Regardless of how you feel about the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s unstoppable cultural juggernaut, Captain America: Civil War is undoubtedly set to relieve thirsty fanboys of their pocket change this week. If the giant monetary success of its source material is any indication, the hot hero-on-hero action of Captain America: Civil War is about to rake in a historic amount of global box office dollars in the next few weeks. If you’re reading this, you have almost assuredly already decided that you are going to spend a few shekels of your own to see this monstrosity.
The manifest destiny of Captain America: Civil War makes it prudent to explore the legacy of the the film’s 2006 source material. Marvel’s Civil War was a massive crossover success, revitalizing the company’s flagging financials and drawing mainstream news coverage not seen since DC’s “Death of the Superman” storyline in 1992. Each issue of Civil War’s seven-part series dominated sales, with the first five issues of Civil War concluding 2006 as the five highest-selling individual issues of the year, eventually selling a staggering 1,885,514 copies in the year of its release. The common wisdom is that Civil War was a rousing success for the company—it was the most financially successful story of the 2000s—but what is its true legacy? Was Civil War a creative triumphant that influenced the next generation of comics to fall in its footsteps, or was it a shallow exercise in war profiteering?
Marvel was in the midst of a decade-long sales slump in Summer 2006, as the company began to realize that many of their most recognizable characters no longer resonated with audiences like they used to. During the 1990s, Captain America, Iron Man, and the rest of the Avengers had become increasingly less popular as editorial attention was placed on the far more lucrative and culturally relevant X-Men franchise. As the 1990s bled into the 2000s, this strategy proved to be ultimately untenable, as over-expansion of the X-Men caused the popularity of the company’s flagship franchise to wane, leaving Marvel in a bit of a creative and financial stasis. In fact, Marvel was in such bad shape that they were forced to sell off the film rights to many of their most popular characters, simply to stave off financial ruin.
Marvel desperately needed a way to inject interest back into their product. The solution was found in directly drawing upon current events. Civil War arrived in a post-9/11 America that was embroiled in an existential debate about the role of government in the lives of both its citizens and those deemed enemies of America. By creating a widespread philosophical crisis within the Marvel Universe that paralleled the problems of Bush’s America, Civil War capitalized on the political climate of the day.
The resulting seven-issue series, penned by popular writer Mark Millar and gorgeously drawn by superstar artist Tim McNiven, and the dozens of crossover tie-ins attempted to ask one fundamental question: Should superheroes answer to the government, and what happens if and when they refuse? The story pits fellow Avengers, Captain America and Iron Man, and their respective supporters in a brawling fight surrounding the enactment of the oppressive “Superhero Registration Act”—a thinly veiled proxy for the real-life Patriot Act.
The series begins with the catastrophic deaths of 600 civilians after the B-List superhero squad, New Warriors, muck up the apprehension of a group of supervillains. It's a world-shifting, cataclysmic event, intentionally designed to evoke the events of September 11. The New Warriors—if you don’t know who they are, don’t worry, they all die in the first issue—are hilariously unqualified to capture this group of nasties, and their efforts end up destroying half of Stamford, Conn. Public sentiment quickly sours, as the problematic destruction of unaccountable superheroes that's always been in the background is allowed to bubble to the surface. The “Superhero Registration Act” is enacted by the American government as an attempt to reign in these acts of unregulated superheroism. It essentially requires all active super heroes to come forward with their secret identities and forcibly become deputies of the American government—or risk jail time without trial or due process if they don't comply.
Naturally, the law divides the superhero community across ideological lines, with a group of heroes led by Iron Man who see this act as necessity to promote public safety and accountability, and an opposing force of heroes led by Captain America who see this as an attack to not only personal freedom and privacy, but a threat to the core concept of superheroism itself. Both heroes have their reasons for fighting. Stark believes that a registration will calm the public fears against super-powered individuals and allow them to continue saving lives; Cap sees the edict as an egregious violation of civil liberties and an affront to the nature of superheroism itself. As you know by now, both sides come to violent odds with each other. Captain America’s forces go into open rebellion against the government, and Iron Man and co. seek to hunt Cap down and forcibly make him comply with the law.
Millar writes many of the characters in such a way that is in direct opposition to their traditional characterization. Take Tony Stark, whose turn in the story pushes him towards complete villainy. As the leader of the pro-registration movement, Stark comes across as a tyrannical bully hell-bent on enforcing the new laws of the land by any means necessary. Stark seems to blindly cosign many of the Draconian policies of the pro-registration movement without a thought about the fact that the people he’s hunting down and, in some cases killing, are his friends.
What’s worse is that Stark’s turn is never completely justified in the story. Tony is usually portrayed as a billionaire maverick with a libertarian independent streak a mile long. Would a guy like that really be so keen to hold water for the government? Unlikely. In fact, his entire motivation in the story seems to be based on a one-scene encounter where a grieving mother of the Stamford incident spits in his face and calls him a murderer. It’s thin.
Captain America does not come across much better. The irony of Civil War is that while Cap’s side is clearly painted as more sympathetic than Stark’s—strictly because Cap’s NOT cloning soulless murder bots of his best friends—his position is just kind of willfully stupid. While Civil War might make for a fairly clunky 9/11 parable, it does make for a solid allegory for the debate about gun control registration in the country. In the wake of the devastating incident in Stamford—not to mention the countless other stories in Marvel canon where a city is leveled during the fight to stop a supervillain—the registration of super-powered crime-fighters feels like a fairly reasonable idea. It makes common sense. Still, Captain America essentially spends the entire story fighting for his right to blindly beat people up. He is less of a principled man fighting against the oppressive hand of tyranny than a star-spangled Ammon Bundy.
While it’s tempting to suggest that Millar is using Tony Stark to paint the Bush Administration as neoconservative lunatics in post-9/11 America, the ultimate resolution is extremely muddled, and makes it difficult to discern who Millar believes is right in the conflict. While basic narrative context would suggest that Stark is the villain simply because he spends the entire story being a monster, it’s Captain America who eventually throws down his shield and admits that he’s wrong, simply because of all the devastation and death the fight between the heroes is causing. Is Millar seriously suggesting that liberals just shut up and allow the Bush Administration to trample civil liberties—even if it’s transparently evil—because it’s the right thing to do for our protection?
Ignoring the muddled politics of this story, Civil War even fails to meaningfully shift the status quo of the Marvel Universe. The two biggest consequences that would ultimately come out of the event—Captain America’s assassination and the unmasking of Spider-Man—would be retconned in traditional comic book fashion within a year or two of the event, essentially stripping the story of any long-lasting impact it might have on the reader. DC Comics gets a lot of shit for its habit of completely rebooting their universe every few years, but at least they have the gumption of trying something new with their characters. Tony Stark’s promises in the final pages of the miniseries that “the best is yet to come” don’t quite come to fruition, as in grand comic book tradition, the entire universe is basically reset in a few short years, anyway.
So yeah, Civil War’s legacy is defined in commercial terms rather than creative. It made a lot of money for Marvel at the company’s darkest time, and it ushered in a new storytelling trend, for better or worse. Civil War II is set to debut in comic book shops in June, promising that same, tantalizing hero vs. hero action of the first installment. But it all just feels so empty. For a story that promised to change the status quo of Marvel forever, it’s a shame that the best compliment you can give the series is that it's a superficially entertainment exercise in repetition.