Published in 2006 through 2007, the Marvel Comics Civil War story arc has had a lasting legacy and influence. The Civil War story arc pits a group of superheroes siding with Iron Man (“Team Iron Man”) against another group who side with Captain America (“Team Cap”), and conflict between the two camps exist because of the differing ideals between the two heroes regarding the response to a semi-post-apocalyptic scenario, when an attack by the villain Nitro causes large scale death and destruction. Team Iron Man takes the stance that in order to prevent such situations from happening once again, superpowered beings need to be regulated strictly to protect the nation’s security and safety. As such, Team Iron Man supports the government’s introduction of the Superhuman Registration Act. On the contrary, Team Cap takes a more liberal stance, and believes that this Superhuman Registration Act poses a threat to the secret identity of superheroes, and openly challenges the suppression of their freedom to intervene. He also raises the concern that, if regulated, superheroes lose the autonomy to make the important decisions when it comes to life-death situations.
A seemingly forgettable storyline, Civil War has achieved much commercial and critical success. IGN ranked it as one of the greatest Comic Book Events, and WatchMojo ranked it as number 6 on their Top 10 Marvel Graphic Novels list and number 1 on their Top 10 Avengers Comics You Should Read list. Most notably, its storyline forms the basis for the highest grossing film of 2016, Captain America: Civil War. Why, though, does this almost overused hero versus hero storyline see such great success?
While the concept of antagonism amongst protagonists is a common tool used in fictional texts to add depth and complexity to the storyline, perhaps we should consider that there is a deeper reason for such characterisations, particularly in the Civil War story arc. The “basic human dilemma”, first described by psychologist Eric Fromm, revolves around the idea that security and freedom are contrasting ideas, with which humans are in constant struggle with.  To quote Fromm, “Powerful tendencies arise to escape from this kind of freedom into submission or some kind of relationship to man and the world which promises relief from uncertainty, even if it deprives the individual of his freedom”.  This is an underlying theme that Civil War revolves around, and in fact, has undercurrents of real-life socio-political commentary, especially in a post-9/11 world. Ultimately, Civil War pits the two founding members of the Avengers against each other not so much to introduce depth of characterisation, but to provide a form of socio-political commentary on the nature of a post-9/11 world. As such, looking at Civil War in the context of a post-9/11 world, this essay posits that a seemingly harmless story like Civil War can see such great success because of the degree of relatability it has with respect to post-9/11 fears, uncertainties and hopes.
Hero versus Hero: A Clichéd Plot Point or More?
At first glance, it seems that the characterisation of Iron Man and Captain America in Civil War is nothing more than a literary technique, designed to complexify the dynamics of two very established characters in the Marvel universe. With Captain America being one of the biggest icons of heroism in the Marvel universe, portraying him in an antagonistic role would undoubtedly raise questions about the character, and cause readers to question what they know. In fact, the intricacies of antagonising Captain America was more recently explored again in the 2017 Secret Empire storyline, when he was revealed to be a sleeper agent for HYDRA, an organisation which Captain America has been fighting his whole life. This drew much flak and controversy from readers, with websites like Gizmodo publishing articles questioning the purpose of the storyline. It is hence apparent that characterisations of a character can certainly impact viewership and character dynamics.
Even so, the antagonisation of Captain America and Iron Man in Civil War aims to do more than just develop character dynamics. The fact that the characterisation is brought to a level where superhero brutality – something that goes against the moral code of almost any superhero – is explored seems to hint at something deeper. This is even more supported when striking parallels can be drawn to real world events during the time, particularly 9/11. As such, while character development in Civil War can be looked at from a literary perspective, it can also be said to give relatable analyses on the human psyche in a post-9/11 world.
Anxieties in a Post-9/11 World
Civil War portrays and depicts the anxieties that we have about a post-9/11 world, and our subsequent development of coping mechanisms to deal with these anxieties. Davis and Silver argue that people are driven to give up their freedom for the sake of security in the face of threat,  and is something that can be observed in a post-9/11 reality. One of the most prominent anxieties that have evolved out of a post-9/11 world is one toward the terrorist threat. Against the backdrop of these anxieties, the U.S. government adopted several considerably controversial measures to counter terrorism, which are generally characterised by growing authoritarianism of the government and regulation over the American population, which is strange given the American focus on liberty. The USA PATRIOT Act of 2006 is one such measure, and its passing certainly raised questions about whether such strict monitoring is an infringement on privacy and civil liberties. These real-world anxieties are reflected by events in Civil War, which grants the story a certain level of relatability, allowing the story to carry more weight when read by readers. One of the parallels that can be seen include Nitro’s attack in Stamford, which draws resemblance 9/11 attacks. The Stamford attack created a degree of tension in the comic world as did the 9/11 attacks in the real world. In both contexts, the government felt a need to step in to increase regulation to prevent further destruction. Most prominently, however, would be the resemblance of Team Iron Man to the American government.  In Civil War, Team Iron Man grows increasingly authoritarian in its methodologies to outlaw and capture rogue superheroes who refuse to register. Such growing authoritarianism and brutality culminated in the murder of Black Goliath, one of the members of Team Cap. Ultimately, Civil War makes a set of serious and relatable analyses regarding the human psyche in a post-9/11 world. This grants it a great deal of relatability, which helps to guide it towards success.
Civil War also critically analyses the human psyche in a post-9/11 world using the “basic human dilemma” to explore the grey area between right and wrong. To quote Doctor Strange, a character who chose to remain neutral in the conflict, “there is no right or wrong in this debate. It is simply a matter of perspective”.  It is almost impossible to properly define a true right or true wrong in the conflict of these two ideals because they all stem from a desire for good. Davis and Silver put forth multiple reasons to explain why people would be willing to give up their civil liberties for security, and is an illustration of how different ideals may be more suited to different situations.  The struggle between these ideals is seen most prominently in the characterisation of Spider-Man. Spider-Man starts off as an ally of Team Iron Man, but following the growing authoritarianism and brutality of the team, he makes the switch to Team Cap, seemingly understanding that Team Iron Man’s methods may not necessarily be the best for the situation. The text supports the notion that we, as humans, are all struggling to find a proper definition of what is right, and hence it makes some social commentary on the natural conflict we humans have in our pursuit of correctness. This is especially relevant in a post-9/11 reality, where the American government is arguably still trying to find a good balance in its policies to counter the threat of terrorism. With policies ranging from the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, to changes in foreign policy and immigration policy, the American government is evidently still exploring multiple ways to counter the threat of terrorism. While some people may find the government’s measures overly oppressive, it is but the best course of action in the eyes of the government. The struggle to find a middle-ground between security and freedom is a very real problem, and Civil War very nicely gives its readers a glimpse into how these two contrasting and conflicting ideals interact with each other, making it that much more relatable.
The depiction of mutual understanding in the struggle to find right and wrong in Civil War further enhances its relatability. In Civil War No. 7, a final showdown between Team Cap and Team Iron Man happens, with each side trying to defeat the other in an attempt to put an end to the conflict. Team Cap appears to be winning, but upon realisation of the large-scale destruction that their battle has created, Captain America surrenders. He realises that it is impossible to beat the opposition into submission, as Team Iron Man is only fighting for what they believe is right. Fromm posits that there is no way change can be brought about by using force.  Captain America’s submission in the face of imminent victory is a representation of this belief, where he finally recognises that the conflict of the two ideals will not benefit the world, as he cannot possibly beat Iron Man into believing in what he believes in. This translates directly to the post-9/11 world, where despite criticism of governmental policies, the American people fundamentally know that they cannot possibly force the government to do what they want. In the words of Davis and Silver, this translates to “trust in government”, where freedom is given up to the government in confidence of the government’s ability to provide security. This leads to somewhat of a mutual understanding between the American people and their government, and forms the basis of faith in leadership. Evidently, the reality of the ideological battle between security and freedom is that there is no one right answer, especially in a post-9/11 world where the future is uncertain. The only way to go about doing it is to simply understand the opposing point of view and establish a kind of mutual trust and understanding. Such parallels that can be drawn from the story to the real world hence enhances the relatability of the story.
A Light at the End of the Tunnel
While Civil War grants insights on the insecurities in a post-9/11 world, it also embodies some semblance of hope for the future. Civil War, as discussed, is an ideological battle between security and freedom, whose roots lie in the desire to find the best course of action to avoid Armageddon. Knowing for certain that, if left uncontrolled, superhumans have limitless potential for destruction, the stakeholders in the Marvel universe identify that this potential needs to be controlled somehow, and can, in fact, be controlled to prevent an apocalypse. It is apparent that in the background of this conflict, lies an optimism that such wanton destruction can be prevented, which results in the initial fragmentation of the two iconic Avengers into their respective camps. This optimism is also observed in a post-9/11 world. The 9/11 attacks revealed to our world the reality of the terrorist threat. Though the threat of terror grows bigger than ever with the development of the Islamic State in recent years, ultimately we see growing optimism in our capabilities to combat terrorism. Looking back at Davis and Silver’s point about “interpersonal trust” and “trust in government”,  the fact that the American people show compromise and understanding towards their government represents a kind of optimism, hope and trust in the government’s ability to keep them secure. This all started with the 9/11 attacks bringing about the realisation of the terrorist threat, and subsequently the understanding that we can actually control and confine it to prevent protracted destruction. Civil War therefore acts as a social commentary about the socio-political climate of a post-9/11 world, granting its storyline a degree of relatability that is recognised by the masses.
In conclusion, Civil War certainly gives socio-political insights onto the human psyche in a post-9/11 context. In particular, it reflects mankind’s insecurities and anxieties in the wake of terror, but also the optimism and hope for the future. It is precisely these insights which make the text relatable to such an extent that producers still find it relevant enough to be adapted into a movie. As such, Civil War’s success can be said to be attributed to its relevance to our global political climate, through more than just aptness of literary techniques in its storytelling, but also in the socio-political relevance in its narrative.
 Duane Schultz, Theories of Personality (Brookes/Cole Publishing Company, 1976), 89.
 Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom (Farrer & Rinehart, 1941), 37.
 Darren W. Davis, Brian D. Silver, “Civil Liberties vs. Security: Public Opinion in the Context of the Terrorist Attacks on America.” American Journal of Political Science Vol 48 Issue 1 (2004): 30.
 Travis Langley, Marvel Comics’ Civil War and the Age of Terror: Critical Essays on the Comic Saga (McFarland, 2015), 69.
 Mark Miller, Stev McNiven, Dexter Vines, Morry Hollowell, Civil War. No. 6, (Marvel Publishing Inc., 2006), 18.
 Darren W. Davis, Brian D. Silver, “Civil Liberties vs. Security: Public Opinion in the Context of the Terrorist Attacks on America.” American Journal of Political Science Vol 48 Issue 1 (2004): 31-32.
 Erich Fromm, The Sane Society, (Rinehart & Company, 1955), 5.
 Darren W. Davis, Brian D. Silver, “Civil Liberties vs. Security: Public Opinion in the Context of the Terrorist Attacks on America.” American Journal of Political Science Vol 48 Issue 1 (2004): 30-31.