What’s so Civil ’bout War anyway?

capheaderWith Marvel's controversial, universe-spanning event finally wrapped up, we take a spoiler-packed look at what worked, what didn't and whether the MU is better or worse off after surviving Civil War.  

Civil War (Marvel Comics)


Written by Paul John Little


Civil War #1-7

32 pgs each. Color; $2.99 each

(W: Mark Millar; P: Steve McNiven; I: Dexter Vines)


WARNING: the following commentary contains extensive discussion of the plot of Civil War, spoiling many of the book's twists and turns, including the ending. Those who do not want the events of Civil War spoiled for them should read no further.


Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?


That's an Old Latin phrase which roughly translates to "Who will guard the guards themselves?" In Plato's Republic, Socrates, when confronted by the utopian dilemma, concludes that the underclass is responsible for greasing the wheels of any great society, while the job of policing its slaves and merchants rests squarely on the shoulders of a more privileged guardian class. But who will guard the guards themselves? Plato's answer involves imbuing them with a sense of propriety, a sense that they are better than those they serve and that it is therefore their duty to protect them; the idea being that the weight of their responsibility will ideally prevent them from trampling one another in a quest for absolute power.


As ideas go, that one's not too shabby.


Another common translation is "Who watches the watchmen?" This is a question posed famously by noted comics scribe Alan Moore in his superhero magnum opus, Watchmen. Moore depicts a world forever changed by the advent of the superhuman, a world in which a small group of costumed heroes use their preternatural resources to jumpstart new technologies and new ways of life. The consequences of their actions are by turns dazzling and frightening, many of them global in scale, and soon the public begins to distrust the awesome power they wield. In time, costumed adventurers are banned by the American government, but it's too late; the genie has escaped the bottle and there's no stuffing him back inside.


As ideas go, that one's not too shabby, either.


Unfortunately, the same can't be said of Marvel Comics' recently concluded miniseries, Civil War. The brainchild of several creative summits involving many of the company's top writers and editors, the basic concept behind the Marvel Universe-spanning Civil War is sound enough. A team of irresponsible young superheroes are followed by a television film crew to the suburban Stamford, Connecticut hideout of a group of b-list supervillains. After a brief altercation, the Atlantean hero Namorita chases the murderous Nitro to a nearby schoolyard, where the cruel villain proceeds to unleash his literally explosive talents, instantly killing Namorita, most of her teammates, and over 800 young children.


The tragedy sparks national outrage, and public opinion rapidly turns against the kind of four-color vigilantism that has defined Marvel's trademark characters for the better part of five decades. Battlelines are quickly drawn as guilt-stricken millionaire industrialist Tony Stark, better known to some as the high-flying hero Iron Man, decides to use his pull in Washington to help push through a proposed superhuman registration act, new legislation that will require all extra-normal vigilantes to register their identities with the government and undergo training that will make them more responsible and less prone to disaster. Not all heroes agree with the spirit of the act, however, and their protest is embodied by the star-spangled Captain America, who refuses to submit to it.


While Civil War's setup seems both thought-provoking and exciting on paper, not to mention true to Marvel's history — the company's characters are perhaps best known for their feet of clay, as opposed to DC Comics' billionaire playboy vigilantes and space alien supermen — the series begins to falter early in its first issue. The outcry following "the Stamford incident," as it becomes known, seems greatly out of step with the kind of love and forgiveness that has typically been showered on Marvel's predominantly New York City-based superheroes by a rather adoring public. Picketers pour into the streets, outraged mothers hurl vengeful epithets and even expectorate on heroes, and angry mobs deliver hospital-trip beatings to once beloved characters like the Fantastic Four's Human Torch. The stated goal of Civil War was for Marvel Comics to hold a mirror up to the troubled times America finds itself facing in the real world, and while it succeeds in conveying much of the fear, uncertainty and divisiveness of the current decade, it does so at the expense of its own rich traditions. For longtime readers who have time and again watched heroes like Captain America, Spider-Man and countless others repeatedly save a grateful planet from super-bullies and conquering space aliens alike, the about-face following the Stamford incident — after all, a tragedy perpetrated by a supervillain – seems a bitter pill to swallow.


More bitter still is Mark Millar's wobbly characterization of many of Marvel's star players. Writer Waren Ellis, in kickstarting a new volume of the ongoing Iron Man series, recently realigned the character's moral compass, amplifying Stark's conscience as well as his already formidible super-powers. This work provided Millar with a ready-made booster for the superhuman registration act, and he initially uses him to great effect in the pages of Civil War. When Stark, whose superhero identity is semi-public, is confronted by an angry parent at a memorial service for the child victims of Stamford, it's all readers can do to empathize with him as he's shouted down before a crowd numbering in the hundreds. "Cops have to train and carry badges, but that's too boring for Tony Stark," the spiteful parent yells, setting in motion a chain of events that leads inexorably to Stark, Reed Richards (the Fantastic Four's Mr. Fantastic), and Hank Pym (the former Avenger Yellowjacket) all drawing up a number of plans pertaining to the legal registration of superhuman vigilantes. This is an entirely reasonable scenario, at least until the zeal with which the trio pursue those heroes opposed to the act becomes apparent. When a number of heroes led by Captain America refuse to play along with the new law, Stark and his closest associates rapidly descend into the ranks of cartoonish supervillainy. Mere days after the Stamford incident, they're shown conspiring with powerful lawmakers behind closed doors, issuing chilly out of character ultimatums like, "Push ahead as planned, gentlemen. Leave Captain America to us." It's a bit of a stretch to buy into the idea of valorous heroes like Iron Man and Mr. Fantastic turning so viciously on one of their oldest and dearest allies, especially considering that the act hasn't yet passed into law.

Of course, it's no more of a stretch than buying into the idea that SHIELD, Marvel's sci-fi response to NATO, would attempt to use Captain America as a ranger charged with rounding up the superhero community's equivalent to conscientious objectors without first running the idea past him. When he refuses, the acting head of SHIELD demands that he be taken into custody, and Cap makes a daring midair escape from the organization's floating Helicarrier. It's an exciting scene, but it feels loaded, as there's little to justify the desperate actions undertaken by both parties. Also, it should be noted that Marvel's ongoing Captain America series, wonderfully written by Ed Brubaker, has recently portrayed Cap as a glorified SHIELD agent willing to do whatever it takes to safeguard his country from threat. For the first time since the character's World War II heyday, Captain America has been shown delivering fatal blows to would-be terrorists without stopping to second guess his actions; such is the resolve with which he fights for America's interests. Brubaker's Cap is first and foremost a soldier who follows orders when lives are on the line. It's difficult to imagine him turning against the government he's sworn to serve with such vim when confronted by a crisis like the one depicted in the first issue of Civil War.


Millar also displays great difficulty handling other stalwarts, most notably Reed Richards, Marvel's resident super-genius. Once the act is pushed through, Millar's weirdly parochial Reed begins spending more and more time in isolation, ostensibly working on a number of measures designed to keep anti-registration heroes under lock and key, although more and more uncharacteristically sinister projects are revealed as the series progresses. By the second issue of Civil War, his monomania has progressed to such an extent that he attempts to explain to his own skeptical wife the benefits of forcibly registering superheroes by scrawling scientific equations on a whiteboard in his laboratory. He can't be bothered making time to visit his injured teammate in the hospital, he begins keeping disturbing secrets from his family, and at one point he even clones a fallen comrade for use as a nearly mindless weapon of mass destruction against recalcitrant heroes who still refuse to register their identity with the government. Reed's behavior seems less motivated by the Stamford incident and its fallout than it does by the title of the miniseries in which he's starring. So out of character was his portrayal throughout Civil War that some internet pundits began to speculate that it was not only probable, but entirely likely that a mind-controlling supervillain was in fact responsible for his (and Stark's, et al.) actions.


Millar's most egregious mishandling of a Marvel character, however, arrives at the end of Civil War's second issue. Spider-Man, arguably the world's most popular superhero, has decided to support Stark's bid for registration after months of close collaboration with him in the ongoing Amazing Spider-Man series. As a show of support, he decides to unmask not only for the government, but also in front of a live audience at a televised press conference. "My name is Peter Parker," he tells the world, "and I've been Spider-Man since I was fifteen years old." Over the character's long history, the importance of Spider-Man's secret identity has been iterated and reiterated more times than can be kept track of. Unlike many of his contemporaries, behind the big-eyed crimson mask, Peter Parker is the quintessential everyman, with a wife, a loving aunt and a career involving lots and lots of schoolchildren just like the ones who were killed during the Stamford incident, all of whom deserve protection against the myriad foes who would do anything in their power to rid the world of Spider-Man. Although lip service is briefly paid to Peter's concerns for their safety, those concerns are quickly swept under the rug for the sake of a plot device that feels anything but necessary and everything like a poorly conceived stunt. When Peter gradually begins to realize that his loyalties may have been misplaced in Stark, he attempts to defect to Captain America's group of anti-registration heroes, now in permanent hiding, and is nearly killed in the process. Not only that, but his wife and aunt are rudely ejected from their safe haven and sent into hiding themselves. Lesson learned, one supposes.


By the time the third of Civil War's seven issues was published, Millar had clearly decided to more or less ditch whatever flimsy subtext the early issues of the series were built around for the sake of action and more action, and as a result, readers are left with a fairly straightforward slugfest comic. In that installment, which bleeds into the following one, Captain America's underground forces attempt a parley with Iron Man's government-backed heroes. Elements of subterfuge and betrayal are introduced, tensions mount, and Goliath, a giant-sized hero opposed to the registration act, is felled in battle by a cloned version of Thor, the Norse god of thunder and former crime-fighting Avenger. Stark's forces are disappointed by the loss, but no one seems particularly moved by the fact that one of their former comrades in arms was killed as a direct result of an already grave situation spiraling even further out of control. When Reed's wife, his Fantastic Four teammate the Invisible Woman, alerts him to the fact that the situation has become untenable, he seems merely nonplussed. Millar's solution to this quagmire comes in the form of a startlingly misogynistic Dear John letter written by Reed's wife, in which she calmly professes her disappointment in the fights they've been having recently, as well as her love for Reed, with whom she slept, ate dinner and drank wine before slipping away in the middle of the night. A relic of the 1960s at best, it's a bafflingly ill-advised scene.


Even more ill-advised is the big reveal that Stark's latest recruits in the never-ending war with his fellow forces of good are a handful of the most psychopathic supervillains in the Marvel Universe. It was bad enough that a baleful unit of special forces derogatorily referred to as "cape-killers" were sent into the streets to root out unregistered supers; now notorious super-powered criminals Venom, Bullseye, Norman Osborne (nee, the Green Goblin) and a small clutch of others are apparently more trustworthy allies than the crime-fighting likes of Captain America, Spider-Man, and Daredevil. Another tremendous leap of faith calls for readers to believe that neither Stark nor his supporters have any moral qualms with the Draconian prison built to permanently house disobedient superheroes who won't sign on their dotted line. An interdimensional portal transports captives to the Negative Zone, a largely uninhabited alternate universe, where they are held indefinitely while society decides their final fate.


Civil War concludes with an epic battle between Captain America's renegade company and Iron Man's registered brethren that moves from the Negative Zone to the streets of Manhattan, which is where the final fight occurs. It's an admittedly fun knock-down/drag-out in the proud comic book tradition of such things, involving dozens of characters thrown into a visual blender. Buildings are knocked down, scenery explodes spontaneously, and milk trucks burst into flames. The stars of the show are Captain America and Iron Man, who go at it like never before. After disabling Iron Man's trademark armor, Cap whacks him into submission with his trademark saucer shield, raising it high above his head, readying the coup de grace as his barely conscious former friend eggs him on. Suddenly, amid the carnage of the scene, a group of New Yorkers grab the Captain and wrestle him to the ground. Cap drags himself to his feet, surveys the rubble surrounding him and realizes with a start that all of the heroes' fighting has accomplished nothing of value. He also realizes, apparently for the first time, that if the public is strongly in favor of superhuman registration, that opposing the act is little more than an exercise in futility. He orders his anti-registration supporters to stand down, and surrenders to the authorities, sacrificing himself as a political prisoner in exchange for a general hero amnesty that goes into effect immediately following his arrest. It's just another in a long line of out of character moves made by one of story's central characters, although it's perhaps the toughest one to stomach, given that Captain America had been established as the de facto civil rights crusader of the series, and the final trick hidden up his sleeve smacks of abject defeat at worst, and reluctant compromise at best. Civil War's anticlimactic finale might have seemed disappointing were it not for the fact that the entire series had been constructed around a number of equally arbitrary about-faces.


Although Millar's script is often inconsistent in its characterization and confused with regards to the history of the Marvel Universe, artist Steve McNiven brings an interesting flair to the series with his capable art. His lines are clean and although his figures are often wooden, which sometimes makes for less than kinetic action sequences, his widescreen page layouts (panels typically run the width of a page) are generally effective at conveying the kind of Hollywood flair that a story like Civil War demands. Unfortunately, McNiven is still a relative newcomer to the comics industry, and like many of today's popular artists, he proved unable to handle the heavy workload dictated by Civil War's monthly publishing schedule, causing the series to fall drastically behind. Because of its Marvel Universe-spanning nature, this necessitated publishing delays among dozens of other titles that had been in the can and ready to go for months, among them flagship series like Amazing Spider-Man and Captain America, both of which were heavily impacted by the events of Civil War. In the future, Marvel editorial may wish to consider allowing other artists to step in and finish the job in a timely manner when a Not Ready for Prime Time marquee name compromises the bulk of their publishing schedule.


Although the miniseries itself was a noble failure, not everything about Civil War was a wash. The status quo among Marvel's superheroes has indeed been changed as promised, and assuming the adoption of the superhuman registration act proves at least semi-permanent, readers can reasonably expect to read a number of interesting stories from Marvel's more capable writers in their respective titles. A world that includes a distrustful civilian populace, heroes who only reluctantly chose to share their personal details with government officials, and a determined band of underground vigilantes has the potential to yield any number of interesting yarns. Unfortunately, Civil War itself wasn't one of them. | Paul John Little

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