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Sunday Slugfest - Civil War #4

Posted: Sunday, September 24, 2006
By: Keith Dallas

Writer: Mark Millar
Artist: Steve McNiven (p), Dexter Vines (i), Morry Hollowell (colors)

Publisher: Marvel Comics





Average Rating:

Keith Dallas:
Michael Deeley:
Kelvin Green:
Shawn Hill:
Dave Wallace:
Michael Bailey:






Keith Dallas

I suspect Civil War #4 is going to be a ďjumping-offĒ point for a lot of readers, if only because of the issueís final two pages. Iíve read the issue three times now, and Iíve spun that final plot development around in my head for a few days, and I still canít find any satisfying logic to it. Say it out loud, kids: Reed and Tony have banded together Bullseye, Taskmaster, Lady Deathstrike, Venom, et al to take out Captain America and his ďSecret Avengers.Ē No, Iím sorry, this doesnít make sense, and the fact that the Pro-Registration side has been decimated by defections doesnít help make it sensible. Tonyís assertion to Janet Van Dyne that deploying super-villains ďis the only course of action [theyíve] got leftĒ rings hollow to me. This is the equivalent of President Bush sending David ďSon of SamĒ Berkowitz and Charles Manson into the Democratic National Convention to take out the next Democratic Presidential candidate (and despite the allegations about Republican campaigning tactics, Iím sure they donít resort to this). Itís a development that continues this eventís proclivity for painting Reed Richards and Tony Stark in the worst possible light. Throughout the history of the Marvel Universe, Reed Richards has proven time and again that heís a bit of an oblivious ďsmug gitĒ (as compellingly argued by fellow SBC reviewer Kelvin Green in a column posted last year), but the characterization is still WAY off here. (And not just of Tony and Reed; whatís with Janet acting like a doe-eyed sheep throughout Civil War? Her portrayal in the current mini-series Beyond! is more accurateÖ, and complimentary.)

This last page development doesnít ruin the issue for me though (if anything, it might ruin Civil War #5 for me). Quite the contrary, I found Civil War #4 to be a more gripping chapter than the previous two issues. The events of the issue turn the Civil War conflict on its ear and progress it forward. This is both a ďpackedĒ issue and an appropriate ďmidwayĒ point for the series.

The battle with Clone Thor produced some wonderful, quintessential Marvel moments from Herculesí furious assault on Iron Man to Sueís righteously defiant protection of the Secret Avengers as they escaped. And yes, Bill Foster diesÖ, which unfortunately doesnít have any emotional impact because heís a ďC-list characterĒ that readers havenít gotten attached to. Billís death is a spectacle vividly rendered by McNiven, Vines and HollowellÖ, but itís still the death of a character that has been VERY rarely used over the past 30 years. No, the death doesnít work on an emotional level, but it DOES succeed in being a significant turning point of the story. Billís death is a catalyst. It changes the story. It changes how the characters perceive the conflict: It causes Peter Parker to doubt his convictions; it causes some heroes to quit Capís Secret Avengers and even more to defect from the Pro-Registration side; it causes Reed and Tony to deploy sociopathic serial killers (okay, I still canít make sense out of that development).

And it causes Sue to leave her family. Civil War #4 isnít really about the Clone Thor or the death of Bill Foster. Itís about Sue. Her note to Reed is an apology (for leaving him), a condemnation (of his recent actions), and a plea (to both be responsible for the care of their children and for finding a bloodless resolution to the conflict). I LOVE how Sue couches her ďaffectionateĒ actions in terms of its health benefits (fish dinner improves brain function; sex bolsters the immunity system) to emphasize to Reed his own single-minded scientific frame of mind. Never underestimate the kind of guilt trip a wife can lay on her husband. Whose side am I on? Iím on Sueís side. The scene culminates with the most poignant panel of the series so far: Ben Grimm sullenly and helplessly watching Sue and Johnny leave.

Civil War hasnít been the mature ideological conflict that Marvel initially billed it to be, and the characterization of many of the principal characters is off, so I can appreciate some readers being disappointed in this seriesÖ, but I would be lying if I said this series (and this issue in particular) hasnít greatly entertained me.

Letís hope issue #5 doesnít cause me to jump off.




Michael Deeley

Since the news about what happens has already been released, consider yourself spoiler-warned.

The pro-registrationís forcesí newest recruit is a clone of Thor. He quickly, coldly, and brutally beats down Capís team. When he kills Goliath, it forces heroes on both sides to question their position. A few heroes leave Cap for fear of their lives. Many of Tonyís heroes quit in disgust. Two of them are the Invisible Woman and the Human Torch. With The Thing leaving the country, this could really spell the end of the Fantastic Four. Tony and Reed accelerate their ď50 States Initiative Ē to increase their numbers. That means bringing in the bad guys.

Letís get the worst out of the way. There are a couple of minor character conflicts between the core mini-series and the spin-offs. We know The Thing is leaving the country, but it looks like he hasnít left yet. What bugs me the most is Cableís defection to the pro-reg side. In Cable & Deadpool #30, he tells Cap that registration is the first step towards creating a superhuman army that inevitably conquers the world. I doubt someone who believes that so strongly would change sides. Thatís the only problem I have with this issue. A relatively small one compared to what it accomplishes.

This issue does share the same faults as the previous issues. The political issues are not explored in depth. However, this issue does show us how the characters are affected by events on a personal level. I felt more from this comic than previous issues. And thatís a marked improvement in the series.

The highlight of this comic for me isnít the Cap/Tony fight or the shock ending. Itís the way Susan leaves Reed. Her letter explains why she canít support him. She explains why she made their last night together so perfect. But she gives a scientific explanation for everything she did. Even lovemaking has a benefit unrelated to love. It makes her sound cold, and it might be the only way Reed can understand her. Sue ends her letter asking him to ďfix this.Ē Itís his fault sheís leaving; she blames him for the Thor-cloneís violence, and much of this civil war, but she still has faith in him to undo the damage heís done. She still loves him. Thatís a lot to get from a simple letter. I honestly thought Millar wasnít capable of anything this good.

People have complained that Steve McNiven is the reason the series and its related series are shipping late. Well, itís worth it. McNiven delivers big-screen action and quiet moments of reflections. This comic has a fight with a god, a funeral, and a familyís last night together. All are drawn with the power, mood, and feeling the story needs. The final page with the villains shows their irredeemable evil. I want that poster!

Civil War continues to portray the events that are changing the Marvel Universe. Details are still left to other series. That makes Civil War alone feel like a thin story. But as the core of a crossover, itís doing a great job. This is the first Marvel crossover mini-series in years that involved all the Marvel heroes and didnít just focus on a small cast with other characters making cameos. Infinity Gauntlet was all about Thanos and Warlock. Onslaught was an X-Men story guest-starring the Avengers and FF. And when was the last time Spider-Man played such a major role in a company-wide crossover? We could be looking at the best Marvel crossover of all time.

I never thought Millar had it in him.




Kelvin Green

Following the cliffhanger ending of the previous issue, Marvel had one thing to prove with this issue; they had to come up with a convincing reason for Thor throwing his lot in with the pro-Registration crowd. I wasnít confident that such a reason would be forthcoming, as characterisation comes second to plot in these kind of things, but there was some hope, as Mark Millar does such a good job of writing Ultimate Thor, and the two characters are closer than many Ultimate revamps. The basic problem is this; the Registration Act is intended to stop the heroes from acting like gods, to enforce a sense of responsibility in them, and prevent them from feeling like theyíre above the concerns, and laws, of the average person. But Thor is a god, and is above the concerns, and laws, of the average person, so there needs to be a pretty good reason for him suddenly becoming government lackey. Ultimate Thor wouldnít have any of it, and when written properly, neither would the original.

It turns out that there is a good explanation, but one that unfortunately reveals the cliffhanger as a deception, and I hate those kind of cheap get-outs. Oh, and indeed, well.

(That said, the deception involved does allow for a brief scene in which Hank Pym gets to shine by pointing out exactly what went wrong. Couple this with his accurate prediction of the Xorn/Michael fallout from House of M, and his commanding presence in Beyond! and itís almost as if Marvel are secretly trying to rehabilitate poor Hank.)

Elsewhere, the dodgy characterisaion continues, with Cap coming across as some demented old general, and Iron Man apparently going increasingly nuts (and yet heís back in the Avengers once all this is over, according to previews; how many more times must Stark go mental before they kick him out?), although at least some of the cast are finally beginning to act as one might expect given their long histories. Vast chunks of the issue are wasted on continuing the big fight scene from last time, and yet again thereís no sincere attempt to properly engage with the frankly fascinating moral issues that are supposedly, if one believes Marvelís hyperbole, the driving force of the event. We do get treated to yet another ill-considered metaphor, but the story remains philosophically suspect; thereís no way that a deranged ďThorĒ killing a man is the same as a police officer shooting dead a criminal threatening him with lethal force, not least because that lethal force was not evident in this situation. Millar is to be congratulated for trying to present a balance even at this stage, but it lacks any sort of intellectual rigour. This isnít me expecting more of the superhero genre than it can deliver, by the way; this is a stated objective of the event, and one thatís been woefully underdeveloped thus far.

(It might be worth mentioning here that the whole thing is fatally undermined by Marvel shooting themselves in the foot and acknowledging the events of their other crossover; itís difficult to find any sympathy for Reed and Tonyís claim that they're doing all this to save lives, when Reed at least is well aware of the millions dying in Annihilation, and is instead concerning himself with beating up his closest friends...)

The art this issue is quite rough around the edges, and not at all as smooth and precise as Steve McNivenís work in previous chapters. However, since I found that work to be sterile and lifeless, I much prefer the look of this issue. While the fight scene is completely superfluous, it is dynamic and full of energy, and the art team do a great job of depicting the battered and bruised combatants in the aftermath; the image of a pulped Captain America sitting on a throne-like pile of medical equipment, but still clearly in charge of the situation, is a particularly striking one.

Civil War remains a flashy, clichť-ridden (oh look, the black guy is the first to die!) and badly characterised title that utterly fails to live up to the potential of the concept. Millar at least appears to be trying, but you want an Alan Moore or Grant Morrison to pull off something that aims this high. Still, itís already proven to be a vast sales success, which is all that apparently matters, and a bit of nay-saying at this stage wonít change anything. But if youíre reading this in a few months from now, perhaps wondering if the deluxe overpriced hardback is worth buying, Iíd say go and pick up Annihilation instead; it doesnít aim so high conceptually, but delivers a story with much more going for it than this hollow exercise.




Shawn Hill

Plot: The battle gets better, if youíre the kind whoís into blood sports. Several of our heroes arenít. And I think Ms. Sharpe is Mephisto. Or at least Alkhema.

Comments: Talk about wielding a blunt instrument. All the subtlety that has made the second series of Ultimates such an improvement on the first falls by the wayside in this Millar story. Here he settles for the crass excitements of season one, but bumps into an unfortunate wall: these arenít the Ultimates, and 616 heroes donít behave like this.

I feel as brutalized by this issue as Captain America within it, reduced to a bleeding grouch by Iron Man halfway through. And yet I canít deny that it has entertainment value. The return of an insanely angry god is always good for a thrill, and this Thor would make Loki laugh in joy. How can I talk about what he does? It was predicted by many astute readers online some months ago, and all I can say is, they were right. This story needs cannon fodder, and Thor provides it.

Yet I found myself cheering at several points in the story, too, and theyíre the same points that have made the last two issues of New Avengers tolerable. Anytime someone defects to Capís side, I know that person is still a hero. This issue we get more than Iíd hoped for, as even Tony Stark must admit ďthe balance has definitely tipped in their favor after thisĒ (emphasis mine).

Well, duh, Tony. Youíre killing people, and lining up for worst disasters to judge by the ďNew ThunderboltsĒ youíve assembled by the end of the issue as the worst task force ever. Reed is no better, indifferent to the deaths that have Hank and Peter questioning their alliances.

McNiven does seem to be proving himself worth the wait after all, as this issue is much more visually coherent than the previous one (which may indeed have compromised the storytelling through rushed layouts). Everythingís very easy to follow, and heís takes time for nice touches like Sue and Johnny using their powers to stay dry in a downpour. His Thor, Goliath, Falcon and Invisible Woman are especially impressive, wielding their powers with cinematic verve. You get the feeling that if McNiven had been around for Bendisís abysmal Secret War (which was a mixture of incoherent talk and inexplicable battle scenes), it might have almost made sense.

This issue hurts to read as much as seeing Thorís hammer smash Capís shield on the cover. Itís exciting, in the manner of surviving a car accident.




Dave Wallace:

There's something about this issue of Civil War which makes me feel that the series just isnít going to deliver on its true potential. The high-point that was issue #2 gave us heroes pitted against heroes, thrilling escapes from S.H.I.EL.D. enforcers and the formation and early impact of Capís Secret Avengers... but nothingís really moved on since then. With only seven issues to work with, Millar doesnít have much time to shape this series into something which is as big and important as weíve been promised, and this halfway-point issue also commits the cardinal sins of cheating-out on last issueís cliffhanger, killing off a character for no good reason, and continuing to present what should be an even-handed portrayal of the two factions as decidedly one-sided.

First off, the letdown that is Millarís revelation that ďproject lightningĒ isnít the real Thor but a clone (yes, really) is a complete misfire. The use of clones in fantasy fiction always acts as a warning light in my head that a story is going off the rails, and in this instance the presence of the Thor clone - already dubbed ďClorĒ by online fans - not only undercuts the impact of last issueís cliffhanger but also infects the morality of the pro-registration heroes in a whole new way, proving once and for all that in Millarís Marvel Universe both Tony Stark and Reed Richards have had a complete ethics bypass. Millarís writing of this duo poses more problems than it solves: namely, if Reed and Stark are the forward-thinking futurist geniuses that we keep being told that they are, why couldnít they figure out a better way to handle the whole Civil War mess?

That said, there are a couple of surprisingly strong character moments which give me hope that the writer might not be so completely out of touch with his heroesí received characterisation as his harshest critics would have you believe. An organically foreshadowed and affecting change of heart by Sue Storm hits all the right emotional beats and produces the issueís best writing from Millar, with her goodbye note to Reed reminding me more than anything else of Noraís exit at the climax of A Doll's House (do you reckon Millar reads much Ibsen?). Equally, the stance of the Secret Avengers is given depth and dimensionality when some members drop out as a result of Capís anti-government stance edging closer and closer towards being a crusade - and the growing unease of Peter Parker with Starkís methods also builds towards something more substantial this issue (Iím sure Iím not the only one that suspects that itís him snooping around Capís secret hideout at the issueís end? But maybe Civil War is going to be less predictable than that).

Whilst you can usually count on Mark Millar for over-the-top, exciting action and an abundance of fun ideas, both elements are slightly lacking here. The fight from last issue peters out after a death which is predictable and gratuitous enough that it would feel at home in any slasher flick (especially if youíre aware of Millarís penchant for graphically killing off similarly-powered characters in his other books) and the nuts and bolts of the registration act remain frustratingly unexplored - a particularly galling omission when itís the crux of the entire crossover event. Unfortunately, Civil War #4 canít escape feeling like the middle issue that it is, moving pieces around in order to begin the run-up to the series finale, but failing to stand as a compelling comic in its own right.

One or two plot points promise interesting developments in future issues (the schisms in Capís group, for example, or the long-overdue introduction of some Marvel villains to the series at the issueís close), and even if the juryís still out on whether McNivenís artwork is really worth waiting this long for, itís a very solid, consistent job with some lovely little touches which really make the book come alive (check out Sue Stormís forcefield-umbrella, or the wonderful sense of atmosphere and mood established in the ďsheís leaving homeĒ sequence - for which much credit must also go to colourist Morry Hollowell). Ultimately, this is still a decent enough continuation of the Civil War story which, even if it doesnít hit the heights of the first couple of issues, will be a worthy read for fans of the series so far. Letís just hope Millar kicks the book into a higher gear next issue.




Michael Bailey

Plot: ďThorĒ returns. A hero dies. Combatants switch sides. The first family breaks up. Bizarre and twisted allegiances are formed.

Commentary: Iím out.

Thatís it. I quit. Itís over.

Iím out.

Marvel had garnered a lot of good will in me in the months leading up to this series. With this issue they have taken that good will out back and shot it execution style.

This is the whole One Year Later thing over at DC all over again. I put my faith in a project thinking that I was going to be treated to a well told, gripping story, and I am given a series of changes and shocking moments that are all style and absolutely no substance.

[Okay, take a deep breath. Rein it in. This is a review, not a rant. Tell the readers why you are so upset instead of sounding like that loud guy who comes into the shop every Wednesday who wants to convince everyone that Batman could beat Galactus with one hand tied behind his back.]

First problem: The Bait and Switch

Issue #3 of Civil War ended on a high note with the supposed return of Thor. I was confused because even with my limited knowledge of Thor, I couldnít see why he would side with Tony Stark. It just didnít make sense from a characterization stand point, but I was willing to see where it went. This entire storyline has been about characters being pushed to their limits, so I thought there was some grand design and that the explanation would be at least interesting even if I didnít quite agree with it.

Too bad the explanation was not only uninteresting but borders on being the dumbest revelation in comic book history.

It wasnít Thor. It was a clone of Thor grown from a hair Tony Stark has been holding onto since 1963.

Right. And Greedo shot first.

Bait and switches are not new in comics. DC did something similar with the creation of the new Spectre, but in that case, the bait and switch was well written and actually made sense. This doesnít make any kind of sense and proves that this isnít a storyline created to push the Marvel Universe forward but was designed as a huge marketing stunt to get people to buy not only this book but scores of others.

The thing is that I donít mind a good marketing stunt. Comic companies do this to sell books. This is a business. I understand and accept this. But to go this far and have nothing of substance to back it upÖ, wellÖ thatís just insulting to the intelligence of the reader.

Iím sure Marvelís desired reaction was, ďWow that was awesome!Ē For me the reaction was, ďOh you have got to be @#$&ing kidding me!Ē

Second Problem: The death of Goliath

Iím not even going to go into the fact that the very Aryan super-hero (or at least the clone of the very Aryan super-hero) killed an African-American super-hero and the reason I am not going into it is simple.

I really donít care. It doesnít matter. Marvel has been in something akin to hot water lately with the controversy about how they portray gays in their comic books, and I donít really care about that either. They are non-issues to me because there is no right or wrong in the position and accusing anyone of racism or bigotry is a pretty heavy charge to throw around.

No, Iím tackling this from the concept that Marvel severely chickened out by not killing someone bigger.

Seriously. Poll most comic readers you know and I bet that unless they are huge Avengers fans or are steeped in Marvel history, they didnít know a thing about Goliath until this series started. The intent here was to kill a hero and have people change their minds about what side is right or wrong. To a certain extent Millar and crew were successful in this at least on a story level. On a dramatic level it accomplished nothing. Wow, ďThorĒ killed Goliath. Big deal. Who was he again?

I realize that DC and Marvel are in a lose-lose situation when it comes to killing any character because if they off a small-tier character, they get accused by people like me of not going for it, and if they kill someone popular, readers complain loudly, threaten death and form groups that will besiege the company with petitions to return their beloved character to life. But Iíve always been of the opinion that if you are going to lose, you should lose big. Why not off Hank Pym? At least from a dramatic standpoint that would make people like Spider-Man or even Reed Richards re-think their positions.

Killing Goliath was just bad storytelling. There was no connection, and the death seemed hollow. They may as well have not killed anyone.

Third Problem: Sue Leaving Reed

Again, the problem lies not with the intent but with the execution. We all saw this coming, and Reed and Sue having marital issues is nothing new. These two are like the couple you hung out in high school who were always fighting, breaking up and getting back together. Itís like Spider-Man making jokes during a fight; it just happens.

Still, there is something about Sue sneaking out in the middle of the night to join Captain America that seems wrong to me. As clichťd as it might have been, I would have preferred a huge fight and Sue storming (no pun intended I assure you) off. Not that his wife leaving him would have changed Reedís mind, but at least it would have been braver than coming home, eating dinner, having sex and then, after Reed is asleep, kissing little Franklin on the head and catching a cab out of there.

And thatís another thing. How is leaving your child doing the right thing? I realize that sometimes children are separated from the mothers during time of war, but as much as military service is voluntary in the United States, there is still the matter that you donít choose where your unit is sent. Sue has made the conscious decision to leave her children in the care of a man who has shown in the past that his work will come before his family. Maybe she is counting on Johnny to deal with it, but at the same time Franklin is without a mother. Yes, it is great that she has chosen a side, but why not take the kid and join the Thing in Canada? I realize there is no right way to deal with this, but it could have been handled so much better.

There are other problems, such as Captain America coming off as a bit of an obsessive whack job after the battle. It could be that this may be what Millar and Marvel consider being balanced in their portrayal, but it doesnít fit with the rest of the story. Tony has been gunning for this since before the series began. The only reason Iím not upset by Capís portrayal is that it is one of the few things that I can think about and make sense of. If Iím getting what Millar is trying to say, I would have to guess that the point is that there are better ways to deal with such matters than getting into fights where people die. Thatís noble, but the rest of the problems overshadow it and take away from the impact.

Then there was the last page.

Sigh.

So, to take down the heroes who are now criminals we are going to assemble a team of villains who have collectively killed the population of a small country?

Right, that makes perfect sense, but only if you are trying to get your readersí attention and entice them to return.

Well, fool me once, shame on you. If I come back, shame on me. Iím not going to fall for it again.

In The End: I cannot support this series any longer. What started off as a good concept has turned into a sensational mish-mash of shock and awe. I realize there are three more issues to go, but I donít see this story turning around. Because of this, I am going to do the one thing every reader should do when they reach that point where that is all they can stands and they canít stands no more: leave. I wonít be buying anything else that is connected to this storyline. I am not calling for everyone to follow me in this because there are people out there who are enjoying this and think that this is the best thing Marvel has done in decades. That is their right. The thing is the story has gone in directions that make no sense to me and instead of beating my head against the wall and wasting my time, money and energy in something I donít like, it is better to just walk away. I could turn out to be wrong and the ending could be fantastic, but Iím not going to wait around hoping things will improve.



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