A Marvel Civil War hits the big screen in America this week with the release of Captain America: Civil War. I probably don’t have to tell you, but the film is centered around an ideological clash that tears the Avengers apart — most notably, Captain America and Iron Man. The war focuses on something called The Sokovia Accords, and the Superhero Registration Act, which is a direct result of the devastation caused by actions in the prior movies.
The best Marvel movies (and, arguably, superhero narratives within any medium) are the ones that have topical, politically-relevant commentary, paired with awesome action and character development (The Winter Soldier and Iron Man did this best). It’s something that is mostly absent from the world of DC television these days, despite that universe’s other triumphs.
The Arrow-verse has never been overly interested in exploring socio-economic politics on an in-depth level, but the first season of Arrow in particular had Occupy-like values built into its narrative fabric. Furthermore, the comic on which it is technically based (trying really hard not to glance over at Batman Begins right now) champions a socialist superhero.
The show’s first season saw Oliver Queen at the heart of what was essentially class warfare in Starling City. Malcolm Merlyn vowed to level the entire working class section of the city because he blamed all poor people for the murder of his wife. Rather than use his privilege and resources to try to lift The Glades out of poverty, he bought not one, but two earthquake machines (buy one, get one free deal perhaps?) because he is the most classist of villains. Or at least he was in Season 1.
Conversely, Oliver used his privilege and resources — as metaphorically represented by the combat, archery, and sweet parkour skills he learned during those five years away — in an attempt to level the socio economic playing field. Or at least, to remove from power (and, sometimes, this mortal realm) the people who lived off the fruits of corruption and exploitation.
Here is Oliver’s Team Arrow pitch speech to Diggle in Season 1, Episode 4:
“I’m giving you the chance, a chance to help other people’s families. Do you remember when the people in this city helped each other? They can’t do that anymore, because a group of people, people like my father, they see nothing wrong with raising themselves up by stepping on other people’s throats. It does need to stop, and if it’s not gonna be the courts and it’s not gonna be the cops, then it’s gonna be me.”
Arrow isn’t so interested in using this class lens anymore (and, in my opinion, has suffered in its absence), but that doesn’t mean the characters of the Arrow-verse live outside of their in-universe sociopolitical context. With Captain America: Civil War fever currently sweeping the world, and reflecting some of our own real-world ideological dilemmas, I thought it would be a fun experiment to apply Civil War’s, er, civil war, to the characters of DC television: Arrow, The Flash, and Legends of Tomorrow. Whose side are you on? (Note: This is only including the DC CW series, and not Gotham on Fox or Supergirl on CBS, as they exist in alternative universes).
The Marvel Setup: Security vs. Freedom
First, let’s outline the ideological split. Civil War the movie is doing something slightly different from the “Civil War” plotline in the Marvel comics, but the basic ideological division is the same: Following the events in New York, London, Sokovia, and another incident that occurs at the beginning of Civil War, the world is calling for greater accountability from the superpowered community. Some Avengers, led by Tony Stark / Iron Man , believe this is necessary. Other Avengers, led by Steve Rogers / Captain America, believe the institution can be easily corrupted, and that some degree of security must be sacrificed in the preservation of personal freedoms.
Captain America and Iron Man’s respective decisions are very much defined by their characters’ story arcs throughout the MCU timeline. Tony Stark started as a man with zero accountability. He was a rich genius billionaire who failed the world by inadvertently using his incredible privilege to sell arms to terrorists and criminals who preyed on innocent men, women, and children around the world. Iron Man is about Tony’s forced enlightenment and his subsequent journey out of this ignorant implicitness in global warfare.
As recently as Avengers: Age of Ultron, however, Tony again took his resources and, operating with zero accountability, created the “Ultron” global defense program. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t go well. Though the Avengers eventually stop Ultron, lots of innocent people die in the process. Prior to Age of Ultron, Tony Stark was not a man who trusted the government to know what was best for himself or for other people. Quite the contrary, actually. He was a man who actively challenged authority. Post-Ultron, he is a different man — and seemingly one of the main superhero supporters of the Superhero Registration Act (a.k.a. the Sokovia Accords).
Steve Rogers, on the other hand, has gone through, more or less, a reverse thematic journey from Tony Stark. He started as a man who believed wholeheartedly in the institution. When we first meet him in Captain America: The First Avenger, the thing he wanted most of all was to serve his country in any way possible. He goes so far as to volunteer to be experimented on just so he can be useful to the government. In many ways, he sacrifices his own personal freedoms — even his own body — for a chance at a more secure world.
After The Winter Soldier, Steve is a man who has been betrayed by the very institution he vowed to serve: S.H.I.E.L.D and, in a larger sense, the United States government. Time and time again, he has shown up to serve his country, and what does he have to show for it? The very government that he tried to serve tried to kill him. Even when is part of the “good” fight, he is often viewed as a symbol, rather than a man — something to be co-opted in the service of a goal determined by people who are generally removed from the people they claim (or not) to be trying to protect.
Through it all, Steve has been someone who will lay down his life for a friend. The climax of The Winter Soldier, radically, depends on Steve choosing not to fight, rather throwing down his shield and letting Bucky kick the crap out of him because he would rather die trying to save his friend than lose the person who means the most to him in this neverending war that has already taken so much for him. When the world government proposes a Superhero Registration Act, Steve is not inclined to sign over his services — especially if it means giving up on Bucky.
Now that we’ve outlined the terms of the “civil war,” let’s apply it to the DC television universe.
The DC Pro-Personal Freedoms Team — a.k.a. Team Oliver Queen
You know Oliver Queen would not be cool with signing up for some superhero registry and letting the institution carry the weight of the world on its collective backs. Not when he has a perfectly fit back to do all of the self-sacrificial heavy-lifting.
Arrow’s Oliver Queen is all about operating outside of the system and, though he may have toyed with a run for public office earlier this season, let’s face it: he is not a company man. Oliver Queen would not only be on Team Personal Freedoms, he would be the self-appointed leader. He’d obviously recruit his little sister, too. Not that Thea Queen does everything Olly says, but, if there’s anyone on Arrow who hates authority more than Oliver, it’s Thea.
Other Arrow characters who would be pro-personal freedom? Felicity Smoak, for sure. Not only does Ms. Smoak have a history of hacktivism against the state, she nonchalantly breaks into government databases like other people do their laundry. Felicity wants the world to be a safe place, but that doesn’t mean she’s willing to give up the freedom (or the personal freedoms of some of her closest friends) to make it happen.
Drawing on their friends from Legends of Tomorrow, Oliver and Felicity would no doubt tempt Sara Lance (and Nyssa with her) to their side. Sara has always been wary of surrendering her personal freedoms for security, though she has done so in the past when absolutely necessary (i.e. when she first joined the League of Assassins). After years serving as an assassin, Sara literally chose to ingest poison (in Arrow Season 2) rather than return to a life she didn’t want for herself. In an episode of Legends earlier this season, Sara was faced with a tough choice: shoot Stein and protect the timeline, or let her friend live and try to find another way. She chose the second option.
Also joining Team Oliver Queen (though they probably wouldn’t call it that) would no doubt be Leonard Snart and Mick Rory (unless Team Security hired them as mercenaries). These two like to do what they want, when they want. They wouldn’t want to be hindered by something as potentially cumbersome as a Superhero Registration Act. Other Waverider passengers to eschew the DC equivalent of The Sokovia Accords would likely include Rip Hunter, for his tendency to do whatever the hell he wants with zero accountability, and Jax, for his tendency to want to go home and avoid this superhero nonsense altogether.
Which members of Team Flash would join Oliver Queen’s crusade? Though it would make West-Allen family dinners pretty awkward, I could see Iris throwing her weight behind Team Personal Freedoms. After all, her job as a reporter is to challenge the status quo and question the powers that be. Sure, she works for a form of institution — the media — but it is one that has at its very core a belief in institutional transparency (at least, you know, in theory).
Harry Wells is joining Team Oliver Queen, too. He is, after all, a man who created metahumans (including Zoom) on Earth-Two without having to assume accountability for it, but thinks it’s a good idea to do it again in order to try to solve Team Flash’s problems. Oy.
The DC Pro-Security Team — a.k.a. Team Barry Allen
Barry Allen might not want to reveal his superhero identity, but he would do so for the greater good, making him the perfect captain for the pro-security side of this registration dilemma. He has lost too many friends to do otherwise. Barry is a social optimist at his core. He believes in the power of the system to be just, stable, and keep people safe.
But first, let’s talk Arrow. When it comes to characters who believe in the power of the institution and might be cool with something like The Sokovia Accords, John Diggle comes immediately to mind. He is a military man who is relatively wigged out by superpowers. He has seen first hand what kind of destruction even the most well-intentioned of superheroes can wreak. (Diggle has had a front row seat every almost time Hurricane Oliver has made landfall). Further, though he has seen his fair share of corrupt organizations, he still seems to believe well-intentioned government accountability is possible (Exhibit A: Lyla).
I’m also going to throw Detective Lance onto “Team Barry Allen.” Lance seems like a shoo-in for Team Security, given that he actually works for a state institution as a cop. Though he has obviously become more lax in his opinion on vigilante justice outside of the law, I think he still believes that greater government accountability is the ideal system.
Hopping back to The Flash, I’m going to give Joe West a slot on “Team Barry Allen” for pretty much the same reasons as Detective Lance (these characters are both big-hearted cops with a clear-eyed pragmatism in regards to superhero culture). And you know relative rule-followers (and besties) Caitlin Snow and Cisco Ramon still believe in the power of the institution, precious cinnamon rolls that they are (illegal metahuman prisons, notwithstanding). Besides, Cisco is still kind of frightened of his own powers. If he thinks government accountability might keep him safe and in-check, he’d probably go for it.
The crew of the Waverider over on Legends of Tomorrow isn’t exactly known for its affection for authority — but there are some institution-believers in there yet. Ray Palmer and Dr. Stein in particular seem well-placed to put their faith in the system. After all, both have been richly rewarded by it. (Besides, Ray is basically a dopier Iron Man). I’m also going to give Kendra a tentative spot on Team Security. In her many incarnations, she has seen cities rise and fall, often at the hands of one all-powerful, corrupt man. If there were a way to keep the timeline safe from Vandal Savage, Kendra would pay any price to see it done.
Who would win?
So, to recap: On The DC Pro-Personal Freedoms Team, we have: Oliver Queen, Thea Queen, Felicity Smoak, Sara Lance (and Nyssa), Leonard Snart, Mick Rory, Rip Hunter, Jax, Iris West, and Harry Wells.
On The DC Pro-Security Team, we have: Barry Allen, John Diggle (and Lyla), Detective Lance, Caitlin Snow, Cisco Ramon, Joe West, Ray Palmer, Dr. Stein, and Kendra. Who might win in an epic battle? Surprisingly, the teams are actually pretty well matched. Let’s break it down by subject…
Superpowers: The Pro-Security Team has the metahuman advantage with both Barry and Cisco, not to mention what is basically an Iron Man with Ray Palmer’s Atom suit. Kendra has wings, which I guess is pretty cool? Dr. Stein and Jax are on opposite sides, so they cancel one another out re: Firestorm. The Pro-Personal Freedoms Team is pretty low on superhero abilities. Collectively, three of their number have come back from the dead, but you can’t really use that in a fight. I’m going to have to give this category to the Pro-Security Team. Let’s face it: Barry is nigh unstoppable when he’s not second-guessing himself and there aren’t any other speedsters around. Point: Pro-Security Team.
Smarts: Technically, the Pro-Security Team has more of the brains with Barry, Caitlin, Cisco, Ray, and Dr. Stein, but it’s hard to count out the Pro-Personal Freedoms Team’s all-star match-up of Felicity and Harry. Felicity, in particular, can do pretty much anything with a computer and Harry has the advantage of understanding the technological breakthroughs of not one, but two worlds. However, the other guys do have the numbers, and Cisco and Caitlin do work really well together, so… Draw.
Resources: The Pro-Personal Freedoms Team has billionaire CEO Felicity Smoak and the resources of Palmer Technology at its disposal. They also have a spaceship and information about the timeline from Gideon in the form of Rip Hunter. (His obsession with saving his family, however, might get in the way.) The Pro-Security Team has two detectives, but when has the Star City P.D. or the Central City P.D. ever been the deciding factor in a fight? Point: Pro-Personal Freedoms Team.
Fighting ability: This category so definitely goes to the Pro-Personal Freedoms Team. They have three League-trained fighters in Oliver, Sara, and Nyssa and two career criminals in Snart and Rory. On the other side, Diggle, Lyla, Lance, and West would put up a good fight, but they are no match for the varied, ruthless skills of their frenemies. Point: Pro-Personal Freedoms Team.
Other abilities: Jax is a mechanic, but Kendra is a barista, so I’m calling this one a draw.
I’m calling it for The DC Pro-Personal Freedoms Team, led by Oliver Queen. Feel free to fight me in the comments. Like Marvel’s Civil War, the DC Television Civil War would most likely be a heartbreaking exercise in friend against friend (and, in one case, daughter against father). You know that Barry and Oliver would have lots of angsty chats about how they really don’t want to fight each other, but they just worry about the future of their fragile cities (and the larger world) too damn much. Cities would fall. Friendships would crumble. And nothing in the Arrow-verse would ever be the same. Get on it, CW.