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Civil War No. 7.
Civil War No. 7.

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Marvel’s Civil War and its politics, explained

Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

When Captain America: Civil War hits theaters at the end of this week, Marvel's two most American superheroes, Iron Man and Captain America, will fight.

It's a strange conflict — Iron Man, a.k.a. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), and Captain America, a.k.a. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), are both "good" guys. They're also good friends. And their battle is not about which man is stronger (Rogers) or which man is smarter (Stark). Nor is it a fight for no reason at all (as in Batman v Superman).

This fight means something — something political.

These exceptional men represent two opposite views of how America should be run. Each has very different ideas of what constitutes goodness and justice. Both think they know what's best for their country and for the world. Both think the other is wrong. And both are willing to use violence to make their point.

But ultimately, the fans will decide who the real hero and villain are.

The tension between Cap and Iron Man has been brewing throughout the past few Marvel movies, but the source material for Captain America: Civil War — a 2006 comic book crossover featuring the Avengers and other players in the Marvel universe — actually dates back 10 years or so, to a time of George W. Bush, the Patriot Act, and the early days of America's ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

There are a few elements of that original story that certainly fail the test of time, like how big of a role reality television plays in the plot. But other elements — especially those relating to politics — remain strong and relevant to the world as we know it in 2016. Here's an overview of how the original Civil War comic book arc, which initially didn't have anything to do with the Avengers, began to shape the characters we see onscreen today.

In its earliest iteration, Civil War was supposed to be an X-Men story

If you were to compress Marvel's entire comic book history into one hour, the current popularity of the Avengers would, at best, represent five minutes. The company launched its extended comic universe in 1961 with the Fantastic Four, and the characters were an instant hit with audiences — particularly the Thing and the Human Torch.

Captain America and the Hulk existed and were popular (but not as popular as the F4), but the former wasn't part of the initial Avengers lineup. Then in 1962, Spider-Man arrived on the scene and became the definitive Marvel character (a status he would maintain throughout the '80s).

But there was an important shift in the '80s with writers like Frank Miller and Alan Moore creating darker stories — a reaction to the Comics Code (the set of self-imposed morality clauses established in the '50s that spelled out what comics could and couldn't do) and the decades of earnest superhero storytelling that followed. Miller, Moore, their peers, and the many comic creators they inspired started to develop antiheroes like Wolverine, Daredevil, and the Punisher, writing the gritty, dark, and violent stories we see today in stuff like Netflix's Daredevil.

This paved the way for the X-Men, who fit the anti-hero template that would come to dominate comics in the '90s. And Mark Millar, who eventually wrote the main Civil War crossover series for Marvel, told me that his initial idea was to make Civil War about the X-Men.

At the center of the X-Men story was a story about civil rights, and at the center of that were two men — Magneto, a.k.a. Erik Lehnsherr, and Professor X, a.k.a. Charles Xavier — with hugely different views of how mutants should be treated.

Magneto was a mutant supremacist, his views forged by the horrors he witnessed during the Holocaust. Professor X believed in peace and self-defense. And this compelling contrast of philosophies, of politics, and of civil rights was the driving force that tied each issue to the next, no matter if the X-Men were time traveling or dealing with conflicts in the present day.

A civil war among the X-Men would make sense.

"I just thought, 'Wouldn't it be interesting to shift it forward a generation?'" Millar told me.

He wanted to kill off Professor X, the leader of the X-Men, and then see what would happen to the X-Men when they had to choose whom to follow. Cyclops and Wolverine would have competing philosophies, and Cyclops would end up being the villain. Millar didn't get to tell that story (though a lot of this mostly happened in the 2011 X-Men: Schism and the 2012 Avengers vs. X-Men storylines).

At the 2005 Marvel summit — a retreat for writers and editors to plan out the year ahead — someone had an idea for the company's major crossover. Millar says it was a good one, but it didn't quite fit the entire scope of the universe. This is when he brought up his idea for Civil War. The Marvel consortium (its trusted writers and editors) then batted it around and tweaked it to incorporate bigger swaths of the Marvel universe.

"I wrote, like, a 10-page synopsis for Marvel for it, and then I was out at a Marvel summit. [Marvel's editors and writers] were talking about the 2006-2007 crossover, what they were going to do," Millar said. "I think it was Jeph Loeb [who now works as a VP in Marvel's television department] who came up with that great tagline for it. He said, 'Whose side are you on?'"

The story shifted from Magneto and Professor X's fundamentally disparate ideologies about civil rights to a story about Iron Man and Captain America being at a political crossroads.

Millar and Marvel's new story saw the two dealing with a superhero disaster that results in the deaths of several children. Iron Man believes that to prevent another such disaster in the future, the government should adhere to a superhero registration act to train future heroes, while Captain America believes heroes should be as free as the country they protect.

And with that, Marvel turned Millar's story from an age-old conflict between Magneto and Professor X into a new fight between Iron Man and Captain America. Just like the philosophical conflict between Magneto and Professor X enriched both their stories, Civil War further defined and divided Iron Man and Captain America's ideas of heroism and, more importantly, gave the two something to fight about.

Civil War was, for better or worse, a reflection of what we worried about in 2006

When you look at Millar's catalog of work, it's the violent, R-rated stuff that grew popular. He regularly experimented with deconstructing the idea of a superhero in those works. But there's something just as central to Millar's writing as shock and violence: his fondness for immediacy.

Millar isn't concerned with writing timeless pieces. He's writing comic books that are meant to be consumed right away.

His work is unapologetically, at times eloquently, and sometimes unintentionally a product of the time in which it was written. For example, Huck, which came out in 2015, was surprisingly lighthearted and earnest — a reflection of the grim superhero movies of the previous couple of years. Jupiter's Circle, a nostalgic, Mad Men–like superhero period piece, came out the month before Mad Men ended. And Empress, which was released this year, is a hopeful space opera that's not unlike Star Wars.

But it isn't just general feelings that Millar is trying to capture. He's also folding in cultural references.

"Comic books [are] very, very immediate — someone writes a comic and draws a comic, and it's out a few months later," he told me. "I think we tap into what's going on in the world a little better than any other medium. But nothing dates faster than a comic that's on the money."

What actually triggers the Civil War story arc is a folly of comics being so immediate. During the filming of a reality television show, a group of C-list superheroes called the New Warriors try to nab some bad guys, thinking it'd be good for ratings. And in the process, a villain named Nitro blows up kids at a school:

Civil War No. 1. (Marvel)

The time period represented here is the height of reality television. Remember, we were crowning pop stars, holding amazing races, and watching survivors duke it out on desert islands in 2006. It'd only be sensible that in Marvel's comic book universe, superheroes would find their way onto reality TV too.

Now that we've largely fallen out love with reality television (RIP, American Idol), the original trigger for Civil War feels a bit dated. But there's something brilliant that Millar and artist Steve McNiven do. Many of the panels in the first issue are us watching characters on screens — television and surveillance video — that are interchangeable. Reality television, national television broadcasts, and security video all look the same, and though our heroes don't know who's watching they know someone always is.

Civil War No. 1. (Marvel)

It's a nifty, smirky nod to something that's much more timeless (see: the National Security Agency) than reality television: the Patriot Act.

How George W. Bush complicated the politics of Civil War

Millar began coming up with his original storyline (X-Men and all) for Civil War in 2004, smack dab in the middle of George W. Bush's presidency. The country was still reeling from 9/11, was three years into the Patriot Act, had just invaded Iraq, and was knee-deep in the war in Afghanistan. Millar, who's Scottish and self-identifies as a left-wing European, was thinking about all these things when he plotted the story.

"It just seemed very odd to me that suddenly people didn't like the president," he said. "The country felt uneasy — like, when I would visit the States, it didn't feel like a metropolis that I had in my head when I was living in Scotland. At the same time you had the economy starting to tank and everything as well, you know, the country just didn't seem like it was a good place, and Civil War, I guess, was my superhero version of that."

Tony Stark/Iron Man and Steve Rogers/Captain America represent two different options for making this world better. The former represents government regulation. In the wake of kids dying because heroes couldn't stop supervillains from blowing up their school, a mother who lost her son presents an argument to Stark that he ultimately comes to agree with: Policemen are trained and held accountable for their actions, and superheroes should be too:

Civil War No. 1. (Marvel)

On the other side, Rogers believes that government regulation of superheroes would encroach on their civil liberties. Superheroes, some of whom are super because of reasons beyond their control, would be treated like outlaws or potential terrorists just because they have powers.

Rogers is also wary of fighting the government's battles. And to his credit, Maria Hill, the acting commander of S.H.I.E.L.D., the arm of the government that the heroes would be reporting to, proves his point — she and S.H.I.E.L.D. attempt to arrest him when he won't comply with the Registration Act:

Civil War No. 1. (Marvel)

The politics and allegory here are undeniable — even more so when you look back at this comic in present day, when our real-life political parties are as polarized as ever and topics like gun control, police brutality, and civil liberties are at the forefront of the national conversation.

Stark sounds like a moderate to liberal rich Democrat pushing for regulation. Meanwhile, Rogers is a staunch libertarian who doesn't want any government intrusion on his rights. And the comic forces you to pick which side is right.

For some, that may be a feeling of which hero they like better. But because of the comic's political parallels, there was always an inclination to analyze the comic based on real-life policy.

Vox editor in chief Ezra Klein argued at the Washington Post in 2010 that it's impossible to see any other option than Iron Man's:

Iron Man was unequivocally right in the argument over superhero registration. I'm not even sure what the case for the other side is, and the libertarians I've asked haven't been able to come up with one. If the state has any legitimate function at all, it's to train and regulate people who could accidentally kill everyone in a hundred-mile radius.

But Millar says that explanation is too simple and too clear. What he wanted to express in the Civil War comic — and people are allowed to agree or disagree on whether he made a compelling enough argument — was that he didn't trust the way George W. Bush's administration handled power when it came to the war in Iraq.

Even though Millar would have politically agreed with Iron Man, he would have joined Captain America's side.

"There's no way I'm working for the government, because the next thing I know I'm on a plane to Iraq and I'm going to be invading Syria on behalf of the American government, so no thank you," Millar said.

That's how, despite disagreeing with Captain America's libertarianism, Millar came to an understanding of where Cap was coming from and how to make his argument convincing. Liberal superheroes would argue for regulation but might have a second thought if the government they were answering to and forced to act on behalf on was controlled by someone they disagreed with politically.

"There are so many people who've said to me, 'Oh, my god, I can't believe how right-wing you are, and you support this and that,'" Millar told me, explaining that readers of Civil War often get his politics wrong because he may have done too good a job writing Captain America's viewpoint.

He added: "I just wrote Captain America as Charlton Heston. You know? There's an aspect of that which is very attractive. The Charlton Heston/John Wayne persona might be a nightmare in real life, you know, you might really disagree with these guys on a lot of things, but there's some kind of fun about it at the same time."

Civil War is a story about how war affects people

The dazzle of Civil War is in seeing superheroes fight superheroes. There's something nutty about watching the Fantastic Four crumble or watching the Avengers splinter and then try to best each other. That's what the new movie is selling. But the comic also carries a poignant message about the men and women we send to war.

Deep into the comic saga, the Punisher joins Captain America's side. This totally makes sense, since Punisher is an untamed vigilante. But his inability to separate good from evil results him in shooting and killing two new recruits, the villains Goldbug and Plunderer. The Punisher sees good and bad as immutable things, and believed these villains were incapable of changing:

Civil War No. 6. (Marvel)

In retaliation, Cap brutally beats up the Punisher and tries to knock sense into him by way of a concussion. But the Punisher doesn't fight back. He just takes the punches. Each swing from the super soldier — McNiven's art is really on point here — breaks Punisher's face a little more, to the point where the other Avengers in the room feel uncomfortable.

Civil War No. 6. (Marvel)

"Cap's probably the reason [Punisher] went to Vietnam," Spider-Man tells Patriot. "Same guy, different war."

Though Cap snaps at Spidey in response, this moment is when he begins to turn the corner and realize that he might not be fighting the right fight. The Punisher's actions and Spidey's snipe begin to affect his psyche, as well as that of the audience.

If Captain America is a symbol for America's heroism in World War II, and the Punisher is Marvel's face for the failures of Vietnam, then Iron Man could ostensibly represent Afghanistan and Iraq.

Each of those heroes being a product those wars and how war shaped them is fascinating to think about. Cap is all about stars-and-stripes glory, the Punisher is about damage, and Iron Man becomes the poster boy for the United States' war on terror — both its successes and its failures.

This parallel isn't exactly perfect in the comic books, because Iron Man was created in 1963. But in Marvel's Cinematic Universe and this second season of Daredevil, it fits seamlessly, since the 2008 Iron Man film actually placed the Tony Stark's origin story in Afghanistan.

And there's greater potential for this to play out in Captain America: Civil War.

Which hero you side with depends on how you see yourself

I am not going to pretend that Civil War is one of the best Marvel stories ever written, nor is it one of Millar's best. A lot of it, especially the ending when Cap just gives up on his cause, feels a little too easy. Millar himself says that people ended up focusing on the wrong things about the story, in particular the moment when Peter Parker reveals to the world that he's Spider-Man — perhaps the most hyped moment of the crossover.

"It's absolutely nothing to do with [secret identities] at all," Millar said. "Because the whole thing, the whole point of the book, is, do you work for the government or do you remain free agents? That's what it's about. Does the government control superheroes or not?"

Ultimately, Millar says your opinion of which side is right is connected to how you picture yourself in the world of superheroes. If you see yourself as a superhero in that world, then Captain America offers the correct path. If you see yourself as a civilian in a world where superpowered beings exist and you're not one of them, then Iron Man's side makes more sense.

And the way people envision themselves in this world, and other comic book universes, changes with time.

Re-reading Civil War in 2016 was a different experience than when I first read it in 2006; it was also a different experience than when I first re-read it a couple of years ago. The comic resists fitting into tidy political boxes, even 10 years later. Even though it was written with a specific post-9/11 time period in mind, its major conflict of regulation versus no regulation will always be relevant in some form or another. And its power, just like when it was first published, has always been with the reader.


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