We can all agree now that it was crap, right?
I don’t mean in the purely aesthetic sense; it was pretty obvious even at the time that this was a 64-page special padded out to seven issues of thin, underplotted gruel with Millar’s penchant for pithy one-liners and macho posturing substituting for actual story and characterization, and with a hamfisted 9/11 analogy that seemed simultaneously trite and tasteless even at the time and now looks just unforgivably crass. I mean that since all that was a given, we had to rely on it being not so much a “good” story as an “important” one, a change to the status quo of the Marvel Universe that would resonate for decades in the same way as ‘Crisis on Infinite Earths’ altered the shape of the DC Universe. (Which was, after all, what Millar promised. Sure, there was some hype there; after all, that was pretty much what Stan Lee promised for every issue of every title back in the Sixties.)
Then again, Stan Lee delivered on that promise to some degree. The characters he and Kirby and Ditko and others created stood the test of time as original, ground-breaking, and genuinely unpredictable. Whereas five years later…let’s look at the “massive, enduring changes to the Marvel Universe” and see how they stood up, shall we?
Spider-Man: I’m going to give them a little bit of a pass here on the grounds that this was clearly a publicity stunt; I can very easily believe Marvel’s claim that they never really intended to unmask Spidey on a permanent basis, and that this was just one more big “shock” moment to ratchet up the drama that much more before they swept every bit of character development for the last twenty-five years under the rug in “One More Day”. But honestly, does anyone think that Peter Parker came off well out of this one? The unmasking was a transparently stupid plot point (being “publicly accountable” means “to the government”, not just “to any random person off the street”; it’s not like the SEAL Team Six guys held a press conference so that we could learn their true identities just because they were public servants) and the fallout from the story was one of the most derided Spider-Man plotlines since “The Clone Saga”. Arguably, Spidey’s current status quo isn’t terrible, but neither was the post-Clone Saga status quo, and fans flocked away from that in droves too until JMS came along to save it. I’d have to rate this one a Fail.
Captain America: Okay, I’ll admit that I have greatly differing opinions on the whole “Winter Soldier” thing than the vast majority of fandom. Me, I think it’s an inherently silly and pretentious concept (“Bucky’s kind of a doofy character. Let’s make him into a grim and gritty cyborg assassin with a gun and a tortured past.” “Isn’t that what we do to every doofy character? I mean, doesn’t it just kind of take everything interesting and original out of the idea and make him into a cookie-cutter ‘grown-up’ superhero?” “Yep. Let’s get cracking.”) that a talented writer has tried his best to make something of, while others have focused more on the undeniable talents of Ed Brubaker and less on the fact that Winter Soldier :: Bucky as Cable :: Nathan Summers.
Nonetheless, I don’t think anyone can give a reasonable explanation as to why the Winter Soldier is Cap now. While Cap was dead, it was an interesting take on the legacy storyline, a “sidekick makes good on the hero’s promise” tale that was told by someone who was, as I will reiterate, a very talented writer. But when Steve Rogers returned, having him just…wander off…didn’t make sense. Steve Rogers is Captain America, he’s got no reason to give up the role, and he’s the best at it anyway. (As I think Bucky insisted at the time.) But he’s, um…not. Oh, and the “time bullets” thing? Not to say it was necessarily a crap idea, but I think that anyone who defends it never gets to give Stan Lee shit about anything ever again ever. Not exactly a Fail, but not much of a Success either.
New Warriors: This actually might be a case where the previous reboots had handled things so ineptly that ‘Civil War’ marked a step up for the characters. Given that the last effort had jettisoned about half the team and completely reinvented the premise as “X-Statix Lite” (because that was one of Quesada’s few total reboots that was commercially and critically successful, and he kept trying to duplicate the formula with every second-tier superhero book) what we wound up with was actually a lot more focused, inventive, and sympathetic. “A team of street-level heroes fighting the good fight despite being unregistered” felt suitable for the New Warriors, and it wasn’t the then-current writer’s fault that most of the actual New Warriors were dead as a result of the previous storyline. (One notable exception being Speedball, of whom the less said, the better. All the fans of Speedball hated the new direction for the character, and anyone who might possibly have liked Penance couldn’t forget that he used to be a wise-cracking hero with bouncing powers.)
Nonetheless, actions speak louder than words, here, and the fact is that nobody really jumped on this book. Probably because the same problem that applied to Speedball/Penance applies (to a lesser degree) to the new New Warriors as a whole; fans of the classic series weren’t going to go back to a comic that didn’t have Justice, Firestar, Night Thrasher, Namorita, Speedball, Rage or Nova in it, while fans of Jubilee, Beak, Angel, and Chamber didn’t even know their favorite characters were in the book due to the whole “surprise identities” thing. (There are fans of Jubilee, right?) As a result, the whole team’s now floating around in comic book limbo…but that’s about where they were before. Let’s call this one a Draw.
Thunderbolts: Hoo boy. It takes some real chutzpah to relaunch the Thunderbolts in what has to be one of the biggest commercial and critical disasters of Quesada’s entire tenure as EIC, a complete failure that ditched every character and the entire central concept of the series in a fashion that alienated all the existing fans without making any new ones…then more or less beg the old writer to come back and reboot the series exactly as it was before the new EIC started messing with it…then freaking do the same damn thing all over again after ‘Civil War’ just as the fans were finally getting over their skittishness and becoming interested in the title again. Admittedly, this one wasn’t a total disaster, because it had Warren Ellis writing it and a) even Warren Ellis doing his usual “damaged assholes fighting complete bastards” schtick that he does when he doesn’t think the series is worth trying hard on is worth reading, and b) Warren Ellis has a fanbase who will follow him, so the loss of fans who didn’t like it that they ditched every character but Songbird and Moonstone was made up for by Ellis fans coming to the book.
That said, it really is a little bit difficult to gauge the success or failure of this based on subsequent events, because it was clearly a series designed to follow the longer-term arc plot of the Marvel Universe and get rebooted when that longer arc ended. The fact that the whole status quo that Ellis introduced isn’t around anymore can be seen not so much as a result of fan displeasure as it is the inevitable result of the team leader being the bad guy of the next big crossover. Even after five years, this one is a We’ll See.
Avengers: This could go either way, honestly. If you’re willing to accept that ‘Civil War’ was merely the first stage in a deliberately-planned longer arc that was always intended to move through ‘Secret Invasion’ and conclude with ‘Siege’ and a conscious return to the same basic status quo, and that Millar was just trying to hype the hell out of it to get people to buy a first act they might otherwise skip due to price concerns (or quality concerns, he said nastily)…then it’s just the kind of average, everyday pill that comics fans have to swallow all the time. “Sure, I inexplicably acted wildly out-of-character and the two of us had a massive falling-out of the sort that would lead real people never to speak to each other again at best. But hey, let’s just put that all behind us now and get back to being superheroes, okay?” Awkward, but no more awkward than Doctor Strange and the Hulk being best buds after Strange sent the Hulk to the dimensional crossroads.
If, on the other hand, you actually accept Millar’s words at face value, then you have to assume that the entire four-year period from ‘Civil War’ to ‘Siege’ was one long, desperate attempt to put the genie back into the bottle and return the Marvel Universe from the unworkable disaster of a status quo that they’d accidentally stuck themselves with to something that could actually be used to tell stories once again. In other words, if Millar was telling the truth, then as far as the Avengers is concerned, Civil War was an absolute, disastrous Epic Fail.
Iron Man: Exhibit A for the Prosecution as far as “Epic Fail” is concerned. The storyline for Iron Man that began with ‘Civil War’ ended with them literally rebooting the character: Tony Stark’s brain was actually reset back to his pre-’Civil War’ persona not long before ‘Siege’. It’s hard to take that as anything but an admission that everything that Millar did with the character was a gigantic mistake that made him less sympathetic and sent comics fans flocking away from the book in droves. Certainly, I can attest from personal experience that I never bought an issue after ‘Civil War’; for some reason, I wasn’t really interested in following the adventures of Tony Stark, Iron Douchebag. (Actually, Iron Friend-Murdering Diplomat-Shooting War-Starting Control-Freak of a Douchebag, if you actually take ‘Civil War: Frontline’ to be accurate, but most people seem to be brushing the bit about Stark misusing the Thunderbolts technology to force Norman Osborn to kill people under the rug.)
No matter how you slice it, there’s no scenario where you can claim that erasing the last four years of character development is an endorsement of ‘Civil War’. Either you always intended for Stark to return to the person he was, having learned absolutely nothing from four years of adventures…or else everything you did in those four years was a terrible, terrible error in judgment that made one of your biggest Hollywood cash cows into a pariah in his own medium. Either way, it’s not a proud moment for Marvel comics.
So basically, now that the dust has settled, it’s five years later and pretty much everything that happened in ‘Civil War’ has been retconned away, swept under the rug, or just plain ignored, with the exception of the death of Giant-Man. As I said at the beginning…we can all agree now that it was crap, right?