“Civil War” confronts the heaviest hitters of the Marvel Universe with a simple question: do normal folks want to be protected by costumed vigilantes who work outside the law? After all, nobody has licensed Spider-Man to protect the city from Doc Ock, the Green Goblin or Kraven the Hunter. The Avengers probably don’t consider Kang’s due process when they’re foiling one of his plans to muddle the time stream.
The question is interesting and writer Mark Millar makes it easy to believe why the general public would have had enough of superheroes who seemingly answer to no one. The problem is that “Civil War” turns out to be a pretty joyless experience. Well, duh, right? After all, this book sees the heroes of the Marvel Universe at complete odds over the passage of a Superhuman Registration Act. This new legislation would make it a law to have all heroes register with S.H.I.E.L.D., thus becoming paid civil servants and making their secret identities known to the long arm of the law. What fun is to be had in seeing husbands and wives or longtime friends at complete odds with one another? Sure, this ought to be a pretty unhappy event for heroes of the Marvel U. But for them, not for us.
“Civil War” suffers from being tonally morose, from beginning to end, and lacks the levity necessary to make for an enjoyable read. Worse yet, the main players never convincingly explain why they’ve so fervently chosen one side over the other. Where is Iron Man’s explanation of why he supports the Superhuman Registration Act? We learn in the end that Tony Stark, Reed Richards, and Hank Pym have developed a long-term plan for a safer world, but why does that all happen off-screen? Both sides of the issue only superficially argue their cases, but to make the animosity in “Civil War” work the book needed to present something more compelling than scenes like this:
Iron-Man: “Becoming public employees makes perfect sense if it helps people sleep a little easier.”
Falcon: “I can’t believe I’m hearing this. The masks are a tradition. We can’t just let them turn us into super cops.”
If heroes are going to go into battle with their closest friends, Millar needed to dig deeper than he does in “Civil War” for readers to understand why these beloved characters are going to such extremes. At one point, when Iron-Man offers an olive branch to explain his side to Captain America, Cap blindsides his former teammate and send his supporters in swinging. But why? I know it makes for more a more exciting read, but why wouldn’t Cap at least hear out one of his oldest friends? This would have been the perfect point for Millar to use these two characters to clearly illustrate what is driving them. The resulting fight leads to the death of one of Cap’s supporters.
All hell breaks loose in the first chapter of “Civil War” when the super team the New Warriors cause the deaths of over 900 people while filming a reality television program. The public outcry grows fast and furious as sentiment for the superhero community plummets. Congress rushes the Superhuman Registration Act into law and Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., Maria Hill, orders Captain America to bring in any hero who isn’t willing to register with the agency. Cap, not having any of it, goes underground and two factions of heroes are created as Iron-Man and team begin establishing a government regulated program, called the Initiative, to train superheroes in all fifty states.
There are twists along the way as heroes reveal themselves to the world and other heroes change sides when confronted with the harsh realities of this fractured Marvel U. The best, most authentic, subplot of “Civil War” involves the marital strains felt by Sue and Reed Richards. Reed is consumed with the Initiative, but Sue grows ashamed with the lengths that her husband has gone to win the battle. In a two-page sequence Sue writes a letter to Reed in which she explains that she has had enough. Artist Steve McNiven captures Sue’s conflicted emotional state as we go from domestic scene to domestic scene before Sue and her brother Johnny leave their life at the Baxter Building.
Where “Civil War” finds its greatest success is with the art team of McNiven and colorist Morty Hollowell. Books like “Civil War”, which feature an enormous cast of heroes, need an artist like McNiven who is capable of drawing every character Millar throws into the mix. The artist is also an expert at translating the Hollywood blockbuster sensibility of Millar’s script onto the page. Cap escaping from S.H.I.E.L.D. agents by hanging atop a moving jet is one of McNiven’s most memorable images. Hollowell enhances McNiven’s illustrations with realistic fleshtones and gorgeous shading on the costumes of every character to give them the proper depth. Again, the Cap versus S.H.E.I.L.D. sequence is so striking because Hollowell employs deep reds and blues, with white used sparingly, to convey the dark corner America is turning in Cap’s eyes.
It is the “resurrection” of a hero who was dead at the time “Civil War” was published that feels totally out of place. Tony, Reed and Hank have cloned a former ally of theirs, and presumably a friend, to help them in their battle against Cap and his crew. It doesn’t seem in character, forget that it’s immensely cruel, that these men would use the memory of their fallen comrade this way.
Though it isn’t frequent enough, Millar does infuse some much-needed humor into “Civil War”. When a S.H.I.E.L.D. pilot is caught off guard by Cap, the pilot yells “Jeezus!” Cap responds, “Keep flying son… and watch that potty mouth!” After Spider-Man reveals himself to the world on national television, we cut to the desk of Daily Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson who has fallen to the floor. After Sue Storm attempts to enlist Namor’s assistance in the final battle against Iron Man, Namor describes that she and he share a “unique relationship.” When Sue denies any feelings for the prince of Atlantis, Namor responds, “I can feel your heartbeat through the water Mrs. Richards… and it tells a very different story from the lies upon your lips.” Millar has a spectacular sense of humor, and he appears to like writing these characters, but “Civil War” would have benefitted from more than a smattering of scenes like these.
Millar has created a believable and fascinating story in “Civil War”. Unfortunately, it just isn’t executed well and, in the end, we’re left with nobody to root for. Sure, the words “civil” and “war” suggest that the book will not be a feel-good event, but that doesn’t mean the book is required to be utterly grim. If there’s anything Marvel readers have learned from a lifetime of reading stories featuring characters like Spider-Man, Wolverine, the Wasp, the Thing, the Human Torch, and She-Hulk: there’s always room for some joy to help get us through the misery.
Written by: Mark Millar
Art: Steve McNiven
Inks: Dexter Vines, Mark Morales, Steve McNiven, John Dell, Tim Townsend
Colors: Morry Hollowell
Letters: Chris Eliopoulos
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Original Publication Date: July 2006
Pages: 512 pages