Unending Civil War

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So… whose side were you on?

Marvel’s recent blockbuster, the seven-part Civil War, wrapped last month leaving fans perplexed by the subtext.  Telling a story of powerful heroes divided over an unprecedented piece of Congressional legislation made terrific sense in contemporary America, itself bitterly divided over questions of right and wrong, and the appropriate limits of government. 

But what did it all mean?  In forums and chats all over the internet, fans were scratching their heads over the morals and meaning of the story.  Who was right – Iron Man, or Captain America?  Not only are fans finding it hard to discern whose side Marvel was on, they are even a little perplexed over Marvel’s intentions.  Was the company trying to make a statement about America’s current troubles, or was this merely a ploy to attract new readers?

I took the seven issues of Civil War’s main event on a visit to my friends, Hanno and Lou.  Lou is an old dude, like me, but his son Hanno is 12 years old, a serious artist, a serious literary critic, and serious about superheroes.  His first question on seeing the comics was, “what’s it about?” 

I explained that some supervillains blew up a school while trying to evade capture on reality TV.  The explosion killed a bunch of kids, so Congress passed the Superhero Registration Act, requiring superheroes to register with the government, and become licensed agents with S.H.I.E.L.D. 

In other words, they would become Federal marshals, with badges, and bosses.  And the government would know their identities.  A lot of superheroes support the idea, because they’ve always been on the side of law and order.  “I think that makes sense,” said Hanno.

Well, I said, it should, except that the government isn’t entirely honest or straight with the superheroes about its intentions.  Hanno appeared troubled.  “What side is Captain America on?” he asked, looking at the cover to issue #7.  He objects to the law, I told him, and goes underground to fight for his freedom.  “Oh,” said Hanno, as the dimensions of the conflict slid into place.  He began reading the books.

I was puttering around the house, and every now and then I’d stop by the kitchen table, where Hanno was reading, to ask what was happening.  Hanno was fascinated by the story, but really troubled by it, too.  “I don’t like to see superheroes fight,” he told me.  When he got into Civil War #6, he stopped reading long enough to tell me about Dr. Strange’s retreat.  He said, “I think Dr. Strange is the one doing the right thing.”  When he got to Civil War #7, he told me the big fight was coming.

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When he finished, he didn’t say anything.  He went up to his bedroom, and put on his Dr. Strange T-shirt.  There was a gloom hanging over us, as we pondered the consequences to Captain America of his decisions, both to resist, and to surrender.  Lou said, “Hanno, Gandhi said that there are times when you have to listen to your conscience, because sometimes your conscience calls you to obey a higher law.”

Gandhi, who had read Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, was talking about a freedom that lies at the very heart of American democratic idealism.  This is the freedom which is greater than any government, the freedom that guarantees the right of people to resist authority.  No government is greater than human right to freedom, because freedom is sacred in the eyes of American democratic principles, and governments are not.  However, asserting this freedom is painful, as Gandhi well knew.  He wrote,

“There are times when you have to obey a call which is the highest of all, i.e. - the voice of conscience, even though such obedience may cost many a bitter tear, and even more a separation from friends, from family, from the state to which you may belong, from all which you have held as dear as life itself.”

Gandhi’s words profoundly clarify why Captain America resisted the Superhero Registration Act.  Even more, Gandhi helps us understand the suffering his resistance caused Captain America, and his friend Iron Man.  It helps us understand just how powerful Cap’s American flag uniform felt to us, as he took the stand of a true patriot.  Cap bravely reminded us that the American patriot heeds the voice of conscience and defends the single most dangerous American freedom – the right to resist the government. 

Civil War reshaped the symbolism of patriotic Captain America, making Cap into a kind of Francis Marion for the modern age.  Patriotism, as Cap wears it, does not fight to defend Washington, DC, it fights to defend freedom.  What made Cap’s surrender all the more poignant, and indisputable, is that he surrendered before he would harm any New York City rescue worker, that other great symbol of post-9/11 patriotism.

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While the story is far from over, one couldn’t help suspect that the one true hero of the Civil War was the one going to prison.  And when Cap was killed, it seemed almost too much, as though Marvel wanted us to know that the good guys cannot win in this anxious age, that the first and final casualty of war is freedom.  While Marvel may be right, it didn’t feel good to read it.

Marvel didn’t deliver an ending that satisfied its readers, but perhaps that’s too much to ask when a comic book event parallels real world problems that closely.  There are those who feel that the Patriot Act is a safe and restrained compromise between preserving individual freedoms and securing public safety.  And there are those who feel that the post-9/11 world is one in which forces unfriendly to American democracy are taking advantage of the climate of fear to concentrate power away from the people, in the hands of a single faction.  It’s impossible to say, from the middle of the maelstrom, what if any long-term damage the current crisis will do to one of the greatest democratic experiments in human history.  And art does imitate life in this respect: there is no way of knowing if the effects of the Civil War will permanently discredit the superhero ideal in the Marvel Universe.

In Civil War, Marvel found a way to engage seriously with the philosophical and social crises that confront the United States after 9/11.  It was a risky maneuver, given that the real world crisis is open-ended, unlikely to resolve itself in any fashion any time soon.  It means that the Marvel Civil War will not really ever end either, at least not satisfactorily, even if Marvel were to make its preferences clear, and show us which side they think is right.

But if Civil War really was just a cynical ploy to capture more readers, then I have to say, it worked.  I had no Marvel titles on my pull list when Civil War started, and now I have three.  Captain America captured my imagination.  Now I must follow the escapades of the resistance.  Call it keeping the faith.

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