Should superheroes be anonymous, or should they register with the US government? This is the central question of Marvel’s Civil War. I was aware of this event when it began in 2007. It was, however, several years before I would read it through from beginning to end. The story, in short, is that a bunch of reality show superheroes wind up inadvertently causing the death of over 700 civilians, leading the government to push for universal registration of masked vigilantes. The superhero community splits over the issue, with Iron Man favoring registration and Captain America opposing it.
In the end, after much drama, angst, combat, and death, Cap surrenders rather than cause any more damage, and is arrested as a traitor to the United States government.
This is an issue that had been skirted by both of the major comics for years. We had become used to seeing panel after panel of heroes crashing through office buildings, cratering major thoroughfares as they fall, and shattering endless numbers of windows as they did battle with the forces of evil.
What was often ignored, though, was the human cost. It was only very rarely that writers would deal with the impact to the everyday person of having their entire apartment complex obliterated when Superman gives the world-conqueror-of-the-week the old what-for. It was just business as usual.
But this was in the comics of yesteryear, in the days before the 24-hour news cycle, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and every other apparatus that we have created to ensure that we are instantly notified of anything we consider to be of import.
In the flattened world we live in, we are much more aware of the disasters that occur around us every day.
The popular outrage that drove the passage of the Super Human Registration Act in Civil War mirrors our own political environment much more than the live-and-let-die attitude that prevailed in comics through the 1990s.
But what of the cost?
In the end, Cap surrenders. In reality, the publishers surrendered us, the readers, to a future where there is no separation between the “righteous” superhero and the government that regulates them. Heroes, like soldiers today, are allowed to disagree with their government in private, but must toe the line in public.
The characters who, ostensibly, are there to protect the world from tyranny, become agents of a different sort of tyranny, one that wraps itself in the flag and cries treason against any who question the status quo.
At a time when the most powerful in the world seem to be consolidating that power, we can no longer rely on our printed protectors to stand up for us.
Perhaps that is Civil War’s message in the end. If we want heroism in our modern world, we first have to find the hero in ourselves and refuse to bow down in the face of fear. Only when we do that will we be able to fly freely.