Civil War, in case you haven't heard, is Marvel's latest attempt to parallel events in the real world. Unfortunately, it seems that they their job too well, and entered into a Civil War without an exit strategy.
All throughout the lead-up and duration of this series, Marvel's higher-ups have said that they're not endorsing either side, that neither group is "right." Meanwhile, Tony Stark's behind-the-scenes manipulation of longtime friends and colleagues, the pro-Registration side's willingness to play Odin and dance with devils, and Captain America's mere presence on the anti-Registration side, have told a very different story, a tale of clearly-defined good and evil, and no amount of panels where Tony Stark wonders about his choices or where Cap looks like a fanatic, will change that.
Then, there's all the smaller problems. Why are all the intellectuals on the pro-Registration side? Why are Tony Stark, Peter Parker, and Reed Richards acting so wildly out of character? And the one that's bugged me ever since I read Illuminati: how the hell can you justify the Stamford incident?
The new New Warriors may be a relatively inexperienced team, they may be in it more for the fame and money than they should, but of the four members I see on that team, three of them (Namorita, Night Thrasher, and Speedball) have been with the team since its inception, and have battled cosmic-level threats to the world. They routinely battled with the Sphinx (who at one point gained the ability to warp reality, as I recall), former Galactus herald Terrax the Tamer, and other fairly major villains. They've earned the right to some respect. Nitro, on the other hand, is something of a D-list villain, a character I hadn't even heard of until I picked up the Essential Official Guide to the Marvel Universe, whose power is "exploding" and whose only claim to fame is being involved in the death of Captain Marvel. This isn't a Year-One Power Pack going up against Dr. Doom, this is a group of fairly experienced heroes going after a lame villain. How is it that they were so "out of their league"? How is it that they could be blamed for the incident, that they "should have known better," and called the Avengers or some such nonsense? Last I checked, there wasn't a superhero phone tree. Is Spider-Man supposed to stop and call up the X-Men when Juggernaut starts rampaging through Times Square? How exactly does the hierarchy proceed? If Galactus shows up, do you call the Fantastic Four or the Avengers? I mean, the Avengers have more firepower, but the FF's got the experience. The idea that the New Warriors should have stepped back and called for help, that they were out of their league fighting freakin' Nitro, is beyond absurd.
No, Civil War started on the wrong foot and simply hasn't recovered. Here's how it should have gone.
First off, the Illuminati was a dumb idea which should have never been. It's elitist, it's vaguely racist, and it's another one of those "a dark secret from the earliest days of [insert character]'s history comes to light" plots that has been used, reused, and overused since Identity Crisis (see also: Gwen Stacy, Barry Allen, Professor Xavier, Thomas Wayne, etc.). Besides that, a major crisis, almost infinite in its scope, results from the dissolution of the relationship between the universe's primary heroes...seems to me that it's been done before.
The difference, of course, is that DC exploited a relationship that already existed, they didn't do a "JLA: Trinity" one-shot to set it up first.
What we do instead is a one-shot or brief miniseries (no more than 3 issues) about the new wave of "superhuman chic" sweeping the nation. Shows like the New Warriors and X-Statix have become increasingly popular, and every network wants to cash in. Meanwhile, the Masochist Marauders (from Spectacular Spider-Man #21--teens who fake muggings in order to get beaten up by superheroes) are a Jackass-style Internet sensation, and copycats have sprung up all over the country. Deaths due to radiation poisoning and other attempts to re-enact superhero fights and origins have been steadily rising. Rising up the bestseller charts is "The Capedemic: How So-Called Superheroes Endanger us All," a book which proposes the idea that the number of averted disasters and saved lives simply doesn't make up for the danger inherent in superheroes' existence. Finally, premiering this season on Fox: "Big Shoulders," a reality show about a new team of teenage superheroes operating in Chicago, the 'Chicago 7.'
Next, one tragedy isn't going to set the wheels in motion. There ought to be a series of events, and the first involves the Hulk. Things can go down pretty much the way they happened in Illuminati--Hulk rampages through a small midwestern town, completely unstoppable for the several minutes before heroes and Hulkbuster Units can arrive to bring him down. Midwestern politicians come under pressure to stop the spread of metahuman-related violence. When it was primarily an issue for New York, it was a different story, but superhuman menaces have begun popping up with more frequency in California and in various states across the country. S.H.I.E.L.D. is pressured by Congress to do something about the Hulk, hoping to use that as a stop-gap procedure, taking attention away from the metahuman problem. They go to the Avengers, telling Iron Man "he was on your team, he's your responsibility." Tony brings together Captain America, Hank Pym, Wasp (the only original Avengers left), Doc Samson (who knows the Hulk best), and Reed Richards ('cause he's a smartie), along with a somewhat sedated Bruce Banner. Bruce understands the problem at hand and agrees that he's simply too dangerous to continue roaming around the country. Tony suggests placing him on an orbital platform--he has several satellites in various places around the solar system that could be easily and remotely modified. They settle on a research satellite orbiting Mars. Bruce will be provided with all the amenities of home, and the self-replicating nanotechnology will ensure that any damage done by the Hulk is strictly temporary. Meanwhile, a research team on Earth will step up their quest to cure his condition. They send Bruce up, but he never makes it to the satellite. It's not clear who or what caused the malfunction.
Barely a week goes by before the Abomination breaks out of prison and ends up in St. Louis. The first superheroes on the scene are the Chicago 7, three weeks into the new season. The event goes live, with producers hoping to turn it into a publicity stunt. It works: Abomination stomps the rookie heroes, and their inexperience only makes things worse. Hundreds die, the property damage is astronomical, and all in the fifteen minutes it took for a Quinjet and several S.H.I.E.L.D. hovercraft to arrive from the East Coast. Within days, a superhero registration bill is circulating around Congress.
Now, this is about where my two ideas for this story diverge. For this first one, I'll accept the basic premise that it's an ideological war between Captain America and Iron Man, except, you know, without the idiocy.
Captain America makes a public speech against the bill, and the act's supporters need a spokesperson from the costume crowd. They end up picking Iron Man, due to his prestige and sway with the superhero community. Tony is torn, and as much as he may agree with Captain America, he can't help but wonder if maybe the act would be a good thing. He reads through the text several times, he speaks with the drafters and S.H.I.E.L.D. executives about the logistics. Everything would remain more or less the same, really. The superheroes would register with S.H.I.E.L.D., who would provide them with training and license cards, similar to the Avengers Membership Cards. The registered heroes would have the option of becoming S.H.I.E.L.D. employees, which would allow them to do their usual superheroing and civilian living, as long as they took the occasional S.H.I.E.L.D. mission. For this, they would receive a stipend and benefits (health insurance and life insurance are a bitch for the capes-and-tights set). All this information would be kept absolutely secret, and only top S.H.I.E.L.D. brass would have access to it.
And those who refused to register? If apprehended, they would be offered the chance to register. If they continued to refuse, they may be charged a fine, and they might face some time in prison.
Tony turns to Peter Parker for moral guidance. Peter's feelings about S.H.I.E.L.D. are mixed, and he's never been on the best of terms with the general populace. He and Tony have a long conversation about the matter, with Peter mostly playing the anti-registration side. That is, until Tony wonders aloud how many innocent lives might be saved if young superhumans had the proper training. Peter thinks back, back, to how a little professional training might have allowed him to reach Gwen Stacy in time, or to catch her without killing her, how a that extra edge against Doctor Octopus might have let him save Captain Stacy, how if he had gone to S.H.I.E.L.D. instead of the TV station, he might have been around to stop that robber...
It becomes clear to Peter that superheroes have been given great power, and the registration act is merely asking them to accept the responsibilities that come with such power. He joins Tony in support of the Registration Act. Tony immediately sets out to get the best and brightest in the superhero community to figure out the logistics, to ensure that security, training, and enforcement all works out with the heroes' best interests in mind. Hank McCoy won't return his phone calls.
Meanwhile, the X-Men are placed in a difficult situation. Cyclops and Wolverine and their ilk see the Act for what it is: a broadened version of the Mutant Registration Acts that have circulated around Congress for years. Cyclops considers coming out in opposition, but fears that it may draw unnecessarily negative attention to the dwindling Mutant community. Supporting the Act, however, would be outright hypocrisy, and would go against everything Xavier ever stood for. Not wanting to make the school a fort against the United States government, he declares official neutrality on the subject. Wolverine is understandably upset by this and leaves the mansion in protest.
The Act passes, despite Captain America's public speeches in opposition. Things initially appear to be going well. The superhero-related shows that started much of this ruckus have been quietly cancelled, superheroes are registering voluntarily by the dozens, and the anti-registration heroes? Reed Richards registers, as do Sue and Ben, but Johnny Storm refuses and leaves the team. Sue is still unsure about the whole thing, and Ben just won't talk about it, but both recognize that their public identities and publicly-known headquarters make it difficult to make a stand against the Act. Reed just hopes to oversee the registration operations, to ensure that identities are actually kept secret from prying eyes, and that the superhero training goes well, that all this will ultimately help the superheroes' cause.
It starts with Night Thrasher (and why not? Rather than needlessly kill him off, let's give him a purpose), who is in the process of battling a minor supervillain (I dunno, someone like Nitro, I suppose), when a police officer tries to arrest him. NT tries to tell him that he doesn't have time for this, but the cop draws his gun and insists. Night Thrasher knocks him out, then does the same with Nitro, leaving the supervillain in handcuffs with a power inhibitor collar on. NT escapes, but now is wanted for assaulting a police officer in addition to refusal to register. The scene plays out across the country: Hercules has to shrug off bullets from both sides while he stops a Hydra terror plot in Times Square, Darkhawk finds himself on the wrong end of a SWAT team after stopping a school bus from going over a bridge in San Francisco, and finally, some trigger-happy security guard fires at Speedball during a bank robbery/hostage situation, and the ricochets from his kinetic field kill two innocent bystanders. The media picks up the story nationwide, using Speedball as the prime example of why heroes need to register, how dangerous the anti-registration heroes are, and why young people shouldn't be allowed to operate as superheroes. The atmosphere shifts; first police are recommended across the country to use riot teams to apprehend rogue superheroes, then S.H.I.E.L.D. teams are dispatched onto regular superhero patrols. Iron Man offers his services to help round up the unregistered heroes, in hopes that he can take control before they start using lethal force in these apprehensions. Things are clearly spiraling out of control.
Meanwhile, Captain America has become the hero of the anti-registration movement. He steps into this role naturally, finding them across the country and running a sort of underground railroad for anti-reg heroes. Things with Cap proceed pretty much the same as they have in the regular series, what with him assembling his Secret Avengers and continuing their superheroic duties in secret. The only difference is that some of the heroes, particularly some of the younger ones, are chafing under Cap's cautionary ways. They want to break out and really fight back, but Cap doesn't want to start an all-out war with the American government. These dissenting heroes--including Black Cat, Jack Power, Deathlok, and War Machine (assuming all of them are still alive)--begin sneaking out of the base and causing anti-government havoc. Cap tries to hold together his Secret Avengers, despite the growing schism, but more and more of his team are choosing proactive methods over reactive ones. Of course, those methods are being spun by the media and the government to increase the furor over the issue, and it's quickly nationwide martial law on unregistered superheroes.
Tony Stark decides that this needs to end quickly; he realizes that the situation has long been out of his control, and he assembles his team to set a trap for Cap's Secret Avengers, in hopes of stopping the madness before America becomes a superhuman police state. The battle goes poorly for both sides; two of the Young Avengers and Dazzler are captured, while Sue Storm defects to Cap's side.
Cap and Tony don't fight, not really. Tony explains his position, how he just wants to help, he wants to wrest control of the system back from the government, and he can't do it alone. Things are out of his hands, and the vaguely anarchist actions of the Secret Avengers are only making things worse. Cap tells Tony that he's not trying to take down the government, he's just trying to hold his team together, and it's breaking apart under the pressure. He's disappointed that Tony would stoop so low as to set a trap for them, and he doesn't want to fight, but he's not going to back down. The Registration Act is wrong, and if Tony can't see that with S.H.I.E.L.D. patrols hunting down superheroes in the streets, then there may be no hope at all. Cap tells Tony to call off his troops, that this can still end peacefully, but Iron Man morosely looks away and pulls his mask back down. "I'm sorry, Cap. I can't do that." He fires his repulsor-ray, but finds it deflected back at him by Captain America's mighty shield. Cap calls for a retreat, while Iron Man's enforcers press on. They teleport away, with help from the Invisible Woman, and return to their base.
Back in the hideout, licking their wounds, the Secret Avengers have a breakdown. Cloak is pissed, and he leads the proactive heroes out of the hideout. Captain America is watching his resistance fall apart, and he wonders how it got to this point. Maybe Tony's right, maybe it would be better if they sat down with the pro-Registration folks and hammered out a compromise. Around that time, a young and idealistic superhero by the name of Gravity awkwardly steps up to Captain America, clumsily salutes, and introduces himself, saying how much of a pleasure it is to meet him, and how it was his shining example, his steadfast adherence to the ideals that make this country so great, which inspired him to put on a mask and tights and fight the good fight. Captain America shakes the young man's hand, and is suddenly reassured that he's doing the right thing. He thanks the lad, and solicits volunteers to go after their black sheep.
The splinter Avengers, however, aren't doing so hot. Following a raging Cloak, they decide to raid the S.H.I.E.L.D. prison facility where their teammates are being held, in hopes of causing serious damage while they're at it. They successfully break into the prison, not realizing that both the captured heroes and various villains are temporarily being held in the facility. The ensuing melee decimates that base's S.H.I.E.L.D. forces, and the splinter Avengers barely escape with their lives...the ones who manage to escape, anyway. The team's wounded, with S.H.I.E.L.D. on their tails, a dozen supervillains on the loose, and no place to run. With nowhere else to turn, Cloak's team makes a deal with the nearest available devil, Wilson Fisk. In exchange for releasing him from prison, they need a base of operations and the resources to recouperate and take down the Act once and for all.
This latest raid on S.H.I.E.L.D. facilities has the government steaming. The casualties are fairly low, and they managed to recapture several of the villains and a couple of the splinter Avengers, but the collateral damage was deemed unacceptable. They decide on their own to settle this once and for all. Each one fitted with an inhibitor collar that can be activated by remote, and will detonate if removal is attempted, the new Thunderbolts squadron is unleashed, with orders to find and capture the Secret Avengers, by any means necessary. When Iron Man protests, he and his team are placed on lockdown.
And that brings us right up to the end of issue four or so. Excluding neutral parties like the X-Men and the Thing, we have four distinct factions: Captain America's Secret Avengers, fighting nobly against the Registration; Iron Man's enforcers, defending the Act for the good of the nation; Cloak's crusaders, teaming with a supervillain in order to take down the government; and Maria Hill's S.H.I.E.L.D. and Thunderbolts, who want their order on their terms. The logical continuation would see Iron Man and Captain America's teams uniting to corral their rogue factions, and the future of the Act could go either way, depending on how brave Marvel wants to be. Moral ambiguity abounds, and with the right treatment both of the moderate sides can look like they're doing everything for the right reasons, while the fanatics can act fanatical without going wildly out of character. There's no need to compromise Captain America and Iron Man for a story like this, no need to senselessly slaughter minor characters, and absolutely no need to clone Thor.
Doesn't that sound like a better comic? And I'd write it for free.