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Looking back on Marvel Comics' Civil War

By Scott Tibbs, May 6, 2016

Marvel Studios' Captain America: Civil War opens today, based on a Marvel Comics storyline of the same name a decade ago. In addition to addressing a major universe-wide plot hole, the series attempted to address the "if this were real" problem that is often poorly addressed in fiction. The series did (for a while) change the landscape of the Marvel Universe. With the movie opening today, I figured I would look back on the series.

A quick note and disclaimer: It has been years since I read the series and I do not have the comics any more. Please pardon me if my memory is not perfect.

The event that sets off the series is a group of glory-seeking young superheroes have located some supervillains that recently escaped from prison. Instead of calling in the Avengers or SHIELD, they attempt to apprehend the criminals as part of their reality TV show. (Today, it would be a YouTube channel.) Things go badly when villain Nitro lives up to his name and sets off a huge explosion, incinerating an entire neighborhood and an elementary school.

The nation is outraged and increasingly fearful of super-powered characters running rampant, and legislation is drafted to force super-heroes to register with the government. They will no longer be allowed to fight crime as vigilantes, but must operate under state sanction or they will be in violation of the law. Such begins a "civil war" between Marvel's heroes, with Captain America leading the anti-registration side and Iron Man as the pro-registration leader.

The Superhuman Registration Act is where the universe-wide plot hole comes in. It never made sense to me that citizens of the Marvel Universe hate and fear mutants, but not people who got their powers through other means. Even people who got their powers by stealing a rocket ship and going on an unauthorized space mission are adored, but people who were born with their powers are not. If the worry is these immensely powerful beings requires something like a Mutant Registration Act, why not register all superhumans? Civil War tries to fix this.

The Superhuman Registration Act also addresses the "if this were real" problem. In the real world, if I put on a mask and go beat up muggers, I am not a hero. I am a vigilante and I am breaking the law. I will be arrested, not publicly praised. (Of course, I would be dead within seconds of my first outing, but that is another story.) If this were real, someone who is bulletproof and can bench press 100 tons, or someone who can manipulate energy powerful enough to incinerate a city block would not be allowed to use his powers to fight crime without accountability and training.

Civil War did change the landscape of the Marvel Universe for a few years. There were super-vigilantes who operated without government sanction and were outlaws, and there were super-heroes that were working for the government. The unmasking of Spider-Man had consequences for and was an (unfortunately temporary) evolution of the character. Civil War led indirectly to the Green Goblin eventually being the United States' top law enforcement officer.

Yes, the U.S. government really is that stupid in the Marvel Universe.

One moment that stands out is when Captain America loses his temper and brutally beats the Punisher after Frank Castle ruthlessly executes some super-villains. Punisher takes the beating without resisting, prompting Captain America to demand he fight back. The Punisher's response? "Not against you." This did a great job putting over how much the rest of the Marvel Universe looks up to and respects Captain America and sets up the final surrender of the anti-registration side when he orders them to stand down.

The series was heavy on action and was generally good, but did become aimless at the end. The biggest problem was the anti-registration side's final battle with the government. What exactly did Captain America hope to accomplish if his team won the battle? Was his plan to force Congress to repeal the Superhuman Registration Act under threat of violence? Was his plan to overthrow the government completely? Is having Atlantis join the anti-registration side maybe just a little bit too far, since Cap was calling in an invasion by a foreign power?

The final battle between the anti-registration and pro-registration side would have been better with a clear endgame by Captain America's rebel forces. An action scene like that needs a storyline justification for it.

Before you go see Captain America: Civil War, you should go get the trade paperback that collects the Civil War series as a reference point. While you're at it, go read Kingdom Come, a DC Comics series with a very similar premise: In an alternate future where super-vigilantes are running amok and causing massive collateral damage, Superman comes out of retirement to force the irresponsible new generation to work for the Justice League or be put in prison. In my humble opinion, DC did it better, though as an "Elseworlds" story it did not change the main DC Universe.