When it comes to massive, universe-rearranging comic events, fans often think of crossovers like DC's Flashpoint or Crisis on Infinite Earths, or Marvel's House of M, Secret Wars or Infinity Gauntlet. [Captain America: Civil War](tag:994409), when it appeared in the mid 2000s, was another major event that collected hundreds of heroes throughout the Marvel universe between the main story and the tie-ins. Yet many fans underestimate how far its impact actually reached.
Extinction-level events like Flashpoint have an obvious impact. It's the total destruction of the existing comic book universe, and it's a handy-dandy tool for writers who are finding all the various storylines and caveats a tad unwieldy. Too many conflicting universes and timelines? Getting a little tough to keep up with what is and isn't canon? Well, burn it all to the ground and start from scratch! It's a useful way to streamline a universe, and it's often the driving factor behind events like this.
House of M, for example, came at a time where the mutant population in the comics was getting out of hand. Having Scarlet Witch use her abilities to decimate the mutant population created a more manageable X-Men universe, and cleared the character slate. We were left with a handful of key mutants, who were much easier to cope with, while the door was still left open to add new characters in future issues (thanks to the aptly named Hope Summers).
Civil War, on the other hand, didn't shake up the entire physical world for Marvel. Planets were not destroyed (although a few cities took a beating), vast swathes of the superhero population weren't wiped out, and once the dust settled, the casual observer might think that nothing much had happened at all. However, Civil War was so much more than just a superpowered battle royale. It changed the next decade of Marvel comics (and subsequently the cinematic universe) not from a practical standpoint, but an ideological one.
The Death of Captain America
Let's start with the big one, shall we? While the death count overall wasn't high (six during the Stamford incident that was the catalyst for the war and a further six in the war itself), the immediate aftermath included one death that would rock the Marvel universe to its core: Captain America.
It wasn't just the loss of a hero, but a recognition that not every hero's death gets a do-over in this new Marvel world. When he died in the comic books, news stations around the world reported his death; such was his impact upon pop culture.
First appearing in the 1940s, Captain America is one of Marvel's longest-running and best known heroes. A flagship character for the comic book publisher, his death could not fail to impact the rest of the Marvel-verse, moreso because Civil War was not an extinction-level event. Had everyone died, had the universe been reset in its entirety, his death would have simply been part of a larger clean sweep. By setting Captain America's death apart, but keeping it within the existing framework of the Marvel world, its impact became significantly more powerful. It killed off a major character while retaining decades of his history with other characters and teams, and proved that no one, not even the epitome of the Marvel hero, was immune to death. Even more shockingly, this ultimate hero was not afforded a hero's death - not killed in battle, but assassinated while in police custody. Admittedly, Steve Rogers did return, but never again to be Captain America.
Changing the Concepts of Heroes and Villains
Marvel has always enjoyed a little play within the grey areas between good and evil, but Civil War altered the definition of heroes and villains entirely. Life in the comic book world used to be simple. Although heroes could stumble and fail (as Gwen Stacy could tell you!), or be brainwashed, hypnotized or co-opted by evil, there was still a relatively clear demarcation between good and bad.
Civil War, however, brought us powerful, well-intentioned heroes in their right minds battling against other powerful, well-intentioned and sane men and women. This was a battle of ideology that forced superheroes to reflect upon what was right and wrong, rather than simply pitting right against wrong and watching the sparks fly. It fused politics and ideology with classic battles, asking readers to think critically about the motivations of their heroes and the politics of freedom and security. The tagline for the event, "Whose side are you on?" involved the fans in a way that was completely new, challenging the audience to join in on the conversation. While comic books had been increasingly adult-oriented for the previous few decades (arguably since Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns), this kind of blatant political and philosophical consideration brought us into an entirely new arena.
Aligning Superpower with the Government
Government involvement has a long history in the world of comics, yet had remained largely on the sidelines in the past. Civil War gave S.H.I.E.L.D. and political leaders an unprecedented level of control over the superheroes in the Marvel universe. Post-Civil War, all superheroes had to register with the government, or be branded outlaws. The Initiative, headed up by Tony Stark as the new Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., provided training to superpowered beings with the potential to assign supers to an officially sanctioned team post-training.
All of which continued the discussion over freedom and security. The events of Civil War revealed that Tony Stark had "tame" villains that he was able to deploy to do his bidding - now, S.H.I.E.L.D. and the government had a certain level of control over the entire registered superpowered population. While the Act was repealed following the events of the Siege storyline, government influence is no longer just a useful afterthought to be brought in when it would be warranted by the storyline. Political consideration now underpins a number of comics within this universe, for better or for worse. The question of power and corruption has become an integral part of the Marvel-verse.
Impact on the Avengers
While every team (and indeed, every superpowered being on Earth) was affected by the events of Civil War, none was more changed than the Avengers. Already splintered by the events of House of M, Civil War completely obliterated any chance of the team reforming. Captain America was dead, and Tony was now the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. (not to mention the fact that they very likely would have been utterly incapable of overcoming the emotional fallout of leading opposite sides of the war). Vision and Black Widow were on opposite sides, and the Avengers effectively divided into two: the underground, black ops Secret Avengers, and the government-sanctioned Mighty Avengers led by Tony Stark.
While teams change all the time, this marked the end of an era for Marvel's best known ensemble.
Civil War's Continuing Impact
The heart of Civil War's impact as a comic event lies in the fact that Marvel chose not to go the extinction-level route. After the war, we did not start over again, and the characters continued to react to the events of the war going forward. Rather than starting anew with a blank slate, characters had to live with the consequences of their actions. Alliances were formed and dissolved, teams were re-formed, and (especially for the Avengers) teammates separated not just to pursue something different, but with animosity and bitterness.
As a result, heroes and villains are harder to define now. Although a superhuman may don a mask and fight for good in their little corner of the world, if they aren't registered, they are considered an outlaw. The concept of what makes a character a "good guy" are less clear than they used to be, and heroes are now more prone to questioning their action in a world that is no longer so black and white.
Steve Rogers remains functionally dead as Captain America, and Sam Wilson now carries the shield. This unwillingness to reinstate him as Cap, despite bringing him back to life, marks a change in the way that Marvel is choosing to deal with its biggest heroes. Now, when even a big name dies, readers cannot assume that they will be back in their costume within a short period or that things will return to the status quo.
More than all of this, however, Civil War's impact can be felt in the tonal change of the Marvel Universe. Marvel has become a new world since the war, and while most of the practical repercussions have been wrapped up, Marvel's comics continue to question the concepts of what makes something right or wrong. Likewise, directors Joe and Anthony Russo have stated that Captain America: Civil War will "change the Marvel Cinematic Universe's psychology," promising "an extreme shift" that will have both a significant emotional and practical impact upon the trajectory of the MCU, just as the original event did for the comics.
Now that the dust has finally settled, Marvel has decided to kick it all back up again, with the upcoming sequel event Civil War II, to be released in June. Sparked in part by the release of Captain America: Civil War, the miniseries will explore a new philosophical conflict. This time, Iron Man will go head-to-head with Captain Marvel to debate the ideas of personal responsibility, free will, and determinism. The Inhumans will be coming to the fore for this battle as well, according to early reports.
This time, however, it is unlikely that the event will have the kind of far-reaching impact that the original did. While we will undoubtedly see some shake-ups in terms of team rosters, character deaths and a connection to Phase Four of the MCU (when Captain Marvel and the Inhumans have both appeared on screen), the core of the conflict is no longer new. The concepts of a battle to involve all characters, and one where there is no clear right and wrong - that was groundbreaking in the original, in a way that cannot be repeated. This follow-up will undoubtedly be a fascinating jumping off point for debate, but inviting comic book readers to participate in the debate in this way? The credit for that concept goes entirely to Civil War.