Slate’s Jamelle Bouie writes that Marvel’s Civil War storyline was a paranoid rightwing fantasy and a mess. I agree with the second part, but as much as I admire Bouie’s writing in other areas, I disagree with the first. The Civil War storyline was not a paranoid fantasy on either side of the political spectrum. In fact, its problem was that it aspired to be a commentary on the real world while completely failing to connect to the real life issues we were dealing with. The Civil War storyline was still a terrible mess, though, and Marvel is going to have to reckon with those flaws if rumors of a planned cinematic adaptation are true.
A quick recap for those who didn’t read the original mini-series. The storyline kicks off when the Superhuman Registration Act is signed into law, requiring that all people in the United States with super powers must register with the government. The superheroes would essentially become government civil servants with no secret identities. The law gets an especially big boost when a battle between some heroes and villains goes horribly awry and results in the destruction of several city blocks and 600 civilian deaths including 60 children. The superhero community itself is divided in its reaction to the law. A pro-registration faction led by Iron Man argues that it is reasonable to ask superheroes to publicly identify themselves and be accountable for what they do. An anti-registration faction led by Captain America responds that secret identities are necessary to protect loved ones and that registration will become a tool of oppression.
So far so good, and when the series began in 2006, fans eagerly anticipated where it would lead. Unlike Jamelle Bouie, most comics fans of the time understood that the Civil War storyline was an allegory for the Patriot Act, not about gun control. Here was a superhero story relevant to our times.
Marvel’s Civil War was a great concept but still ended up as a mess because of terrible execution on two fronts. The first problem was that Mark Millar and other Marvel writers involved in the story attempted to strike a balance between the two sides and ultimately failed. Both sides of the Civil War were represented by well-intentioned heroes on both sides. The effect should have been to make readers think that both sides had legitimate points to make and that the issues raised by the Superhuman Registration Act were worth wrestling honestly with. Instead, the Pro-Registration side becomes Fascistic to a degree that is impossible to sympathize with. Like too many other comic book superhero stories, this one devolves into good guys (Anti-Registration) vs bad guys (Pro-Registration) punching each other senseless. Partway through the story, it seems that nearly everybody has forgotten that this all started because 600 innocent bystanders were killed by superhumans run amok. The Pro-Registration side didn’t have to be in the right, but they also didn’t have to be literally hunting down fellow superheroes and locking them up in prison camps.
The second problem with Civil War was that it ultimately failed to connect its storyline with the security state issues that Americans were facing in real life. Part of this is an inherent problem of the genre. Superheroes don’t exist in real life, and so the particulars of the Superhuman Registration Act don’t line up particularly well with our world. In real life, a law requiring certain people to register their identities and accept government monitoring would seem draconian. But that’s because nobody in real life has the inherent ability to unleash massive death and destruction, toppling buildings and darkening the skies. The moral calculus is different in the comics universe, and to make the story feel relevant to the reader, the writer must focus instead on the underlying ideas and principles rather than the particulars of the legislation. The Civil War should have been an examination of the core ideas that each character represents. Iron Man is a benevolent member of society’s elite. Captain America is a New Deal Democrat who fought fascism. Spider-Man believes with great power comes great responsibility. The Hulk represents the capacity for destruction when our baser urges overtake us. And so on and so forth. How would society align these different ideals? That would have been a great story, but it is not the one we got. Instead, Mark Millar turns it into another adventure tale of intrigue, espionage, and lots of explosions. I had the same criticism for Millar’s Red Son about Superman landing in communist Russia instead of Kansas.
There’s every reason to believe that when the Marvel Cinematic Universe takes on Civil War that it would find a way to be more even-handed and avoid character assassination. It would be a sad thing indeed if Robert Downey, Jr.’s Iron Man was turned into an unthinking government stooge, but if only because the push back was so strong, I think Marvel will take the criticism to heart and do something about it. On the other hand, I have no confidence that Marvel will do anything to make the story feel relevant to anyone who isn’t a flying thunder god. Marvel comics have historically tackled a lot of social issues (the X-Men are famous for this), but the movies have gone further and further into the realm of fantasy escapism. Maybe they’ll surprise me but…well, the next Avengers is called Age of Ultron, after all.