Words cannot express how much I’m looking forward to Captain America: Civil War. Superhero films (and comics) are perhaps the ideal platform for exploring public intuitions about law, politics, and society. You can take ready-built characters off the shelf, establish a core question, and then let the plot weave around the tension between two different perspectives on that question. When it is done well, it is done very, very well.
In the comics, Civil War started off being a really good exploration of a difficult question about the State’s monopoly on legitimate violence. A group of superheroes engage in a conflict with supervillians which results in catastrophic loss of ‘civilian’ lives (including a primary school). Iron Man thinks that superheroes should be regulated and subordinate to legitimate (democratic) government, while Captain America believes that the individual hero should be able to transcend the legal framework. Obviously, I agreed with Iron Man, and so it was disappointing when the plotline deteriorated into Iron Man basically being a cardboard cutout fascist.
An upcoming comic book plot, Civil War II, explores the nature of legal punishment. A character gets the ability to see the future and therefore has the opportunity to prevent crime. The argument is whether people can be punished for crimes before they are committed: Captain Marvel says yes, while Iron Man says no. Without knowing the exact argument, it looks like I’m going to be on Team Iron Man again. It’s immoral to coerce behaviour under the guise of punishment, which is why rehabilitation and deterrence are not legitimate goals of a justice system.
But for all this swooning over legal theory in comic books and movies, it gets me to a bigger point about why we desperately need investment in the Australian arts industry. All three of the above examples take overtly American positions in the conversation. The first Civil War storyline relied heavily upon American narratives of liberalism (the ‘liberalism of fear‘) which do not fit nicely into the Australian political debate where we are more inclined towards communitarian discourses. Rhetoric about political and constitutional rights is downright confusing in the Australian debate where we do not rely as heavily on superstitious nonsense.
Without investment, we run the risk of letting American storytellers redefine our political and legal intuitions. We make references to Game of Thrones and House of Cards when talking about our own political intrigues and, in doing so, we import the narrative structures that hold up those references. If the population is learning its political rhetoric and intuitions through Prof Foxtel (which it is), then it is essential that Australian narratives are on equal footing.