Pros: hero-on-hero violence, spy stuff, some good-looking art, thought-provoking themes
Cons: themes poorly handled, weak characterization, not the whole story, stoopid ending
Let's be clear: as a civilian, life in the Marvel Universe can be pretty crappy. Sure, you get lots of amazing technology being invented by smartypants like Tony Stark and Reed Richards that make that iPad look like an abacus (suck it, Jobs!). Spider-Man and Daredevil are around to stop you getting mugged, and it's got to be inspiring seeing Captain America throwing his shield, or Thor soaring across the sky. But you've got to weigh that against the fact that costumed superpowered maniacs are always plotting to take over or destroy the world, taking hostages, robbing banks – and the good costumed superpowered weirdos stop them by trashing prime real estate, mindwiping cities, or altering reality or the past or whatever. There are mutants walking around that can read your thoughts, or kill you by looking at you hard, and they can look just like you or me. And every couple of months there'll be an alien invasion, or the Beyonder will kidnap your suburb, or Galactus will stop by looking for a snack.
To be a civilian in the MU, in other words, is to know that you have very little control of your own life, and to have no idea who the folks are that hold your life in their hands, or whether you can trust them. That's gotta make you a little unhappy. So when some superpowered kids trying to be bigshots screw up a mission and allow a bad guy to blow up an entire neighbourhood, including a busload of kids, it's no wonder that the regular folks have had just about enough. They're mad as hell, and they just won't take it anymore, and they want someone to do something about it. That someone is the US government, and that something is the Superhero Registration Act: every masked hero must register with the government and receive training before they can operate, or else.
Of course, not everybody is keen to place their identities – and their lives – in the hands of the government. Some heroes are willing to fight to maintain their freedom and individuality. And some are willing to fight to enforce the new law and make sure that their fellows obey it. So the heroes start to line up on two sides, and declare war on their misguided fellows...
That's the plot of Civil War, one of the biggest (and best-selling) Marvel stories of all time, and it kicked off a new direction for the next half-decade or so at the House of Ideas (that's basically ended now, but the old status quo hasn't really been restored, though that's okay – five decades is a bit long to read the same recycled fights-and-fixes stories, and a change, they say, is as good as a rest). It features pretty much all of the non-cosmic heroes (they were all busy in their own series, and really, the US government has no right to try to tell the Silver Surfer what to do, and wouldn't like the consequences if it did). The Avengers, the Fantastic Four, Doctor Strange, She-Hulk, Black Panther, the Punisher, Tiggra, Daredevil, the Falcon, Nighhawk, Luke Cage, etc. - they all appear in these pages, in roles of varying importance.
But the main focus here is on three heroes, representing the heart and soul of the Marvel U. There's Tony Stark, Iron Man, leading the pro-Registration forces; Steve Rogers, Captain America, heading up the anti-Registration forces; and Peter Parker, Spider-Man, stuck in the middle, between two of his personal heroes, trying to do the right thing, like he always does (and having about as much luck with that as usual). Between them, they determine the fate of every hero in America.
Which makes it a real shame that writer Mark Millar's characterization is really at a minimum in this series. Partly, that's down to the nature of mega-crossover events – so many heroes, so little space for them all to shine. Partly that's because the dialogue is often pretty terrible, and interchangeably so, with many characters speaking with more or less the same voice. Moreover, some of the characters don't quite seem right here (and yes, different writers have different takes on individual heroes and villains, but there's still some kind of baseline that usually persists from creative team to creative team, which is why Doctor Doom never displays cowardice and J. Jonah Jameson hasn't yet declared his undying love for that friendly neighbourhood webslinger). Millar's Spidey is pretty good, I guess – confused, a little scared, but smart and decent and sort of a regular guy with a heart of gold. Iron Man, though, is just a dick. Straight up. He's brilliant and all, but he's also arrogant and obnoxious and manipulative and just not exactly dun to be around. And Captain America seems to be a little more speechy and self-righteous and angry and military than usual, and his behaviour at the very end of the story is just ridiculous. Reed Richards is a pathetic shadow of the man he should be – he tries to justify his pro-Registration stance with a story that shows it's always better to obey the law (does he not remember that his own illegal starship launch got the Fantastic Four started?).
Penciller Steve McNiven's art is pretty kewl (the inks are handled by a bunch of folks, so I'm commenting on the consistent factor here). He draws very expressive faces (even if those expressions are mostly just grim and angry) and very heroic figures, placing them in appropriate dramatic poses and awesome splash pages. He's not really good with motion, though, and that's a shame – it makes many of his scenes seem a bit lifeless, or flat and awkward. But when he does get it right, he gets it right big-time: this is especially noticeable in an early scene where Cap hands in his resignation in style (and also surfs a jet, which is ridiculous but fun).
Even More Thoughts
Nowadays Mark Millar is one of the biggest names in comicdom, especially as far as Hollywood is concerned (he's the guy who wrote the comics Kick-A$$ and Wanted were based on). He's known for his big and brash and “realistic” approach to superheroics, and for hectic action, and for espionage and intrigue and double-crossing and triple-crossing and cool technology and so on, all of which makes an appearance here. What he's not known for is subtlety.
Like I said, it's understandable that the non-superpowered folks would be quite fed up. But why this incident would be such a big deal to them, I have no idea. After all, just a few months or years before (Marvel timeline time is weird) more folks were killed in the September 11 attacks, which all those superheroes inexplicably failed to prevent (Thor or Iron Man or Doc Strange could easily have stopped those planes). Before that, Ultron – a robotic monster created by a superhero – wiped out an entire country all by his lonesome, one by one. And the Silver Surfer used to go around trashing cities just to prove a point, and he was a close friend of the most famous super-family in the world. So why is this incident the final straw?
Now as to the whole Registration thing: in our world, this is a no-brainer. If people are going to wield powers and technology far beyond those of mortal men, we'd want to know that they're going to wield them responsibly. Or at least, we'd want to be able to hold them accountable. So yes, we'd be totally pro-Reg (though we'd still want to ensure these people were pretty safe, so we might not want to trust any particular government with their secrets – some sort of UN-like body would probably have to be involved). But in the MU, these folks have been wielding their powers sort-of-responsibly for decades, and they've saved everybody's butts a million times – they're a part of life. Captain America's approval rating is off the charts, and there are already structures in place to channel their actions. So we might expect at least some nuance and proper debate about the matter, dagnabbit. But both sides put forward such ludicrous arguments for their positions in this book that it's hard to take them seriously – and one of them is really presented in a sort-of comicbook villain way (you know what I mean) and totally acts like a bunch of Nazis (with much cooler tech). Subtle stuff.
Of course, the main attraction is the fighting, the hero vs. hero fun, and there are some major punch-ups in here, where massive groups of heroes beat up on each other. There's Iron Man and Cap going mano a mano, Hercules vs. Thor (sort of), Spider-Man kicking butt. Sadly, though, the big fights aren't really all that exciting – just a panel or two per couple combatants (for good reason, sure, but still). Ah well.
One more thing: there are some parts of this book that make no sense at all. Some of it's explained in tie-in issues (the whole event ran through over 50 issues, from Black Panther to Avengers to Cable & Deadpool), some of which were actually very good indeed. Some of it's explained on Marvel messageboards and the like (but anything that needs to be explained outside of the actual story itself is, I think, a clear flaw in the writing). And some of it's never been satisfactorily explained. That's just poor storytelling. Come on, guys, you're better than that.
The Final Word
If you're a Marvel fan, or you're trying to make sense of the Marvel U in the 21st century, this is pretty much indispensable stuff. And if you like to see heroes beating up on each other, you'll find plenty of that in here. It's just not very good, though, so keep that in mind, okay?
More Marvel for your Merriment:
World War Hulk (the mean green machine beats up pretty much everybody)
Marvel Superheroes Secret Wars (the first Marvel mega-crossover)
Iron Man: Doomquest (the two top tin titans face off)
The Essential Fantastic Four (the early adventures of Marvel's First Family)
The Essential Captain America (the return of Cap - in the sixties)