Fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe were fairly excited to learn the third Captain America movie would be an adaptation of Civil War, a mini-series where the various Marvel heroes lined up on two sides over a law that required superheroes to register with the American government or go to prison. The series dealt with issues regarding national security and the American reaction to terrorist attacks on our soil.
It also had some huge problems that almost guarantee the movie version will be better, if only by default.
Let’s start with the good points for the series, shall we? Iron Man as the pro-registration hero makes sense. The character began as a war profiteer, served as Secretary of Defense at one point, and has a long history of siding with the government. During the 60s, Iron Man was actually more likely than Captain America to deal with communist agents. Cap, for his part, has a history of occasionally opposing the government if he feels they are overstepping their bounds over issues involving civil rights and other such things. So, him being anti-registration makes sense.
Those being the good points, we can move on.
The main mini-series was penned by Mark Millar, and as anyone familiar with his overall work can attest, he’s not someone known for his subtly. He helped craft the Ultimate Universe, which was a sort of watered-down, uglier version of the regular Marvel Universe, aside from what Brian Michael Bendis was doing in Ultimate Spider-Man. Millar’s Ultimate X-Men had a storyline where mutants were being locked up in Guantanamo Bay. His Hulk was a cannibal. His Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch were implied to be incestuous. His Captain America made “French surrender” jokes in ways the original Cap never would. Everything was a lot more violent, and a lot more crude. That actually worked for Millar’s corner of the Ultimate universe since it actually was a separate reality from the main Marvel Universe, but that could cause problems in said main universe since these heroes were not what the Nova Corps in the Guardians of the Galaxy might dub a bunch of a-holes.
Further complicating things is that for the series to work as Millar planned, the bad guy had to be this man:
Meanwhile, the ultimate hero was to be this man:
Keep in mind, Civil War came out well before Iron Man became a popular character on the silver screen. Robert Downey Jr. hadn’t played him yet. He was a recognizable hero, and a stalwart member of the Avengers, but he wasn’t Captain America. And while Marvel will officially tell you that Captain America doesn’t really have any superpowers, that isn’t quite right. Cap has exactly one: he’s never wrong.
How righteous is Captain America? As near as I can make out, this is the only person he would step aside for if the day needed saving:
But maybe Cap can be wrong in the right circumstances. Never mind he holds the title of “Marvel’s Most Moral Hero,” with Superman as his DC equivalent. Thor may be the most noble of the Avengers, but Cap is the most decent. Cap refused to lead a band of rogue Avengers to attempt to execute the Kree Supreme Intelligence at the end of “Operation Galactic Storm” for the crime of galactic near-genocide against his own people.
You know who did lead that rogue faction? Iron Man.
Alright, so let’s pretend Cap can be wrong. What else might be a problem with Civil War?
Well, how about how the creators on other books didn’t seem to go along with Millar’s plan to make Iron Man the ultimate good guy? I mean, Iron Man won in the end when Cap surrendered, so Tony must have been in the right over Steve, right?
Well, not really. Most solo titles showed the heroes there going against registration, or showing Iron Man as something of a fascist. Spider-Man told Reed Richards, another pro-registration hero, that an uncle of Reed’s was right to stand up to Joe McCarthy, even though Reed inexplicably disagreed for some reason. That was apparently the only way J. Michael Straczynski could justify Reed Richards going along with registration.
This was further complicated by the fact even after Civil War ended, Marvel never really defined what the Superhero Registration Act was supposed to do. The range of possibilities seemed to run the gamut from having a local superhero on a S.H.I.E.L.D. payroll to a downright Orwellian organization that forcibly drafted young super humans off the streets and ran them through awful, occasionally lethal bootcamps. Unregistered superheroes, post Civil War, got little if any hassle over that unless it was part of the series’ ongoing plot, a la the Luke Cage-led New Avengers series.
Factor in as well that the sweeping nature of the Superhero Registration Act didn’t take into account the huge varieties of potential lawbreakers. Why were the X-Men allowed to stay neutral? Or Dr. Strange for that matter? What about the Hulk? Nova? Ghost Rider? Dracula? The Inhumans? Atlanteans? Deviants? The Living Mummy (seen in one Frontline issue going to the Negative Zone prison)? Various aliens and such? Neil Gaiman was doing an Eternals mini-series at the time, which had a penultimate issue cliffhanger of Iron Man demanding the Eternals register or else. The next issue opened with the Eternals basically pointing out that was a really stupid thing to demand of them, especially as they had a huge problem at hand.
Let’s consider also that, during the main mini-series, in the same issue, during the same scene, Cap and Iron Man both seemed about to kill each other. Iron Man and his forces met Cap’s and Iron Man offered his hand in a friendly handshake to try and settle things. Cap responded by putting some doohickey on Iron Man’s armor and causing it to short out. If Tony’s heart was still hooked to his armor, that could have been fatal. Tony responded by doing this:
How Captain America is not dead after this, I couldn’t begin to say.
Best answer: because comics.
Finally, the biggest problem with Civil War is that for anything that happens in the main series to actually occur, every character involved would have to be suffering from some sort of brain damage.
- The New Warriors are still doing their reality show. They were a fairly respected 90s era superteam. And while I can see Speedball going for that, I have a hard time understanding why independently rich and highly principled Night Thrasher was there, to say nothing of Namorita going along with that.
- The Warriors, and only the Warriors, are blamed for the Stamford explosion, not Nitro, the actual guy who did it. Yeah, this is Marvel and they blame their heroes at the drop of a hat for everything, but the New Warriors don’t have any exploding members, and most of them died in the explosion as well.
- The general public not only blames the New Warriors, they blame ALL HEROES. Johnny Storm, member of one of the most beloved hero groups in the Marvel Universe, is nearly beaten to death outside a night club. Tony Stark gets spit on.
- Spider-Man unmasks in public, for reasons that never made a dang bit of sense. Nothing in the law says heroes need to unmask to the public, just for the government registration, but Spidey was one of the last major heroes to still have a secret identity, and he knew why. Hey, didn’t Aunt May get shot shortly thereafter, leading to the most divisive Spider-Man story since the Clone Saga?
- Captain America, most respected and beloved hero there is, believes the way to oppose registration is to punch out people doing their jobs instead of, say, using his hugely respected reputation to speak out against it and convince people its a bad idea.
- Susan Richards is concerned her husband is going too fascist and evil. She leaves the kids with him.
- The X-Men for years had the Mutant Registration Act as an issue. Their response to this was to stay neutral.
- Tony Stark, Reed Richards, and the Skrull pretending to be Hank Pym thought cloning Thor was a good idea. Don’t clone Thor.
- Various heroes, including the Black Panther, came out to fight Iron Man because of the death of Bill Foster, the black Giant Man. Many, including the Panther, called him a good friend. Which is why the only time I’d seen him before was in a Marvel Comics Presents storyline, right? Maybe if they’d spent time with their good friend more often, that would be a more realistic example, but who comes back to avenge the death of a casual acquaintance?
- Cap invited some supervillains over to discuss a possible alliance. He forgets the Punisher is standing nearby and heavily armed.
- Iron Man also gets a bunch of supervillains together for the purpose of hunting down unregistered heroes. That does not seem at all like an overreaction.
- Captain America surrenders when he sees all the damage he’s causing, and how the public has turned against him. Actually, that might have been the smartest thing he did the entire storyline.
The main problem with Civil War was that there seemed to be the idea that Captain America could just keep punching people to save the day, but the big problem was the whole thing was based on a law that the Marvel United States had debated, passed, and had signed by a president. You can’t punch out a law. That is not how a bill becomes a law.
You know who had the right idea about this whole mess? Ben Grimm. He saw how dumb the whole thing was and moved to France to wait the series out.