When I finished reading Marvel Comics' Civil War story arc—written by Mark Millar and illustrated by Steve McNiven--I was at a loss for words. Although Iron Man, a.k.a. billionaire industrialist Tony Stark, believes there is a true winner in the conflict between Team Captain America and Team Iron Man, both sides suffer tremendous losses. Friendships and loyalties are stretched to their limits. What makes it worse is, as Doctor Strange put it in the final chapter, “There is no right or wrong this time. It is only a matter of perspective.”
This is what makes "Civil War" unlike anything I've read from Marvel. It is a cross-section of issues that face citizens and politicians in the United States today: xenophobia, the right to bear arms, individual liberty versus public safety, and the role of government in the private lives of citizens. The people that grew up reading superhero comics turned to their heroes as a moral compass, to teach them what is right. However, not even the superheroes can agree on what is right this time.
The arc opens in Stamford, Connecticut, with a mass killing triggered by a villain confronted by a rookie super-team out of their league. This is the impetus for D.C. (Washington, not the comic book company) to pass legislation requiring super heroes to give up their secret identities to the government and become federal employees. This is analogous to saying that you have to have a background check to use your powers (or guns).
This splits the super community down the middle, and both sides have valid reasons for their stances. Captain America doesn't see the sense in arresting the people who resist registration, who "risk their lives for this country every day of the week." He was a soldier in World War II, the time of Hitler's Third Reich, so he's seen first hand what happens when individuals blindly obey their government, and when government, as he puts it, “starts deciding who the super-villains are.”
Stark is confronted by the mother of a child killed in the Stamford incident. She blames him for the tragedy, citing that Stark "[has] been telling kids for years that they can live outside the law, as long as they're wearing tights [super hero costumes}." This makes him decide that the super-powered community has to be held accountable for its actions. He wants to regain America's trust in superheroes.
Over the course of this conflict, the line between hero and villain blurs. Characters will choose sides, allies and enemies will be made, and some heroes will switch sides, with Captain America and Iron Man going to extreme measures to achieve their goals.
Strangely, it is the vigilante Punisher, who has no problem killing people whom he believes deserve it, is one of the few characters with a line they won't cross in fighting for their side in the conflict.
The story has many twists, but they never have any proper buildup. They kind of just happen. Early on in the story, Spider-Man makes a critical decision that, according to him, he comes to “only after a long talk with his [wife] and family." What happened in that long talk? What did his wife and family have to say about this decision?
The “Civil War” conflict expands to Marvel's various comic series, which cover more of what happened during this era in the Marvel Universe, so it would have been great to have key issues of those series included with the main story arc, instead of having to track down the separate stories from the other comic books.
When all of this culminates in the final battle, and the fate of the Marvel universe is decided (at least until the next reboot), you will feel anger, pity, disgust, and maybe a little admiration towards the characters. Maybe you will see real-world issues a little differently. In a key scene in the first act, Johny Storm, a.k.a. the Human Torch, is confronted by a group of thugs while on a night out with his girlfriend. They accuse him of sharing responsibility for the Stamford incident, when he wasn't even responsible for triggering it. Swap the term "super-hero" for "Muslim" in the dialogue, and it is practically a mirror image of the Islamophobia that exists in the United States.
If literature is meant to reflect society, then Marvel's "Civil War" is literature. This country is facing a tipping point in our current election cycle. We will have to choose between what is safe and what we believe is right, between our nation's security and our shared humanity.
Whose side are you on?