Moral Dilemmas: Memory, Identity, & Moral Culpability
Updated: Feb 15
This particular moral dilemma asks the question, "Does the absence of memories forgive the perpetrator of their crime?". This stems out of the messy quagmire that is Marvel's Civil War event from 2006-07, the deeply troubling mistakes Tony Stark made during that time period, and Matt Fraction's logical but still dubious method of redeeming Stark in his Invincible Iron Man run.
To start, let's pull together a quick and incomplete list of Tony's various 'Acts of Douchiness' so we can get a little bit of the scope of what we have to forgive:
1- Stark pushes hard for the passing of the Superhero Registration Act, a law that severely attacks civil liberties and ignites conflicts that result in the deaths of heroes and civilians as well as a political power struggle that will be felt for years to come. (Civil War)
2- Black Goliath is murdered by an insane Thor clone developed for the government by Tony Stark and Reed Richards. (Civil War #4)
3- Stark and Richards create a clone of Thor named Ragnarok (YES THAT WILL END WELL GOOD JOB) . Ignoring a slew of basic moral and ethical problems with such a decision that should have stopped them early on, there's the basic issue of desecrating the memory of their dead (at the time) friend Thor.
4- Stark, Pym, and Richards also create Prison 42, a 'very clean' prison camp for superpowered people who do not register legally with the government. Located in another dimension.
4- Evidence is found that supports that Tony Stark manipulated events to A) lead to the enforcement of the Superhero Registration Act and B) to allow for him to manipulate the stock market and profit from the conflict. (Civil War Frontline #8, #11)
5- Stark allows the recruitment of supervillains, allowing murderers and other criminals amnesty for service. This also allows for the rise of Norman Osborn within the government and his eventual power grasp that leads to years of corruption under the 'Dark Reign'.
6- Captain America is assassinated while in custody. Yeah I'm totally blaming Tony for that one as well. ( Captain America v5, #25)
So yeah, just one or two crappy things to keep in mind.
Fast forward a bit into Matt Fraction's Invincible Iron Man run, specifically the story arcs 'World's Most Wanted' and 'Stark: Disassembled'. Quick summary is that Tony was attempting to hide the last copies of all Registration data from Norman Osborn in his brain, and in the attempt to destroy the data he suffers brain damage. The only way to save Tony is to upload a back-up of his memories which is ultimately successful, but it turns out the only back up available was from just prior to the events of Civil War.
We won't spend too much time talking about how this is essentially a cop out from a narrative standpoint. It's a shortcut to get the character back to a more redeemable level after the company painted him into the asshole corner, and while I don't like the laziness of the method at least they understood that one of their core heroes couldn't maintain this level of douchiness with all the new media exposure he was getting with the popularity of the cinematic universe. Still, it does open an interesting door to discuss a few ideas.
Legally, Stark was never really going to suffer any punishments for a lot of his transgressions because he was in power when they happened and he had the full backing of the government. Bill Foster's death was unnecessary and tragic, but they could spin him as a fugitive who resisted arrest (which has an even more sinister tone now that we have 2020 behind us). And I'm sure that all of Stark's war profiteering was perfectly legal, and that the government's spiffy sci-fi gulag and detainment of heroes in another dimension are also justified and some senator somewhere is complaining about the lack of unity if we harp on it for too long.
So screw legality, because the system is broken no matter what reality we exist in. For this discussion I'm more interested in moral culpability and the greater implications of consciousness and identity.
If we consider the sum of our identity to be our collective memories, does this mean that the human consciousness that is Tony Stark that is alive at this point and time is guilty or innocent of the crimes during the Civil War period? The physical creature is still the same one after all, and the personality is the same as well. This version of Stark has even said a few times that he would do it all again as he thought he acted appropriately. Which, y'know, proves that he's not as much a genius as he thinks he is because he should probably keep that to himself.
You could possibly argue that even though the memories of his actions aren't present that his intent clearly still exists. Things are even murkier now because Stark's declaration of intent also indicates a lack of guilt, or at the very least a deeply convoluted sense of guilt and culpability that has to coexist with an overbearing ego and desire for control. It would be nice if he was at least willing to question some of his actions, but his stubbornness and confidence in his intellect almost completely prohibit that possibility. We're left with a personality that almost nullifies the editorial desire for a 'clean moral slate', and the realization that any iteration of Tony Stark (at least in this sequence of events in the Marvel Universe) is frustratingly flawed.
And I'm not talking charmingly frustratingly flawed. I just mean annoying as fuck frustratingly flawed.
The other issue to bring up is whether or not the soul comes into play in our attempts to ascertain identity. Fraction brought in Doctor Strange in his run to aid in saving Tony's life, and I generally believe the inclusion of Doc Strange in any story solidifies the inclusion of the afterlife and souls as part of the discussion.
It's been a while since I read this arc, but I believe that Strange's efforts aided in bringing back Tony's core memory and 'spirit' back into the vessel of his body. However, it can also be construed that Strange simply helped to bring the memory pieces and psyche together to reboot the old identity, meaning that the 'soul' of the Tony Stark who committed all of these crimes did possibly move one. Beginning to hate all of this yet? Let's just assume that Stark's soul did indeed get reunited with his body, for the sake of keeping things somewhat simple.
I think for our purposes then that this Tony is the same Tony as he's always been, and we can approach things as if he's suffering memory loss.
Is post-'Stark Disassembled' Tony Stark morally culpable for his previous incarnations actions? I think at the end of the day he should be. I would liken this entire scenario to a much more extreme version of a blackout after a night of extensive binge drinking, something Stark is sadly familiar with in his life. And while you may not recall what you did while under the influence, you should still be held accountable for your actions.
In this case the influence being dabbling in authoritarianism, and the blackout being an entire fucking civil war.