The way Marvel keeps jamming superheroes into the third Captain America movie, the more it sounds like it’s going to be Avengers 2.5, with the twist being that the Avengers are taking sides against each other. Everyone loves seeing their favorite heroes take each other on, but the original Civil War storyline is so inherently problematic that I’m genuinely afraid there may be dire consequences well beyond the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The problem begins with the Civil War comic storyline itself which—while quite the success for Marvel in 2006—was in fact terrible. This cross-title saga begins when the New Warriors, a group of less-than-super superheroes, tries to apprehend the villain Nitro in Stamford, Connecticut, during their live reality show. Nitro uses his exploding powers, leading to the highly publicized deaths of 600, 60 of them children. (We can discuss the nonchalant murder of children as a mere narrative hook in a mainstream superhero comic at some later date.)
As a result of this tragedy, and the destruction wrought by other superhero battles, the U.S. government decides those with superpowers are too dangerous to be allowed to run around loose. It creates the Superhuman Registration Act (SHRA), which orders everyone with superpowers or equivalent tech (like Iron Man’s armor) to reveal their identities and their powers to a federal database. The short version of what happens next is that Iron Man believes the government oversight of the SHRA will help keep inexperienced heroes from accidentally harming people. But Captain America believes that forcing heroes to reveal their true identities will enable supervillains to threaten and harm their loved ones, which is the primary reason heroes keep their identities hidden in the first place.
Both Iron Man and Cap have noble reasons for their positions when they are put like that, but it’s also where Civil War goes completely off the rails. Because while the two Avengers have presented their sides in the noblest view possible, it only takes a moment’s thought to realize this is utterly ridiculous.
For instance, the Superhuman Registration Act is not the world’s worst idea. We regulate cars, guns (kind of), and other potentially fatal things; in this regard, regulating superpowers is an extremely reasonable idea. Comic book superheroes are almost entirely vigilantes who work outside the law, which is actually a crime. By registering with a government agency, their work could actually be sanctioned! They could save the day legally! In many regards, the Superhuman Registration Act would be a major step up for superheroes!
And while Cap’s concern about loved ones being exposed to reprisal from vengeful supervillains is absolutely valid, it’s not exactly a dealbreaker. There are options that could be discussed—first and most easily by not releasing the names of registered heroes to the public. No one says registration means someone gets in a car with a bullhorn and drives around town, announcing everyone’s secret idenitities. Of course, there’s always a danger that the information will leak, but that can be mitigated too. Perhaps the loved ones can enter the Witness Protection Agency. Maybe they can be guarded by other selected heroes. Maybe Iron Man and Mr. Fantastic can devise an emergency MedicAlert bracelet that shields them in an impenetrable ball of energy.
What I’m saying is that while the Superhuman Registration Act has dangers, there are definitely potential solutions that could be discussed and explored. But Captain America’s solution is to go on the lam and start beating the crap out of superheroes who disagree with him. I don’t think it’s crazy to say this seems somewhat out of character for Cap.
Yet Iron Man is somehow even more out of character. Iron Man has always enjoyed his autonomy, mainly thanks to being a rich genius. He is beholden to no one, and his resources have let the Avengers also remain independent through the years. In Civil War, he suddenly decides forcing all superheroes to register with the government, whether they want to not, is the Right Thing to Do. Based on his 50-plus-year career as a superhero, I would think that if Tony Stark chose a side on the issue at all—and I actually don’t think he would—he would come down on the anti-registration side, but whatever.
But Iron Man isn’t just pro-registration in the Civil War comics, he’s insanely pro-registration—to the point where he and his fellow SHRA supporters stop fighting supervillains to hunt down the superheroes who disagree with them. Iron Man is the one who first ambushes Cap and his side during a supposed truce, leading to an all-out brawl between the heroes. And as if that wasn’t crazy enough, Iron Man loves the SHRA so damn much that he’s willing to make a secret clone of his ostensible friend Thor, pretend it’s the real Thor who’s on his side, and this Thor clone murders the anti-reg superhero Goliath. And rather than freak out that one of his former friends and teammates has been killed, Iron Man instead doubles down on his madness. He begins hunting anti-registration heroes like Sentinels hunt mutants, has Mr. Fantastic create a prison just for heroes in the Negative Zone, and secretly plans ways to defeat even his pro-registration superhero allies, in the off-chance they change their mind and start disagreeing with his point of view.
Even though their stated motives for their beliefs are valid, so is this: Iron Man is a fascist, and Captain America is fighting for his right to illegally beat people up. Period. The comic saga is supposed to be about heroes fighting each other, but to set up the conflict, it turns them both into villains. This isn’t a matter of seeing both of their points of view, and trying to decide the greater good; it’s a battle to see which group of superpowered assholes you once liked comes out on top.
This is the story that the Captain America: Civil War takes its title from, and, according to all rumors and reports, its plot as well. Already we’ve seen the art of Captain America’s team and Iron Man’s team, and the art above shows them about to battle each other. So what issue could possibly have torn them apart? What are they fighting each other for?
I hope that Marvel has found a less problematic idea than the Superhuman Registration Act, because I think the aforementioned problems are inherent to the storyline as it stands, and I don’t want to see Chris Evans punching good guys for his right to punch anyone, and I don’t want to see Iron Man willing to kill his friends and teammates for the establishment. What was problematic in the comics was balanced by the fact that it was just a minuscule portion of their massive comics histories; in the much briefer Marvel Cinematic Universe, seeing these two beloved heroes turn into lunatics and assholes could be disastrous. This is especially true for mass audiences. Seeing their beloved Robert Downey Jr. have a “heel turn” for such an unlikely, unworthy reason could genuinely turn people off the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
And for what? Over the right for superheroes to keep their names secret? As had been pointed out by many people, by the time Civil War comes out, there will be 11 heroes in the MCU: Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Black Widow, Hawkeye, the Falcon, Black Panther, War Machine, the Vision, the Winter Soldier and Spider-Man. At minimum, the government knows the identities of nine of them already (since Thor and the Vision have no secret identities) and this assumes that neither Cap nor Black Widow have revealed the Winter Soldier’s identity to others (which I think is unlikely, but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt). There are only two superheroes in the MCU whose identities will be presumably unknown in Civil War: Spider-Man and Black Panther.
Are Captain America and Iron Man really going to put aside the friendship and trust they’ve developed over the MCU so far solely over Spidey and Black Panther? That’s awful. And yet, I can’t imagine what other issue will pit the two heroes against each other. Besides, Marvel has been happily adapting comic stories into streamlined versions for their movies, e.g. the Extremis storyline and Iron Man 3, The Winter Soldier, Walt Simonson’s ‘80s work and Thor: The Dark World, etc. It stands to reason that they’re doing the same thing for Civil War, rather than generating an entire new reason to tear these heroes apart.
Even if Marvel merely shifts the story so Captain America is pro-registration and Iron Man against, it would make a lot more sense. Captain America ends Avengers: Age of Ultron with a new, semi-sanctioned team consisting of Black Widow, Hawkeye, Falcon, War Machine and the Vision; meanwhile, Iron Man has separated from the team. It would be far more consistent for Cap, always concerned with dangers to civilians, to want to regulate the superpowered people who keep popping up, while it seems much more reasonable for Tony Stark to put the independence of the individual over the safety of the many. But even then, what about this issue causes the non-identity-having, non-human Vision to pick a side? Why does the Winter Soldier give enough of a shit about any of them to fight with Cap? What would difference of opinion would possibly force Black Widow and Hawkeye into actually coming to blows?
But honestly, what would make any of these heroes think that coming to blows is the only solution to a problem? Why would they ever decide that physically harming their fellow heroes, teammates and actual friends is better than just sitting down and discussing the problem? What issue could ever make them think that they felt forced to potentially kill the people they literally saved the world alongside?
I sincerely hope Marvel Studios has a good answer to these questions. Because the answer in the Civil War comics certainly wasn’t.
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