If you were alive in 2001, you have your “9/11” story. Mine is pretty unexceptional. I was asleep until 11:00am that day, when I got a phone call from my mom saying, “We’re being attacked by Paris!” Having misheard “terrorist” as “Paris,” I was confused about the state of world affairs for the next 10 minutes or so until I turned on the TV and witnessed my generation’s defining world event.
Marvel Comics’ Civil War was written in the context of a post 9/11 world. This world was notable for its concerns about freedom and security, FISA and surveillance overreach, indefinite detention at Gitmo, and the Patriot Act. A lot of political discourse during this time reflected the tension between concerns for both freedom and security. Choruses of people quoted Benjamin Franklin’s famous “those who sacrifice freedom for security deserve neither” line.
Civil War gives us a moment to reflect on how context specific the framing of certain stories can be. The politicians on the Left and the Right in the U.S. were having a very different conversation about freedom and security during George W. Bush’s presidency. Republicans tended to side with the Bush administration’s at times heavy-handed (and arguably illegal) approach to maintaining security, while largely compliant Democrats brought up concerns about violations of civil liberties (but put up little effectual resistance to Bush administration security policies).
Civil War in a Post-9/11 World
Marvel’s Civil War pitted Captain America against Iron Man. After a group of young, naïve superheroes instigate a fight with a group of supervillains that ends with the death of over 600 elementary schoolchildren in Stamford, Connecticut, the U.S. begins to push to pass a Superhero Registration Act to ensure greater accountability for superheroes and better training.
In Civil War #1, Cap maintained, “Masked heroes have been a part of this country for as long as anyone can remember,” and that the government was overstepping its boundaries when “Washington starts telling us who the super-villains are.” This could set a dangerous precedent.
Meanwhile, Iron Man maintained that the world we lived in required pragmatic compromise in the face of unprecedented threats that the founders of the U.S. Constitution couldn’t have foreseen. Sometimes difficult decisions in the name of security need to be maintained.
In the decade following 9/11, debates raged about freedom and security and how the country could strike a balance between these concerns. This was the milieu in which the story for Civil War emerged. The series could even be read as lightly touching on the ensuing Islamophobia after 9/11 when Johnny Storm is attacked by a superhuman-hating angry mob or even when Cap warns Tony in Iron Man/Captain America: Casualties of War about giving too much power to the government because “you don’t know who could get elected, how public sentiment might change. I’m old enough to remember Japanese-Americans being put in camps because they were judged potential threats to national security.” In the age of indefinite detentions for innocent Muslims in Gitmo (as well as a fair share of racial profiling), this comment was particularly resonant.
While the main series painted Cap in a pretty good light, the tie-ins were a bit more sympathetic to Iron Man (but given the events that followed, including the rise of Spider-Man villain Norman Osborn to power in the Dark Reign event, one could argue that Cap was vindicated in his concerns about trusting the government too much).
Civil War in a Post-Trump Era
Fast forward 15 years and concerns about freedom, security, and pragmatic compromise mean something different in the Age of Trump. In terms of how the story has aged, I wouldn’t say it has aged poorly, but it is a different reading experience in 2021 than it was in 2006.
We now face a pandemic that is coming close to claiming just as many lives in the U.S. as the Spanish Flu of 1918 (675,000). At least during that pandemic, people understood the need to wear masks (although even then, resolve faded). From the beginning, people have found a way to resist wearing masks for the public good under the auspices of personal choice (but wearing masks isn’t effective unless its done en masse since its about protecting others from you, not vice versa). Cap’s resistance to doing what is necessary during a national crisis isn’t a good look in 2021.
And then, of course, we have our political debates about gun control in the U.S. The private ownership of guns has indeed been a part of the traditions of the country (questions about the 2nd Amendment’s relationship to “a well-regulated militia” notwithstanding). People have been permitted to hunt and defend themselves in this country’s past, and in the age prior to the existence of assault weapons, there really was no stipulation on the types of guns one could own.
However, one might be forgiven for reading Civil War in the age of Parkland and Sandy Hook and thinking, “Y’know what? Iron Man is right. 600 kids dying is a sign that some sort of regulation needs to be put in place.” It’s hard not to side with Maria Hill in thinking that Cap is an old fool for not being willing to compromise on the Superhero Registration Act. Even more so, the idea that Iron Man is a communist who hates the U.S. and wants to leave people defenseless is also laughable. If anything, it almost seems callous to NOT compromise (particularly in light of Australia’s success).
While one might have been forgiven for being torn between Cap and Iron Man in 2006, it’s really hard to read Civil War in 2021 when the arguments about personal freedoms and pragmatic regulation are bogged down in the complaints of anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, and conspiracies about child actors in school shootings. All of which have real world consequences that are paid for by the lives of real people.
Politics has always been a part of the comics reading experience. With Marvel’s first Civil War event, we can see how the same story communicates a different message during a different time.