Brian Michael Bendis tackles America's profiling problem in Civil War II9
Ten years ago, Marvel split its comics universe in two with its massive crossover event series Civil War. Penned by Mark Millar, the series saw Bush-era political concerns written directly into the lives of Marvel’s marquee characters. The existence of superheroes was suddenly a public concern, and echoing the Patriot Act, new proposed legislation would force superhumans to give up their civil liberties for the sake of national security. “Whose Side Are You On?” read the tagline, prodding readers to align themselves with either the pro-registration Iron Man or the anti-registration Captain America. In the end, it was a bloody and ultimately controversial event, having earned something of a shellacking from fans and critics in the decade since. That didn’t stop its Marvel Cinematic Universe adaptation from bringing in over a billion dollars last month.
This year, the House of Ideas is returning to the well with Civil War II, this time helmed by Eisner award-winning writer Brian Michael Bendis. Bendis is well-regarded among Marvel fans for helping design the modern Ultimate Universe and co-creating fan favorite Miles Morales, and with Civil War II, he’s well positioned to tackle the social issues of today. When a young superhuman discovers the ability to predict future catastrophes, Marvel’s heroes, led by Iron Man and Captain Marvel, are divided on whether or not it’s just to act on his predictions. The book runs parallel to questions we face today about law enforcement and racial profiling. Is it ever right to judge even a supervillain on actions she hasn’t committed? Does prejudice inform heroics? There are no easy answers, but you can expect both sides to come to blows before anything gets figured out.
Where 'Civil War' dealt with national security, 'Civil War II' grapples with prejudice
I sat down with Bendis this week to talk about Civil War II, the sticky ideological questions facing superheroes today, and what went into making Marvel’s latest mega-event.
Minor spoilers ahead.
The original Civil War came out in 2006, 10 years ago. Why make a sequel to it now? Was it born directly out of the movie?
It actually had nothing to do with the movie! Marvel doesn't do a lot of sequels ever. What was going on was [Marvel Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso and I] were just talking about what’s going on in the world and how it's reflecting in our work. And we're talking about personal accountability and profiling and how people are shocked that their internet behavior has a price. And it's fascinating to me.
We were going on about profiling and what's been going on with the cops all over the country and what's the superhero version of that. And he called me up and went, "Listen, we want to go forward with this idea. We think there's a story in it. Our publisher said we're going to call it Civil War II because everyone else will. We might as well call it that." It's a spiritual sequel, not a direct sequel, and I got very excited about it. It had a lot of challenges to me, creatively, and as I get older, that's all I'm looking for. I know people are like "Ah, you're taking advantage of the movie." It was born out of [a] good story and good timing.
Civil War was extremely political in nature. With this one, you're commenting directly on profiling. Was there a particular moment when you decided this would be the right story for your new cast of characters?
Well, yes, actually. We have these Marvel retreats, where all the writers working on the franchise books come to New York and we sit with the editors in a big room — the geekiest Algonquin Round Table you've ever seen — and we talk about what we're going to do and what we've done and what we should be doing that we're not doing. And in this instance, it was specifically for me to show everybody what Civil War II could be. "Here's the moral dilemma in the sand, and what we would like you, the writers, to do is to tell us where your character would go. Tony's side or Carol's side? And [the vote was] right down the middle. That's when you go, "Oh, we got the good stuff!"
I was actually in the room for the birth of the original Civil War event, and it came out of a very similar, organic place. And sometimes that's a tough room, that Marvel editorial retreat. If you can't survive that room, there's no way in hell you're going to survive the internet. I have seen stories die because someone just asked a simple question that pops a hole right in it. But [seeing] how excited people were getting about the idea, the story beats, I got excited. I thought this is gonna be worth doing. If I can get these jaded nerds, I can get everybody on board!
With this story, you have the Inhumans and the Avengers directly involved in the conflict, and Captain Marvel and Iron Man serve as the crux. Without going too deeply into spoilers, can you speak a little about what's going on?
So there's a group of superhumans called the Inhumans, and they're kind of popping up all over the world. A new mini-race of superheroes. And a new Inhuman is birthed into his superpowers, and his superpower, it seems, is being able to have very profound visions. I wouldn't even call them visions, I'd call them experiences of the future. And one of his earliest visions is that of a destroyer coming to Earth and leveling us, as is everyone's fear. And because the Inhumans were able to go to the Avengers, they were able to thwart, in the very first issue, this disaster before it happens. Which is very good news. I'm very proud that this is the first Marvel event that opens up with a win. They usually open up with something really bad happening.
Afterwards, the other heroes find out how they were able to get this win — because of this new Inhuman — and that is a moral dilemma for some of the heroes. Like, "This cosmic event coming to destroy us? That's fine. That's all well and good. But if this guy's having visions of the future and we're gonna act on them, we're basically saying we're going to 'arrest' people before they do what they're going to do." And that's a moral quandary.
How hard is it to balance both sides as the story progresses? In the original storyline, it seemed like Captain America was ultimately in the right. How are you going to go forward and justify the decisions of each side?
I would counter to you that you may have seen that clearly the moral high ground was on Captain America's side, [but] I know for a fact that a great deal of the audience felt like Tony was on the right side of the thing. I saw the movie a couple weeks ago, and I saw the argument spill out into the lobbies of theaters just like I saw it spill out at the original retreat that the story was born in.
I started teaching myself early on, in my earliest days of Ultimate Spider-Man, the idea that nobody is the villain of their story. The Kingpin sees himself as a hero. Norman Osborn [the Green Goblin] sees himself as the hero. This is something you've heard before, but everybody thinks they're right. I'm already writing that way as a writer. I always tell the story that there's no "ha ha ha crazy" villain. Everyone damn well thinks they're the hero of the story and right. So, to come into a story like this, and I'm already thinking that way, that's what the job is. The job really is to not express one idea over the other. It's to express both ideas equally so that the audience on their own can decide what side they want to be on. So just keeping it balanced is the hardest thing to do. But it's not when I equally see Carol and Tony's point, and I actually really do.
How is it that Tony Stark, in particular, tends to be at the heart of these ideological fights?
Because he's a big pain in the ass! Truthfully, some are very surprised at what side he's on in this one. But Tony is a futurist. He literally closes his eyes and sees the future, sees what it could be, sees what he has to do to make it happen. Like any great inventor he's able to see what we need before we know we need it. That's really what a futurist is. He's [also] a character who has been through all of these other stories, all of these other events. He was in the first Civil War, he was in Secret Invasion, he was in Secret Wars, and these things profoundly affected him, so he's damn well sure he's right about this because of everything he's been through.
You’ve spoken a little bit about snarky fan feedback online. Have they snarked on this all sounding a bit like Minority Report? How do you make this event stand out from other series for them?
Well, to be fair, I get more snarky mail about why I haven't hooked up Steve and Tony romantically than I do about anything in the actual books. I'm not even slightly joking. It's called "Stony," these guys that really want Tony and Steve to get together, and the fact that I haven't gotten them together has pretty much derailed my life and my Tumblr. #Stony. I did [tell] them that I'm much more interested in Thucky. I didn't say who that "Th" was of the Thucky. Was it Thor? Was it Thanos? Was it Thing? [laughs]
But anyway, as much as I am a part of the community, and eagerly available to the audience, you can't worry too much about what everybody wants out of a story like this. As I learned very early, you can't make everybody happy. But number one, when you point out, "Oh, you're doing this because of the movie," I'll say, "Oh, you mean because of the books that we made?" And number two, the Minority Report aspect of it is something that the story will reveal itself not to be. By issue three you'll be like "Oh, this isn't like Minority Report at all!" But when you see future, or future-crime, or profiling, I get [it.] I'm actually a huge fan of the movie, so I won't lie that I've thought about it. But it's always that these characters, just by their existence, make the story different. And people will see what that story is very very soon.
"These characters are there to examine our world in a more fantastical light."
Events are tough. Some people go, "We don't want them!" But they always buy them. And literally since House of M, which I wrote many years ago, they’re like "I like when they sit quietly!" and I'm like "No you don't. You wouldn't buy a book where they sit quietly." Who wouldn't want a book where all your favorite heroes are doing something? Things that are exciting! We're promising you that shit is gonna happen. That's pretty cool.
What, for you, is the importance of engaging with the politics of the day, vs. telling more fantastical stories like Secret Wars?
Well, it's not politics of the day so much as just what's in the air. What's going on in politics, I could never write anything that crazy. And thank God I'm not writing any political satire. Every time I watch Saturday Night Live I'm like, "Oh you poor bastards." But every day, something's going on in the news about profiling or personal responsibility. And these characters have shown time and time again, since their creation, that they're kind of there to examine our world in a different light, in a more fantastical light. Yes, we're going to get a very cool superhero story where a lot of cool shit’s gonna happen, but the theme of the piece, the reason that the fight is happening, has to be [one where] the audience goes "That is true. That is just honest. That is a world I recognize."