In the Marvel Universe, US law now demands that costumed adventurers register their powers and identities with the government. Some heroes, led by Iron Man, choose to accede to this demand. Others, led by Captain America, resist it. The conflict between the pro-registration and anti-registration groups has become violent, erupting into a 'Civil War'. In an effort to find a solution, Iron Man and Captain America meet secretly. They've got a lot to talk about...
Captain America, having received a surreptitious request from Iron Man for a meeting, makes his way in secret to the ruins of Avengers Mansion. It's a tense meeting for these two old friends, because they now lead what amounts to opposing armies, and blood has been shed.
The conversation is wary at first: neither one is sure he can trust the other, especially in light of recent developments. They're able to find some common ground by reminiscing about the early days of the Avengers, when disagreements and even violence between friends could be smoothed over with a few kind words. Those days are now gone. But recalling past adventures allows the pair to find enough common ground for a real conversation, or rather a real argument: each man does his best to persuade the other to abandon his stance on registration. It's a long argument, and a fascinating one: it clearly establishes how serious and well-thought-out each hero's position is.
Reducing the argument to a synopsis would be an injustice, so I won't try. Suffice to say the conversation takes up almost the entire book. Both appeal to the other's reason. Both attack the other's position as founded on neurosis or self-interest. Both appeal to the friendship they've shared in an effort to sway the other. And ultimately each one finds he cannot induce the other to change his views.
Finally, out of sheer frustration, they come to blows: Iron Man doffs his battle-armour and Captain America drops his shield and the two men, desperate for catharsis, brawl to exhaustion. Their truce-- and their friendship?-- at an end, each silently departs, and the Civil War lurches on.
Of all the individual Civil War books-- the limited series, the innumerable crossovers, the one-shot books-- this one is the best. Unquestionably.
That's a pretty bold statement but I think I can back it up. Marvel has a long tradition of big intra-company crossovers, most of which were lame and forgettable. Does anyone remember now just what the Evolutionary Wars were about, or why Atlantis attacked, or what the stakes were in Operation: Galactic Storm? (Or, for that matter, what they were in DC's Our Worlds at War?) What distinguishes Civil War from these earlier efforts is that Civil War is founded on an idea rather than a plot: the idea that vigilantism and liberal democracy might be incompatible. There's a lot more food for thought there than there is in, say, the Infinity Gauntlet sequence.
Marvel writers have run with the implications of Civil War in all sorts of different ways: teasing out resonance with current events in the United States and Iraq; using the question of to-register-or-not-to-register to illuminate the psychology of individual characters; exploring the various ways citizens can react when their governments promulgate laws with which they disagree (acceding quietly, going into exile, trying to change the system from within) and weighing the relative merits of these approaches. But very few have come to grips with the central question that Civil War poses: can it ever be right for citizens to act as vigilantes?
It's a curious omission because it is the fact that the series is founded on this real, significant ethical problem that gives it a chance to be more than a marketing gimmick that no one will remember in three years. Some of Marvel's writers appear to be aware of this opportunity. Mark Millar's Civil War #1 probed the problem a little. So did Brian Bendis' Illuminati one-shot. J. Michael Straczynski, in his work on Fantastic Four and, especially, Amazing Spider-Man, did quite a bit on this score: using Spider-Man in his role as The Hero Who Could Be You, Staczynski presented Peter Parker as a man who thought deeply about the issue and who has at times been on each side of the question.
Straczynski's work, taken as a whole, is impressive, but it's spread out over a number of issues, and even titles. If Straczynski's contributions are a glass of wine, which has to be savoured to discover the complexities within it, Rubicon is a shot of vodka: cold, clear, and powerful, with the whole problem distilled into a single serving.
Both Tony Stark and Steve Rogers have good reasons to support their positions. Again, trying to reduce them to bullet points would be a disservice to the book, but I think I can safely say the following: for Iron Man, power is best wielded through institutions, not individuals. Captain America believes the opposite. Both men agree that heroes acting alone can act swiftly, decisively, effectively, and, if policed by their peers, justly; and both agree that heroes acting alone can make mistakes, lose control of their emotions, and do immense amounts of damage. But Captain America, who esteems liberty as the fundamental value, believes the benefits of individual action outweigh the costs. Iron Man, a former alcoholic, feels he knows better what happens when power is exercised without formal bureaucratic accountability.
The two men are engaged in a moral debate: can there be justice without law? In his deservedly-well-regarded book After Virtue, philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre noted that contemporary moral debates-- over abortion, affirmative action, and other hot-button issues, for example-- are framed as arguments: positions that one can justify through recourse to argument. But these arguments depend on first principles: one's position on abortion depends upon whether one believes life to begin at conception or at birth. There is no way, in a post-Enlightenment world, to persuade someone to adopt a first principle. Either one accepts that life begins at birth (or conception), or one doesn't. If you don't believe it, I don't know how to convince you otherwise. In fact there is no way to do so, not in a liberal-pluralist society where no code of values commands universal allegiance. As a result contemporary moral debates admit of no solution: there are no ways to persuade others that one's own position is right. The most one can do is point to errors in one's opponent's logic. These days everyone is adept at tearing down other people's moral arguments, but are unable to defend their own. In such a climate, the most effective rhetorical tactic to 'win' an argument is to 'unmask' your opponents: show that they hold their beliefs not for the logical reasons they offer, but rather to advance their own personal, private interests.
The debate on offer here is a splendid example of what MacIntyre was getting at. Ultimately neither Steve nor Tony can persuade the other that the Registration Act is right or wrong, because Steve's first principle is liberty and Tony's is accountability, and their positions on the Act flow directly out of those principles. So instead the two men go for the personal, and argue that the other man has adopted the Act because it advances their own interests. Steve points out that Iron Man, as a former alcoholic, has always found ways to do what he wanted to do while justifying those ways to himself: whether seducing Janet van Dyne, or fighting the Armor Wars, or killing the Kree Supreme Intelligence during Galactic Storm, Tony Stark has always found a way to do what he really wanted to do while believing he was acting for the greater good. But that greater good is an illusion: Tony's desires have always come first. Like any other aristocrat, he can't distinguish between what's best for himself and what's best for all. And in turn Tony points out that Steve's problem is that he can't handle complexity: he has a few moral rules-- liberty should not be restricted, the good is something that you have to fight for, it's better to fail nobly than succeed ignobly-- and applies those rules, like a machine, to every situation he enters. But what Steve fails to appreciate, says Tony, is that people aren't machines, and not every problem admits of a simple solution. Sometimes, nuance and consequence matter.
The writer, Christos Gage, ties these accusations into Marvel continuity going all the way back to the Sixties. The big events in each man's biography are present, along with lots of little ones too: Tony's alcoholism, the death of Bucky, the Armor Wars, Galactic Storm, Tony's tenure as Secretary of Defense, the two men's attitude toward the Young Avengers. But while the story is continuity-heavy, it uses continuity in the right way. One could read this story without knowing anything about either character's backstory and still appreciate it, while those who do know the backstory will find their appreciation heightened by the attentiveness to what has gone before. Knowing the history enhances the story, but not knowing the history is no impediment to enjoying it. It's very well done.
Speaking of continuity: Spider-Man's past features prominently in both sides of the two men's argument. In the early part of the debate, when the two men are trying to convince each other, both draw on Spider-Man's experience as evidence. Tony claims that Peter's career would have gone more smoothly had he been trained: perhaps if Peter had been formally schooled in the use of his powers, he might have been able to rescue Gwen Stacy from the Green Goblin without breaking her neck in the process. Steve counters by pointing out the only reason Gwen was in the Goblin's power in the first place was because he, the Goblin, had discovered Peter's secret identity. If Peter's identity had never been exposed to Norman Osborn, then Gwen and Peter would not have come to grief at all.
Cap has more fuel for the fire, though. Peter, he points out, "wears his need for a father figure on his sleeve," and Tony exploited that need by giving Peter a job, a place to live, a new costume, and a sympathetic ear. The first time I read this my jaw dropped: it hadn't occurred to me that there was anything new that could be said about Peter Parker, but here it was. Having lost his true father and his foster father at a young age, of course Peter would cleave hard to the first credible father figure that came his way. It's surprising to me that this angle has been so under-employed in Spider-Man's 45-year history, and that a Civil War one-shot issue would be the first one to draw attention to it explicitly. (Of course Straczynski used the same idea in his recent Spider-Man arcs, but more subtly.)
The only downside to an otherwise splendid story is the absurd battle at the end. I'm sure this was done to include some action in an issue that otherwise was just a bunch of talking heads. But some of us, I have to say, like talking heads, especially when they're talking about interesting ideas. But the powers that be seem to have felt that a fight was necessary to satisfy the groundlings, and so a fight occurs, shoehorned into an issue that in no way calls for one. That's bad enough. What's worse is the pretext for this fight: two friends-cum-rivals need to blow off some steam, so they engage in a boxing match. Neither intends to subdue the other and take him into custody; they just want to work out their frustrations by punching each other. Sigh. American literature is a pretty big river, and comic books are just one current in that river. One of the gigantic rocks in that river, which all its currents pass over, is the idea that violence is somehow regenerative, and can purify and redeem the savage part of the self and restore the civilized part. Bluntly put: American literature often argues that violence is a positive thing, and that it can actually be a curative or a restorative. It's a peculiarly American idea-- see Richard Slotkin's book Regeneration Through Violence on this score-- so perhaps American readers will find this an appropriate conclusion. But non-American readers (like yours truly) are apt to shake our heads in disbelief. The fight is supposed to be at once an expression of the two men's friendship (they trust each other enough to fight each other without putting themselves at risk of capture) and of that friendship's dissolution (the brawl is juxtaposed with the time, years before, when Steve cared enough about Tony to train him to defend himself). But the readers already understand that friendship is one of the things at stake in the Civil War. And it's not as if the regular Civil War books haven't given us fights between former friends, including these two former friends. And more plausible ones to boot.
This one-shot manages to combine lots of thoughtful philosophical discussion with penetrating psychological examination of its characters, and the whole thing is well-grounded in continuity without being trapped by it. Comics today don't get any better than this. The issue loses half a web for its only flaw: a silly brawl between the end that feels tacked-on and extraneous.
It's been clear for many months now that, despite the even-handedness of the marketing slogan "Whose Side Are You On?", the Marvel writers are firmly in Captain America's camp. Tony Stark is the villain of this drama, although the writers are charitable enough to agree that he sees himself instead as a hero bearing a distasteful and tragic burden. This issue was the first one that I've read to argue effectively that Tony might be right and Steve wrong. That's remarkable, given that both the ongoing Iron Man and New Avengers books have had the opportunity.