Civil War was a massive Marvel crossover event running from 2006 to 2007 and tied into virtually every Marvel comic including cosmic ones, like Nova, and quirky teen ones, like Runaways. The comic begins with the New Warriors (a team of perpetually C-Listers) fighting a group of supervillains to garner better ratings for their reality TV show, which leads to the villain Nitro blowing up a school in Stamford, Connecticut leading to many civilian casualties. This leads to Tony Stark, Reed Richards, the Avengers, and SHIELD supporting the Superhuman Registration Act, which bans secret identities, implements mandatory training for young heroes, and makes superheroes agents of SHIELD. This is opposed by Captain America, who doesn’t want to hunt down his fellow heroes, and the conflict begins as all the heroes of the Marvel Universe must either choose the Pro-Reg or Anti-Reg side.
With its sleek, detailed art from Steve McNiven and Dexter Vines, wide panels and multiple group shots of characters, and huge cast, Civil War is a summer blockbuster in comic book form. It’s no wonder that elements of this story were used in Captain America Winter Soldier (Cap’s escape from the Triskelion, or a Helicarrier in the comic.) and will even have a stronger influence on the aptly named Captain America Civil War. However, writer Mark Millar strives to imbue the story with political themes and ideas using Marvel’s heroes as rough approximations of various political positions. For example, some critics have made a connection between the Negative Zone prison constructed by Reed Richards and Tony Stark for superhuman criminals (or heroes in this event) to the infamous Guantanamo Bay prison for terrorists.
Like most of his work in the early 2000s (Ultimate X-Men, The Ultimates, Superman: Red Son), Mark Millar’s writing is informed by contemporary politics. However, it also exists as slick superhero entertainment, hence, his collaborations with artists like Adam Kubert, Bryan Hitch, and Steve McNiven, whose art has a more photorealistic style. McNiven’s design for Spider-Man looks like the costume from the Sam Raimi films, and his Iron Man suit could be the missing link between Adi Granov’s Extremis and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. These designs along with the cinematic technique of shot/reverse shot for panels where characters are arguing are excellent stylistic choices for a series that draws heavily on the idea of media influencing policy and that the government will use tragedies (like 9/11 in real life or Stamford, CT in Civil War) to introduce policy that may infringe upon civil liberties. This analogy does break down a little bit because do American citizens really have the right to assault random criminals while wearing a mask?
However, despite this issue, Mark Millar does craft Tony Stark into the ultimate Machiavellian schemer, who uses the media, science, and even seemingly heartfelt appeals to humanity to make himself look good. He reads as the villain of Civil War despite making some good points, like the fact that younger superheroes need to be trained so accidents like a school exploding don’t happen again. Even his remorseful moments, like buying 38 burial plots to bury C-Lister size changing hero Goliath or having repeated conversations with the mother of one of the Stamford victims, seem like last minute saving face rather than being sincere. This kind of manipulation can be seen in the way he strings along Peter Parker and Reed Richards using the twin devices of the media and science.
From the beginning, Spider-Man is a hero, who has carefully guarded his secret identity so that his loved ones and friends won’t suffer the same fate as Uncle Ben. This is why his unmasking of his own free will at the end of Civil War #2 was one of the biggest plot twists in Marvel comics history. Peter decides to unmask to regain “public trust” and also out of to necessity to keep fighting crime. (It doesn’t hurt that Tony Stark also gave him the new high tech Iron Spider costume, which is still a staple of toy lines everywhere.)
With Reed Richards, Tony plays on his futurist ideology and desire for advancement and progress in science, especially the science of superhumans in this case. In fact, Mark Millar creates an intriguing subplot throughout Civil War showing the fragmenting of the Fantastic Four as Reed chooses science over family choosing to spend his time developing a superhuman prison and not visiting his brother-in-law Johnny Storm, who was badly beaten in the first issue. This lack of caring leads both Invisible Woman and Human Torch to join Captain America’s Anti-Registration side as Reed and Sue Richards are separated as a couple. Along with murderous cyborg Thor and the Iron Spider costume, Millar and McNiven show these heroes losing a bit of their humanity as they try to save the superhero community and the world too.
However, Black Panther in Civil War #3, instantly demolishes Stark’s triumph by cutting to the quick that superheroes will basically be doing the government’s dirty work instead of saving people. This fear becomes real later in the series when Stark’s ominously named Capekillers blow up an entire building to neutralize the Young Avenger, Patriot, who was just stopping a mugger. It gets even worse by the end of the series, when Iron Man and Captain America are just punching below the belt by having a sonic disrupter shut down Cap’s brain, or Cap using Vision to phase through Iron Man’s armor. Captain America eventually turns himself in after seeing Mr. Fantastic fighting Spider-Man and an all-out brawl between the best and brightest Marvel heroes in Midtown New York realizing how much both the Pro and Anti-Reg sides have compromised the superhero identity. Millar and McNiven truly shift the Marvel status quo with two separate Avengers teams, a broken up FF, Captain America in jail, and new heroes coming out of the Initiative program along with Tony Stark becoming director of SHIELD.
Most fans think of this as a downer ending (especially with Cap’s death in Captain America #25), but Tony Stark doesn’t seem to think so with the sun shining down on his Helicarrier after having a final nice chat with Miriam Sharpe about all the things he’s going to do to make the world a better place. But this sentiment rings hollow after the lack of morality showed by him and the other heroes ranging from the death of Goliath to employing supervillains (new Thunderbolts team) to hunt down superheroes, who used to be his friend. Even Captain America compromises when he lets Punisher be an Avenger for a few pages to infiltrate the Baxter Building and get the plans to the Negative Zone prison.
Civil War truly shows the negative effect of compromising one’s beliefs, and if anyone’s in the right, it’s the X-Men, who refused to fight against another oppressed group and end up staying out of the main conflict. However, this is only my opinion, and there are hundreds of other views about the behavior of the Marvel superheroes in Civil War from fans, critics, and creators alike. In the words of the perceptive Doctor Strange in Civil War #6, “There is no right or wrong in this debate. It is simply a matter of perspective…” Perhaps Civil War is just a situational ethics textbook with more punching, teleporting (Cloak and Wiccan are handy in this series.) , and flashy costumes.