Civil War: The Comics, The MCU, and The War on Terror

by John Faust

First, I should mention that Mark Millar’s Civil War arc is my favorite storyline in all of comics. It is masterfully told and ahead of its time on so many levels. Although it was very cool to see the heroes comic book nerds grew up with duke it out in the bold realistic art style,the true genius of Civil War is that it tackles real social and political questions in an easily digestible and subversive way. Furthermore, it mirrors many of the issues currently facing America. Regarding the arc, Mark Millar said, “I opted instead for making the superhero dilemma something a little different. People thought they were dangerous, but they did not want a ban. What they wanted was superheroes paid by the federal government like cops and open to the same kind of scrutiny. It was the perfect solution and nobody, as far as I’m aware, has done this before.”

Image: Marvel

In the comics, Civil War takes place in a world where superheroes are commonplace. Some are open about their identities while others prefer to keep them secret. Public sentiment is already divided on the problem of super vigilantes and their accountability. People know that superheroes save the world on a regular basis, but the heroes are never held accountable for the destruction their fights cause. The government’s answer to the superhero paradox is a bill called the Superhuman Registration Act (SHRA). It requires anyone with superhuman abilities to unmask and register with the government as a “human of mass destruction” and become professional heroes. The HMDs will be given proper training and a salary and benefits as well as a SHIELD handler they are accountable to. Yet when the bill is first introduced it does not seem like it will pass, until the New Mutants incident.

The New Mutants incident begins with a superhero group known as the New Warriors.They are a younger group of heroes who don’t have the money to independently fund their super group, so they have the idea to pitch themselves with a reality TV show. Cameras follow the young hip heroes around in their adventures. And in order to raise ratings, the New Warriors decide to try to take down a group of very powerful villains living just outside Samford, Connecticut on the edge of a residential neighborhood. One of these villains is named Nitro and has the mutant ability to explode like a nuclear bomb. During the fight, Nitro escapes and a chase begins that results in Nitro being cornered near an elementary school and exploding on live television. This is the straw that breaks the camel’s back for the public, and the SHRA is passed almost unanimously in an emergency congressional session within days of the tragedy.

In Captain America: Civil War, the Sacovia Accords are signed after the Avengers botch an operation in the first scene of the movie. Frank Grillo (Crossbones in the comics) returned to exact his revenge on Cap for his defeat in the previous movie. After a pretty awesome fight scene, Grillo is cornered in a crowded market and detonates a suicide vest. Scarlett Witch is able to delay the explosion and throw Grillo into the air, but the explosion still detonates and destroys half of a hotel. It is in the wake of this tragedy that the Accords pass: they state that the Avengers should become a government strike team which only may act when sent by the UN.

The Accords and the Registration Act are similar in that both are hastily passed legislation giving the government sweeping powers over the lives of superheroes. In both stories, Captain America and Iron man are divided on the legislation for the same reasons. Cap refuses to sign because he feels that the decision to be a hero should be made by the hero and not the government. But Tony Stark sees the legislation as a necessity to win back the trust of the people, as well as put heroes in check. He feels that heroes must accept boundaries and limitations or they become no better than the villains they fight. The two viewpoints ask deep and important questions about our relationship with government and its role in our lives. I am absolutely floored that the writers of each version did such a fantastic job of showing both sides of the argument without making either viewpoint wrong or evil.

However, one of the great advantages of the comic version of the Civil War story is that we can see inside the thoughts of the characters. In the comics, Cap takes a stand based on civil liberties and what he sees as the proper role of government. To him, the rights of super powered people are being infringed. They aren’t given the choice to sign up to be soldiers–they must, or they will be hunted down and jailed in a special prison. The special prison, called Project 42, is actually in a separate dimension and outside all jurisdiction. It is an interesting side note that this secret prison bears striking similarities to Guantanamo Bay, where prisoners are sent and kept without trial for an indeterminate amount of time. Civil War thus contains commentary on the global war on terror: it forces readers to ask themselves if the government should have the power to keep secret prisons which hold people without trial, for the sake of security. The prison actually becomes a major plot point in the story and a rallying cry for Captain America to his powered colleagues.

On the other hand, the Tony Stark of the comics is the former Secretary of Defense, and he uses his political ties to be an advocate for powered people in government. Even though he believes that the Registration Act is an inevitability, he fights the bill politically as long as he can. Tony foresees that many heroes rejecting the Act and begins to make plans early to get as many heroes as he can on board. He even meets with a group of all the heads of the major superhero teams to get them on board to smooth the transition. Most notably, he takes Peter Parker on as his heir and personal assistant. Spider-Man is one of the most respected masked heroes among heroes, and his comic book history is full of villains discovering his identity and attacking his loved ones. After the New Mutants Incident, Tony and Peter both unmask and share their stories to the press in Washington DC, revealing their identities to the world. They want to give human faces to heroes in the eyes of the people and show that they are just like everyone else.

Many of the problems the heroes face in the stories are astonishingly identical to problems in America. In the comics and the movie, a national tragedy serves as the inciting incident for the plot. Similarly, in 2006, the scars of the 9/11 terrorist attacks (much like the tragedies in the comics and movie) were still fresh in the world’s psyche, and the media was beginning to show it. The success of the Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies and X-Men 2 signaled to studios that the masses were ready for superhero movies. The hope, bright colors, and heroism seemed to strike a nerve with audiences. And they paved the way for the superhero movie renaissance and box office smashing films of today.

Also in 2006, nationalism was dialed up to 11 across the US. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were in full swing and American flags were everywhere. Commercials were telling us to buy cars so that the terrorist wouldn’t win. US Representatives Bob Ney and Walter B. Jones directed the House cafeterias to call French fries “freedom fries.” Reactionary legislation like The Patriot Act was being passed without much thought to its long-term effects. There were many debates over constitutionality, liberties, and freedoms, but to directly criticize many of these policies was seen by the public as un-American.

It is said that art imitates life, and Marvel comics has a long history of tackling difficult social issues. Civil War’s SHRA has direct parallels to the Patriot Act. The “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act” is better known by its far more marketable name, the Patriot Act. It was also passed in reaction to a national tragedy and gave the government sweeping powers in the name of safety. The 342 page Act was brought to the House floor on September 23rd 2001 and passed the next morning; it passed the Senate the day after that. The Act gave the government power to invade the privacy of its citizens in the name of security. These powers later became the basis and justification for the NSA to collect data on every American. Some of them include “sneak and peek” warrants which allow the FBI to search your property without informing you until after the search is complete and issue general warrants without a judge’s authorization. The 4th amendment to the Constitution guarantees the right of privacy against unlawful search and seizure. A warrant from a judge is the check on government power to be sure that there is a good reason for a search. Without the requirement of a judge’s signature, the government can search anyone for anything they deem necessary. It is difficult to believe that Captain America would agree with any of these.

Both versions of Civil War encourage people to ask where the line should be between security and freedom. Even though it is incredible to have all of these heroes together at once, the story truly differentiates itself by asking difficult and complex questions of its readers, many of whom had never considered where the line should be drawn between security and freedom, or what the proper role of government should be in our lives. Making comic book readers think about society and politics is one of the major reasons why Civil War has gone down as one of the greatest comic book storylines of all time. The story takes two beloved heroes and gives them real motives with valid points of view; it presents two sides to a complex problem without trying to sway people to one side or the other. That is why I love Marvel’s Civil War.