With the crossover at its half-way mark, does Civil War still have the potential to deliver?
I’m a huge fan of Marvel and a lover of good superhero comics in general, so when Joe Quesada first started making noises about a big crossover event that promised to shake up his company’s fictional universe in a huge way, pitting heroes against heroes and dealing with large philosophical and moral issues instead of a generic super-villain plot, I swallowed my knee-jerk cynicism and prepared for a ground-breaking story by one of my favourite writers of the moment. Yes, the first few issues of Marvel’s Civil War have really split readers down the middle – but perhaps not in the way that the company was expecting. Debate seems to centre around whether Millar really “gets” his characters, whether the actual issue of registration has been properly explored, or whether the book is really worth waiting for after delays to the art, rather than the overly simplistic “Whose side are you on?” tagline that Marvel seemed intent on ramming down our throats in the big lead-up to the event. Fresh from the overtly politicised antics of The Ultimates, Mark Millar has brought his penchant for big ideas, large-scale action and in-fighting between heroes to the regular Marvel Universe in a crossover which poses the question of whether heroes should be registered, regulated and trained by the government: a simple, smart and big enough concept to get the whole Marvel Universe involved – but the devil, as ever, is in the detail. I’m interested in getting to the nub of the story that Millar is trying to tell without being distracted by the myriad tie-ins, specials and the whole crossover fever in general: Millar has stated more than once that he’s not read much in the way of crossover issues of other comics, and as such I think Civil War deserves to be appraised in its own right (so if anything I say in this appraisal of the event so far is contradicted by something in one of the tie-ins, blame Millar and Marvel, not just me).
One of the reasons why some people have found the series wanting is that the idea of superhero registration just doesn’t wash. In theory, the response to the question at hand would seem to be obvious: who wouldn’t want their heroes (many of whom have potentially very dangerous powers at their disposal) to be responsible and accountable? The maxim of “with great power comes great responsibility” exists for a reason, and there’s some very solid, socially responsible reasoning behind Spider-Man’s celebrated mantra. However, after that initial reaction passes, many may start to realise that the Marvel Universe doesn’t work that way. Despite a healthy, real-world ethos, the Marvel Universe is subject to the laws of storytelling, not of real-life, and even if Millar can have some fun subverting the clichés of superhero comics – such as the New Warriors getting it wrong and inadvertently escalating an already dangerous situation into something far worse, with devastating consequences – he can’t escape the fundamentals of story that rarely allow the risky recklessness of superheroes to develop into anything more significant. Put simply, the good guys win and the bad guys lose – and if it wasn’t the case, then the Marvel Universe’s public would have been crying out for superhero registration long before the Stamford incident.
Ironically, the same fictional universe that allows for the existence of Marvel’s thousands of colourful costumed characters presents its own obstacles in dealing with them in a realistic manner. In the real world, of course every human being who wielded such forces would be subject to the same controls as anybody else with a gun, a car or anything else with the potential to kill or cause damage to society. Yes, some of the heroes didn’t choose their powers – although Civil War seems to be avoiding this issue for fear of rehashing countless X-Men stories about Mutant registration – but the question remains: why, if the superhero registration law is being so zealously enforced by S.H.I.E.L.D. and its band of registered heroes, weren’t the laws of the state effectively applied to superheroes in the past? Superheroes have always operated under their own vigilante code, an often shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later ethic which carries with it an implicit disregard for the laws which govern “normal” people. When Tony Stark berates the actions of Goliath for thinking he was bigger than the law, he’s ignoring the fact that he and his brethren have been doing the same for years. If they haven’t been licensed employees of the state, then they’ve been guilty of all sorts of crimes in pursuit of their goals: assault, destruction of property, and even – in some cases – murder. Yes, there have been a few misguided attempts to frame unfortunate heroes for crimes they didn’t commit, but when was the last time you heard of Spidey being asked to give a report to the courts on exactly how and why his criminals were apprehended, or of Iron Man having to account for why it was necessary to destroy whole city blocks in order to stop his villains? It’s an unspoken “don’t ask – don’t tell” rule of superhero comics that makes the reconciliation of real-life necessities with fictional artistic licence very difficult in the case of Civil War and throws up all sorts of stumbling blocks when you try and pick the idea of superhero registration apart.
In the real world, public support for registration (or at least regulation) of powered people would be a no-brainer; but in the Marvel Universe, the rich histories and traditional activities of the characters simply can’t support it. This, and the fact that the mechanics of the registration act also remain resolutely unexplored, has left many readers to wonder whether the idea of superhero registration has really been thought through: it definitely seems to be the case that if you try and look too hard into what Civil War‘s key premise would really mean for the Marvel Universe, the edifice starts to crumble. A related question for me is why Civil War wasn’t done as an Ultimate story: The Ultimate Universe is still in its relative infancy, and is well-established as far closer to our world than the regular Marvel playground. A registration act in the Ultimate Universe would have seemed far more logical, and easy to support: it’s already S.H.I.E.L.D. policy for the Ultimates to monitor and recruit any super-powered vigilantes and to be aware of any genetically modified and powered humans, so it wouldn’t be a huge leap to imagine that they’d want to put some sort of system of registration in place. For the regular Marvel Universe, however, there’s so much baggage of past stories (many of which that have had far higher bodycounts than the Stamford incident) and so big a question mark hanging over the issue of why registration wouldn’t have already been introduced that it makes accepting the developments of Civil War as logical and organic for the Marvel Universe much more difficult.
It’s perhaps this kind of inescapable conflict between past continuity and present storytelling concerns which has led to so many of Civil War‘s players falling foul of a characterisation that can at best be described as radical. Tony Stark’s moustache-twirling, underhanded and Machiavellian scheming competes with Reed Richards’ dehumanised and scientifically cold worldview to be the most disturbing portrayal of a “hero” that the book can provide. Whilst certain human character flaws are important if we’re to see the possible drawbacks of a regulated world of superheroes, the pudding has been so over-egged by the vilification of the pro-registration heroes that it’s difficult to feel like the series is being at all even-handed or fair in its portrayal of the central argument, or that it’s even possible for a fan to side with the unsympathetic portrayal of the pro-registration heroes. Yet regardless of the contradictory examples thrown up on internet messageboards (such as Reed Richards’ oppositio
n to such an act in the past, or the countless times that Peter Parker has refused to unmask) or the complaints from hardcore devotees of certain characters, I’m actually quite interested in seeing how Millar uses them to show how a person’s devotion to an idea or a cause can change their priorities – and how the road to hell can be paved with good intentions. In fact, a lot of the intrigue from the series comes from how effectively the characters have been made to fit the roles that Millar has cast them in, and one of the few tie-ins that I have read – J. Michael Stracynski’s story in Amazing Spider-Man – has done far more to make me understand why Spidey has taken the position that he has, and how it can be reconciled with his character, than could possibly fit into the “big picture” approach of Millar’s core title.
So, four issues in, can Civil War still deliver? Despite some of the difficulties outlined above, I think it can. Whatever problems may beset its shipping schedule, Steve McNiven’s art is delivering an undeniably pretty and detailed look at what is a challenging and relevant story, and I’m of the school of thought that is prepared to wait a while for artwork if it means maintaining a consistent look and feel for the book. The distraction that it seems unlikely for the Marvel Universe to so suddenly want to introduce superhero registration is offset by the fact that this is a story which feels very much at home in the current real-world political climate: the fact that I’m not quite sure exactly what Millar is trying to say politically is perhaps one of the highest compliments that I can pay to his writing, as he adopts a decidedly un-preachy writing style which leaves neither side coming off as whiter-than-white, despite the fact that the methods of the pro-registration heroes are so clearly questionable. It’s reminiscent of the second volume of Ultimates, in which it has been impossible to really sympathise with the corrupt, amoral and war-mongering US government, but there’s the nagging feeling that the alternative might be worse.
Take away the mis-steps in writing and occasional dodgy plot points (I’m actually getting used to the idea of the cloned Thor as a potentially quite interesting development), and you’re still left with a series which is so strong in concept and almost as solid in execution that it still stands as one of the more meaningful and intellectually stimulating crossovers of recent years. The ultimate proof of its significance is going to be in whether Millar can follow through on the premise which has already shaken things up so much, and stick to his guns with an equally strong ending. If Marvel doesn’t bail out and introduce some kind of reset button which erases the events of the series, it seems likely that it’s going to be impossible for the company’s universe to come out the other side in anything like the same shape, and that could make for a very interesting “rebirth” for the Marvel Universe we know and love.