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Thursday, August 6, 2015

Panel Vision - Civil War

Edited by Robert Beach

Captain America: Civil War looks to have an increasingly insurmountable task placed before it. At first, the question for Cap 3 was merely whether or not it could maintain a solid box office in the wake of Avengers 2. Then the question became about whether or not Captain America could suitably stand-up to Batman and Superman. Next, came the reveal that they were adapting Civil War and the question became about maintaining focus on Captain America in a film with a ballooning roster as well as whether or not audiences actually want to see Marvel superheroes fight each other instead of the bad guys. 

Now the big question looming over Captain America: Civil War is whether or not it can win back the Marvel fans put off by the instability of Age of Ultron while managing all the other issues floating around the film. More and more this third installment has become a sort of herculean task for Marvel and Captain America in general, but no one’s really touched on my central question for the film: how will it manage to adapt a comic that’s aged incredibly poorly? 

Civil War was a Marvel comics event series in 2006 that helped cement the companies new direction after major events like Disassembled and House of M.  Written by Mark Millar, the event was kicked off when a superhero team attacked a small band of super villains as a stunt for their reality show.  Things got out of hand as an elementary school ended up being blown to pieces with a lot of major civilian casualties. In the wake of the disaster, the US Government passes the Super Human Registration Act demanding all superheroes register their identity with the government and become official employees of the government. 

Obviously this doesn’t sit well with a lot of key figures, most predominately Captain America who leads a group of heroes opposing the act to go underground. The comic never really becomes the full-blown war of the title but there were a lot of key scenes of heroes fighting heroes that Marvel found so lucrative informed a whole slew of future comics for them. For the most part, the story is decently written with Cap’s scrappy rebels emphasizing helping people and fighting villains while Iron Man and S.H.I.E.L.D.’s cape killer squads hunt them down. 

The overall coding of the comic seemed to come down heavily against the pro-registration forces as they engaged in the most amoral behavior.  Over the course of the comic, Iron Man conscripted super villains to hunt down his friends, cloned Thor to have a major hero to fight for him, and created artificial powers for a team of celebrity superheroes; additionally, he worsened relations with Atlantis to cause a national foreign policy crisis and even built an extra-dimensional prison to house his friends and colleagues in. 

What’s more, the actual goals of the registration team always seemed severely suspect as heroes would suddenly be placed under the command of bureaucratic authority, forced to go wherever they were ordered regardless of personal lives or the amount of crime in their assigned sector. Additionally, if any hero refused to act as a peace-keeping operative under the initiative, they would have their powers dampened or removed; it was clear the registration side was in the wrong and evil.  Here’s the big problem: they weren’t meant to be. 

Civil War actually ends with the pro-registration heroes winning the day and author Mark Millar has stated on multiple occasions he intended them to be the heroes of the story all along. I’m not sure whether this was just Millar trolling his audience or he just genuinely didn’t understand how monstrous the registration side was, but either way, it taints the entire comic series. On the one hand. the allegorical metaphor of the entire series starts to break down under this new direction. Suddenly. the subtext is less focused on the legitimate debate of freedom vs. security and more zeroed in on ends and means. 

Having the pro-registration side as heroes is a tacit endorsement of their methods, and their methods fall decidedly in the school of thought that the ends should justify the means. The whole point of the story becomes that the government should take any means necessary in order to build itself a super-powered army rather than an actual commentary about the sacrifices made for the sides of freedom or security. 

Worst of all, it highlights a very ugly core belief at the center of the story, made even worse by the shifting landscape of today’s politics. Making the pro-registration side the heroes casts the comic as naturally siding with official authority rather than community activism, basically we’re meant to sympathize with the soulless face of government authority. That’d be a poor focus at any given time but given the last 12 months worth of very public police misconduct; it couldn’t be a worse time to ask an audience to look the other way on government peace keepers taking shady and amoral actions. 

The pinnacle of this is around issue 4 where the hero Black Goliath is brutally murdered by Tony Stark’s Thor clone. That’d be a bad enough visual on its own, yet the comic goes on to try and rationalize this action by describing it as just like “A police officer firing his gun.” Civil War casting the pro-registration side as the heroes of the conflict forces the comic into explicitly siding with police over people. 

The good news is that most of this probably can be avoided for the upcoming film. Though superhero registration seems to be an impending plot point, the issues seem more global than American, and the question of secret identities has been excised completely. A lot of the key, awful elements like working with villains or cloning Thor wouldn’t really work in the current Marvel cinematic continuity, so it’s unlikely we’ll see parallels to them show up here. I just hope that even if Marvel is dedicated to retelling this story in cinematic format they’re smart enough to clean-up the many elements that don’t work, much like they did with Age of Ultron.   

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