Our Civil War: A Critique On The 2006 Marvel Comic
You know about the movie where Robert Downy Jr. and Chris Evans pick teams and duke it out in an epic game of shirts vs skins. But you may not have read the magnificent piece of literature that inspired the film. If you haven’t read it go out to your nearest Local Comic Shop or Barnes and Noble and pick it up because this blog is pretty spoilerific regarding the comic.
What makes this comic so great is that it’s not just some huge superhero slugfest. I mean, it is but it’s more than that. It’s about the intersection between logic and compassion, where freedom meets responsibility.
The story starts with a superhero team called the New Warriors raiding a suburban house that super villains are using as a hideout. The New Warriors are filming the raid for their reality TV show. Now just in these first few pages Millar is already addressing issues that should concern us. The New Warriors are more interested in ratings for their TV show than the good they are doing by stopping bad guys.
Millar is pointing out how our criminal justice system has been romanticized by film and television. The old adage, “If it bleeds it leads” is truer now than ever. TV shows like COPS, NYPD Blue and The Wire have given us an action packed look at the world of murder, drugs, theft and forensic evidence. Law and order has become a TV show. If we were ever to personally witness a crime, a police chase, or a shooting we wouldn’t worry about our guilt or innocence or even responsibility as witnesses, we’d only say, “wow, it’s just like TV!” Millar brings this attitude to a world that has super heroes and people behave the same. Television and Justice are the American way!
While the New Warriors are fighting the bad guys a villain named Nitro, who has the power to blow himself up, does just that next to a schoolyard where children are playing. There are over 900 casualties in the explosion, mostly little kids. This is what ignites public fervor for the Superhero Registration Act.
The writer Mark Millar and artist, Steve McNiven make great use of television news broadcasts of politicians debating the Registration Act. If the comic were made today there would be more social media screenshots.
Tony Stark attends a memorial service for the kids and one of the boy’s mother spits in his face and blames him for her son’s death. This, of course, breaks Tony’s heart and he gets onboard with the new law. He’s joined by Hank Pym and Reed Richards to figure out how to put the law into action. This is interesting because while these men are arguably the smartest heroes in the Marvel Universe they are also the least compassionate. For example, Jonny Storm is injured by civilians who have lost trust in superheroes and Reed Richards is too busy working on the Registration Act to visit him. His morality is formulaic and scientific and it gets in the way of what really matters, his family. He’s getting the answers right but missing the point.
There is a strict dichotomy established with hard lines drawn between the two opposing ideas. Iron Man is on the side of the Registration Act and Captain America is against it. Iron Man seems to think along the lines that if something is legal then it’s right and that public trust is very important. Captain America knows there’s more to it than that. This is one of the many areas that the movie got right. The Civil War story highlights the character of Tony Stark and Steve Rogers so perfectly. For Tony, things are very black and white. If there’s a question that has one definite answer then he is the best man for the job. Steve Rogers, however, is better at knowing when there could be multiple right answers. But compared to today’s political climate Captain America would be seen as the more conservative, traditional figure and Iron Man would be the progressive, liberal. It’s interesting to see these minds at work. Tony is emotionally compelled by the mother of the dead child yet he goes about it very analytically and formulaic. Steve falls back on the logical absurdity of right and wrong being legislated by the U.S. Government, the institute that literally created him. The conflict is so fantastically in-depth in this comic. It’s truly remarkable.
The story ends with Captain America almost killing Iron Man. He’s stopped by civilians who tackle him away from Tony. Captain America looks around at all the carnage and bloodshed and realizes just how badly things have gotten out of hand. He chooses to give himself up even though his team was “winning.” This page sums it up perfectly and drives home the real message of the story.
From a storytelling standpoint it’s prefect. It doesn’t show either side actually winning the fight, much to the chagrin of loyal fanboys. Instead it shows us a great reflection on our own turbulent society. We’ve gone from a people really trying to figure out the best course of action to a bunch of right-fighters just battling to make our voice heard. We’re not thinking about the consequences or results of our legislation, we just have our memes and bumper stickers. Critical thinking has turned into rallies and slogans. Red vs Blue, Us vs Them. We’re divided. As Captain America says, “We’re not fighting for the people anymore…we’re just fighting.” Leave it to a silly superhero story to try and make us stop and think about ourselves and what we’re actually fighting for.