Bendis’ Avengers: Civil War

Civil War was probably the biggest Marvel Comics event at the time of its release. No other event was so widespread, reaching everyone from the Avengers to smaller titles like Heroes for Hire. I personally loved every page of Civil War. Seeing two sides of heroes fighting each other was like smashing two sets of action figures together and seeing who would win. This is the event which got me to love Captain America even more than I already did, as the book clearly favors the star-spangled Avenger. At the same time, Civil War left me with nothing but disdain for Iron Man, unaware of how out of character many of his actions were. Regardless of the clear character bias, I mainly remember loving Civil War for Spider-Man’s prominence. The web-head is my favorite comic book character, after all, so seeing him play such a pivotal role in the overall Marvel Universe was very exciting. Civil War was written by Mark Millar, so a lot of the characterization and tone doesn’t feel consistent with Bendis’ Avengers work. One thing that remains true about Civil War, however, is its place as a turning point for Bendis’ Avengers saga.

Last hero standing…

While Bendis did not write Civil War himself, his earlier work laid a lot of groundwork for the event. Going into Civil War, tensions have risen between Marvel superheroes and the general public. Since 2004’s Secret War, many questions were raised around the superheroes’ lack of accountability. Indeed, incidents such as the Latverian attack on New York have led to serious collateral damage for regular citizens, leaving many to wonder if superheroes should remain free agents. Another significant event which shaped Civil War was the formation of the New Avengers, particularly under the leadership of Captain America and Iron Man. As New Avengers progressed, the divergent leadership styles of both Avengers became more apparent. Captain America takes a more idealistic style, inspiring others and having faith in his teammates. Meanwhile, Iron Man is more pragmatic, negotiating with agencies such as S.H.I.E.L.D. in order to protect the Avengers’ greater interests. These clashing perspectives make themselves more apparent in Civil War. Finally, the role of the Avengers became much more central to the Marvel Universe leading into Civil War. Titles such as Avengers Disassembled, Young Avengers, House of M, and New Avengers have all re-affirmed the importance of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes to the broader Marvel Universe. This re-assertion of the team makes its way into Civil War, focusing on the division of the Avengers.

Picking up the pieces

The premise of Civil War begins with a tragically unfortunate incident for the superhero community. In Stamford, Connecticut, a reality TV series, starring the superhero team the New Warriors, stages a raid against a group of supervillains. During the raid, a fatal explosion kills hundreds, including a school of young children. After this tragic event, there is a public outcry against superheroes, calling for the registration of costumed heroes with S.H.I.E.L.D. Several prominent heroes, including Iron Man, Mr. Fantastic, and Hank Pym, side with the registration movement. On the other side, Captain America leads a team which refuses to register, believing that registration violates their civil liberties. When lines are drawn and sides are taken, an all-out war results within the superhero community. Many casualties occur during several brutal battles between heroes.

Turning point

Leading the anti-registration movement, Captain America is one of two leading figures in Civil War. As a living symbol, Captain America stands for all that is good about the United States. When Steve Rogers disagrees with something like registration, many are given cause to reconsider the law. Moreover, many flock to Cap as a rallying point for an anti-registration force. A time-tested leader of the Avengers, Captain America has the means to build a strong resistance movement. Cap is also portrayed as very stubborn in his convictions. Throughout Civil War, Rogers refuses to compromise his beliefs even a little for the pro-registration side. When Iron Man tries to negotiate with Rogers, Cap tricks him, attacking Iron Man with a virus in his armor instead. The main motive behind Cap’s actions comes from an old-fashioned, idealistic sensibility. Captain America believes in the tradition of secret identities and autonomous action, without any attachment to large organizations like S.H.I.E.L.D. While the public seems to be shifting towards a new system of accountability for superheroes, Rogers still believes that heroes can be an independent force for good.

Some problems with authority…

On the other side of the coin is Iron Man, leading the call for registration. Tony Stark continues to be the practical, realistic leader of the Avengers. Stark knows the consequences for the superhero community if they fail to register. If the heroes go against the registration act, Stark believes that they will become outlaws and social pariahs. In siding with the registration act, Stark attempts to compromise in order to preserve a voice for superheroes. On a deeper level, however, Stark is also motivated by a sense of guilt. Early on in the story, Stark is confronted by a grieving mother of one of the Stamford victims, blaming him for this incident. Clearly moved by this confrontation, Stark begins to take public opinion into consideration. It is the pathos of the Stamford incident which moves Stark into action, attempting to set a better example for superheroes than the heroes who inspired the New Warriors. In his willingness to push for registration, however, Stark gradually loses his way. Throughout the story, Stark’s need to control the situation around him drives several of his supporters away. Stark makes several questionable decisions, veering into slightly villainous territory. Despite his best intentions, Iron Man descends into morally problematic areas.

Meet the super-cops…

Between these two sides lies Spider-Man, acting as a sort of stand-in for the reader. When Civil War begins, Spider-Man supports the registration act, since the idea seems right at the time. If superheroes are to continue, they may as well be held accountable to some higher authority. Later on, the pro-registration side begins to falter, making terrible mistakes and compromises during the war. The morally dubious nature of the pro-registration side makes the reader, and Spider-Man, reconsider registration. Spider-Man then switches sides, joining the anti-registration movement, just as most readers side with the anti-registration forces as the story progresses. Additionally, Spider-Man serves as a prime example of registration’s consequences. The moment where the web-slinger unmasks for the whole world emphasizes the meaning of registration. Once the public knows who you are, there is no going back: registration places a spotlight on superheroes and their secret identities. Once Spider-Man reconsiders his position, it is too late: everyone knows he is Peter Parker, endangering both his life and the lives of his loved ones. There is also a key visual shift for the wall-crawler throughout Civil War. Initially wearing a stark-designed costume, Spider-Man visually embodies the politically-affiliated pro-registration side. It is only once Spider-Man switches sides that he wears the classic red and blue outfit for which he is known. This change in attire symbolizes the old-fashioned, traditional heroism to which the idealistic anti-registration heroes cling tightly.

No going back

Throughout Civil War, it is the Fantastic Four who symbolize the strain of conflict on the superhero community. The heart of Civil War lies in the marriage between Reed Richards, aka Mr. Fantastic, and Sue Storm, the Invisible Woman. The strain which the war places on this marriage is indicative of the severity of the divide between heroes in this story. As the superhero power couple of Marvel Comics, Reed and Sue should be a rock for the rest of the heroes. If these two are having marital trouble, then none of the heroes are safe from this conflict. Furthermore, it is the entire Fantastic Four who fall victim to Civil War‘s divide. At first, the whole team is united on the pro-registration side, as Marvel’s first family. Later on, however, things fall apart when Reed Richards creates a clone Thor which kills fellow hero Goliath. This death catalyzes a fracture in the family, as Sue and Johnny Storm join the resistance, and Ben Grimm moves to France. The Fantastic Four’s division throughout the story illustrates the gradually divisive nature of registration as Civil War progresses. Yet the ending of Civil War leaves readers with hope for the family. During the final battle, Ben arrives to protect civilians, and Reed takes a bullet for Sue. When the fighting is over, both Sue and Johnny are pardoned, and Sue returns home to reconcile with Reed. While the healing process for the Fantastic Four is only beginning by the end of Civil War, the reunion of the family leaves hope for the future. Moreover, this reunion of Marvel’s first family leaves hope for other heroes as well.

A family divided

Underneath the conflict of the story, Civil War boasts some thought-provoking themes. The main conflict itself is centered on the clashing values of idealism and pragmatism. Each of these values is embodied by a different leader of the Avengers. Captain America, standing for the anti-registration movement, represents an idealistic set of values. Fighting registration, Cap believes that heroes can still follow the old-fashioned model of heroism, with secret identities and an intrinsic set of morals to follow. Iron Man, as the head of the pro-registration side, acts out of more pragmatic beliefs. Stark recognizes the need to change with the times and follow the will of the American people, in order to move forward. At first, Iron Man’s pragmatic viewpoint appears to be appropriate, as registration still allows heroes to act, while re-gaining the public’s trust. Yet, over time, the mistakes and compromises which come from Stark’s pragmatism reveal the flaws in registration. Heroes have to hunt down other heroes, imprison their friends, and resort to unsavory means in order to maintain public trust. In this light, traditional heroism seems to be the pure, uncompromising position. A smaller theme, touched upon in the ending, is the senselessness of fighting. As Civil War progresses, the reader begins to wonder: how long can this war continue? When will the heroes actually return to the heroism for which they are fighting? By the end, when Captain America surrenders, he recognizes the senselessness of heroes fighting each other. Cap says, “We’re not fighting for the people anymore, Falcon…look at us. We’re just fighting”. This line is a poignant one, but I do wish that the idea had been mentioned before the ending of Civil War. The reader does see constant fighting between heroes throughout Civil War, but there is no commentary on its senselessness until the event is over. Another under-developed theme is the conflict between working-class and upper-class heroes. Registered heroes are individuals like Tony Stark, Reed Richards, and Hank Pym, upper-class people who can afford public identities and devoting their lives to S.H.I.E.L.D. On the other hand, heroes like Luke Cage, Daredevil, and the Falcon are less privileged, acting as heroes for their lower-class neighborhoods. These heroes see themselves as volunteers who also need to live their own lives, free from constant superheroics. Wolverine, arguing against registration, says, “Life ain’t so nice outside your ivory tower, bub”. I wish that Civil War explored this class conflict more, as it could have added a lot more substance to the story. As it stands, the most prevalent theme is the idealism vs. pragmatism debate.

Losing their way

The overall plot of Civil War begins reasonably enough. After the events of Stamford, it is only natural that heroes would begin talking about registration. The debate between the heroes in the Baxter Building, in particular, is well done. For the first few chapters, I can even understand the pro-registration side. Problems arise, however, during the first major battle between the heroes. As soon as Stark and Reed reveal a clone Thor who brutally murders Goliath, the pro-registration heroes become the villains of the story. Including a prison for unregistered heroes in the Negative Zone and recruiting super-villains for pro-registration forces also make this debate way too one-sided. Captain America and the anti-registration movement become clear-cut heroes by the midway point of the story. Furthermore, the conflict between Cap and Stark itself seems overly antagonistic. The two allies never come across as friends, always eager to fight each other or hurl insults at one another. Any character nuance can be found mainly in tie-in stories from other titles, as the main Civil War event jumps from major plot point to plot point. There is not much room for actual discussion in between fight scenes. The debate between heroes is quickly substituted for blockbuster action scenes and crowd-pleasing moments. It’s a coherent plot to be sure, but one that seems a little too action heavy for a political debate.

Seems a little harsh

Ultimately, Civil War veers more towards flash than substance. The main series is an excuse to get all of Marvel’s major heroes into a fight with each other. There are a lot of rich thematic concepts from registration, but none of these ideas are fully explored. Instead, the story opts for more heroes punching each other in the face. Indeed, the heroes don’t act like heroes for much of the story. Iron Man and Reed Richards seem like flat-out villains for the most part, committing questionable acts in the name of registration. Even Captain America, the clear good guy of the story, antagonizes the pro-registration movement a little too harshly. While the Secret Avengers are supposed to be fighting villains covertly, Civil War rarely shows this team acting for heroic purposes. Despite the clear bias of the debate and some character assassination, Civil War is still a pretty fun event. Mark Millar writes Civil War as a giant action blockbuster, with great moments for Captain America, Spider-Man, and a lot of other heroes. In between the action scenes, there are a few thought-provoking moments. While never fully fleshed out, it’s nice to know the ideas are there. Civil War, overall, is also a far-reaching event, exploring the Marvel Universe very nicely. The event features nearly all of the major players, including the Avengers, Fantastic Four, X-Men, Dr. Strange, and even Uatu the Watcher. If nothing else, Civil War makes a huge impact on the Marvel landscape.

Okay, that is pretty cool

Going forward, Civil War will indeed define the new context for Bendis’ Avengers run. After the war, Iron Man is appointed the new director of S.H.I.E.L.D., continuing the shifting of power between major events. Stark redefines the superhero community, beginning the fifty state initiative. This initiative places a registered superhero team in each state of the US. New York’s team, the Mighty Avengers, will become the face of the superhuman registration act, and the next big Avengers title for Bendis. In this brave new world, the only unregistered heroes remaining are the New Avengers, under Luke Cage’s leadership. This team receives an entirely new lineup, continuing as the outlaw Avengers all the way through 2010’s Siege. The most crucial ramification of Civil War, however, is the removal of Captain America from Bendis’ Avengers saga. Shortly after surrendering to the authorities, Captain America is assassinated in Ed Brubaker’s Captain America title. The loss of Captain America is the beginning of a darker era for the Avengers, as Earth’s Mightiest Heroes are left without their primary inspiration. Cap’s absence results in a downward spiral for the Avengers, only returning to their heroic roots upon his return during Siege. Until then, Civil War is the beginning of a new, darker era for superheroes.

What price victory?

That’s all for today. What did you think of Civil War? Is it the thought-provoking political commentary which it seemed? Is it really just an excuse for a superhero smackdown? Share your thoughts on Twitter, @book_column, and be sure to share this blog with your friends! Thanks for reading! Be sure to check back in tomorrow, when I look at Bendis’ New Avengers tie-in to Civil War!

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