Exclusive Extract From A Philosopher Reads Marvel Comics’ Civil War: Exploring the Moral Judgment of Captain America, Iron Man, and Spider-Man

A Philosopher Reads Marvel Comics’ Civil War

As we lead up to next month’s Marvel movie Captain America: Civil War, we’re going to see a lot of product tie-ins. One of the more interesting (and intellectual) is a new book, A Philosopher Reads Marvel Comics’ Civil War: Exploring the Moral Judgment of Captain America, Iron Man, and Spider-Man, by Professor Mark D. White, Chair of Philosophy at the College of Staten Island/CUNY. (It can also be ordered from BookDepository.com worldwide.)

I’ve been given this exclusive excerpt by Ockham Publishing to give you a taste of this text exploration of the disagreements between the heroes and the ethics behind their debate. The book is described as:

White lays out the basic ethical foundations of each hero’s thinking and highlights the moral judgment each must use to put his ethics into action. But also how conflicting principles such as liberty and security must be balanced in the real world, lest both be lost. Written in a style that will be easily accessible to everyone, A Philosopher Reads… Marvel Comics’ Civil War will be a fascinating read for diehard comic fans and philosophy buffs, as well as those looking for a simple introduction to philosophical ethics.

Here it is, by Mark D. White:

A Philosopher Reads Marvel Comics’ Civil War

The world of Marvel Comics, known to fans as the Marvel Universe, has always been more of a mirror of our real world than the world of DC Comics is. While DC has Metropolis (home to Superman), Gotham City (Batman), and Central City (the Flash), the architects of the early Marvel Universe chose to put most of its heroes in or around New York City. This enables readers to connect more closely to the locales in the comics: they see Spider-Man swinging from the Chrysler Building, Daredevil chasing a criminal through the alleys of Hell’s Kitchen, and the X-Men training in Professor X’s Westchester mansion, all real places they can live in, visit, or see on the news.

This aspect of realism in Marvel Comics also allows the creators to portray real-world events in their stories. Because most Marvel stories are set in New York City, celebrities and political figures often show up, from mayors to talk show hosts like David Letterman. When the president of the United States is shown, he (or, someday, she) is usually the real-world president at the time (although often depicted in shadow to preserve some degree of timelessness in the story). And when something cataclysmic happens, especially in New York City, the comics show that too, as they did with the events of September 11, 2001. A very moving issue of Amazing Spider-Man showed various heroes (and a few villains) mourning the death and destruction from that day, and a story arc in Captain America modeled the ideal reaction to the tragedy, perfectly balancing sensitivity to Americans of Middle Eastern descent while focusing the military response on the individuals responsible.

While we can assume that the US government in the Marvel Universe reacted in the same way to 9/11 as ours did — they passed the PATRIOT Act, for example — readers had to wait until 2006 to see the Marvel superheroes react to their own tragedy. Even though, unlike 9/11, the incident that launched the Civil War was caused by a handful of inexperienced heroes, following a series of catastrophes involving other heroes, it prompted a similar public outcry and legislative response as occurred in response to 9/11 in the real world. Unique to the comics, however, the tragedy in the Marvel Universe resulted in a wholescale war that posed hero against hero.

If we peel away the superhero façade, under the capes and masks we see the same debates in the Marvel Universe as we do in the real world. These include conflicts between liberty and security in the political realm as well as between defending the right and advancing the good in the personal realm. For these reasons, I call the Marvel Comics Civil War a war of principle: on the surface, it’s an exciting battle between superheroes, but dig a little deeper, and you find a battle of ideals. And this isn’t your ordinary good-versus-evil battle, such as when Captain America protects freedom against the Red Skull’s dreams of tyranny. Instead, this battle of principle is amongst the forces of good, where each principle is valid and admirable on its own, such as liberty and security. Yet, as we’ve seen numerous times since 9/11, these principles are not compatible, and we have to decide which one to favor over the other at any particular time. Rather than choose one principle to favor over others, we must find a way to balance them, and the proper balance will not always be the same — nor will anyone likely agree with anyone else on what the proper balance should be.

The general point I want to make in this book is that these conflicts of principle occur all the time, in both our political and personal lives, and even though we have to prioritize certain principles in particular cases, all of the principles remain important and valuable. Even though we may decide to privilege security or liberty at some point, both of them must still be valued and promoted; we wouldn’t choose one and dismiss the other entirely. In terms of personal decision-making, even though some people try to do what’s right, according to rules and duties, while others try to promote what’s good, in terms of welfare or well-being, they are all advancing important principles of morality. With all due respect to Iron Man, the choices here are not stark ones — they’re not about right answers and wrong answers, but about finding the right balance between equally valid principles for a particular situation, and recognizing that different situations require different solutions with their own unique balancing of principles.

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