***Warning: Spoilers for Civil War II and Civil War II: Amazing Spider-Man follow.***
Marvel’s original Civil War was an important moment in comics because it was one of the first times in which a mainstream comic took up serious political questions––government regulation; post-9/11 counter-terrorism; even gun control, to an extent––and presented a balanced and nuanced view of them. What made the book so powerful was that instead of putting one set of political ideas into the mouths of supervillains (so that readers will know that those ideas are Very Bad), it presented a political conflict by having good people take opposing sides. (Some current comic book writers ought to take notes.)
Civil War is good because it’s ultimately about us; it’s about decent, reasonable people who want to do the right thing but who disagree about what the right thing is. It’s a hard act to follow, and yet, Marvel seems to be doing it again with Civil War II by Brian Michael Bendis and David Marquez.
Admittedly, the basic premise of Civil War II doesn’t sound as promising as the original. On the surface, it looks to be a rehash of Minority Report: a new Inhuman named Ulysses can predict future events, and Captain Marvel wants to use his visions to stop crimes before they happen, but Iron Man doesn’t trust Ulysses’ ability.
One of the things that makes Civil War II work so well is the way in which it takes the philosophical questions at the heart of the conflict—is it right to arrest people before they have committed a crime? how can we know that Ulysses’ power is always accurate? and how does it even work, anyway?—and presents those questions in ways that turn out to be deeply personal for the characters—especially Iron Man—and that turn out to be surprisingly relevant to real-world politics. We might not have Inhumans or precognitives, but the modern world tries very hard to predict people’s thoughts and behavior.
In the original Civil War, Spider-Man played a pivotal role. Though the plot of Civil War II doesn’t turn on Spidey’s decisions in the way that the original did (at least not so far), one of the best parts of Civil War II has been the Spidey tie-in miniseries by Christos Gage and Travel Foreman.
In comparison to the main title, the ASM miniseries is small in scope, but it perfectly condenses the major questions and themes of CWII into a personal and emotionally compelling story about failed redemption:
Now the head of his own technology corporation, Peter Parker employs some of his former enemies in order to allow them a second chance at life. One of those men is Clayton Cole, the former supervillain Clash. But when Spider-Man brings Ulysses to Parker Industries, the precognitive Inhuman has a vision of Clayton wearing the Clash suit and fighting Spidey. Clayton realizes that Spidey and Ulysses are acting suspicious toward him, and when Spidey catches him trying to spy on his conversation with Ulysses, Clayton quits Parker Industries and again takes up his Clash identity.
There’s (more than) a bit of the Oedipus paradox at work here. As both Peter and Ulysses realize, Ulysses’ vision doesn’t just predict what Clayton is going to do; the prediction itself is the final straw in a series of events that actually brings about his return to the Clash identity and conflict with Spider-Man. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it isn’t a “true” prophecy, but it raises a real concern about the morality of using Ulysses’ power to prevent wrongdoing at all, especially when we take into account Iron Man’s discovery that Ulysses’ power works by calculating probabilities.
Unconsciously, Ulysses’ brain assimilates information from an unknown number of data sources around him—it still isn’t clear how far his power reaches—and processes that information in a way similar to a computer algorithm. Essentially, he’s a super-powered version of the algorithms that Amazon, Facebook, Ebay, and other sites use to predict our interests and behavior based on our online activities. (Recent revelations about the NSA and government spy programs might suggest that it’s not only advertisers who want to use our data in order to predict what we’re going to do.) At what point do such algorithms go beyond merely predicting human behavior and start determining it, as well?
When comics writers deliberately raise big philosophical questions (instead of letting them proceed naturally out of the story), the result is often clunky, but CWII: ASM is a surprising exception to that rule. If you haven’t been following the series, it is definitely worth checking out when it comes out in trade edition.
I’ll be writing more about Civil War II, data-gathering, freedom, and security in my book, Titans, which will be available from Wipf & Stock publishers in 2017.