Because I’m planning on running the Civil War event for Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, I decided to reread the event on my handy Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited subscription. 101 issues are currently listed under the event, although they have varying degrees of relevance to the main event.
Before we go any further, I know this story is five years old, but, if for some reason you are a geek, and yet still plan to read this and be surprised by the outcome, I shall spoil quite a bit as I pick this apart.
And why am I bothering to pick it apart? Two reasons, really. The first reason is that it was a really good and interesting set up for a story, regardless of how it turned out. The second reason is, as I’m about to run it as an event, I’d like to keep in mind how things got off track and how I’d like to spin things in my own version of the Marvel Universe.
The Road to Civil War
When I first read Civil War, I have to admit that I missed out on a lot of the backstory of what had been going on in Marvel across the board up to that point. I knew about Avengers Disassembled, and I know about House of M, but I missed a few bumps in the road. Right off the bat, there really was a lot of good reasons for people to start supporting the bill, even before the Stamford incident.
- Scarlet Witch screws over the Avengers with her reality altering powers and ends up actually killing (or causing the death of) a couple of Avengers.
- Scarlet Witch then reduces the mutant population to about 200 individuals with her reality altering powers, further proving some super powered individuals are really powerful.
- Nick Fury kills the Latverian Prime Minister with a team of American super-heroes as his agents.
- The Latverian Prime Minister turns out not to be dead and nearly blows up New York city in retaliation for the assassination attempt on her life.
- Hulk’s rampage in Los Vegas apparently kills some innocent bystanders.
- Tony Stark is mind controlled into going on an international assassination spree before he can get back in control of himself, and the killings are covered up by the Secretary of Defense.
The problem is, the main Civil War book barely deals with all of the above. We jump straight to Stamford, and Stamford is hammered home over and over again. In fact, while a lot of the crossover books mention that the Super Human Registration Act is a modified form of the Mutant Registration Act, the main book doesn’t mention it, that I can recall.
In other words, there is a lot of history at Marvel pushing in this direction, but the main book drops the ball a bit on emphasizing where this all came from. Instead of using continuity, which is a Marvel strong suit, the main series kind of makes its own reason for things to happen and pushes on from there.
Still, the set up for the series makes perfect sense. Great scenario.
Now, as we move into the second act, things start go get away from us a bit. Right off the bat, Cap really doesn’t chose a side. He doesn’t like registration, but he can see why it’s come to this, but wants to look at the bill and see the potential problems before it goes into effect.
Then we have Maria Hill force the issue by opening fire on him after ordering him to lead a team of Avengers to hunt down anyone that doesn’t register. So, in the beginning, there really wasn’t much of a choice for Steve. Hill was hunting him without any law to back her up. Pretty early on the overzealous and incompetent head of SHIELD was the bad guy, even if her intentions were . . . good? Not entirely evil?
So, up to this point, I’m right with Cap, and the storyline. Clearly, with someone better able to handle SHIELD at the helm, this mess could be sorted out, right? Even the early “Secret Avengers” bit wasn’t bad, because Steve was being hunted by SHIELD before he had committed a crime, and he had his outlaws with him to take down bad guys to show that they were still taking down bad guys and not doing anything wrong.
Part of what goes wrong in the second act is the entire Civil War Frontline series. Ugh. Civil War was obviously commenting on the issues of it’s day, and I think a well written story of it’s day should do that. However, if you want that story to remain relevant, you don’t tie it too closely to the exact events that are going on. Civil War itself and a lot of the crossovers manage this fairly well, but Front Line?
Frontline is like a comedian that laughs at his own jokes.
“Hey, isn’t this situation just like X going on right now in the country?”
“Why yes it is. Good thing we pointed that out so the reader wouldn’t have to draw that conclusion on their own.”
“Hey, let’s post some poems and superimpose images of guys in brightly colored spandex fighting next to guys from Vietnam and show people how it’s exactly the same and how important this comic is.”
Also, New Avengers: Illuminati and Civil War Frontline both created more of a bodycount in a few panels than the main comic did the entire series. Maria Hill intimates that Hulk’s rampages have killed before, even though there really isn’t any record of it, and Frontline assigns a body count to almost every major fight in the main comic, which is a bit odd.
At any rate, another problem we have is that due to pacing issues, some of the main points of the story got resolved or at least almost resolved in the second act, which meant that the third act really felt like we were just going through the motions.
The contributing factors to the Civil War were Walter Declun manipulating villains and congress to cause more damage and force the passage of the bill so that he could get exclusive contracts from the government for Damage Control. Wolverine takes care of this, with almost no mention of it in the mainstream Civil War book.
Similarly, we know part of the problem is that Maria Hill is in way over her head and making bad decision, but instead of the “Tony, you need to take over SHIELD to make it run right” moment standing on it’s own, after showing Maria making more mistakes, we actually see a shift from Maria being in over her head and being stupid to Tony acting just as dumb and overzealous as Maria, which kills the impact of him taking over SHIELD. I don’t think that was the intention. I think the whole point of the main series was to push Tony as being more reasonable and better able to handle SHIELD than Maria. But it took too long to get to that point, and Frontline didn’t help make Tony look any better.
Rocket’s Red Glare
Now we arrive at the third act, which loses most of it’s power because the points that should have been paced to coincide with this act already got resolved.
Heck, we even lost track of Zemo’s “old” Thunderbolts in favor of Tony’s new nanite-controlled new Thunderbolts, even though Zemo seemed to be playing into something big that never materialized.
In order to make sure that we know this wasn’t suppose to be one sided, almost between issues Steve Rogers turns into a raving lunatic that is willing to recruit Punisher and is ranting about people not being willing to fight for their own freedoms and is trying to come up with some major confrontation that will do . . . what?
They were going to break a bunch of people out of the Negative Zone prison, including bad guys, and when that didn’t work out, they teleported everyone into the heart of New York for a major brawl. None of this makes any tactical sense.
Had Cap sent a small team in a break out a few guys that were good guys on ice, I would almost understand what was going on. If the major confrontation had been another push by SHIELD on one of the Anti-Registration force’s hideouts in New York, it would have made sense. But the whole set up is geared towards Cap seeing how much damage they are doing and how much public opinion is against him, and the innocent people he is putting at risk.
The problem isn’t the actual ending. If you could get to having a major fight in New York City with lots of damage, then Cap’s actions make perfect sense. It’s the fact that, to get to that point, he plans a massive breakout of super beings that goes wrong, then his team mass teleports everyone onto the streets because the Negative Zone prison is about to be sealed, and somehow they can’t every come up with a way out? So it’s better to have a raging fight on the streets of New York than to try and figure a way out, or wait for someone else to open the portal from the other side and fight out then, in a prison, with trained SHIELD agents and no civilians around?
The final battle’s impact is undermined even more by the fact that, Cap is worried about casualties and the damage they are causing. But over in Frontline, they’ve already racked quite a few casualties that Cap apparently didn’t care about at all. Which means if you are following the whole Civil War “experience” and not just the main book, it’s even more confusing.
Threading the Needle
A few other problems from Civil War:
Reed Richards. Back in the Acts of Vengeance crossover, the Super Human Registration Act was brought up because of all of the villains doing so much damage and the heroes not being able to contain them. Reed argued vehemently and quite ably against it at the time. No reference to this is ever made in the series, at any point. To say that Reed was out of character is to imply that Reed had some kind of character in the series at all.
Why was Reed pro-registration? Because his uncle and math, or something. Reed has a math equation that shows the future, and all humanity is doomed if they don’t register super heroes. And he’s had this equation going since he was a teenager, but for some reason, a few years back, it failed to point out that he argued against this exact same bill. Also, Reed seems to not mind the fact that his son could be taken into custody and forced to work for the government, since in at least some of the comics we are told that the registration act and its requirements aren’t age dependent. Strangely, Reed forgets that his son is one of the most powerful mutants on the planet for this story arc.
Despite being intentionally neutral for the whole Fantastic Four Civil War arc, apparently Ben briefly joins Tony for a few panels in the main comic.
Likewise, Stature appears to be helping train Initiative recruits, despite the Young Avengers being with Cap from the beginning.
According to some sources, you just have to sign up with registration, and you are only in trouble if you use your powers. According to other sources, you don’t have a choice, if you have powers, you have to work for the government or be locked up (or have your powers removed). Oddly, Frontline is the comic that seems to imply you only have to sign up and not use your powers, despite being the most extreme portrayal of what is going on. In a way, that makes the whole thing even more over the top and less understandable.
According to the X-Men Civil War book, all of the 198 and everyone staying at the Xavier Institute is already signed up and isn’t being called into any kind of active duty, because mutants have been through enough. Except Storm, who somehow wasn’t auto registered so that there could be an international incident in Black Panther over this situation.
And then there is just the overall thematic whiplash. Most of the books go out of their way to say that the New Warriors were just in over their heads and should have taken things more seriously and called in help. Frontline goes one step further and says that you cannot, ever, have a light-hearted hero ever again because if you do, we’ll spend the better part of a year doing horrible things to that character until they become a twisted S&M freak of a character. You have been warned!
So, What Have We Learned?
I think that Civil War has a great lead in, and the end makes sense, and by that I mean the very end. But the Second Act, and most of the Third are muddied up a lot with stuff that takes the impact away from the direction the story seemed to be going.
Frontline was a mistake. I get that it was suppose to be the “real person’s” view of what was going on, but it seemed to be way darker and a lot more self-important than the main title, and as a companion piece, it was likely to be given almost as much weight as the main storyline.
Too many crossovers that were suppose to be important, given that the characters were major players, that didn’t feel consistent with the main book. For example, Tony in Iron Man didn’t even seem like the same Tony that was in Civil War. I think Brubaker’s approach in Captain America, i.e. mention the main storyline as little as possible and wrap up some lose ends, was a good way to go.
Special nods to a few of the cross-over issues that stood out:
J. Micheal Straczynski’s Fantastic Four and Spider-Man issues were fun to read without changing the tone of the overall crossover, and were internally consistent. I think he tried desperately to reconcile what Reed was doing in the main series, even as Dwayne McDuffie tried to give Reed another plausible reason just afterwards on his run. Either way, it wasn’t the FF writer’s fault that Reed got roped into being Tony’s smarter yes man.
Still, the JMS FF issues were a treat for me because of Ben more than any other character in the story.
The other crossover call out I’d make is for Brubaker’s Winter Soldier Winter Kills one shot. I really liked the interaction of Bucky with the Young Avengers, and the somber tone that manages to not fall off in the edge of the world into the morose.
What would I do differently, to get to the same general outcome?
I’d play up Cap and his guys taking out bad guys a bit longer, to show that they didn’t go underground to fight the good guys, they went underground because Hill forced Cap’s hand, and they are still trying to do some good.
I’d play up the fact that most of the major confrontations between Cap’s side and Tony’s were forced on them by Maria Hill’s management style at SHIELD (this was alluded to in Civil War War Crimes and in the Heroes for Hire crossovers, but really got lost quickly).
Ragnarok (why is he still around . . . why?) should have not existed at all. Have Goliath die by SHIELD agents hands during the fight, preferably while trying to save some innocents, and have the whole trap set up by Maria, once again, with Tony’s guys sent in to clean up after her mess.
Walter Declun should have been in the event longer than he was, and his manipulations should have been felt a bit more. We kind of got an info-dump in Wolverine about his part in everything, but it seemed kind of important to the main story, without getting much fanfare.
I kind of liked the potential war with Atlantis covering up a lot of concerns about the Registration bill, thus letting it stay in effect, but it seemed like yet another jerk thing for Tony to do that would have been better shunted off to Maria Hill before she got the boot as director before Tony took over.
It was an interesting ride to go on for the last few days, rereading all of this. My perceptions of the overall event changed a little, because I could read more of it all at once, but I really do think that it could have been better coordinated, both factually and thematically, to bring home an actual solid point, and not just make it the somewhat meandering commentary it became.