Fantastic Friday: Not so civil

Reading the Fantastic Four comics from the start. It’s time to talk about Civil War, the crossover mega-epic that tore the Marvel Universe to pieces (for a while, anyway). I’d always thought of Civil War as an Iron Man/Spider-Man/Captain America story. But upon re-reading, I see that it’s a lot of Fantastic Four content. Let’s dive in.

If you weren’t following comics in 2005-2006, you might not get why this story was such a big deal. Like Secret Wars II, this was an ambitious project intended to cross over with every Marvel comic and include every character, both famous and obscure. What’s more, the event made full use of internet fan culture. Marvel offered fans banners for their message board signatures (I miss message boards) with the “Whose side are you on?” tagline. Fans were tasked to pick sides just like the characters did, with specific “I’m with Iron Man” and “I’m with Cap” banners. This of course led to fan-made parody banners with “I’m with Homer Simpson,” etc. Every new issue of Civil War was hotly debated online, which only made the following issue anticipated even more.

I have a theory. One of the controversies of Civil War came from fans arguing that the Marvel heroes were acting out of character. They were siding with enemies and fighting their friends. Iron Man seemed villainous, Captain America rejected America, and, most famously, Spider-Man revealed his secret identity to the world. My theory is this: Civil War asks what would happen if the Marvel heroes acted out of character, and would do things that they’d never normally do? Civil War answers that question and follows it to its rather chaotic conclusion.

Civil War issue #1 begins with the New Warriors, who at this time were starring in their own reality TV show. A camera crew followed them everywhere during their superhero adventures. They’re in Stamford, Connecticut, tracking down supervillains Coldheart, Cobalt Man, Speedfreak, and Nitro. A fight breaks out, with a lot of gags about ratings and looking good in front of the camera. Namorita smashes Nitro into a nearby school bus. Nitro unleashes his nuclear powers, and a nearby elementary school goes up in a mushroom cloud.

Cut to later, when the New Avengers, the X-Men, and other Marvel heroes are at the site, helping with wreckage cleanup. There are skeletons all around, as well as a burned-up American flag, if you’re in the mood for some heavy symbolism. Iron Man says Nitro is still alive, and they have a lead on him, but Captain America is more concerned with helping FEMA on the recovery site. Cap says there are around 900 casualties, many of them children.

Giant Man, a.k.a. Bill Foster, says this event will change everything. He lists several other destructive events that recently happened, including the Las Vegas Hulk/Thing fight in Fantastic Four. “They’ll be coming after us,” he says. Then we get talk about the proposed Superhero Registration Act, which has already been brewing in several Marvel comics leading up to this. A woman spits at Tony Stark (!) during a Stamford memorial She blames him for superhero violence, since he publicly funds the Avengers. During all this, we get one-panel glimpses of news reports arguing about how dangerous superheroes are, and how something must be done.

Then the FF enter the picture. In New York, Johnny meets with his date, an unnamed hot blonde, at a cool nightclub. He’s confronted on the sidewalk outside by locals who accuse him of the same type of violence that went down in Connecticut. Johnny insists he had nothing to do with the New Warriors, but the growing crowd doesn’t believe him. He’s knocked unconscious when someone hits him on the head with a beer bottle. Then the crowd dogpiles, beating the crap out of him.

Later, at the new Baxter Building, a huge crowd of superheroes have gathered to discuss superhero registration. Dr. Strange spells out the conflict saying his only choices are either to register and become a federal employee or face a warrant for his arrest. Luke Cage argues it’s not about superheroes becoming civil servants, it’s really about the government wanting to shut them down.  Iron Man counter-argues that registration will make superheroes legitimate, better-trained and publicly accountable. No one can agree on a course of action, debating on whether hiding their identities behind masks is necessary or dangerous. The only thing everyone can agree on is that all their lives are about to change.

On board the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier, Commander Maria Hill asks Captain America whether his fellow superheroes will agree to registration. He says they’re split, and this will lead to the heroes at war with one another. Hill says she’s already preparing an anti-superhuman response unit, and she wants Captain America to lead it by hunting down and arresting any heroes who are anti-registration. Cap says that the superheroes need to stay above politics, and that Washington shouldn’t tell them who the villains are. Hill responds by surrounding Cap with a bunch of armored S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. After debating it a little more, Hill orders the agents to attack Cap out-fights them all (because of course he does). He smashes his way out of the Helicarrier and rides a fighter plane like a surfboard to escape.

Back at the Baxter Building, the heroes continue their debate. Then the Watcher appears, silently observing them all. Dr. Strange (not Reed) reminds everyone that the Watcher only appears in person during times of great crisis.

In Washington DC, there are crowds of protestors outside the White House (this happens a lot in Marvel Comics). Inside, the President chides his staff for letting Captain America go. Cap’s actions will make superhero registration even more controversial, and that every anti-registration hero will now rally behind him as their leader. Then we see that Iron Man, Yellowjacket, and our own Mr. Fantastic are there as well. Iron Man says, “Leave Captain America to us.”  

To be continued!

Unstable molecule: You’ll remember that a similar superhero registration debate occurred during Acts of Vengeance, and at that time Reed was strictly anti-reg. Why is he then pro-reg in Civil War? After Acts, Reed has seen several instances of super-powers going out of control:

  • When fighting Devos, Johnny lost control of his powerful nova flame, destroying part of Empire State University, a tragedy Johnny had to deal with for quite some time.
  • The FF battled Hyperstorm, a godlike being who turned out to be Reed’s grandson from the future. When everyone thought he was dead, Reed was in Hyperstorm’s post-apocalyptic future. It was a nightmare world brought about by super-powered being warring with one another.
  • Onslaught was another godlike being, born from a combination of mutants, including Reed’s son Franklin. The only way to stop Onslaught was for a bunch of nonmutant superheroes to sacrifice their lives. They were only saved thanks to Franklin’s subconscious machinations.
  • When Reed’s mind was trapped in Dr. Doom’s body, he had to pretend to be Dr. Doom. This was the only way to keep Doom’s four generals from invading the Earth with an alien army. Doom’s armor then affected Reed, making act more and more Doom-like.
  • The FF attempted to take over and run Latveria to undo all the evil things Dr. Doom had done. Reed acted in opposition to the US government and it didn’t end well, creating an international incident and making the FF fall on hard times.
  • During Marvel Knights: 4, Psycho-Man took over the Baxter Building for a crisis that got so extreme that it threatened to blot out the sun (!).
  • Similarly, Diablo held all of New York hostage while there was chaos in the streets as everyone’s dreams went haywire.
  • Reed worked with the government in Nevada, where astronauts wanted to recreate the FF’s original spaceflight and give themselves powers. Cosmic beings warned Reed to prevent this from happening.

Fade out: Sue seems pro-reg when she tells Spider-Man that life without a secret identity hasn’t been a problem for her. (It hasn’t?) She’ll change her tune shortly.

Clobberin’ time: Ben seems pro-reg during the debate, arguing that Johnny was injured because of street-level masks giving the FF a bad name. He too will quickly change his tune.

Flame on: How can one guy with a beer bottle manage to take out the Human Torch? Maybe he let the crowd get him for fear of not burning anyone.

Fantastic fifth wheel: She-Hulk is interviewed by Larry King (!), where she argues that without superheroes, no one will be able to stop supervillains. She then says she’s open to the idea of supes with badges and training. She’s also at the Baxter Building meeting, but she doesn’t say anything.

Trivia time: The New Warriors lineup is Night Thrasher, Speedball, Microbe, and Namorita. Speedball will not only survive, but become a major character in Civil War in his darker Penance persona. Night Thrasher returns when his soul is restored in a clone of himself. Microbe stayed dead, never appearing again after this. Same for Namorita, sadly. No mention is made of her and Johnny having dated mostly off-panel for several years.

Nitro’s fugitive status will be ongoing concern during Civil War, with questions whether he was powerful enough to explode like he did in Stamford. Coldheart survived the explosion through unknown means, and will later be seen inside a S.H.I.E.L.D. prison. Cobalt Man died and was seen a few times when characters visited the afterlife. He later came back to life for real in a Deadpool story. Speedfreak stayed dead, and this was his last appearance.

Yellowjacket and Spider-Woman are both prominent in this issue, but we’ll later learn they’re Skrulls in disguise, setting up the Secret Invasion crossover.  

Fantastic or frightful? Whew, this is a lot. It succeeds in building a lot of tension, and bringing so much of what’s happening in Marvel come together all at once. The Captain America fight is especially exciting. But all the debates about registration go on for a page or two too long, as writer Mark Millar bends over backwards to create controversy. Still, Civil War is one of the tallest mountains in Marvel continuity, and this issue sets the stage for it all. And away we go.

Next: Hitting the streets.

* * * *

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About Mac McEntire

Author of CINE HIGH.
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