We couldn’t be more excited for Captain America: Civil War to finally come to theaters next week, but we also couldn’t be less enthused with its source material. The comic event was epic, but it was also a mess, where Iron Man inexplicably became a supervillianous asshole. Here’s a guide to Marvel’s original Civil War that shows why we’re glad to see the movie seems to only be taking its name, and little else.
The Superhero Registration Act
When 2006's Civil War begins—first with a seven issue main series, but eventually spinning out into 13 Civil War spinoff series, and numerous tie ins in Marvel’s ongoing titles—the U.S. government is already considering mandating superheroes to reveal their identities to them and become Federal employees, in the wake of an increase in anti-hero sentiment. Heroes including Iron Man and Spider-Man head to Washington to delay such an act being passed, but an assassination attempt on Tony only serves to highlight the importance of the act, although it’s revealed to the reader that Tony planned the assassination attempt, as he’s actually hugely-pro Registration. Thus begins Tony’s maddeningly quick descent into assholery.
SHIELD makes the mistake of asking Steve Rogers to be the public face of the act, and to be the one that takes down any dissenters and brings them in. Naturally, Steve is horrified and refuses, leading the President of the United States himself to declare Captain America an enemy of the state—forcing him to go underground.
But neither of these acts ultimately ends up as the driving factor behind the act’s passing: instead, it’s the then-relatively unknown superhero team known as the New Warriors (in fact they’re still only really known for kicking off Civil War). A group of young mutants taking part in a behind-the-scenes reality show, the Warriors pick a fight with a group of supervillains in Stamford, Connecticut, to create interesting drama for their show. They get plenty of drama when one of the villains, Nitro, uses his explosive powers to level a section of the town, killing 600 civilians.
Only Nitro and one of the New Warriors, Speedball, (who, traumatized by the events, takes on the hilariously edgy mantle of Penance after learning his powers have been warped by the blast and are now activated by self-inflicted pain, and makes himself a suit with internal spikes to gouge himself) are the only survivors. Less than a week later, the Super Hero Registration Act (SHRA) is born.
Tony Stark Assholishness Level: Kind of an asshole
In the early days of the act, SHRA-fan Tony Stark becomes SHIELD’s face of the program, which doesn’t actually require heroes to publicly reveal their identities, but does force them to confirm their real identities with SHIELD and become salaried government agents. Even then, many disagree, until Tony plays his first major trump card: getting Peter Parker to publicly unveil that he is Spider-Man on national television. As his reward, Tony builds Peter the “Iron Spider” costume.
Fun fact: this immediately goes horribly badly for Peter, who is fired from the Daily Bugle, and forced to bring Aunt May and Mary Jane Watson into protective custody to avoid retaliatory attacks by Spider-Man’s litany of villains (which would eventually later culminate in Peter signing a deal with the honest to god devil Mephisto to wipe out his unmasking, thus erasing his marriage to Mary Jane, but that’s a whole other story).
Spider-Man’s public unveiling sparks the first big wave of sides being taken in the conflict— more heroes choose to register, while just as many begin to form a resistance with Captain America as its leader.
Tony Stark Assholishness Level: An honest to god asshole, but a popular one
The earliest days of the conflict saw the two sides rarely encountering each other. Tony attempts to hunt down renegades, while Cap’s heroes practice vigilante justice from the shadows. Even as larger teams like the X-Men announce their neutrality in the war, both sides are large enough that a skirmish between the heroes was inevitable: The first major tussle between Captain America’s Secret Avengers and Iron Man’s Pro-Registration team arrives soon after, when Cap stages an ambush during a meeting between himself and Tony.
The conflict is evenly matched until, out of nowhere, Thor appears from the skies, declaring himself for Tony’s cause—a complete shock to almost every hero involved in the battle, as Thor had been MIA for several months after his battle to prevent the apocalyptic Asgardian event of Ragnarok from occurring. Even more shocking? Thor straight up murders a hero. He punches a giant hole through the chest of the size-changing hero Goliath, instantly killing him, and causing Cap’s team to fall back in defeat.
The reason Thor sides with Tony and is suddenly murderous? It’s not actually Thor, but a completely unauthorized Thor clone created by Tony and Reed Richards out of a piece of hair taken from the very first meeting of the Avengers. The violence was an “unintended” aspect of Tony’s “experiment,” because “of course it was.” (After Civil War, the real Thor kicks the shit out of Tony for doing this, and rightly so.)
Tony Stark Assholishness Level: Massive asshole
Enter the Negative Zone
Despite being a relatively lesser-known hero, Goliath’s death has a huge impact on both sides of Civil War. Big heroes like Spider-Man and Sue Storm begin questioning their faith in Tony Stark, while several heroes abandon Cap’s cause out of fear and register. The Fantastic Four is hit particularly badly, as Sue and Johnny abandoning Reed for Cap’s side while the Thing leaves the country, unwilling to pick a side.
Tony doesn’t really care that he’s bleeding support, though, as he and SHIELD unveil their ultimate plan to crack down on dissent: a superhero prison built in the alternate dimension of the Negative Zone, designed by head honchos of dickery Tony and Reed. On top of that, to balance out the fact that he’s putting more and more heroes in chains, Tony and SHIELD begin recruiting actual supervillains to form the Thunderbolts, a team devoted to hunting down the renegade heroes.
Suspecting Spider-Man’s wavering faith to his cause after Peter refuses to bring in Captain America during an ambush, Tony takes him on a tour of this horrifying prison, exposing the horrendous conditions in which Tony is keeping his former comrades. After learning that Tony has also been using bugs planted in the Iron Spider suit to listen in on his private conversations for shits and giggles, Spider-Man finally decides that enough is enough. After a brief fight between the pair, a heavily wounded Spider-Man is brought to Cap’s secret base by the Punisher who promptly joins Cap’s Secret Avengers, and then is immediately kicked out when he guns down two of Tony’s Thunderbolts who are attempting to defect to Cap’s side.
Tony Stark Assholishness Level: Jesus Christ Tony what the hell
The Final Battle
With Spider-Man joining his team, Steve plans one final assault on Tony’s Negative Zone prison to liberate its detainees, knowing full well that one of his Avengers is secretly a double agent for Tony Stark, and will leak plans of the attack to him (spoilers: it’s Tigra). Steve plans his own double-cross by getting the shapeshifting young Avenger Hulkling to kidnap and replace Hank Pym, giving Cap his own double agent for the battle.
Cap and his Avengers invade the prison, and Tigra betrays them, bringing Tony and his forces to ambush them while Hulkling/Pym secretly liberates the captured anti-registration heroes. A humongous battle breaks out—and back on Earth, SHIELD’s Maria Hill decides she’s sick of superheroes in general, and starts to destroy the gateways to the Negative Zone and just trap both sides in an alternate dimension. Cloak (soon to star alongside longtime partner Dagger in their own TV show!) uses his powers of teleportation to dump the warring heroes above Manhattan, letting them reign down like human-shaped raindrops.
With the help of the Vision, Cap has Tony on the ropes, and just as he’s about to land the final blow and claim victory... he’s swarmed in an almost hilariously patriotic manner by members of New York’s emergency services, leading Cap to look around and realize that the battle has left Manhattan in tatters. Shocked that he’s forgotten what he was fighting for, he immediately orders the combined heroes to stand down and turns himself in while the anti-registration team scatters into the wind.
Just to make matters unnecessarily worse, weeks later while in custody Cap is gunned down by longtime foe Crossbones (and finished off by a brainwashed Sharon Carter to boot):
Oh dear. Don’t worry, though, it’s comics—Cap gets better because the bullets sent him through time and space.
Tony Stark Assholishness Level: Smug asshole
Suffice to say, Civil War was kind of a mess. Tony Stark, for all intents and purposes, essentially became a supervillain for little reason than to have the two heroes fight each other, repeatedly making horrendous, unconscionable decisions along the way. Even those on the side of Captain America were at times painted as rogues fighting for the sake of their rights to beat people up rather than protecting their right to privacy. It’s convoluted and contrived as an excuse to watch allies punch each other in the face at best, at its worst, character-assassinating incoherence.
But even with its end, the event had a huge impact on the Marvel universe. Beyond the death of Steve Rogers, the SHRA went into full effect, mandating individual teams for every state, including a new Avengers group lead by Iron Man and Ms. Marvel in New York. The Fantastic Four were split apart, leading to Storm and Black Panther taking the place of Reed and Sue Richards. And many prominent heroes go on the run as part of the Secret Avengers.
Its legacy as one of Marvel’s biggest crossover events has lingered well beyond Steve’s eventual return a few years later, to the point that we’re getting a spiritual sequel in the comics soon, this time featuring Tony Stark facing off against Captain Marvel over whether heroes should be allowed to stop criminals before they commit crimes. Hopefully Tony won’t be quite as much as asshole in this one—or in the movie.