Marvel’s Civil War: How not to do a “heroes in conflict” story

I’m a sucker for “heroes in conflict” stories. They’re a fun change of pace from the typical good guy vs. bad guy/no shades of gray stories we see in a lot of superhero or sci-fi action content. However, they can be difficult to pull off well, because it can get tricky to design a narrative where both “good guy” sides have valid perspectives and are both at least somewhat sympathetic. (Apparently, this was a problem with early story concepts for Star Trek: Generations when the writers wanted an “original crew vs. next generation crew” story, but couldn’t think of a way of doing so where both sides came off well.)

What you want, ideally, is a thoughtful conflict where both sides have a genuine disagreement over means and methods while still representing the high-minded goals of freedom, justice, truth, etc. Unfortunately, what you often end up with instead is something like the saga I’m looking at for this article (in honor of the upcoming Captain America: Civil War movie), where one side ends up representing a ludicrous, straw man position either out of the laziness of the author or as a result of the author clearly choosing a side and letting that choice dictate the direction the story takes.

I’m describing, of course, the 2006 Marvel comic book event Civil War, which had the tagline “Whose side are you on?”, when really, the next line of it should have been “By the way, if you’re not on the ‘anti-registration’ side, then what’s wrong with you, you fascist-loving authoritarian scum?”

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The origin of the titular “civil war” is the Superhuman Registration Act, which requires super-powered beings to register with the government, and if they wish to fight crime or terrorism, to do so under the rule of law and under defined limits and supervision. To which one might respond to that second provision with, “well, yeah, um… wouldn’t opposition to that just mean that you’d be supporting free-for-all vigilantism whereby anyone with any sort of fifth-rate ‘special power’ would take it upon themselves to fight their own personal war on crime?” Ah, but you’d be overlooking the context of when this story was written, as well as the audience for it.

See, this wasn’t a metaphor for vigilantism; it was about civil liberties, privacy, and the Patriot Act. So instead of being seen as the reasonable side advocating the rule of law over vigilante chaos, the pro-registration side was depicted as authoritarian thugs using the weight of big government to suppress civil liberties, which is a difficult perspective to pull off, unless you turn their position into a silly caricature.

Marvel's Civil War: How not to do a "heroes in conflict" story

There is of course a huge difference between arguing that if one wants to actively fight crime they should put on a uniform or join a legitimate organization, and arguing that anyone with superpowers should be either forced into service for the government or at the very least made to register, with the resulting potential consequences for privacy. But even here, the issue is overblown, since registration with the government doesn’t mean revealing it to the public at large, unless one did want to be actively involved with crime fighting.

It’s a hard argument to sell that there’s an inherent right to a secret identity or to go masked if one is taking it upon oneself to be a hero. We as the readers are expected to be sympathetic to that side because… well, it’s a major part of comic book history, and also because it plays to fantasies of unaccountability. (The great graphic novel Watchmen covered somewhat similar ground with the Keene Act, but Moore handled the issue a lot better, and I think that the character of Rorschach shows what can happen with unregistered vigilantes, even though that point got sort of muddled with the popularity of Rorschach among fans.) It might have made more sense from a story perspective to show how a superhuman character who hadnt wanted to be a hero or draw attention to themselves in any way got exposed by this act and the registration process, rather than make the issues about those who had chosen to fight out in the open.

A truly baffling writing choice in this story was making Captain America, of all potential characters, into the anti-registration champion. Yes, Captain America, the character who was made into a hero by and got his powers from the government, who made his name fighting for that government in World War II, was the one to stand for the side of resisting the rule of law and the legitimate authority of a democratic government to protect its citizens from potential dangers in the form of unregulated mayhem.

And who was the representative of the government side? Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, a rich entrepreneur who, as a powerful businessman, might at least have more reason to be skeptical of government overreach and regulation. Ah, but yet again, this makes more sense when one understands that character consistency and logic must give way to political commentary. Captain America’s patriotism, in the author’s mind, was of the kind that stemmed from loyalty to certain values and ideals rather than to specific leaders and governments, and so meant resistance to an authoritarian, militaristic policy that was a metaphor for certain policies that were being put into place at the time these stories were published.

Marvel's Civil War: How not to do a "heroes in conflict" story

The in-universe event that is the inspiration for the Superhuman Registration Act and leads to the ensuing conflict is an explosion in Stamford, Connecticut that kills hundreds, the result of an attempt by the New Warriors to catch a group of villains. The issue of the collateral damage that superheroes cause to ordinary civilians in their efforts to fight supervillains is one that’s been brought up time and again in a lot of comic book and movie material, from the aforementioned Watchmen to the 1986 graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, to the 2008 film The Dark Knight. It’s one that you tend to see in stories where the heroes are on a somewhat lower scale of power than say, Superman, because it’s understood that Superman often deals with threats that police or military can’t be expected to handle.

A character like Batman, however, does take on relatively ordinary villains (with notable exceptions, of course) that you would expect the police to deal with. As a result, his stories often have to tack on something about the incompetence or corruption of the Gotham City police to explain why he must be the one to capture a villain with no particular special powers. The resulting damage from those caught in the crossfire between villain and costumed hero is an interesting issue to bring up here, but it gets discarded early on, because hey, the concerns of super-powered vigilantes come first.

Let me return to the point I started with, to see how balance and respect for opposing views in a “good guys in conflict” story can or should be pulled off. Star Trek had a continuing storyline with the Maquis in the mid-’90s that crossed over to three different TV series, although only a little bit on TNG, and late in its run. The Maquis point of view in the conflict would come to be articulated by characters who the viewer was meant to respect, from main characters to popular recurring ones like Ro Laren. It wasn’t treated as a ludicrous perspective on its face, meant only to give the Federation a new challenge while setting up some storylines for Voyager. To me, it made those episodes better (and Ro’s betrayal in “Preemptive Strike” more effective) because the writers had that level of balance between two sides.

The Marvel Civil War event was a mess from the beginning, for a few reasons. First, the issue of registration and tracking of those with powers should have been dealt with separately from the weird “vigilante rights” stuff. That would have kept it more on the issue of civil liberties vs. security that it seemed the writers wanted, rather than muddling it with the secret identity stuff. Is there reason for costumed heroes to fear loss of their secret identities? Sure, but that has no relevance to the kind of metaphor or political commentary that this story was going for, since it’s so removed from any real world analogy.

But even if it had been kept to the registration issue, and the “unmasking” stuff with Peter Parker and others had been left aside, it was inevitably going to fall apart, because the story kept stacking the deck more and more against the pro-registration side. Clearly, the story had no patience for presenting both sides in a way that took their points seriously. Instead, the pro-registration side turned to more and more oppressive and authoritarian tactics, and Peter Parker’s turn from initial support for Tony Stark and his side to opposition is supposed to follow the story’s (and reader’s, as the writer clearly intends) turn against the Registration Act and its supporters.

Marvel's Civil War: How not to do a "heroes in conflict" story

There are a lot of details and plot points I left out, but overall, the original Civil War storyline was a disappointment as an attempt to deal with serious issues of liberty, security, and privacy, but also a failure as a story that presents heroes in conflict in a way that’s fair to both sides. Hopefully, the upcoming Captain America: Civil War movie finds an improved path to set up the inevitable “heroes in conflict” storyline that we want to see.

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  • Dex_Meridian

    The chief strength of the MCU’s version of this story arc is that it was actually set up properly for the last few years. Through the events of “Winter Soldier,” Cap has become skeptical of SHIELD and the government’s newfound abilities to monitor people “in case they get out of control.” Through the events of Iron Man 3, Avengers Assemble, and Age of Ultron, Tony has formed an aspiration to be responsible for the security of everyone on the planet. This ties into his very reasons for becoming Iron Man; he built the suit so he could right some of the wrongs that he created by selling weapons to anyone who had the money.

    • PhysUnknown

      I agree, especially with the roots of this going back into previous movies (I’d say even all the way to Iron Man 2 – where Stark began to realize that he might not be able to protect everyone on his own). Agents of SHIELD is also laying a nice foundation for all of this, two, from Hydra still trying to get their tentacles into everything to the public distrust of super-powered heroes. I feel like they have a much richer backstory heading into the movie version than the did for the comic.

  • Gallen Dugall

    I imagine that a real Registration Act would have the government looking after thousands of “Seymore Butts” and the like.

  • Gearóid

    I really liked Civil War though Starks role does come across as ridiculas and Caps part makes more sense. It was fun to see everything fall apart for Stark and Norman Osborn take his position.
    In Heroic Age the kiss and make up was done poorly.
    I really think Mark Millars writing is spot on in all the things I have read by him.

  • GreenLuthor

    The thing about Civil War (the comic) is that there’s really no possible way the readers are ever supposed to take Iron Man’s side in the whole thing. Whether it be the increasingly fascist provisions of the Registration Act and methods used by the pro-registration side, they’re clearly the ones who we’re supposed to view as being in the wrong. And, really, when the other side is being lead by Captain America (aka, the guy who, the VERY FIRST TIME he was shown, was punching Hitler… how do you argue with THAT guy?), the deck is stacked against the other side. (Even though Cap was fighting for the “freedom” to beat up on criminals without due process or accountability, which ordinarily would seem to be a bad thing.) If you have Captain America take one side of an argument, the only other Marvel hero who could effectively represent the other side would have to be Spider-Man (as Marvel’s most well-known character); having Spidey start out on the other side then switch over to Cap’s pretty much cements the “yep, Iron Man’s totally in the wrong here” viewpoint.

    So we’ve one side we’ve got the cartoonishly fascist Iron Man, throwing people (including people he’s worked with in the past) into an interdimensional concentration camp, cloning his (believed dead) friend and turning him into a murderous cyborg, and using super-villains (did THEY register?) to hunt down other super-heroes. And on the other side, we’ve got Captain America, who, again, punched Hitler.

    And yet, apparently, Iron Man’s stance was supposed to be the correct one? Yeah, they were totally straw men used to present an otherwise reasonable position in as unfavorable a light as possible, but… in the end, Cap decides that Tony’s actually got a valid point and surrenders. I mean, it’s an interesting way to tell a story – that maybe the side we thought was wrong really had a valid point, and the side we thought was right was maybe fighting for the wrong cause – but when the wrong side is shown as flat-out worse than most of the super-villains, it doesn’t quite work, y’know?

    But then, expecting from Mark Millar things like subtlety or nuance or anything that doesn’t involve one-dimensional characters, gratuitous sex and violence, borderline racism, and/or the most sophomoric of “humor” is probably asking for too much, I suppose…

    • Jonathan Campbell

      Apparently Mark Millar thought that people would think Iron Man was “obviously” in the right so they kept making the Pro-Reg crowd commit more and more crimes to “balance things out”. Captain America wasn’t even oringally against the Act until SHIELD illegally tried to apprehend him for not hunting down his friends before the Act was even passed.

      Unfortunately,
      1) They went really, really overboard;
      2) “Registration” in the Marvel universe is usually associated with mutant death camps;
      3) The details of the Act are inconsistent and as sometimes presented, illegal;
      4) At this stage in the Marvel universe, it’s difficult to see what difference a SRA would actually make (so many things it won’t protect anyone from) or whether it wouldn’t make things worse (eg. it’s fine as long as the Secretary of Defense is not secretly the Red Skull…again);
      5) SHIELD served a pretty similar function prior to the SRA (eg. they already knew the identities of almost every superhuman, and they policed them…what difference does the SRA make?)

      • MichaelANovelli

        Plus, there was that whole “shooting the Hulk into space” thing…

        • Thomas Stockel

          On the bright side, we did get the utterly brilliant Planet Hulk story, one of the best runs in Hulk history. Silver linings in clouds, and all that.

        • windleopard

          Honestly, I had less of a problem with that one given the Hulk’s frequent rampages.

          • MichaelANovelli

            But Bruce Banner is still a sentient being with the right of autonomy. At the very least they should have approached him beforehand. He would most likely have said no, but as a scientist he may have been swayed by the logic of the situation…

    • I immediately sided with Registration. Their side made sense.

      And if you only read the “Civil War” book itself, nothing he does is oppressive or evil.

      I was so in the tank for Registration I actually argued that a better metaphor for the conflict was that Captain America was President Bush and American foreign policy run amok, with Stanford standing in for the Iraq war. While Iron Man represented the international community telling the US to reign itself in and act more responsibly.

      • GreenLuthor

        I suppose I could be confused as to what happened in the actual series and not the tie-ins – or what would be considered oppressive or evil – but didn’t the series itself have Iron Man create a murderous cyborg clone of Thor, recruit supervillains to hunt down the anti-registration heroes, and set up what amounted to a concentration camp in the Negative Zone for SHRA offenders?

        But like I said, I could be confused as to what exactly happened in which books…

        • Tony, Hank Pym, and Reed Richards did make a clone of Thor that did kill Goliath, but I am one of those rare people who is not against cloning or lethal force, so I did not see the problem.

          He did not recruit villains, Maria Hill formed a Thunderbolts team to supplement the SHIELD agents. And I generally agree with that decision too. Ironically some super-villains wanted to team up with Captain America because they did not want the superheroes organized under one banner (those bad guys are then murdered by the Punisher who was working with Captain America at the time).

          And there was an Extra dimensional prison, which made sense, but it was only a Guantanamo in the Spider-Man books, in the main Civil War book it is just treated as the latest super-prison.

      • Greenhornet

        Sure, if you want to look at it the INSANE way.
        Once more: SADDAM HUSSEIN was one of those who claimed he had (Or was close to making) nukes. Why would he lie about it? Because he wanted to be the big dog on the block and scare America and everyone else. He did scare people and it blew up in his face.
        I could also go into the many violations of the Gulf War cease-fire, but I’ll spare you.

        • Yeah, he was a bad guy, hence my comparison of him to super villains. That doesn’t mean interventionist policy was popular or good for the world.

        • K9T

          OMG, you aren’t trying to drag a real-world political diatribe into this, especially one defending a highly controversial former US president, right? Are you just cold or something, and need the flame war to heat your house?

          • Greenhornet

            I didn’t bring it up. Look at this post:

            “Rocketboy1313 GreenLuthor • a month ago
            “I was so in the tank for Registration I actually argued that a better metaphor for the conflict was that Captain America was President Bush and American foreign policy run amok, with Stanford standing in for the Iraq war.”

            People keep bringing this up and IGNORING FACTS. I will keep correcting these misconceptions and shameless acts of “I HATE BUSH!” propaganda as long as people keep them alive.

      • MisterShoebox

        I was on board with Registration ’till it became “Hey! You’re the government’s bitch and we can force you to go wherever and kill whoever we want, and if you disagree we’ll take away your powers, even if you need your powers to live!”

        Now granted, it didn’t become like that in the main book – then it just seemed like “You just tell us your name and that’s it!” but…Slippery Slope.

    • MisterShoebox

      Mark Millar is his own worst enemy. When he’s reigned in, you get good stuff like “Red Son”. When he’s not, you get stuff like “The Unfunnies.” The difference in stuff being…one is the stuff you get when you go to Disney World! The other is the stuff you find in your belly button.

  • Travis

    Civil War may have succeeded if any two writers working for Marvel bothered to have even a passing discussion of what exactly the SHRA entailed.

    Instead it was a goddamn free-for-all, with the SHRA constantly shifting its rules to whatever was narratively necessary to make the pro-registration side look like jackbooted thugs.

    It’s a true waste. As a kid reading the X-Men, the Mutant Registration Act was probably the first example of a social policy I ever thought out. And naturally, I grew up being on the side that Wolverine agreed with.

    As I get older though, and realize many of the same reasons for the MRA can be applied to gun control, It doesn’t seem entirely unreasonable that the guy who can melt concrete with his mind register with the government and get a proper license before starting a demolition business.

    And that’s without considering the vigilante angle at all.

    Marvel had the potential to craft a story that was worth legitimate debate. Instead, we got this crap.

  • SONICSNOUT

    I think I that the movie will follow suit since its Caps movie. Iron Man is essentially the villain. Which is kind of cool in a way, that the hero from one series can be the villain in the other series. Though I wouldn’t be surprised if they team up against a greater evil towards the end, since that’s how superhero vs stories usually work.

  • Cameron Vale

    I’ll give them some credit for not simply going with the usual “a disaster happens, heroes go crazy and become tyrants, anti-heroes and villains unite against them, heroes suffer a crippling moral defeat and come back to their senses” version of the story. In which case, the pro-registration side would have been represented even worse.

    • Jonathan Campbell

      Some people would say that’s EXACTLY what happened.

      • Cameron Vale

        It’s roughly what happened, but I wouldn’t say exactly. The registration movement isn’t tyrannical except in the “tyranny of the majority” sense, the leader of the resistance is about as far from an antihero as one could get, and Spider-Man’s role seems unique for this kind of story.

  • Murry Chang

    “Captain America’s patriotism, in the author’s mind, was of the kind that
    stemmed from loyalty to certain values and ideals rather than to
    specific leaders and governments,”

    Actually, that is how Steve works. He’s gone against the government numerous times, most famously when he stopped being Cap and became Nomad.

    • Thomas Stockel

      I didn’t mind Steve being anti-registration. I was against 1) SHIELD trying to arrest him before the Act ever went into effect for…reasons. And he had no endgame. How was he supposed to win?

      • Jonathan Campbell

        I think the plan was to hold out until the government caved in or the public turned against the Pro-Reg crowd. To be fair, you’ve also sort of answered your own question- Cap didn’t actually START this fight; he only went underground because SHIELD turned on HIM. He may not have had much of a clear plan, but he’s acting defensively so that at least is forgivable.

        EDIT: Ahh…remember when Secret Invasion was announced and people were excited because they thought Iron Man and others would be revealed to be Skulls and then that would explain everything? Good times.

    • By the way, is Steve Rogers still in the Army? They probably declared him Missing in Action at some point. If he’s still in the Army, not only does he have a LOT of back pay coming to him, but there’s also quite a few military rules and regulations he’s breaking. If he was declared dead at some point, well, that’s a completely different legal mess he’s caught up in….

      • Jonathan Campbell

        Apparently there was a story in the 1980s where Steve finds out that he is indeed owed back pay and it amounts to over a million dollars.

        Also if they were going by real-world military logic, POWs / MIA officers (which is what he would be retroactively classified as) are “promoted with their peers”, which means that even though he is called “Captain” his actual (if honorary) rank would be “Colonel” or even “General”, or “General (retired)” if you want to get technical.

        No, he is not with the army, but has some pull with them. That comes with being out of action for several decades plus, of course, the dude is 100 years old. He’s retired and collected his pension, not to mention MIA’s in his position aren’t usually expected to return to duty if their absence has been so lengthy. His superhero activities are a post-retirement occupation.

    • CaptainCalvinCat

      of course it is fitting with Steve Rogers Character. Never forget, that guy had himself turned into a super-warrior in order to kick some Nazi-Ass. And you might view this whole “Superhero-Registration Act” as a veiled allegory for registration of other kinds… especially those in Germany back in Steves Days.

      • Murry Chang

        Exactly…he saw firsthand what happens when you start to vilify, label and catalog specific subsets of your population.

        • CaptainCalvinCat

          And not only that – he saw, too, what happens, if you put your patriotism in terms of loyalty to specific leaders and governments, and not to values and ethics.

          • Murry Chang

            Yep, that too.

    • Sooper

      I came in here to pretty much say what’s been said in this subthread. Cap has always been about ideals and values, and, looking at his historical context, being a WWII vet, there’s no frigging way he’s going to be on board with forcing people onto a list that the government keeps. People thinking he’s going to be “Well, the government says this is right, so it’s right because they say so” should probably read more of his comics.

    • What is strange in this instance though is how much the Registration act was codifying what he had previously supported. Captain America has seen young heroes die in the line of duty and has discouraged inexperienced heroes from fighting crime. HE has also used his status within SHIELD to take missions and pick teams at his discretion, and he is paid by the government for his service.

  • MichaelANovelli

    Others have already commented on my biggest problems with Civil War, so I’ll just bring up a petty one:

    It made no sense for She-Hulk to be on the Pro-Registration side.

    Sure, she was going through an arc about taking more responsibility for her own actions (and holding other heroes accountable in court) but as a lawyer, she more than anyone should have seen the deeper implications of ceding so much power to SHIELD.

    Also, she and Tony Stark had been at each other’s throats since the 70’s. Why would she take his side on anything?

    • Thomas Stockel

      I especially hated what happened to her in the wake of Civil War, where Tony manipulated her into taking on her cousin’s opponents without letting her know about him shooting Bruce into space. When she found out he de-powered her and left her stranded out in the middle of nowhere.

      God, how I’ve come to hate comic book Tony. He gets to repeatedly do dickish moves and he is always forgiven or it’s forgotten about (Anyone remember when he killed a man during Armor Wars? Apparently the MU has forgotten.). Now we have a reboot and apparently the slate is wiped clean…until Tony screws somebody over again.

      • MichaelANovelli

        Plus, he got her disbarred!

        • Thomas Stockel

          Damn, I forgot about that! What a dick! God how I hate Stark. I love movie Stark but comic book Stark is such an irredeemable tool.

          • MichaelANovelli

            It’s not that I didn’t like the bounty hunter story arc, per se, it just didn’t GO anywhere…

        • windleopard

          Was that Stark? I thought it was some secret group that wanted her disbarred for some undisclosed reason.

          • MichaelANovelli

            And SHIELD was involved in some way as well, best I can remember. That whole story was a train-wreck. 🙁

    • No one acts in character in the entire event. Even if the story had made sense it made no sense for the characters to act the way they did within it.

  • windleopard

    The funny thing is that according to interviews, Marvel wanted readers to side with the Pro-reg side all along, with their deplorable actions seen as necessary evils. Hell, the story ended with Steve Rogers turning himself when he sees the collateral damage done by the fights between the two sides.

  • Hey, what’s Thor’s legal status anyway? He’s a citizen of a country that no nation on Earth recognizes officially. Would a government consider him an ambassador (with all the rights and privileges that entails) or as an illegal immigrant?

  • Gearóid

    I was just thinking because I was reading comics, Steve Rogers civilian disguise in Civil War looked ridiculas, like a South Park parody of a cop, with the moustache, very silly.
    Steven Birkner can you do a review of The new Secret Wars, it blew me away and has some of the finest art I have ever seen in a Comic Book, the male and female figures were outstanding, I do life drawing so am very interested in this and thought the way they left some of the pencil work was just beautiful.
    Thought the story was brilliant, very emotional and older Reed Richards is a bad ass with his machinations against Dr Doom.

  • Low Mileage Pit Woofie

    I don’t know the specifics of the upcoming Captain America movie, but it feels like tagging the movie with the subtitle Civil War is a specious connection. The comic version of the story is plausible, in that this universe is populated with hundreds of super folk both good and evil, so an argument about registration is almost inevitable. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, on the other hand, has a handful of super folk, most if not all of them already known to the government if not the public.