About a decade back, Marvel published the Civil War crossover: a seven-issue limited series that pitted two of the company’s most iconic heroes against one another in an ideological spat that mirrored a very real debate happening in the country around the time of the book’s release. It wasn’t a perfect crossover, mind you — Tony Stark essentially emerged as a villain willing to work with monsters to win an argument and the resolution felt flat and unearned — but it was entertaining, had memorable moments and at least tried to give both sides rational arguments for a proper debate topic. Fast forward to June of 2016 and Marvel decides to give it another go by releasing Civil War II: a nine-issue limited series where Brian Michael Bendis steals the plot from Minority Report and adds Tony Stark and Carol Danvers bickering like children over a nonsensical disagreement on how to properly use actionable intel. Like the first iteration, Civil War II pits two of Marvel’s most popular characters in an ideological dispute, has great art and a few memorable moments, but unlike its predecessor, it exists solely to leach name recognition off of a movie that itself borrows its subtitle from said predecessor. This is an event that clearly started with a name and then worked backward, because it lacks any of the social commentary, balanced arguments and general rationale that helped make Civil War something fans actually appreciate. Instead, the legacy of Civil War II will be as Bendis’ swan song, seeing the author of such tentpole storylines as Avengers: Disassembled and House of M go out not with a bang, but a whimper.
One of the big issues with this series, before the book even begins, is that it takes place when Marvel was trying to make the Inhumans a full-fledged thing. I know the company has effectively accepted that no one likes them at this point (a failed attempt at both a film and TV franchise can do that), but this was at the peak ‘Inhumans as Roman Reigns’ push,’ but I digress. The central conceit of the storyline is that a new Inhuman has emerged with the power to see/experience the future with a great deal of accuracy. Given the nature of the medium, it should come as no small surprise that all of his visions involve something bad happening to the superhero community, and it should come as even less of a surprise that someone in said community wants to use that intel to prevent future crimes and calamities. That someone is the aforementioned Captain Marvel, who uses Ulysses’ premonitions to rally virtually the entire hero community to save the world from some sort of Dark Celestial attack — which they do, without a single casualty or any collateral damage. At an afterparty to celebrate their success, our heroes get their first introduction to Ulysses and his power set and suddenly Tony Stark — the villain of the original Civil War, mind you, who was so jarred by the tragic events of Stamford, CT, that he literally created the superhero equivalent of the Patriot Act — has an issue with these preventative measures. Stark takes the slippery slope stance of “where do we draw the line?” which despite being a logical fallacy and inadmissible in a proper debate, is a somewhat reasonable stance. As we come to learn, these visions are only a possible future, not a certain one. There is some wiggle room there, suggesting that blind adherence to these visions could lead to a lot of innocent people being prosecuted. The thing is, throughout the entire series — at least as it’s collected in the trade, which includes the main series, the Free Comic Book Day special and issue #0 — it honestly looks like only one of Ulysses’ predictions was inaccurate. Dude successfully prevents all kinds of mayhem, yet Tony is ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater because of what appears to be a pretty narrow margin of error. Yes, the Hulk situation is a worst case scenario, but that has to be laid at the feet of Hawkeye, who acted unilaterally based on intel that he could have gotten anywhere.
The thing is, that feels so out of character for Stark, who as a successful businessman with a reputation as a cutthroat titan of industry, has almost certainly made serious — possibly even life or death — decisions based on speculative intel. Suddenly these predictions that proved accurate enough to warrant the attention of the superpowered community are too dangerous to be trusted? If I’m honest, I’d be okay with how out of character it is for Tony to be the voice of the opposition on this if he weren’t written like a petulant child arguing with his babysitter. So in issue #0 (though chronologically at the end of issue #1) Ulysses predicts an attack from the mad titan Thanos. Recognizing him as a bad hombre, Carol galvanizes the combined efforts of the Ultimates, A-Force and War Machine (whom she’s dating at this point and just happened to be around) to meet him when he arrives. Sure enough, old prune face pops in and engages our heroes, but things go sour when She-Hulk is gravely injured by a stray rocket from War Machine and the distraction allows Thanos to stick his fist right through Rhodey’s chest, killing him instantly. Now, I can’t really get on someone for how they react to a personal loss, and we all know Rhodey and Tony are close, but to call Tony’s reaction immature is an understatement. Stark lays the blame for Rhodes’ death at Carol’s feet, saying that if it weren’t for her using Ulysses’ visions, Rhodes would still be alive — completely overlooking the countless innocents saved by not allowing Thanos to get his hands on the cosmic cube…oh, also the fact that Rhodes is a goddamn superhero who would definitely have fought Thanos if he saw him. That’s the sticking point he keeps hammering home? Somehow it’s Carol’s fault for inviting a superhero to do some superhero shit? I get that it has to be hard to lose a close friend, but if said friend is a superhero faced with the knowledge that the most dangerous dude in the galaxy (the villain they’re literally building the MCU around) is going to pop up and get his hands on a magic MacGuffin, it’s no one’s fault that he went to fight that guy. Like, what kind of childish nonsense is it to blame the messenger for the news?
While we’re on the topic of mature decisions, Tony stops yelling at Carol — who just lost her boyfriend in a mission she led, I’ll remind you — just long enough to run off and attack the Inhumans in Attilan. His goal? To kidnap Ulysses. Okay, I almost see blaming Carol for Rhodey’s death. It’s asinine and unfair, but I get it. But what are you hoping to accomplish by kidnapping Ulysses? The kid foresaw Thanos showing up and it being trouble — that happened. He didn’t foresee what would happen if the Avengers showed up to fight him because his vision is what set that shit in motion. Instead of recognizing this, Tony takes it upon himself to not only assault the Royal Family of a foreign power in their own home, but then kidnap one of their charges just because he (correctly) predicted an attack by a literal space monster that killed Tony’s friend? We later find out he wants to map the kid’s brain, but like…why not ask him? Ulysses even says that he’d be more than willing to help if Tony had asked, but no. Kidnap the teenager with precognitive powers because you’re hurt. Tony has a theory that the visions are tied to Ulysses’ mental state (for which he has no actual proof, but he happens to kind of be right so we’re supposed to just accept that) and wants to map the kid’s brain. Of course to stimulate the kid’s brain waves, he then proceeds to torture him. Yep, Iron Man tortures the only Inhuman with a man bun because he doesn’t know how to process his emotions. What a hero. Admittedly he doesn’t get very far into the torture, but what the hell?
Now that may sound like bad writing, having one of your brand’s defining heroes absconding with foreign dignitaries because he’s afraid to cry, and that’s because it is. From concept to script, this series is written like the transparent cash grab it is. It’s a story that exists specifically to have superheroes punch each other in the face and has no aspirations of being anything else. Oh sure, it flirts with poignancy at points — Hawkeye’s trial had potential but remains undercooked, and the image of Miles Morales standing over a fallen Captain America is striking, but nothing comes of it — but none of it feels consequential or earned. This is a story where Tony Stark manages to convince half of the superhero community to fight the other half because one of their own used good intel to justify killing the Hulk. Like, why aren’t they going after Hawkeye if they have such an issue with that? They’ve literally seen Ulysses’ predictions help them prevent disaster, thwar the Dark Celestial, stop Thanos from killing dozens of innocents, stop some kind of MODOK plot and more. It’s like Bendis was told “It’s called Civil War, so find a way to make them fight. We don’t care how you do it.” Bendis then, presumably, asked “Do I have to make the characters likeable?” To which someone from Disney said “Whatever. Make sure Iron Man is in it.” The writing is just so lazy at points that it genuinely feels like it was written in a high school English class. Seriously. There’s a moment when the Ultimates storm Tony’s lair to rescue Ulysses and Tony — who is incapable of taking anything seriously unless he’s taking it way too seriously — says Carol is “just in time for Parcheesi.” To which she retorts “That line was parcheesi.” …
I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about how stupid the ending of this book is too. In issue #5 we get our big event-making scrum between Carol’s Crew and the Iron Legion (side note: This is when the X-Men were in their Limbo costumes and WOOF, they are the worst character designs Storm, Colossus, Iceman and Nightcrawler have ever had) that is only brought to an end when Ulysses shows everyone his latest vision: the aforementioned death of Captain America at the hands of Miles Morales. Carol, who had mostly been a rational human being up until she wrongfully imprisoned some rando in the previous scene, goes full heel and tries to arrest Miles. This ends the conflict because…I guess everyone on the other side was okay with punching Miles, but not with him being arrested for not having actually done anything? Weirdly, Star Lord is still totally fine with the needless super fracas, telling Carol she’s doing the right thing, as it’s how he briefly ran his home planet of Spartax. He says it as if that was A) a successful period for the planet and B) he wasn’t the least responsible guy on team precog. Even Kitty rolls her eyes at this interaction and I’m fairly certain these two were engaged at this point. There’s also an obnoxious bit building toward Secret Empire, where like half of the Marvel Universe says that they’ll trust whatever Captain America decides. Seriously, they lay it on super thick, with everyone from Tony to T’Challa saying that “as Rogers goes so goes the hero community.” This provokes a final showdown where Miles and Cap meet at the sight of the vision to talk things out, which of course draws both Carol and Tony’s attentions. They come to blows, Carol tanks the Hulkbuster armor and sends Tony into a coma. This is why we now have the Tony Stark AI that makes so much sense and is a great addition to the Marvel Universe. Elsewhere, Ulysses’ visions somehow allow him to evolve past this plane of existence to become a celestial being which….what? His power to see potential futures puts him on par with Eternity, the living embodiment of the universe? They literally deus ex machina’ed a character that was a walking deus ex machina.
Perhaps most frustrating is the epilogue. Beast and Carol are talking over Stark’s current health status in his weird tech cocoon — which Hank refuses to touch because it’s tech he doesn’t understand (Beast continues to be the dirt worst character in Marvel) — and he claims that Tony fought this whole time because he was afraid. Not of what Danvers herself was capable of, oh no. He was worried about what the people ‘after’ Carol would do with the ability to see the future. Beast believes that Tony trusted Carol to be responsible with the intel and never take things too far. What kind of stupid ass “we’re all still heroes” bullshit is that? If Tony really trusted her, why did he spend 10 issues calling her names, blaming her for Rhodey and Banner’s deaths, claiming she’s gone crazy when she and suggests detaining Miles? If he really believes that Carol has the world’s best interests at heart, why not say that to Carol? I feel like rather than being a petulant little brat about it, he could talk to Carol about this serious issue and work with her to create actionable intel from these prediction powers that would responsibly address threats without jumping to conclusions on the gray areas. Surely the world would be safer if someone like Ulysses was able to predict the coming of Galactus or some some kind of space plague, why not find a way to make that work for everyone involved? I hate to be the guy who keeps saying “communication would solve this whole ordeal,” but come the fuck on.
Despite all the bad writing, it really has to be said that this is legitimately one of the best looking trades I’ve seen in a long time. David Marquez’s pencils are really the star of the show, with everything from character models to action sequences being beautifully rendered (even those ugly ass X-Men uniforms). His true strength is in his faces, as the raw emotion depicted (however unearned it may be in the text) is really stellar. Tony’s reaction to Banner’s death would be moving if it felt like a real moment rather than something to quickly be glossed over to make room for the superhero punching, and I’m unclear if Marquez had a hand in the She-Hulk redesign, but I think it’s the most interesting the character has looked in…well ever, actually. The only issue I have with his art is that some of the battles focus on a single conflict (Tony and Carol usually, but Tony’s interaction with Star Lord and Venom belittling Miles for flying in the face of Peter Parker’s “whole thing” — a direct quote, by the way — also do this), leaving the rest of the battle to play out in the distance. The character models get so small and nondescript that it’s hard to make out who exactly Thor is throwing her hammer at, or what is destroying Iceman’s slide. In the first Civil War there were enough story elements that it was understandable that action would take the back seat, but this shameless cash grab was created solely to have a superhero punch up — why not let Marquez go wild with these action scenes?
I should mention that Marquez isn’t the only great artist featured on this trade, as Oliver Coipel and Jim Cheung are also featured in the trade as the pencilers for issue #0 and the Free Comic Book Day special respectively. Of the two “bonus” issues, the FCBD special is the more impactful issue, as it depicts the Thanos confrontation that set Tony off on his temper tantrum with gravity and reverence for Rhodes’ death.
This is the Derek Zoolander of Marvel crossovers: It’s really, really ridiculously good looking, but is still a vapid and entirely unnecessary sequel. The series makes both Tony and Carol look bad, and all of the other characters seem pretty noncommittal in their involvement in this ideological dispute. Maybe the tie-ins go a long way to explaining the allegiances or motivations of these characters, but I shouldn’t have to read five other series to understand your big company event. All this series did was give us the Tony Stark AI, catalyze the split between Kitty and Star Lord, and create an environment of goodwill that let a Nazi take over the country…so yeah, thanks for all this, Bendis.