Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Review - Civil War: A Marvel Comics Event by Marc Millar and Steve McNiven

Short review: A tragedy sparks a law requiring super-heroes to register and work for the government. Captain america takes a principled stand against this. Tony Stark, Reed Richards, and Hank Pym revert to their true super-villainous selves to enforce the law.

Amateur heroes
Connecticut tragedy
Stark turns to murder

Full review: Civil War was a huge event in the Marvel Universe that pitted hero against hero in an ideological struggle over exactly what it means to be a super-hero. On the one side was a faction anchored by Iron Man, Mr. Fantastic, Hank Pym, and the entire S.H.I.E.L.D. apparatus, while on the other was Captain America and a motley collection of lesser heroes who were seemingly hopelessly outclassed by their opposition. Through the volume, these warring sides battle back and forth with attacks, counterattacks, feints, and ambushes, leading to a climatic final confrontation of epic proportions. Unfortunately, Civil War is an enormous and, at times incoherent mess that is dragged down by the weight of the inherent contradictions within both the premises that make up the foundation of the story and the Marvel universe itself.

The story kicks off when a group of minor heroes known as the New Warriors (who seem to have been created specifically for this one scene in this one story arc, and were never heard from before, and have never been heard from since) try to take on a collection of super villains as part of a reality television show they are filming in a suburb in Stamford, Connecticut. The clash quickly spins out of control as Nitro, one of the super villains, sets off an explosion in a residential area, killing hundreds of civilians, including a school bus full of children. Yes, the foundation for this series really a ham-fisted event called the "Stamford Incident" that centers on killing a bus load of kids. Unfortunately, it really only goes downhill from there. In the resulting political fallout, the Superhero Registration Act is put forward, which would require all masked super heroes in the United States to register their identity with, and work for the government. Some heroes, including Captain America, refuse to enforce or obey this law, while others, including Tony Stark, Hank Pym, and Reed Richards, eagerly jump on board and try to bring their recalcitrant compatriots to heel. This sets up a conflict between the two sides that grows wildly out of hand in short order, and serves mostly as a set-up for characters who are ostensibly super-heroes to punch one another a lot.

As an aside, I have long held the position that the only reason that Tony Stark, Hank Pym, and Reed Richards are not seen as super-villains is because the Marvel comics writers continually reassure the reader that these three men are, in fact, super-heroes. Without such statements, a fair assessment of the actions of these three over the last several years could easily lead one to the conclusion that they are, in fact, villainous characters. The fact that they line up on the pro-Registration side in this conflict and then all wind up engaging in what could credibly be described as wildly unethical behavior is, I think, supposed to shock the reader somewhat. To be honest, however, given the track records of these characters, I don't think anyone was particularly surprised when they quickly turned into leading forces for evil.

The real trouble with the story is that it tries to frame itself as an ideological conflict between two sides of reasonably equal merit, and simply fails to accomplish this in anything resembling a convincing manner. To be blunt, the "pro-Registration" side is so patently morally bankrupt that the conflict is not so much a community of heroes riven by a split over the way to handle their affairs as it is Captain America leading a team of actual super heroes and fighting a new collection of super villains who happen to be wearing the costumes formerly worn by super heroes. Though there could have been at least some justification for the Registration Act, the writers of Civil War do little more than offer lip service to this aspect of the story, at one point even having Reed Richards explain his decision to choose the pro-Registration side by having him wave at a chalkboard full of incomprehensible equations with no further explanation. The interesting aspect of Civil War should have been the clash of world views, but time and again the writers simply push anything that would develop this element aside so they can get to the punching.

Government registration and control of super heroes raises numerous questions that the story resolutely refuses to answer. The proposed solution of the pro-Registration side is to put all super-heroes on the government payroll and assemble one team per state that would be subject to the orders of that state's governor's office. One only has to look at the current crop of governors in the United States to realize what a hazardous plan that is. More to point, how is this kind of law supposed to be enforced? In a relatively early scene, S.H.I.E.L.D. is shown pursuing Patriot of the Young Avengers after Patriot attempted to break up a mugging. Leaving aside the fact that S.H.I.E.L.D. is hunting down an individual (and ultimately causing millions of dollars worth of property damage) whose "crime" was to try to stop a mugger while wearing a mask, what if Patriot had simply left his costume at home? What then? Would he still be guilty of an offense such that S.H.I.E.L.D. would pursue him through the streets of New York City? Suppose someone was coming home from a costume party and tried to stop a crime they saw in progress? Would they be guilty of some sort of crime? Throughout the story, these sorts of issues are never addressed, with the only answers being Tony Stark shrugging off any concerns other have with lines like "Trust me, Captain America is wrong on this one".

To the extent that the pro-Registration ranks have any credibility, they are undermined by the incredibly over the top manner in which they try to enforce the Act. In another early scene, Agent Hill of S.H.I.E.L.D. confronts Captain America over whether he will help them arrest other super-heroes who refuse to follow the law. When Captain America declines, she immediately tries to take him into custody. The first problem is that at the time, the Registration Act had not even been passed, meaning that Hill was trying to get the Captain to enforce a law that didn't even exist yet. The other problem is that the only thing Captain America had done at that point was refuse to participate in tracking down and arresting other super-heroes on S.H.I.E.L.D.'s behalf, and the last time I checked, refusing to act as a law enforcement officer was not actually against the law (and if it was against the provisions of the Registration Act, there are serious additional police-state concerns with the Act that no one is commenting upon). When he is losing support from the hero community due to unleashing a cloned Thor that killed Goliath, Tony Stark recruits super-villains to his side to help enforce the Registration Act. When he needs a place to store his captives, Tony Stark builds a prison in an alternate dimension and keeps his former friends and allies in horrible conditions, apparently intending to condemn them to perpetual incarceration without the benefit of trial or any other due process. When Spider-Man, who came out on the pro-Registration side and revealed his secret identity (at what turned out to be substantial personal risk to himself and his loved ones), shows some regret over his choice, Stark almost immediately begins trying to take down the web-slinger with repulsor bolts. At every turn, the pro-Registration side's responses are wildly out of control, sapping them of even the modest amount of credibility their position had at the outset of the story.

Civil War also exposes one of the internal contradictions of the Marvel Universe by touching upon the status of super-powered mutants such as the X-Men. In some ways, having the X-Men and other mutants separated from the Marvel Cinematic Universe has actually served to make each set of movies better than the comics, as one never has to puzzle over why the fact that Wolverine and Storm have super-powers derived from being mutants is somehow seen as scary and in need of regulations, while the fact that Vision and Hercules have super-powers that derive from some other source is not. By separating the two sets of heroes into their own universes, this internal contradiction evaporates, making each set of stories stronger and more internally consistent. However, the Civil War story line in the comics highlights the almost ridiculous nature of the split in the ways super-powered beings are treated in the printed Marvel Universe. The battles over the Mutant Registration Acts have been important story lines in the various mutant oriented titles such as X-Men, X-Factor, New Mutants, and others for several decades. The U.S. government has financed numerous projects aimed at controlling or eliminating mutants, including the creation of the robotic Sentinels. In effect, the U.S. (and to a lesser extent, Canadian) government has been set up as an important antagonist in the mutant-based titled produced by Marvel over the years.

The difference in how mutants and "regular" super-heroes are treated and the suspicion with which mutants are treated in the Marvel Universe are both on full display in this volume, and this element serves to undermine the plot. In an early scene in the book, when super-heroes have rallied to try to clear away the rubble and look for survivors of the Stamford Incident, a couple of super-heroes who happen to also be X-Men join in, and a couple of Sentinels also show up to stand around and keep an eye on the mutants. The Sentinels don't actually offer any help to those trapped in the wreckage, but rather stand idly by while the "suspicious" mutants help dig out survivors. A mother seeing this comforts her child by telling him that the Sentinels are there to keep an eye on the dangerous mutants and are the "good guys". Apparently watching while others do the rescue work and doing nothing yourself to help is being a "good guy" in the Marvel Universe, at least so long as the people you are watching are mutants. Not only is this ridiculous, it also provides a good reason why the Registration Act is such an obviously terrible idea: The Sentinels, who offer no help at all during this actual crisis, are supported by the same government to which the Act would hand control over the super-heroes. Would, for example, the government have told these heroes to stand down if they tried to respond to a disaster like the Stamford Incident, and have them simply watch as non-powered emergency personnel did the rescue work? Under the Act's provisions, if an unregistered costumed super-hero showed up at a disaster site to help save people, would the government forces turn away from their own rescue efforts to arrest the lawbreaker? What, exactly, would be gained by this? As usual, when one starts to break down the scenarios, the entire premise of the story starts to show cracks, and at times becomes positively incoherent.

Later in the book, Stark goes to meet with Emma Frost, at the time the leader of the X-Men. They discuss the Registration Act, and Frost declines to help Stark's side, but also states that she will not lead the X-Men to an alliance with Captain America's side either, saying that the mutants will "sit this one out". Her basis for this stance is reasonable: She cites previous efforts by the U.S government to register mutants, and the fact that no one had come to the aid of the mutant populated nation Genosha when it needed help, but the entire meeting just highlights how attenuated this story line is. If the X-Men are super-powered beings like the super-heroes who are on the run, why are they not also being strong-armed into registering and taking jobs working for the government? Agent Hill was ready to arrest Captain America for refusing to serve as law enforcement before the Registration Act was even passed. Why do the X-Men get to "sit this one out"?

While Stark is busy building a horrific prison in an alternate dimension to lock his former friends up in and cozying up to a collection of super-villains, Rogers has spent his time obtaining secret identities for his allies and organizing them to fight actual threats to the lives and well-being of the populace. Captain America even exercises some judgment when it comes to picking compatriots: When the Punisher shows up on his doorstep carrying the grievously wounded Spider-Man (who was nearly killed by Stark's villainous allies for the crime of questioning Tony's methods), he has misgivings but accepts the anti-hero's help on a provisional basis. When the Punisher later murders two villains originally recruited by Stark who want to switch sides, Rogers immediately turns on him. The scene is staged in such a way that it is fairly obvious that the writers are trying to make Rogers seem unreasonable and almost unhinged, but what really comes through is that even if Stark is willing to ally himself with murderers, that is a step that Rogers simply refuses to take, even in dire straits. Confirming his status as a super-villain, Stark exploits Rogers' concern for civilians by using this as a means to set ambushes - falsifying emergency distress calls to lure Rogers and his team into prepared traps.

Towards the end of the story, a single scene more or less sums up everything that is wrong with Civil War. After the conflict is over, and Stark has been rewarded for transforming into an evil villain by being made head of S.H.I.E.L.D., he is speaking with Miriam Sharpe, the mother of one of the children killed in the Stamford Incident who spearheaded the push to enact the Registration Act. During the conversation he reveals that the reason the prison in the alternate dimension was called "Number 42", which has been something of a secret through the whole story. It turns out that after the Stamford Incident, he, Reed Richards, and Hank Pym had spent a night writing down a list of one-hundred ideas to make the world safer, and, apparently, a horrific prison to lock up people that you once called friends was the forty-second. He then tells Sharpe that they haven't even gotten halfway through the list, and talks up how very exciting it will be to implement the other half. She then, without even a hint of irony, tells Stark what a good man he is. And it seems that the story wants the reader to agree with this assessment. The problem is, if one of your ideas for making the world a safer place is "building a horrific prison in an alternate dimension that you will put your friends into with the help of a collection of super-villains", then no one should ever want to know what other incredibly bad ideas you have on the second half of your list. Or the first half of your list. And you have no moral leg to stand on.

Ultimately, Civil War is a complete mess. It is an action-packed and at times exciting mess, but it is still a mess. The story wants to be much smarter than it actually is, and at times seems to be laboring under the delusion that it really is a thoughtful exploration of the role of super heroes. The story wants to be about two factions that are on relatively equal moral footing, but it is actually about Captain America on the run from a collection of putative super-heroes who have become vicious super-villains while cloaking themselves in the self-righteousness of "enforcing the law". To be honest, that is almost the only argument that is made against the side Captain America takes: He and his allies are breaking the law, and must be brought to heel. When balanced against the shockingly brutal actions taken by Stark and his allies, this seems like an incredibly weak basis to condemn Rogers. In the end, the story is resolved when Rogers chooses to surrender rather than put civilian lives at risk, while at the same time Stark and his buddies seem perfectly happy to continue to endanger the lives of bystanders and cause wanton property damage. While the story tries to state that the two sides are more or less morally equivalent, almost to the point of belaboring the issue, the actual actions taken by the individuals on both sides make clear that they simply are not, and the problem with the book is that it simply does not seem to realize this.

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  1. I could've sworn I tried to warn you off this one....

    The New Warriors have actually been around since 1989, but had been dormant for several years until returning for a miniseries just before Civil War. I'm not certain of this, but they might've been brought back mostly in order to take the fall in Civil War.

    It's a very bad book, but bad in some interesting ways. Among the many problems, IMO, is that it was supposed to be a "political" story, but was written by a Brit who evidently doesn't really get America's political system, either on the small points or the big issues.

    Millar commented that in his mind, the Pro-Registration side was "obviously" correct. It seems what Millar *thought* he was doing was balancing the two sides by having Stark et al making morally questionable decisions.

    What Millar didn't seem to understand is that American audiences (and in this kind of context, I think it's a non-partisan thing) instinctively sympathize with the "pro-liberty" viewpoint. American readers were already inclined toward Cap's side, and even more so as Millar started writing Stark's side as cartoonishly evil.

    I think there's an interesting lesson buried in the mess - that 200-odd years after the revolution, there are still some very fundamental differences between Britons and Americans.

    The art's very pretty, though, and works well with this much better written version of the story:

    1. @David C: You probably did try to warn me off. My recollection is that you said it wasn't very good, but I was not really prepared for how terrible it actually was.

      As far as the pro-Registration side being "obviously" correct in Millar's mind, if it actually was "obviously" correct, one would think that he would have been able to articulate the pro-Registration argument better than he did. I mean, Reed Richards literally waves a hand at a blackboard of equations to justify taking the pro-Registration side, which is a pretty weak argument from the reader's perspective.

      Plus, given the forty or so years that Marvel has been drawing parallels between the idea of Mutant Registration and the rise of fascism, it seems that Millar simply didn't take into account the history of the universe he was writing in, which seems odd. After all, spending decades saying "registration is evil" isn't really compatible with "but this virtually identical kind of registration is obviously correct".

  2. I love Tony Stark but don't think I'd love him if I read about it. I think it's Robert Downey JR that does it for me... lol...

    1. @fredamans: I don't think you would like the Tony Stark that appears in this graphic novel. He's a terrible person who makes terrible decisions and is smug and self-righteous about it to boot.