Captain America: Civil War is the latest in a long line of loose film adaptations of comic book storylines by Marvel Studios. However, this is one of the only Marvel Cinematic Universe movies to be directly based on a single storyline. While previous films picked and chose elements from stories like “Armor Wars,” “Extremis,” “The Ultimates,” and more, the idea of Civil War is thoroughly indebted to writer Mark Millar and artist Steve McNiven’s 2006-2007 Marvel Comics event, “Civil War.”
However, when writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely teamed up with directors Anthony and Joe Russo to adapt the comic book storyline, they heavily altered the narrative. Millar’s event comic told the story of Steve Rogers, aka Captain America, and Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, heroes and former friends who become enemies over a government act that would force all heroes to register their secret identities with the government and become its agents.
While Captain America opposes registration in the name of personal freedom, Iron Man supports registration in an effort to prevent future disaster. Once The Superhero Registration Act is made law, the hero community fractures, with the two men leading these sides against one another.
That’s about where the similarities end, and the differences between the two create starkly different battles, character interpretations, and resolutions. Examining how these two storylines align and differ shows the fascinating complexities of storytelling in both Marvel Comics and the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
SPOILERS FOR COMIC AND FILM FOLLOW!
The Inciting Incident
Everything starts when the inexperienced superhero team known as The New Warriors (not affiliated with The Avengers) chase after the supervillain Nitro in the town of Stamford, Connecticut, while being followed by their reality show. But when they botch the chase, Nitro (who can detonate himself without being hurt) creates a massive explosion that kills most of the team and more than 600 people, including 60 children at a nearby elementary school. Following several previous disasters, The Stamford Incident spurs the U.S. to create a bill that would force all heroes to register their secret identities with them and become their agents.
Tracking down the terrorist Crossbones to Lagos, Nigeria, The Avengers are caught in a battle to stop the villain and his team from stealing a biological weapon. But when Crossbones is beaten, he detonates a suicide vest, causing the Scarlet Witch to throw his exploding body into the air. Unfortunately, that results in the explosion taking out several floors of a nearby building and killing dozens of bystanders, including several Wakandan aid workers. Unlike the comic, Captain America and the official Avengers team is involved in the inciting incident and the event occurs on international soil. While the death toll is lower, the preceding incidents in other films cause the disaster to worsen public sentiment of The Avengers.
The Superhero Registration Act
In the comic version, the Superhero Registration Act is a U.S. Federal Government proposal, since the incident occurred on American soil. While the superhero community around the world is invested in what will happen, the law only directly applies to the United States. In addition, the law would require the heroes to divulge their secret identities to the government, which is just as controversial of an issue as being a government agent. Those operating without registration are deemed criminals. Following the end of the superhero civil war, registration sweeps the nation, leading to the creation of a government-sanctioned team in every state.
In the film, the registration is known as The Sokovia Accords, named after the country where The Avengers fought Ultron and where a large amount of sentiment began to turn against the team. The Accords are created by the United Nations and signed by 117 nations around the world, with the law primarily focused on making The Avengers into a government-controlled operation. While heroes who work outside of registration are seen as criminals, it is not made clear how stringent the law is against heroes not affiliated with The Avengers.
The number of heroes active in the Marvel Comics Universe ranges into the thousands by the time Civil War hits. In addition, some characters are drastically different than their film counterparts. As such, the teams involved are largely different than what is seen on the big screen, aside from Cap and Iron Man being the faces of opposing sides.
Pro-Registration: Iron Man, Spider-Man, Black Widow, Ms. Marvel, Mister Fantastic, The Wasp, The Sentry, Ant-Man (Hank Pym), Deadpool, She-Hulk, and many more.
Anti-Registration: Captain America, Cyclops, Wolverine, Daredevil, Nick Fury, Hercules, Invisible Woman, Black Panther, Human Torch, Luke Cage, The Punisher, Winter Soldier, Cable, and many more.
While Captain America: Civil War features nearly every hero introduced so far besides Thor, The Hulk, and The Guardians of the Galaxy, the number of characters involved is a fraction of who is represented in the comic. Many of the characters who choose a side here were not involved in the comic version at all. However, Thor, Hulk, and The Guardians were also not involved in the comic due to either being off planet or presumed dead.
Pro-Registration: Iron Man, War Machine, Black Widow, The Vision, Black Panther, Spider-Man
Anti-Registration: Captain America, The Falcon, Hawkeye, The Winter Soldier, The Scarlet Witch, Ant-Man (Scott Lang)
The Supporting Characters
Outside of the massive roster of heroes involved in the conflict, characters affected by Civil War include The Winter Soldier (who eventually replaces Rogers as Captain America), Wolverine (who hunts Nitro), The X-Men (who fight for their neutrality in the conflict), The Fantastic Four (who split over the law), and The Punisher (who sides with anti-registration but is eventually kicked out for his murderous ways).
The Winter Soldier plays a major role throughout Captain America: Civil War despite not being part of the main comic book event. Here, his dangerous nature is a big reason behind the clash of the two sides and his mind-controlled murder of The Starks in 1991 is the final straw in breaking the friendship between Captain America and Iron Man. In addition to The Winter Soldier, Agent Sharon Carter, Helmut Zemo, and Crossbones all add to the conflict as either friends or enemies of Captain America.
As the Superhero Registration Act is a U.S. law, Wakanda, long active as a nation in the world of Marvel Comics, remains uninvolved, even to the point of preventing opposing forces who visit the nation from attacking one another. T’Challa and his new wife Ororo Munroe (aka Storm of The X-Men) eventually oppose registration following the death of Goliath during a battle against Stark’s forces and when U.S. government agents attempt to force Storm to register while visiting the U.S.
Previously mentioned but never seen, the isolated nation of Wakanda is just beginning to interact with the rest of the world by the start of Civil War. When the Avengers disaster results in the deaths of multiple Wakandan aid workers, King T’Chakka and Prince T’Challa join with the United Nations to call for government control. However, the terrorist bombing death of T’Chakka makes T’Challa fight against the anti-registration forces for vengeance. However, his revelations concerning Bucky’s innocence result in Black Panther and Wakanda as a whole withdrawing support and housing Captain America and the fugitive Avengers. As a result, Wakanda seems to be much more like the comic book version’s stance by the end of the film.
When the two sides of the conflict begin to fight for the first time, Stark deploys his secret weapon – Thor, who had been gone for several years after his apparent death in Ragnorok. However, it is actually a clone of Thor designed by Stark and Hank Pym. Unfortunately, this fake Thor is violent and uncontrollable, which leads to him fatally shooting a bolt of lightning through the pro-registration hero Goliath. It’s only one of the many actions taken by Stark that villainizes his side of the conflict.
Near the end of the major fight between the two sides, The Vision accidentally shoots down teammate War Machine, causing massive injuries and resulting in paralysis. While the hero does not die, it’s a major loss that highlights the catastrophic nature of the two sides fighting.
Spider-Man plays a pivotal role in the comic, siding with Tony Stark to the point of unmasking himself on national television in order to show his support of government registration (bad idea, Peter). But when Stark’s pro-registration efforts become morally questionable, Spider-Man switches sides. That betrayal puts Spider-Man in the precarious position of having the world know his identity, but not having government protection. It doesn’t make much difference in the tide of battle, but it’s a major character moment within the story.
Spider-Man most certainly does not switch sides or reveal his identity publicly (thankfully), but there is a traitor on Stark’s side. Black Widow, who had already shown herself to have doubts concerning both sides, betrays the pro-registration team when she allows Captain America and Bucky to escape. By repeatedly shocking Black Panther with her gauntlets, Black Widow gives the two heroes enough time to fly away. But Stark and the government learn of her betrayal, which leaves her without a side in the fight and an uncertain future.
A longstanding team of villains who are trying to work for the good side, the newest version of The Thunderbolts arrives in Civil War as a government-controlled group of criminals. However, when Stark offers them a part in the pro-registration side in return for them hunting down anti-registration heroes, the team is far too happy to take part. Members include Baron Zemo, Venom, Bullseye, and is part of the anti-registration side’s slide into more morally questionable tactics.
There are simply no Thunderbolts in the film and Zemo plays a far different, and far more crucial, role in the film Civil War.
The Fate of Captain America
Captain America abruptly surrenders when he sees the devastation caused by the latest battle between the two sides and is arrested. Following his arrest, Captain America is fatally shot by Crossbones and a brainwashed Sharon Carter, killing him on the courthouse steps before his trial. In the wake of his death, Iron Man is left distraught, the underground New Avengers fight in Cap’s honor, and Bucky Barnes takes up the shield and identity of Captain America. Steve Rogers would return a few years later through convoluted comic book sci-fi stuff and the machinations of The Red Skull, who planned the assassination in the first place.
One final battle sees Iron Man fighting Captain America and Bucky after the discovery of The Winter Soldier’s brainwashed murder of his parents (this is not in the comics in any form). When Captain America defeats Iron Man, he and Bucky escape, but not before he abandons his shield. With Steve Rogers alive and a large portion of The Avengers living as fugitives, there is a greater sense of hope despite hero registration being the new law in the world.