Nearly a month ago I wrote, Defending Civil War now it is time to deconstruct the final issue.
Page one: The last issue ended with the two sides lining up for a fight at the prison in the Negative Zone. This issue opens with the two sides joining battle.
Page two: As the battle heats up, I thought to myself, "You know, if you're really that opposed to costumed heroes, don't you simply shut down the inter-dimensional gateway and trap all of them on the other side?" And a panel or two after I think that, somebody at SHIELD basically suggests the same thing and starts doing it. At that moment, I'm going, "Yeah!" For me, it was like Captain Comics' revelation during The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Frodo and Sam are watching an army on the march as it becomes ambushed. Cap has said that he thought, "You've been there too long" one beat before Frodo says to Sam, "We've been here too long." It's a great moment because it feels right..
Page four: Black Panther and Dagger discover that SHIELD is trying to shut the gateway down. They try to reroute it to another location, fail. Then Dagger tells Cloak to get ready to teleport everyone. Maybe I was reading too much into that scene, but I thought, "Of course Cap would have planned an escape route with his side. Of course they'd have another way out of the Negative Zone." So for me, that was two great moments in two pages.
Page six: Cloak teleports everybody into downtown New York. This was the first misstep for me, although at the time it seemed like a minor one. I think that Millar attempted to give us a couple of explanations. One, Black Panther was said to be rerouting the gateway to the Baxter Building instead of Ryker's Island but they didn't use the gateway, they used Cloak so that doesn't quite work. Two, Cloak complained that he couldn't do it and even though Dagger talked him into it, this was as far as he was able to go. But again, the explanation doesn't pan out. Cloak's complaint was that it was too dangerous, not that it was too hard. I got the sense that he was worried about keeping track of that many people while teleporting them and possibly losing some to the dark dimension. Or something like that. Three, Cloak could teleport between dimensions but not over distances. This works better if they arrive on Ryker's Island instead of in Manhattan, because the latter shows that he was able to travel some distances. And we've seen Cloak teleport from L.A.to New York before (though not in this series) so we know he can travel over distance. It could have worked. But you needed a panel or two of Cloak after the teleport, exhausted from his endeavour, confessing to Dagger or somebody else that he tried, he really tried, but it was too hard to teleport that many people that far away. And that's all you needed. Yet we didn't get that. We get a Captain America who apparently has a back-up plan to escape from the Negative Zone but hasn't worked it out that they should return to the Mojave Desert or somewhere in the cornfields of Nebraska. We get a Black Panther who is capable of rerouting the SHIELD gateway to the Baxter Building and sending teleportation coordinates to Cloak but who also doesn't think that he'd be better off taking this fight away from civilians than to them. And we get a Cloak who is capable of teleporting across dimensions but not across a couple of hundred miles. It didn't work. And it really wasn't that big a deal on page six. But it becomes a big deal later on.
Page eight: "Amazing." "Spectacular." At this point, the issue only had one small misstep and two great moments so I'm still having a good time. Since I'm in a good mood already, I enjoyed this little exchange.
Page ten: Loved the Namor entrance.
Page eleven: Loved the entrance of Thor and the Champions. This battle is really escalating. Plus, the reinforcements for both sides had been shown in issue six either getting ready in the case of the Champions or being recruited in the case of Namor. I know that some people have expressed problems with this scene but so far, I'm still going along with the story. Some people have questioned Tony using Thor again after he's been shown to kill. Well, Tony still wants to win. He keeps Thor on the sidelines as long as he can but he's going to let Thor loose rather than risk losing.
Page fourteen: Nice to see The Thing arrive. And nice to see Mr. Fantastic switch sides at the last moment and save Sue from the Taskmaster.
Page fifteen and sixteen: I didn't care for the "I knew Thor and you sir, are no Thor" line. Didn't work for me. Though I did like seeing Hercules smash the clone Thor into bits.
Page seventeen: Captain America has defeated Iron Man.He's got him down. Tony tells Steve to finish it. And I'm on the edge of my seat. Well, not literally, as I was reading this while lying down. But certainly figuratively. How are they going to get out of this? What is Cap going to do? And then...
Page eighteen: The public tackles Cap! Are you kidding me? The public tackles Cap! I can explain it. I really can. During this whole series, we've seen that one of Iron Man's major motivations has been winning back the public trust. And we've seen him actively working towards that goal, especially in issue three or four when the group that becomes the Mighty Avengers takes down a robot in Manhattan and the public applauds. And that's the reason behind Spider-Man's unmasking. Not to comply with the government regulations. But to win back public trust. So I can speculate that Iron Man's plan is paying off and that he's actually winning back the public trust. And Captain America hasn't cared at all about public opinion. He's been underground. He's been in hiding. And I can see the public faith in Captain America eroding while he's out of sight. So I can explain it.
here's the problem: I shouldn't have to be the one explaining it.
That's the job of the storyteller. And if the issue of public trust is going to
play such a critical role in the climax of the story, then we have to see some
sign of public opinion before that. We have to have scenes in which Average Joe
on the Street says something about how much he admires
have to see Soccer Mom complain that she just can't trust somebody like Captain America
who keeps so many secrets. We need those scenes. And this is story-telling 101. Quoting JMS (who certainly didn't invent the idea): "if you're going to show a gun in the first act then you'd better use it in the third act, and if you're going to use a gun in the third act then you'd better show it in the first act." Mark Millar remembered to do this with everything except public opinion. He showed Yellowjacket training the Champions. He showed Sue recruiting the Submariner. But we never got a scene in which ordinary, average people expressed that they trusted one side more than the other. Without that, this scene comes out of nowhere. And this is where the issue starts to fall apart.
Page nineteen: Cap sees the devastation that this battle has caused on downtown New York and realizes that they've been fighting for the wrong reasons. Now, the little problem back on page six becomes a major problem. Why did Cloak teleport everybody into New York in the first place? Of course this is what was going to happen.
The problem here is that the writer's hand shows itself too clearly. The whole story was kicked off with an incident in Stamford, Connecticut in which 600 people died. You need an incident bigger than that to bring Cap to this kind of momentous realization. And that's why Cloak teleported everybody into downtown New York- so that you can have this big incident. But there was never a good in-story reason for the fight to take place where it did. The fight had even been moved from a relatively isolated area- the NegativeZone-to a highly populated one by. Cap's major realization on this page is based, in large part, on the location of the fight but the location of the fight is a mis-step. And it isn't a character's mis-step, such as that Cloak would have taken everybody to an isolated place if he could but this was as much as he was able to do. No, this was a story mis-step in that we were never given a plausible explanation for why the fight was moved to the place that it was moved to. So Cap's realization and change of heart is based on a story-telling flaw. The fight was in downtown New York because the writer needed the fight to be in downtown New York. So it's hard for us as readers to buy Captain America's change of heart. We just don't believe because we see the writer's hand too clearly.
Page twenty: Captain America surrenders. And I have to admit it feels hollow and disappointing. Is this what the story has been leading up to? Cap quits! And part of the reason why this feels so hollow and disappointing is because of the major flaws on page eighteen and nineteen. Those major flaws mean that we don't buy Captain America's motivation for his change of heart.
So how would I have done it differently? Well, for one, I'd have included that one extra panel of an exhausted Cloak explaining why he was able to teleport to New York and no further. Two, I wouldn't have had the public tackle Cap. You could have achieved the same result in a different way. All you needed was one police officer yelling, "Cap!" Captain America holds the defeated Iron Man down and looks at the person who called his name. The person says something simple like, "Don't do it." Cap looks down. He realizes that he's fighting someone who used to be his friend. He looks at the devastation of the city and realizes that he's endangering the lives of civilians rather than protecting them. And then he orders a retreat.
Once back in hiding, the other heroes might even question Cap. "Why did you have us retreat when we were so close to winning?" Cap could even say something like what he said on page twenty: "We weren't close to winning, we had already lost." Then he calls someone on the other side- Tony and Reed are both down, but he could still call Yellowjacket or Ms. Marvel. He could call the President himself for crying out loud. And he offers to surrender himself to the authorities, but he has a condition: all of the other heroes will be granted amnesty for siding with him.
I'll admit that it's less dramatic in one, maybe two ways. Having someone stop Cap with a word rather than having a handful of guys tackle him could be considered less dramatic. After all, the latter option involves action and fighting while the former option does not. But it’s not like there hasn’t been plenty of fighting in this issue already and dialogue can be dramatic too if handled correctly. Admittedly, having Cap surrender over the phone from some secret hide-out is less dramatic than having him take off his mask and hold out his hands to be cuffed while standing in the middle of a field of battle. But compared to the little bit that you lose in terms of drama, you gain so much more in terms of consistent characterization and sensible story-telling.
First, by having someone stop Captain America with a word instead of a group tackle, you're appealing to his ideals and his virtues. That's a problem I've often had with Civil War. It's supposed to be a conflict of ideals. Neither side is supposed to be wrong. Both are supposedly motivated by positive things- freedom on the one hand, security on the other. Yet so often, we've seen characters motivated not by their positive characteristics but by negative ones, not by their ideals but by their flaws. Don't have a group of people tackle Captain America because he's gone too far. Have somebody appeal to him. They want him to stop the fight because they still believe in him, not because they stopped.
Second, in the scene as it's written, Captain America comes off very badly. He surrendered. He's a quitter. All of the people who put their trust in him and fought on his side are shown to be fools. But it doesn't have to be that way. Have him order a tactical retreat. Have him surrender from afar on the condition that the others are granted amnesty. Suddenly, he's not a quitter anymore. He's still a hero. He's selfless to the point of being sacrificial. He's someone who believes in his ideals so much that he's willing to lose for them.
I've defended Civil War because I think that it's true-to-life that after people have chosen sides based on ideals, they often compromise those same ideals in their efforts to win. We've seen both sides do that. Iron Man has conscripted villains. Captain America had agreed to work with The Punisher for a time. And in this scene, Cap realizes that this is the case. He's compromised too much. He's been fighting for the right to privacy while protecting the world from harm. Yet in doing so, he's actually brought more harm to the world. I don’t have a problem with that realization. But the realization itself was mishandled. It was forced by unexplained story elements. Captain America looked stupid rather than shrewd. And he looked wrong, in a story in which neither side was supposed to be wrong. Have him surrender sacrificially. His side will still look right in terms of ideals. To paraphrase the line from page twenty: he’ll have won the argument but not the war. And the other side will still look right in practical terms. They’ll have won the war but not the argument. But as it is, Cap and his side have lost everything.
Despite my disappointment in the climax of the series, I’m interested in some of the places that the story will go from here:
Page twenty-two: The Punisher as Captain America?
Page twenty-three: the Avengers Initiative
Page twenty-four: a different group of Avengers fighting back from the underground
Page twenty-five and twenty-six: However, the scene between Reed and Sue simply didn’t work for me. It gets back to what I was complaining about in the earlier paragraph. Captain America’s side has lost everything. They lost. They admitted they were wrong. Iron Man’s side hasn’t lost anything. They won. And they haven’t admitted that they compromised too much of their ideals in order to win. Not even in Reed’s letter. He promises Sue that they won’t have to make the same hard choices that they’d made before- no more traps, no more clones- but he never expresses any remorse for having made those hard choices in the first place. And yet Sue comes back. It’s not good enough that Reed tells her that he needs her. He never actually says, I’m sorry. So again, a key member of the anti-registration side seems to admit that she’s wrong, while a key member of the pro-registration side is shown to be right.
Maybe it works on an allegorical level. Civil War has been promoted as an allegory for our real world debate. And in our real world, the security side of the debate certainly won. At least, they had for a while though the pendulum seems to be swinging back the other way. So it fits that Iron Man’s side should win in this story, as well, just as they won the real world debate. But while that may work on an allegorical level, it’s unsatisfying on a storytelling level. Not everybody on the winning side has to admit they’re wrong. Iron Man can still act like he was fully justified in everything that he did. But someone on that side should wonder if they paid too high a price, someone on that side should have the same kind of realization that Cap did. It looked like it might have been Reed. He was certainly the best candidate for it. But he didn’t quite go there. He almost said that it wasn’t worth winning the argument if it meant he lost his wife. I would have had a lot of respect for Reed if he had come out and said something like that. But he didn’t. Not quite.
As a result we have a story that is disappointing. It’s a disappointing finish because the climax didn’t work- it depended on too many plot holes and contrivances. And it’s disappointing emotionally. It’s too bad. Civil War aspired to be a great story. And at points, it almost got there. But it didn’t. Instead, with such an unsatisfying ending, a not-quite-great story became a bad one.
Originally Published on
Saturday, 24 February 2007 at Captain Comics.us.