CSPP Professor and founder of Superhero Therapy Janina Scarlet contributed to the book Captain America vs. Iron Man: Freedom, Security, Psychology which includes a forward written by Stan Lee. In the book, she explores the psychological makeup of both characters, and I sat down with her to discuss how their backgrounds affect the dynamics of the new movie Captain America: Civil War.
The movie pits Captain America, Steve Rodgers, against Iron Man, Tony Stark, in a battle for the perceived greater good. After causing disastrous amounts of collateral damage, the Avengers are called upon to report to the United Nations. A division emerges between the members, led by Iron Man, who agree that the team must bend to oversight and accountability; and the members, led by Captain America, who think that a bureaucratic world-government organization would cripple their ability to help when and where it is most needed. The divide is cemented when the winter soldier, and Captain America’s longtime best friend, Bucky Barnes returns, is framed for a bombing on the U.N., and is ultimately discovered to have been the one to murder Tony Stark’s parents.
Tony Stark/Iron Man
Tony Stark grew up in a fairly comfortable bubble, as a spoiled little ingrate. He lived a privileged and carefree life… until his parents were murdered. The tragic loss of his parents becomes a turning point. This trauma leads to Stark’s substance abuse disorder and leaves him with seemingly insurmountable loads of guilt.
When he gets kidnapped and implanted with the arc reactor, he sees a path to redemption, a way to save others and save himself. And whenever he fails to save others, or worse—feels like he is responsible for their deaths, he spirals down a path of guilt littered with empty bottles. He becomes a superhero with a deeply rooted sense of responsibility and holds himself to standards of perfection. It’s no surprise that the guilt from the lives lost in Sokovia binds him. When he is confronted by the woman from the state department about the loss of her son in Sokovia, he later presents a photo of the young man to the group as a martyr at their hands, making the case for Avengers oversight. For Tony Stark, every life that he blames himself for ending or failing to save is a cross he bears.
Surprised to learn of his noble profile, I told Dr. Scarlet that I always had the impression of Tony Stark as a brooding narcissist; she pointed out that he uses sarcasm and arrogance as a SHIELD and that even though it may be mechanical, Tony does have a heart.
His Greater Good
It’s clear that Tony is consumed by guilt over every death he feels is his fault, and in Iron Man 3 we clearly see that he is also suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, so the anxiety of continuing with unsanctioned and possibly tragic battle campaigns and adding to his crown of thorns makes a clear case for his support of U.N. Oversight.
Steve Rogers/Captain America
In the opposing corner of the ring we have Steve Rogers. Captain America is the epitome of the “little guy,” the underdog. Until the government transformed him into a superhuman, he was bullied, weak, and defenseless. What’s more the guy is 98 years old. He was born and lived the first decades of his life before the expansion of a world government and has a unique vantage point on the binding effects of bureaucratic red tape.
His Greater Good
Steve Rogers was trained, conditioned, and interred with a sense of duty. In his mind, the avengers must go where the defenseless need them most, not where the government deems fit to send them. The U.N. is not the “little guy” he wants to fight for. So it is clear why he opposes oversight and goes against Stark on this one.
Now enter the battle for redemption, loyalty, and vengeance
After being frozen for decades, Steve emerged in a different world. A world in which he eventually discovered that the only true remnant of his life was his friend Bucky, who is the Anna to his Elsa—he was also frozen—and they both emerged to find that everyone he knew was either dead or ancient and soon to be. They became each other’s only anchor in the new world.
The U.N. wants Bucky. He was framed and implicated in a bombing on the U.N. so Steve and pals take Bucky to protect him. Tony asks the U.N. to let him bring them in, in order to protect his friend Steve from annihilation at the hands of the U.N. But when Tony finds out that Bucky was programmed to kill his parents, all superhero hell breaks loose.
Unlike the original theme of a battle for the greater good, here we see each hero bowing to their origin stories. Tony fights to avenge the murder of his parents and Steve fights to save the one person he has left in his world.
In both battles— one for the greater good and one for their most deeply personal mission—each man is justified. Their personal psychological backgrounds, traumas and inspirations lay out very clear and very antithetical paths to what is right and what is just. In the end Captain America and Iron Man have no choice but to forsake each other and be true to man under the mask.
Captain America fans have been a buzz since, in the graphic novel series, we see him stating “Hail, Hydra” and seemingly working as a double agent. To this Dr. Scarlet says “I hope that Marvel has a good reason for doing so, one where either Steve is really a spy for SHIELD, trying to find out more information about Hydra or one where he is brainwashed, as Bucky was. It would be devastating to Captain America fans if their hero really turned out to be a bad guy after all."
Take note, Marvel.
Cielo Villaseñor is Alliant's Communications Manager and an avid fan of Dr. Janina Scarlet.
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Eric Stinson, California School of Professional Psychology at Alliant International University, Marketing Manager