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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