses to drop his shield and walk away from the Avengers because he finally sees where his unwavering moral certainty brought him. Just like SHIELD, he caused the implosion of a force for good, the Avengers, just because he thought he knew better. Dropping the shield is a symbolic act of penance. An acknowledgement that if he was willing to abandon so many larger principles for a selfish reason, then he doesn’t deserve to carry that shield. While Mordo’s arc ends with him elevating himself to what he believes is a place of higher moral judgement, Cap humbles himself for refusing to compromise.

While the connection to Ditko and his ideals may not have been intentional, these two movies speak to that Objectivist world view and its ultimate flaw: the celebration of selfishness. For Ayn Rand, selfishness was a virtue. In her aforementioned book, THE VIRTUE OF SELFISHNESS, she said “The Objectivist ethics holds that human good does not require human sacrifices and cannot be achieved by the sacrifice of anyone to anyone.” For the Objectivist, happiness does not require sacrifice, and the happiness of the individual means more than that of one’s fellow man. In DOCTOR STRANGE, as the Ancient One fades from existence she delivers a simple final message to Stephen Strange “It’s not about you.” Captain America, Iron Man, and Doctor Strange are all heroes because they looked at their choices, their mistakes, and saw the self-serving flaws in their actions. That is the mark of a true hero: being able to look at yourself and see that maybe you were never as right as you thought. 

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