How A Plot Hole in “Captain America: Civil War” Inadvertently Critiqued the UN

Disclaimer: There are spoilers of Captain America: Civil War in what follows. I also realize I’m being a huge nerd about this, and it is necessary to suspend belief to watch superhero movies. Also, I’m a philosopher, not a political scientist, so my understanding of U.N. procedures is rudimentary.


The fictional UN session in Vienna gone awry.

It was curious to me that in Captain America: Civil War the writers decided to use an existing organization–the United Nations–instead of continuing to use fictional groups like the World Security Council, S.H.I.E.L.D., etc.

As I understand it, the purpose of the UN is to do things like mediate and maintain world peace, promote human rights, and protect the environment. So, ideally they are in the business of promoting humanitarianism.

The UN isn’t the world police, and there’s no such thing as a world army. The UN Security Council can use armed coalition forces to maintain peace and security, but those forces are voluntarily provided by nation-states (and the UN can’t force a nation to send troops). The UN also has an International Court of Justice, but it only looks at cases brought about by nation-states against other nation-states (and it doesn’t even really have jurisdiction over them).

So, to have a UN panel that would determine when a group of superheroes would–what? be used as a “peacekeepers”?–is dubious to begin with.

The UN has only existed since the aftermath of World War II, and its security policies are clearly coming from a just war perspective in which force is justified as a matter of self-defense so long as there is just cause, the support of proper authority, a likelihood of victory, etc., and so long as certain rules of combat like non-combatant immunity are followed. The important thing to keep in mind, though, is that UN policies and resolutions on warfare are based on the model of the nation-state.  

The problem is that war has changed since 1945.

And here is what the muddled plot in Civil War exposed: the UN doesn’t know what to do about non-nation-state cases, that is, about terrorism–when violence or humanitarian violations cannot be pinned on a nation-state or in the middle of a nation-state’s civil war. The UN doesn’t even know how to define terrorism.

The Sokovia Accords

Deployment of Enhanced Individuals, i.e., UN Authorized Terrorism

This is exactly what the UN in Civil War claimed the problem with the Avengers was. Although the Avengers are “based in the U.S.,” their members include a Sokovian, an Asgardian demigod, and a non-citizen android. Some of their members are former U.S. military or former arms manufacturers, but even if they were a component of U.S. Special Operations Forces, the UN couldn’t have a say in their use. Available troops are provided by the nation-state.

But the Avengers aren’t military. Remember when Tony wanted to avoid that? They’re civilians. And without S.H.I.E.L.D., the government especially has no claim over them. Remember when Steve brought S.H.I.E.L.D. down?

No one, and certainly not civilians, can actually sign an agreement with the UN that says, “I will be deployed whenever and wherever the UN tells me. And if I cause collateral damage not on their orders, then they can arrest me and hold me without due process in an underwater Guantanamo Bay.” That in itself seems to violate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights the UN claims to uphold as a standard.

What Secretary Ross and the UN aren’t saying explicitly in Civil War is that they think the Avengers are terrorists–non-nation-state actors causing harm to innocent civilians for ideological reasons. What they definitely aren’t saying explicitly is that they want a team of said terrorists to do their bidding when they deem it necessary, because the UN and international law is ill-equipped to deal with terrorism on an official level based on policies built around a theory that pretty much only fits WWII.

Steve was right: whatever kind of agreement the UN wanted was just a blame shift. And if you actually look at all of the examples of Avengers run amok, the problem was pretty much always the U.S. not being responsible enough to handle a powerful weapon.  

  • What happened in New York wasn’t the Avengers fault. The only reason why Loki was interested in Earth was because the U.S. government was using the Tesseract to build weapons of mass destruction.
  • What happened in DC was the U.S. government (government employees working in the name of HYDRA are still government employees) building a giant weapon that would murder millions of its own citizens at once, which is terrifying, domestic terrorism, and should definitely be on the UN’s list of banned weapons.
  • What happened in Sokovia on the surface looks like Tony’s fault, and the creation of Ultron was definitely Tony’s fault, but, again, Sokovia was where Ultron ended up because of Loki’s scepter, which S.H.I.E.L.D. couldn’t bother to hold onto.[1]
  • What happened in Lagos was because of a biological weapon that a former employee of the U.S. government was trying to steal and sell. (And when has the U.S. government ever cared about collateral damage, especially in an African nation? Mogadishu ring any bells?)

Steve was also right that nation-states have agendas, and this is a common criticism of the UN Security Council.[2] The U.S. is often accused of supporting state-sponsored terrorism, providing weapons to terrorists, creating ISIS, and the list goes on. Maybe some of these actions are justified or misconstrued, but my point is that the U.S. and the UN aren’t actually in the business of stopping terrorism–either because of other political agendas or because they simply don’t have the right protocols and rules to do so.

He can fly through walls and shoot lasers out of his forehead. Good luck locking that down.

He can fly through walls and shoot lasers out of his forehead. Good luck.

But they certainly don’t have the authority to create a panel to deploy a terrorist group (which the Avengers essentially are) against whatever actions the UN deems dangerous. Maybe the UN should, because the age of the nation-state as we know it might be nearing a tipping point. And maybe they can’t define terrorism because they need to utilize authorized terrorism in order to combat it.

But there is no way that 117 nations would have agreed to this option in Civil War, because the Avengers are U.S.-based.

They also likely could never build a prison that would hold Vision.

But that’s a different plot hole.  

[1] Maybe Sokovia could have brought the U.S. to trial in the Case Concerning the Military and Paramilitary Activities in and Against Sokovia?

[2] The five permanent members of the UN Security Council are perpetually in the top 10 nations for military spending, are among the largest arms exporters, and have nuclear weapons–so they actually have a stake in perpetuating military action. Furthermore, the UN doesn’t always intervene when human rights are being violated–Rwanda being the best example–especially in countries where none of the five permanent members has a financial stake.

2 thoughts on “How A Plot Hole in “Captain America: Civil War” Inadvertently Critiqued the UN

  1. Bravo. The UN was brought, to present a new toy named Black Panther. That’s about it. This was NOT a political movie, and I don’t think they tried to.

    • I agree. The characters and their emotional reactions were what primarily drove the plot. But the political parts that didn’t really fit into the movie were interesting to me separately.

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