REVIEW: Geek psychologists analyze Marvel’s ‘Civil War’ in fascinating new volume

captain america vs iron man freedom security psychology
(Sterling Books)

Throughout the history of the superhero comic book, having heroes fight each other has been one of the most time-honored traditions of the medium. Ever since Marvel, early in its history, began using superhero fights as a way to distinguish themselves from their competitors at DC, the trope has remained enduringly popular, inspiring countless threads of passionate debate on social media among fans. Constantly, the question is asked: who would win in a fight between so-and-so versus so-and-so?

Perhaps nowhere is the superhero fight’s lasting appeal evidenced more than in two of this year’s biggest movies, Captain America: Civil War and Batman v. Superman (not that the latter was good, but it was certainly one of the year’s biggest movies).

Between the two films, I think most comic fans can agree that Captain America was not only the far better movie overall but the more spiritually faithful to its source material (even as it diverged in terms of plot detail). In this case that source material is, of course, Marvel’s seven-issue limited series Civil War by Mark Millar and Steve McNiven (2006-2007). But as good as the latest Captain America movie is, it is Millar and McNiven’s original comic that remains the more philosophically complex and compelling work, particularly when you read the entire interlinked story as it spans across various crossover titles. Not only that, but it took the superhero showdown to a whole new level: this wasn’t some lame, easily avoidable misunderstanding that caused the heroes to fight. This was a genuine, believable ideological schism that contained many nuances and complexities.

If you liked the movie but haven’t read the comic, be sure to do so. (images: Disney/Marvel Comics)

Perhaps this is one reason why it is the comic, not the movie, that serves as the subject for psychologist/editor Dr. Travis Langley and his team of PsychGeeks’ latest volume, Captain America vs. Iron Man: Freedom, Security, Psychology (with a great foreword by Mr. Stan Lee himself). While preparing to review this book I reread Civil War and found that doing so enriched the experience of the PsychGeeks book, and likewise reading the PsychGeeks book unraveled additional themes that I did not think a great deal about when reading Civil War the first time around.

Captain America vs. Iron Man is the third in a series of psychology-meets-pop culture books from the PsychGeeks team, the others so far having been The Walking Dead Psychology and Star Wars Psychology. As with the other two books (which I also reviewed on this site here and here), Captain America vs. Iron Man is an intelligent and thoroughly entertaining compilation of essays that should be of equal interest to comic book fans and psychology buffs alike. If, like me, you are both, then you will find each of the books in this series to be just as engrossing as the fictional universes they are based on—even more so in a way since they go beyond engaging the material at face value and probe them for pertinent psychological and social insights.

Many of the writers who have contributed to the previous volumes reappear here: Mara Wood, Janina Scarlet, Jenna Busch, Patrick O’Connor, E. Paul Zehr, Alan Kistler, Billy San Juan, Alex Langley and others. Having read the entire series so far, I’ve begun to become familiar with these writers’ areas of specialty and their recurring themes. Their varying perspectives underline just how rich a text the Civil War comic is and how many interpretive angles it can be approached and discussed from. Everyone who’s read the comic (or at least has seen the movie) knows how the story grapples with post-9/11 anxieties over the matter of freedom versus security. But that is just the tip of the iceberg.

Mara Wood’s “Moral Decisions in Civil War,” for instance, does an excellent job of showing how the characters in the story, at different points, behave in such a way that reflects the different stages of moral development as laid out by psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg. Furthering the theme of morality, Eric D. Wesselmann and J. Scott Jordan’s “Wild Heroes: The Hard Work of Being ‘Moral’” is a spectacular piece that reveals the incredible complexity of morality and the problems of approaching morality in a simplistic way, as evidenced in the actions of both Captain America and Iron Man along with their respective followers.

civil war captain america vs iron man (2)
A number of heroes who switch sides in ‘Civil War’ could be characterized as being in the preconventional and conventional levels of morality. (image: Marvel Comics)

Moving along to a different perspective, Janina Scarlet, one of my favorite writers in the PsychGeek series, partners with Jenna Busch in “Trauma Shapes a Superhero” to examine the different ways that Steve Rogers and Tony Stark’s respective traumas may have shaped their superhero careers. This and other essays in the volume like the aforementioned “Wild Heroes” show how despite their clashing ideologies, Steve and Tony are both still heroes in that they have both used the pain in their lives as motivation to do what’s right and good (even if they can’t agree, in this instance, on what’s “right”).

The added perspective of organizational psychology, a branch of psychology that doesn’t always get as much attention as the others, lends a couple of interesting pieces to the volume. “Leading the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes,” by Lara Taylor Kester, enjoyably analyzes the different leadership styles of Captain America and Iron Man with specific examples from the story, arguing that rather than one style being more correct than the other, each of them are suited to lead the Avengers in certain kinds of situations.

It's not just about security (left) vs. freedom (right). It's also about the achiever/creator leadership style vs. the relater/achiever style.
It’s not just about security (left) vs. freedom (right). It’s also about the achiever/creator leadership style vs. the relater/achiever style. (image: Marvel Comics)

Every book in the PsychGeeks series so far has had at least one essay that examines its chosen fictitious material from the perspective of gender. Billy San Juan, who wrote a strong piece in Star Wars Psychology about how Anakin Skywalker’s gender-influenced approach to grief may have led to his fall to the Dark Side, collaborates with Alan Kistler on “Codes of Masculinity: The Road to Conflict.” Since superhero comics are essentially an action genre, a story like Civil War wouldn’t quite work if its two central protagonists’ disagreement didn’t lead to physical violence. But since it does lead to violence, it provides a great case study for examining the role that gender psychology plays in ideologically-motivated violence. It’s interesting to see how even a character like Captain America—who, more so than many other male characters in the Marvel universe, displays some of the softer, “feminine” qualities—is nevertheless, by mere virtue of having been raised in the WWII era, conditioned to act in certain “manly” ways under certain circumstances.

While I enjoyed every piece in this collection, the most fascinating piece for me personally was Martin Lloyd’s “Defeating the Genius: General Intelligence vs. Specific Ability.” The freedom versus security theme in Civil War has, as mentioned, been heavily analyzed since the comic first came out, but one of the geekier micro-details that hasn’t been as widely discussed (except maybe among hardcore geeks) is the question of how Captain America could form a strategy superior to that of Iron Man’s. Certainly, Cap is an intelligent man but Tony Stark is categorized in the Marvel universe as being of Level 6 Super-Genius (a level shared only by the likes of Reed Richards, Black Panther, Bruce Banner and the X-Men villain Apocalypse). How then could a guy like Cap, smart but in an average kind of way, outmaneuver a polymath like Iron Man whose intellect is so vast it reaches all-out fantasy proportions? The answer lies in specialized ability vs. generalized intelligence, and Lloyd illustrates using the real-life example of master chess players whom people sometimes assume as being geniuses when really they just have a specialized ability. (It would be interesting to search through historical conflicts in the areas of politics, warfare and business for other analogous examples.)

civil war captain america vs iron man (5)
Being a genius doesn’t mean one is equally good at everything, and a non-genius who particularly excels at something, as Captain America does with strategy, can very plausibly beat the genius. (image: Marvel Comics)

For those who saw Captain America: Civil War, loved it, and were left wanting more, I highly suggest you read the original Civil War comic, if you haven’t already. Or go back and reread it if you have. Then read Captain America vs. Iron Man: Freedom, Security, Psychology and see just how diverse a range of issues and philosophical dilemmas, beyond the obvious ones, are contained in Civil War, all of them endlessly fascinating.

About The Pop Mythologist

The Pop Mythologist
The Pop Mythologist is the founder and editor of He has been a staff writer for the nationally distributed magazine KoreAm , the online journal of pop culture criticism Pop Matters and has written freelance for various other publications and websites.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.