When you stop and think about it, 2016 really is a year where superheroes, in their movies at least, are fighting amongst themselves. Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice is already doing the rounds, and Marvel’s latest Captain America movie entitled Civil War is due out in mere days (or weeks, depending on where you live).
Not only this, the conflict between Marvel and DC fans has become inflamed once again, with partisans of each camp warring about which company or film will conquer the other.
Is all this warring around superheroes simply coincidence, or is it something more?
Well, maybe that's a little harsh Loki. I suggest that it's something else.
The synopses of both movies feature some sort of discussion about super-heroism, whether its their regulation or the nature of their accountability. The citizens in Dawn of Justice criticise Superman for the events of Man of Steel (2013), and in Civil War, the heroes face restrictions being imposed upon them by a ruling system.
Obviously, with explosions, thrilling action, colourful costumes and witty comebacks, these stories are there for escapism, but superhero movies, like all pieces of fiction and popular culture, reflect the world they come from. From the Cold War through to a post-9/11 society, lots of fiction has become more cynical, and “dark, gritty, grounded and realism” have become popular buzzwords.
You could say these attitudes are merely part of a developing movie genre...or part of some sort of "Bronze Age of superhero movies," but more likely than not, it is an investigation into superheroes from a different perspective.
Because at the heart of every comic and every superhero movie, in some shape or form there is are questions of:
What kind of heroes do these characters want to be?
Who are they accountable to?
And how should these heroes behave when serving the citizens of the modern, fragmented world?
For the past forty years, comics have become preoccupied by deconstructing superheroes more broadly. Indeed, Civil War, the series which Captain America: Civil War takes its name and story from, began nearly ten years ago...so what other comics look at superheroes differently? And how do they do it?
If you’re anticipating the release of Civil War, and thirsting for a new outlook on caped crusaders, look no further than the list below. Be warned though, they are not in any particular order, and some are not all of them are for the faint hearted...
10. Civil War (2006-2007) – Mark Millar (et al) and Steve McNiven
If the conflict at the heart of the aforementioned movie has piqued your interest, then you may wish to gander at the original book. However, on paper the titular war begins for slightly different reasons.
After a vicious fight between heroes and villains engulfs a school full of children, for the US senate, it is the straw that broke the camels back. They rush through legislation that forces anyone with powers in the Marvel Universe to be registered with the government, regardless of their secret identities.
Naturally, this causes a divide in the community, with Captain America opposing the act, and Iron Man enforcing it. Superficially, this may seem like a tenuous way to see our favourite superheroes fight, but when we consider that The New Warriors, the heroes partly responsible for the disaster, attack the villains to boost the ratings of their reality show, then the commentary becomes clearer.
To make this premise work, various aspects of some characters are played up to suit the story (Stark particularly makes some rather dubious decisions), but the heart-rending separation of age-old friends and family due to the divisions of the Registration Act is devastating to behold.
Questions are raised by both Captain America and Iron Man over whether laws should be challenged if they are unjust to minorities, or followed and adopted regardless because they are there for the greater good. Sounding heavy Doc? Well it becomes even more serious when you throw into the death of one hero by the hands of another (directly against the code of many who witness it) and the increasingly desperate actions of both sides as they try to win the war.
Written when fears were growing over the US government's increasing restrictions of civil liberties post 9/11, as well as their growing reliance on surveillance, Civil War ends a little abruptly, but there are lots of great scenes to enjoy nevertheless.
Plus, the tie in books really delve into the agonies of the many characters and allow us a wide range of viewpoints, to study the many facets of war, the law and heroism in a way that is rare in superhero stories and crossover events.
9. Hundreds of Issues of Spider-Man (1963-Present?) Stan Lee and Steve Ditko (et al)
Ok, so this isn’t a limited series per se, but Spidey’s early days on this list should at least be included here. Why? Because there is a reason that he as one of the most popular superheroes ever... moreover, he helped redefine them.
As Stan Lee himself says:
"I went into my publisher's office[...]I said I want to do a hero called Spider-Man; I want him to be a teenager and I want him to have a lot of personal problems, I think that will make it interesting. Well, this is the reception I got: 'You can't call a hero Spider-Man because people hate spiders; he can't be a teenager because only a sidekick can be a teenager; and he can't have personal problems. Stan, don't you know what a superhero is? They don't have personal problems.' “
That last part in particular is the crux of this argument.
Yes, Superman struggles with his dual identity, particularly in his relationships; Batman has his brooding, psychological depth, but Spidey took it to another level by essentially personifying the young target audience.
The writers focused on soapy relationships, and by today’s standards they are incredibly corny and dated, but the fact that Spidey worried about repairing his costumes, affording his equipment and whether he can pay the rent...these are questions that everyone faces in some way, and it showed the impact of his super-heroism upon his personal life.
Peter Parker may be a superhero, but that doesn’t mean that life is always super, and thus Stan Lee birthed a generation of heroes that began to address this fact directly.
8. Marvels (1994) – Kurt Busiek & Alex Ross
When flicking through my growing collection of comic books, I almost forgot this one (shame on me!), and it would have been a disgrace for it not to be mentioned.
Marvels is a subtle and masterful examination of the Marvel Universe, from the street level perspective of news photographer Phil Sheldon from 1939 to 1974, encompassing its major and minor events.
Many would simply decry this as a step by step recount of Marvel’s fictional history, but it would do it a great disservice if they did; Alex Ross’s work alone is a sight to behold, with his photorealistic rendering of pivotal battles and heroic icons elevating the story, and it feels like we really are seeing them alongside a living and breathing Sheldon, rather than reading a comic book.
Also, by creating a distance between the protagonist and the superheroes, we gain a greater insight into how the Marvel Universe works (it has a great explanation into why they love heroes but fear mutants), and how we might react too if these things came to pass.
If we really did see Captain America running through the streets, or a passing glimpse of the Fantastic Four fighting Galactus, how would it make us feel seeing these extraordinary characters bursting through everyday situations?
Charting the optimism of the Gold and Silver Age of Comic Books, through to the start of the darker Bronze Age, Marvels is a compelling read for any fan of graphic novels.
7. Hawkeye (2012-2015) – Matt Fraction and David Aja (et al)
One of the most recent entries, this is probably the least deconstructive series on the list, but no matter. Before picking this up, I’d always liked Hawkeye but found him to be a lesser, often forgotten character in a team of colourful characters; after all, he is just a normal guy with heightened skills in a team of super-powered people, right? Right?
Let’s put it this way, after reading this series I don’t look down on him now. Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye focuses on his downtime from Avenging, where Clint Barton simply tries to get by without any trouble...and fails miserably.
In a similar way to Spider-Man, Fraction brilliantly blends the real life problems of the modern day world, such as missing your favourite shows and the untangling of VCR plug leads, with the outrageousness of shooting at mobsters with boomerang arrows, in a light hearted, innovative and brilliantly funny series.
Featuring brief glimpses of other heroes and villains, it’s a contemporary view at an overlooked character, who tries to do right by everyone in his personal life, but cannot prevent the madness of the Marvel Universe from seeping into it.
6. The Ultimates (1 + 2) (2002-2007) – Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch
As one of the big names in comics right now, Mark Millar features on this list because, undeniably, he conjures up great ideas. The jury is still out as to whether their execution is worthy of their potential, but in Millar’s “Win” column, his accomplished work on The Ultimates definitely belongs.
To cater to fresh audiences in the early 2000’s, Marvel began the Ultimate Universe which bore many similarities to the original stories, but with a more cynical and contemporary approach. Indeed, the various writers who became the architects of this new world updated areas which had worn out and cherry picked the best stories and ideas for their runs.
The Ultimates are essentially the Avengers of the Ultimate universe, but they are drafted by a heavily militarised SHIELD and battle in a very modern, very post-9/1 1 setting.
Indeed, there is a very heavy focus on generating good PR for the team in the early issues; Thor hangs out with climate change protesters and one scene sees Iron Man retrieving nukes from the Middle East. Heck, President George Bush even makes a cameo appearance!
It’s smartly plotted, and as the stakes rise, it’s clear that Millar certainly has an eye for dramatic moments and Bryan Hitch’s spectacular art only exacerbates the awesomeness.
Some may not take kindly to the cynical and bitter tinge that is afforded to these icons of Marvel, but the intelligent writing and the biting references to America in the early 2000’s ensures that The Ultimates is much more than just an alternate version of the Avengers
(NOTE: You may notice that I only refer to the Millar issues above, since from Ultimates 3 onwards where Jeph Loeb took over the writing duties, the series is widely noted for losing its way, though I have yet to read it myself.)
If not, what are your thoughts? Are you eager to read these titles, or are there others that I've missed out? And which is your favourite? Head to the comments to discuss!