After eight years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we’re getting our third Captain America movie, which is sort of an Avengers movie, and the closest thing we’ll get to Iron Man 4. It’s based on Civil War, the miniseries and event orchestrated by Mark Millar and Steve McNiven in 2006 to 2007. It’s insane to think that when that book was coming out, Marvel was preparing for an Iron Man film that would springboard an endless series of linked superhero movies (plus shows on TV and Netflix) and would build towards a retelling of that exact story.
Then again, for better or worse, Civil War basically represents this generation of Marvel Comics. While it’s a mess of an event with a ton of problems, it also focuses on Marvel’s tendency to give us high-concept stories where the focus is “heroes fight heroes” and/or “our saviors are really evil.” Think back to how many event stories since Avengers Disassembled have had those concepts.
The classic trope is that hero vs. hero comes from misunderstanding and leads to both parties uniting as friends against a common foe. Hell, that’s what Batman v Superman is. Marvel’s been all about building towards the clashing of good guys and Civil War is the poster boy for it. Granted, AvX is even more on the nose about it, but the X-Men are off the table here.
An important part of Marvel history, Civil War’s story has been told in different ways and in different realities. Here’s what the multiverse has to offer…
THE STORY THAT NEVER WAS (2005)
The concept of the series came from the mind of Brian Michael Bendis, who bounced ideas off of Mark Millar and later other Marvel writers. Millar was given the assignment and ended up doing his big seven-issue miniseries that turned Marvel’s status quo upside down.
That wasn’t how things were originally going to go.
Reprinted in the Civil War Script Book, we see Millar’s initial concept for a twelve-issue Civil War miniseries. Yes, twelve. It’s very different from the story we’d eventually get and comes with notes from Joe Quesada and Tom Brevoort (who is the far more critical of the two).
The big tipping point that sets off the demand for registration is when Speedball fights a villain and Happy Hogan’s son gets killed in the crossfire (as Brevoort is quick to point out, Hogan totally doesn’t have a son). This drives Iron Man into championing the cause and heroes have 28 days to unmask.
The broad strokes are mostly the same, though without everything relating to Goliath’s death. Instead, there’s an even more uncomfortable – and very Mark Millar – plot about a superhero being blackmailed into suicide to save his kidnapped son. Outside of that, once Cap gives up (quitting instead of turning himself in), the story simply keeps going.
A device is used to depower offending heroes and Speedball’s “execution” is done publicly. Thor shows up, but is disgusted at what superheroism has become. Then things come to a head when the Hulk returns from space with an army of five-foot-tall Hulk Babies because apparently Hulk has been boning THOUSANDS OF ALIENS as part of his scheme to get revenge. Cap comes back to help lead the fight against him and the senator behind the Super Human Registration Act goes full-on villain by trying to depower everyone on Earth.
Cap stops him at the cost of losing his powers and becoming a frail, old man. Then the son of that dead superhero from earlier shows up to give some tearful monologue that’s supposed to bring closure, though Millar doesn’t exactly say what the closure even is.
What’s interesting in all of this is that Millar is very open that although Rogers is depowered and there will be a new Captain America, that will only last for a year or so before Rogers is repowered in time for his movie. Even though that didn’t quite happen in the ’00s, here we are after Steve Rogers has spent some time powerless, only to suddenly regain his status prior to a Captain America movie.
A movie about Civil War.
Also funny is Brevoort being 100% against Planet Hulk being derailed for Civil War, claiming that putting Hulk in Civil War would be an act of greed. Yet in the end, the reason he isn’t in Civil War is so they can do an entire event based on Hulk coming to Earth to fight the heroes, so… *shrug*
CIVIL WAR PROPER (2006-2007)
After lots of reworking, we get Millar and McNiven’s big story and the many, many, MAAAAANY tie-ins that overwhelmed Marvel around that time. Instead of a single child being killed in a Speedball fight, it’s an entire neighborhood being blown sky-high as the New Warriors antagonize a team of villains.
The government insists that the superheroes line up and register their identities and powers, which splits the superhero community. It’s supposed to be a situation where the fans can see each side as equally viable, but it doesn’t work out. Not that I blame Millar.
People claim that Iron Man comes out of Civil War looking like Hitler or a “mustache-twirling villain” and…yes and no. Yes, in the sense that the event made him look terrible. J. Michael Straczynski especially decided to go completely overboard with his depiction of Tony in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man and other writers found new ways to make him and his side completely unlikable.
Like, if registration is so terrible on its own, you can probably let it stand for itself without forcing it. You don’t have to do a scene where a SWAT team storms Luke Cage’s home the literal second the registration act becomes law even though he is his own superhero identity. At that point you’re just saying it’s evil because it’s evil without exploring anything.
Anyway, the Civil War book itself – just the Millar book and not the event – makes Tony Stark look like the most rational character, mostly by default. I’m not kidding. Outside of inventing the clone Thor cyborg (which was added in because JMS was taking too long to write his Thor comic and wanted Thor to remain separated from the larger Marvel universe a little bit longer), Tony is relatively level-headed in a book filled with people written by Millar.
Mark Millar wouldn’t know subtlety if it…if it…um… Heavens, I appear to be at an impasse.
What I’m saying is that his characters are very blunt, act like assholes, and stuff escalates at the drop of a hat. So when Iron Man tries to have any kind of conversation about the situation, the usual response is something along the lines of, “SHUT UP OR SO HELP ME I WILL PUNCH YOUR FACE OFF!”
Even the stuff he gets heat for from fans isn’t really his doing. It’s either SHIELD or, more specifically, Maria Hill. Tony’s point in all of this is that registration is going to happen and it probably should happen, but not the way it will if he and the others don’t get on board. Steering it in the right direction from the inside is better than having Maria “I hate superheroes” Hill pressing the button to send Thor clones and Thunderbolts at the slightest threat.
Meanwhile, Cap’s plan appears to be to keep being a hero, hide from the government, and hope all the problems go away. Honestly, the whole battle of ideologies was better-written and more down-the-middle when Hickman pitted them against each other years later in his Avengers run.
In the end, Captain America realizes that all this fighting is ruining the actual argument and gives himself up. Iron Man runs SHIELD and while this doesn’t bode well for the anti-registration side, at least Hill is demoted and that’s something of a victory. Afterwards, in Cap’s own book, he gets assassinated and everyone feels bad about it for a while.
The registration concept lasts for a few years, but falls apart and is proven fallible as shown in the events World War Hulk, Secret Invasion, and most importantly Dark Reign and Siege. Steve Rogers comes back, becomes head of superhero government stuff, and suddenly everything’s nice and positive for a little while.
CIVIL WARDS (2007)
The all-ages miniseries Spider-Man and the Power Pack features backup stories by Mark Sumerak and Chris Giarrusso, featuring kid Spider-Man and baby versions of Power Pack in a story where Peter has to babysit them.
While there are already ties to Civil War, such as how everyone knows Spider-Man’s secret identity, the third issue goes more blatant with a bit where Spider-Man and the Power Pack go to Stark Park and find out that there are way too many rules and regulations under Mini-Marvels Iron Man’s watch. Captain America speaks out about it, lots of arguing happens, and Spider-Man instead brings the babies to Xavier’s neutral park.
That cheap Daredevil gag never fails to get me.
WHAT IF: ANNIHILATION (2008)
Now we get to the worlds that could have been, starting with What If: Annihilation by David Hine, Mico Suayan, and Rafael Kayanan. As someone who has read every single issue of What If, I can say that this one is easily in my top three. It’s fantastic.
While Civil War was happening, the space parts of Marvel were mostly tangled up in Annihilation, a massive and satisfying crossover about Annihilus trying to wipe out all life in the universe with a never-ending army of alien bugs. In the original story, Annihilus and his Annihilus Wave were defeated by Nova, Silver Surfer, Galactus, Drax, and many others.
In this version, the heroes failed and Nova speeds to Earth to create one last defense. As he shows up during the climax of Civil War, he’s outright furious that while planets are being devoured, Earth’s greatest heroes are trading blows over their secret identities. For the time being, he’s able to convince Captain America and Iron Man to cease their hostilities and work together.
Nova ends up banding together the pro-registration side, the anti-registration side, the Inhumans, the villains, and event Uatu the Watcher against the incoming invasion. While the damage is catastrophic, mankind wins in the end and destroys the Annihilation Wave completely…at the cost of losing the moon.
What truly makes it great is the ending. The Watcher – who usually only steps out of bounds to help save Earth – steps out of bounds in order to help the broken spirits of Earth’s survivors by showing them the heroic, touching, and inspiring final moments between Nova, Captain America, and Iron Man.
WHAT IF: CIVIL WAR (STORY 1)
This one-shot is made up of two stories, each being told by the Watcher to a grieving Tony Stark as he visits Cap’s grave. This framing device is written by Ed Brubaker and drawn by Marko Djurdjevic. Each story more or less points out where each hero failed.
The first one, done by Kevin Grevioux and Gustavo, takes place in a world where Iron Man died during the Extremis storyline. Ergo, when the SHRA is passed, there’s no split between the heroes. It’s Captain America and the superhero community vs. the government. Tony’s fears about the conflict become very real as the government goes completely overboard in order to pin down Cap’s forces.
Not only do Maria Hill and Henry Gyrich use Sentinels to kill heroes by the dozen (including Spider-Man, whose corpse is unmasked and shrugged off), but they have an entire army of cyborg Thor clones. Cap is killed, although his death isn’t made public. President Gyrich instead uses the threat of Captain America as a reason to keep moving forward with their war.
WHAT IF: CIVIL WAR (STORY 2)
There’s a scene in the original story where Iron Man tries to talk things through with Cap and although Cap agrees to give him a few minutes to speak his mind, he actually electrocutes him with a hidden device during a handshake. In this version, with the creative team of Christos Gage and Harvey Tolibao, Tony is more truthful and vulnerable, speaking from the heart and admitting that although he believes in registration, he isn’t certain that what he’s doing is the right way. He genuinely needs Cap’s help on this.
Cap deactivates the buzzer in his hand and shakes. That doesn’t stop the cyborg Thor from being released and this time, Iron Man is able to shield Goliath from its blast. Both sides of the war band together to destroy the false god.
Shortly after, Cap and Iron Man parlay and discuss their differences. By actually being civil in their war, Tony is able to realize that while Cap doesn’t disagree with most of the philosophy behind registration (comparing his initial reaction to the Young Avengers), he’s mostly just untrusting of the government. While the two aren’t 100% sure that this is the right way to go, they go public with the idea that they will police their own with Cap as the guy in charge. The massive public support causes the government to cave in and go with it.
It ends up being a total success and months later, we see the two heroes casually doing some mundane work at HQ, taking a second to say how happy they are that they worked things out.
Back in the main timeline, Tony Stark has an emotional breakdown, realizing that his own dickness ruined everything.
Coincidentally, that solution does have a really weird parallel to how the Comics Code Authority came to be.
WHAT IF: FALLEN SON (2009)
Captain America’s death didn’t happen in the main Civil War story, but come on, we count it as if it did. It’s pretty damn important. In this What If yarn by Marc Sumerak and Trevor Goring, the Red Skull and Crossbones don’t put together an assassination attempt. Instead, Cap’s trial goes on like normal. A few weeks later, Tony Stark shows up to testify and Tom Foster, the nephew of Goliath, shows up, turns giant, and kills Tony in a fit of rage. The issue is about various characters reacting to Tony’s death.
A lot of it is harsh. Pepper falls deep into alcoholism and depression. War Machine takes out his frustrations on the Avengers Initiative recruits and pushes them too hard. Luke Cage and Ms. Marvel are both incredibly angry in different ways and fight it out.
What’s rather funny about the issue is that despite trying to be completely dour and hopeless, it’s proven wrong by future comics. Two developments include Alexander Lukin (who is host to Red Skull’s soul) buying up all of Stark’s armor and the coming of the Skrull invasion. Both are supposed to be these horrible things, only Secret Invasion would go to show that not only would all the Iron Man armor be rendered useless, but Iron Man himself is completely useless in the storyline and we’d actually be way better off with Captain America involved.
THE 418 PEACEFUL UNIVERSES (2009)
Jonathan Hickman’s wonderful Fantastic Four epic begins in Dark Reign: Fantastic Four. In the story, Reed Richards creates a device that looks into alternate timelines, specifically to find worlds where the Civil War ended via peaceful resolutions.
One is a world where Tony Stark is Natasha Stark and the main reason Civil War comes to an end is because Captain America and Iron Woman decide on some Civil Love instead. With them pleasing the shippers of the multiverse and Hank Pym being a captured villain for whatever reason, Reed takes it upon himself to spearhead the Registration Act and succeeds.
The various worlds show one constant: Reed Richards fixed everything by working alone. Thus begins a story that reaches its conclusion with Secret Wars.
ULTIMATE ALLIANCE 2 (2009)
The first Ultimate Alliance was about Dr. Doom stealing the power of Odin and putting together a massive army of villains to vex the heroes. It ended with some cliffhangers where Black Widow betrayed Weasel and Galactus was seriously going to beat up Earth for messing with him, but those plot threads were dropped for the sake of retelling Secret War and Civil War.
Though it was automatically better than the originals because of having Juggernaut in it.
Once the story hits the “Whose Side Are You On?” fork in the road, you choose to play on the pro-registration or anti-registration side. Certain characters can only be on one side, such as Cap and Luke Cage as anti-reg or Iron Man and Songbird as pro-reg. To give the story a more climactic third act, it strays from the original arc and becomes a big conspiracy where the nanites used on the Thunderbolts are actually evil, as programmed by the Tinkerer.
The final boss is Nick Fury, enhanced and enslaved by the corrupt nanites. Once he’s defeated, Cap and Iron Man awkwardly try to get along while checking up on him. If your team is anti-registration, Cap does a big public speech while the Registration Act is repealed completely. If your team is pro-registration, Iron Man does a big speech while the Registration Act is amended to allow heroes to keep their secret identities. Also, Tony is made Director of SHIELD.
Years after the story stopped being relevant, Stuart Moore was tasked with turning Civil War into a prose book. DC Comics had been doing prose novels for a while and Marvel was starting to jump into that. Moore’s Civil War is pretty muted, all things considered, and the changes to the original story are mostly minor.
While a lot of scenes are told differently due to the difference of mediums, there are also some alterations to certain status quos. For instance, the comic took place during the time when there was a mystery replacement for Daredevil, which Millar handled pretty expertly. Here, he’s simply Matt Murdock. Otherwise, Peter Parker and Mary Jane are not married, making it Joe Quesada’s favorite take on the story.
Captain America’s death isn’t touched on in any way. Instead, the story ends with him in his cell, using his artistic skills and three pieces of chalk to sketch an American flag onto his wall.
They also released a GraphicAudio version. GraphicAudio, for those who haven’t heard of it, is an audio book adaptation where they get dozens of voice actors to play the cast. It’s a pretty great novelty for any story that has a gigantic cast, such as Infinite Crisis or 52.
According to the Infinite Crisis audio book, Mogo the Living Planet is a lady. Go figure.
SECRET WARS (2015)
Secret Wars continuity is a “don’t think about it too hard” situation where alternate worlds are demoted into kingdoms in a larger, patchwork world. One of them is an alternate take on Civil War and it’s a doozy of a great story, put together by the fantastic creative team of Charles Soule and Leinil Francis Yu. The big fight in the Negative Zone has a more tragic ending due to reasons explained in a later plot twist and the kingdom is split into two sides: President Stark’s The Iron and General America’s The Blue.
Six years have passed and the stalemate is as fierce as ever. Any attempt at peace has led to bloodshed. A final straw has caused General America and Peter Parker to work towards one last strike against Stark’s people while Stark is more focused on figuring out who’s playing the two sides against each other and why.
There’s so much fun to be had in this alternate future. Stuff like the new Hulk, Speedball’s status as a Punisher-based soldier, Doc Ock’s arms controlling the Kingpin’s corpse, and my favorite, the Venom mystery. Venom shows up as one of Parker’s subordinates and acts all mute and cryptic for a couple issues. When we finally find out who the host is, in badass fashion, the shape of his Venom symbol finally makes more sense.
THE MARVEL CINEMATIC UNIVERSE (2016)
And now we’ve reached the silver screen. I can’t speak of seeing it myself, as Don Kaye is the one with the preview screening skills around here, but from what I know, the basic concept is the same. Superheroes are pressured into a differently-named version of the Registration Act where the governments get to keep close tabs on all superhumans. Iron Man, who feels responsible for a lot of damage caused from the superhuman arms race, is for it. Captain America, who saw what kind of a threat SHIELD turned out to be, thinks otherwise.
Then there’s Spider-Man hanging out in the background.
More than the stuff going on with the Infinity Gauntlet, Captain America: Civil War really feels like something the entire shared universe has been building towards. It isn’t even just the stuff with the Hulk rampages, the destruction of New York City, or the Inhumans stuff on Agents of SHIELD. Much of the world has been built out of Captain America and Iron Man. You look at the Hulk duking it out with Ultron and you see a disastrous attempt to recreate Captain America up against a disastrous attempt to recreate Iron Man.
It sounds good to me, just as long as Sally Floyd isn’t in this movie. Last thing I need to hear is Captain America getting bitched out for not having a MySpace account.
Oh yeah, honorable mention goes to House of M: Civil War. It actually has nothing to do with Civil War outside of the title. It’s basically a look at how Magneto came into power in the House of M universe. Bucky gets decapitated in it. Probably shouldn’t attack Magneto with a metal shield, dude.
Gavin Jasper never did find out which side Forbush Man was on. Follow Gavin on Twitter!