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As Marvel’s Civil War II comic book series continues, more and more criticism is being directed toward the publisher’s portrayal of Captain Marvel, the leader of one of the factions of superheroes turned against each other as part of the multi-series storyline. With former fans complaining that the hero is being mischaracterized in order to generate conflict, is it time to finally say goodbye to the Hero vs. Hero superhero trope?
To be fair, 2016 has been a big year for that idea, with both Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Captain America: Civil War bringing it to the big screen, in addition to Marvel going back to the comic book well with Civil War II. As a concept, it’s been in use for more than half a century, having formed the backbone of many Marvel and DC comic book stories. While DC’s first superhero team crossover saw the Justice League and Justice Society work together immediately in 1963’s Justice League of America Nos. 21 and 22, Marvel’s teams were immediately at each other’s throats in 1964’s Fantastic Four No. 26 (“The Avengers Take Over!”) and No. 28, which was even titled “We Have to Fight the X-Men!” This year, undoubtedly, puts it in a spotlight far brighter than ever before.
Unfortunately, that spotlight just emphasizes the central problem with the idea: How can your heroes continue to fight without at least one side coming off as unsympathetic?
For Marvel’s Civil War II, the answer appears to be “with great difficulty.” io9 gave voice to many fans with a piece titled “Civil War II Is Ruining Captain Marvel,” noting that the storyline’s attempt to justify her conflict with Iron Man are “making the heroine almost totally unlikeable,” arguing that “anyone in the real world who spouted Carol’s beliefs would come under a whole lot of justifiable criticism. You might even call them a villain.”
That might sound familiar to readers of Marvel’s original 2006 comic book Civil War, which convinced many fans that Iron Man’s arguments in favor of governmental oversight and control of superheroes made him sound more like a dictator than the concerned hero he was supposed to be — especially when he started using supervillains to hunt down errant superheroes, so that the heroes could be jailed in Project 42, a trans-dimensional metaphor for Guantanamo Bay.
Thankfully, the cinematic Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) seemed less hard-core about his beliefs in the big-screen Civil War this summer, but nonetheless, the collapse of the relationship between Stark and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) in that movie relied more on plot demands than believable character dynamics, with everyone coming across as alternately amazingly naive and surprisingly willing to punch first, talk later (if ever). These are the superheroes who have been working together for a common good for a number of years? Just imagine what it’s like when they can’t decide what kind of takeout they get at Avengers Tower.
For all its faults, Batman v Superman offered the most mature take on the idea, with two strangers being manipulated into a conflict before talking things out instead. Sure, the mechanics were more than a little rusty — guess we’re lucky that Thomas Wayne didn’t marry his earlier girlfriend, Definitely-Not-Martha Thomas — but the overall logic meant that, hey, maybe these two guys do both want to get the bad guys more than they want to fight with each other! Maybe they’re both heroes after all!
After so many high-profile inter-superhero squabbles, especially ones that prompt the core fan base to pause and wonder how much damage is being done to the major players in the process, it would make sense for comic publishers and movie studios alike to find some other source of drama for the many caped crusaders who fill comic books and movie screens in the near future. Sadly, that’s not going to happen, at least on the Marvel side of the aisle: a new six-issue series, Inhumans vs. X-Men, is already scheduled to continue the superhero vs. superhero slugfest this fall.
Really, isn’t it time that everyone, finally, got along?
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