When the original Civil War debuted ten years ago, I recall it being marketed as an evenhanded exploration of the political positions held by each faction. Re-reading it recently in anticipation of the third Captain America film, the story is structured clearly so as to present Rogers in the right, but is just subtle enough that those thoroughly entrenched in Tony Stark’s camp could still finish the final issue and miss Millar’s otherwise clear critique. At the time I was among them, vocally pro-registration and team Iron-Man. My politics were quite different then. I had just served six years in a junior Recruit Officer Training Corps and had plans to pursue a commission upon completing grad school. Moreover, like many Americans in the wake of the September 11th attacks, my reaction had been to become a warhawk who prioritized national security over individual liberties. Thus, the conflation of superheroes and military service seemed to me entirely noble. I realized the Registration Act was an analog for the Patriot Act, but I’d supported the latter. Likewise, I’d realized that in Millar’s The Ultimates, the team’s invasion of Iran was an analog for the American invasion of Iraq, but I’d supported the war. On all counts, I was wrong.
I took numerous classes on political philosophy throughout undergrad. I was a founding member of both the conservative and liberal student organizations at my university. My senior thesis paper was a challenge to social contract theory. I was throughout that time in constant conversations about politics with professors, classmates, and friends on both sides of the aisle. My views evolved significantly as a result, but I know my more libertarian leanings these days can in some small part be credited to comics such as Civil War and The Ultimates, among others. Such are particularly persuasive in that the protagonists themselves, as unilateral actors with far more martial might than any actual individuals, serves as excellent analogs for governments. Just as T’Challa oft say, “I am Wakanda,” some similar sentiment is true of many superheroes.
For example, despite what Michael Caine may claim, Batman is oftentimes how America sees itself, or at least an optimistic projecting of its own government. The Adam West version in the mid-60s was duly appointed, every bit as subject to the law of the land as its citizens. The West Batman was the pre-Watergate American government, viewed uncynically as deriving its power from the people and entirely trustworthy with that power. The Christian Bale version in the mid-2000s, particularly in The Dark Knight, was what warhawks wanted of the Bush administrations during its execution of the War on Terror. The Bale Batman acknowledged that his methodologies, including extraordinary rendition, enhanced interrogation, and warrantless wire-tapping, were wrong, but argued them a necessary evil in order to bring a terrorist to justice (though Batman, when his war was won, gave up those powers as promised).
Who then are the principle players in Civil War II? Carol Danvers and Jessica Walters are, like Stark and Rogers, what authoritarian and libertarian elements of modern American politics perceive their nation’s proper place to be, respectively.
I’ve avoided solicitations and spoilers regarding the nature of the conflict, but from what is hinted at in this #0 issue, Danvers (and Hill) are interested in pursing preemptive and preventative measures. They’re less interested in being literal avengers, enacting retributive justice on wrongdoers, and more on stopping super-crime and super-terrorism from taking place before they begin. I imagine that, just as the real world Patriot Act inspired the Superhuman Registration Act in the first Civil War, a major inspiration here was the National Security Agency’s global surveillance program, the full extent of which was partially revealed by the Snowden leaks three years ago, in which the American government was found to be conducting espionage operations on allied states and mass surveillance of its own citizens’ communications. Though I doubt the connection is intentional, there’s also many similarities between Danvers and Trump (beyond the same bad haircut). The presumptive Republican nominee’s campaign promises to build a wall across the Mexican boarder and to ban Muslim immigration are both framed as measures to protect the American people from violent crime and acts of terrorism. Danvers’ or S.H.E.I.L.D.’s system might not be the same, but the sentiment still is.
Jessica Walters is a fitting figurehead for the opposition. While it is (disappointingly) difficult to associate her with any particular politician, she is nevertheless America as many Americans wish their country was – conservatives might claim she embodies the principles of the founding fathers, while liberals might say she embodies ideals society is slowly progressing towards. As a lawyer, she has a commanding knowledge of not only the Constitution and the rights it protects, but also the philosophical principles underlying those rights. She rightly argues in her closing arguments in the Jester case:
“We as a society have to be very careful about punishing people for thought. This is still the land of the free. And that freedom mean freedom of thought. Freedom of all thought… We can’t arrest someone because we don’t like what they think about. We cannot punish someone for a crime they didn’t commit. We have to allow for rehabilitation. We have to allow for someone to pay their debt to society. We have to allow for freedom of thought, because if we do not – we are not a free people.”
There are two very salient points here. One is pragmatic and self-serving, that by endowing the government with the right to take punitive action against an innocent individual, that opens the doors for it to do so against any innocent, including oneself. The other is Walters defining guilt and innocence, right and wrong, heroism and villainy, in terms of actions and not identity. Her client, Mr. Powers, cannot be guilty merely by virtue of being a super-villain. Likewise, the government, despite its identity as the law, is still in the wrong for attempting to entrap an innocent individual. Just as most American recognize the danger of politicians and those in power codifying populist bigotry against immigrants and refugees, She-Hulk recognizes the danger of state-sponsored bigotry against alleged super-villains. Against all appearances, the one with the badge is the real villain in this instance.
This will be a particularly important principle to remember going into the main mini-series. Many commentators will frame Civil War II as yet another comic book event pitting heroes against heroes. It is not. Judging such individuals not by the costumes they wear, but the actions they commit, this second Civil War will be every bit the classic conflict of heroes versus villains as the first. It doesn’t matter that she carries a badge; it doesn’t matter that she works for Alpha Flight, S.H.E.I.L.D., or The Ultimates. In stripping innocents of their freedom of thought, Carol Danvers will be committing an act of villainy. That makes her and everyone on her side super-villains, plain and simple. #NotDanvers