From the very beginning, the Marvel Universe was a place where the heroes could and did fight one another. The first real crossover of the “Marvel Age of comics” happened in Fantastic Four #12, where Marvel’s First Family took on the Incredible Hulk. It was the first such fight, but it wouldn’t be the last.
The degree to which early Marvel books broke with formula by being character-driven cannot be overstated. Plots arose out of the actions and desires of primary characters. If the end result was that the characters sometimes seemed moody or petulant, fans didn’t mind. Even when these heroes were unlikable, they were still interesting. For instance, the Avengers were first formed in response to the threat of the Hulk. (Early Marvel heroes spent a lot of time trying to corral the Hulk.) They came together just in time to figure out that Loki had framed the Hulk for his own mischief. They stayed together because there was an opening for another superhero team in the Marvel Universe. The Hulk had a tantrum and left in the second issue, and—aside from a handful of special appearances—would not serve as a regular Avengers member for another 50 years.
Given the popularity and visibility of the Avengers, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the book itself was an afterthought. Yes, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby co-created Earth’s Mightiest Heroes way back in 1963, but they only did so because another book—Lee and Bill Everett’s Daredevil—was late. Putting “all the heroes” together in one book hardly counts as a great invention, considering Marvel’s ’60s output had been kick-started by the publisher’s suggestion for Lee to ape DC’s success by putting out a copycat Justice League Of America book. Still, even if the book’s origins were less than completely original, it soon evolved into something much different, and arguably more interesting than its DC counterpart. The catalyst for this change was the return of one of Marvel’s first heroes, Captain America.
Back in the “Golden Age” of comics—that is, the period immediately surrounding World War II that represented the birth of the modern comic book—Marvel wasn’t even called Marvel. The company’s World War II superhero books were published under the name Timely Comics. Timely’s three most popular wartime heroes were the Sub-Mariner, the Human Torch, and Captain America. The former two premiered in 1939 in the pages of Marvel Comics #1 (the name stuck around, obviously), whereas Captain America didn’t make his first appearance until late 1940, in the first issue of his own magazine. It wasn’t common practice for new characters to premiere in their own books back then, but Timely had an inkling the guy might do well for himself.
And he did. Captain America, created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, succeeded for Timely throughout WWII. But after the war was over and the soldiers had returned home, the market for superhero books dried up. The only heroes who managed to survive the postwar drought were Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman—everyone else got canceled, or worse. Captain America saw his book change from Captain America Comics to Captain America’s Weird Tales, reflecting the new success of the horror and suspense titles that were quickly dominating the market. Cap wasn’t even featured in the last issue of his own magazine, which was shuttered in 1950. A few years later Timely—now Atlas—tried to bring back Cap and company as McCarthy-era Red busters, which didn’t have the same appeal as fighting Nazis. It was a couple years early, at any rate. Superheroes began to slowly make their way back into the spotlight beginning in 1956 with the introduction of the Barry Allen Flash in DC’s Showcase #4, but the early Marvel heroes still had to endure a few more years of limbo.
When finally they did return, in the first issue of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four in 1961, things were different. The first Human Torch, a sentient android named Jim Hammond (created by Carl Burgos), was nowhere to be found, replaced by teenager Johnny Storm. Namor the Sub-Mariner (also created by Everett) followed soon after, returning in the fourth issue of Fantastic Four. In keeping with the character’s Golden Age demeanor, the returned Namor was a part-time villain, an arrogant antihero who was just as likely to team up with Doctor Doom as he was to save the world. All that was missing was Captain America.
The first three issues of The Avengers are decent but unspectacular. The Marvel formula—such as it had already become identified—was pretty dependable. Even if the premise may have lacked the high-concept juice of much of the rest of the Marvel line, there was a great deal to be said for the idea of having a book where the big personalities of the Marvel Universe (and, er, Ant-Man) could bounce off one another. But with the Hulk gone after the second issue, something was missing.
The cover of the fourth issue of The Avengers announced that the Hulk’s spot in the roster had been filled, and then some: “Captain America Lives Again!” On the first page Lee informed the reader that they were reading “A tale destined to become a magnificent milestone in the Marvel Age Of Comics!” Familiar as they are now to movie audiences across the globe, the Avengers were obscure in 1964: Iron Man had barely been around for a year, Thor a year and a half. Captain America, however, was still famous enough that fans (those few who were old enough to remember characters who hadn’t been regularly published in 15 years, that is) had been awaiting his return. As Lee said, Avengers #4 featured the return of “the great super hero which your wonderful avalanche of fan mail demanded!”
The Captain America who returned in 1964 was not the same Cap who had disappeared in 1950. The Captain America fished out of arctic waters by the Avengers had been asleep for 20 years (with all of his post-war adventures tossed out of canon, for the moment), thrown into suspended animation in the closing days of World War II, following the supposed death of sidekick Bucky Barnes. He awoke in a strange world filled with television, rock ’n’ roll music, and Southeast Asian “police actions.”
Captain America’s status as the living embodiment of American values was soon challenged. Whereas Cap was immediately recognized as an avatar of the best American virtues, they were the virtues of a different time. Cap was a New Deal Democrat who had lived through the Great Depression and fought in World War II. In the 1960s, the United States found better representation in the figure of Iron Man.
Iron Man was, and is, Tony Stark, American industrialist and inventor. Every bit as brilliant as he is rich, Iron Man began his career as a dedicated Cold Warrior, fighting the Red Menace abroad and at home. He was brash, impatient, and roguishly charming, even in his earliest appearances, and the diametric opposite of the serious, humble, and classically handsome Captain America. Iron Man, in his origin, has to be persuaded to the cause of selflessness by a near-death experience that jars him out of his self-centered worldview. Captain America volunteers to fight for the American war effort (before America had even entered the war) because of a firm belief in the necessity of standing up to bullies.
Although Marvel has always been a fairly rough-and-tumble place, Iron Man and Cap wouldn’t have their first actual marquee fight for another few months. Shell-Head and the Sentinel Of Liberty first came to blows in Tales Of Suspense #58, due to the machinations of the Chameleon. It was, of course, a misunderstanding brought about by the Chameleon’s imposture. Cap gets a good couple licks in but is mostly saved by Iron Man having conveniently forgot to charge his armor—a device that unwittingly laid the foundation for every subsequent fight between the two, with Captain America obviously outclassed by Iron Man’s superior firepower, but Iron Man often outwitted by Cap’s superior tactical acumen.
Many years later, Mark Waid and Ron Garney told another version of the first fight between the two, with a story that fit right after the events of Avengers #4. Originally printed in the pages of the short-lived Captain America: Sentinel Of Liberty spin-off in 1998, it features a freshly thawed Cap, still disoriented by the modern world and reeling from the cultural changes wrought during his two-decade absence. In Cap’s earliest modern appearances, there’s no doubt that he’s still competent and capable of joining the ranks of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, but Waid’s story begins with the assumption that Iron Man would have initially been skeptical in regard to Cap’s usefulness, as both a man out of time and a simple fighter alongside gods and monsters. Cap of course proved his usefulness in no time at all, overcoming his disorientation in order to save Iron Man from alien mind control. Iron Man quickly overcame his hesitancy.
Soon Captain America joined Iron Man and Thor as one of the three core Avengers. Other members come and go, but these three never wander too far from the team. Cap was eventually given voting privileges in the Avengers charter that made him equal to the five founding members, in acknowledgement both of his central position in the team and the fact that the Hulk hasn’t cared to be involved with the Avengers for most of the group’s history.
But this has often been a contentious relationship. Setting aside Thor, who is usually portrayed as slightly removed from the quotidian struggles of his mortal friends—and therefore something of a peacemaker—Iron Man and Captain America are vastly different people with vastly different philosophies.
The first great Iron Man/Captain America fight occurred during the late ’80s, in the context of the first “Armor Wars.” Tony Stark realized that multiple parties had bootlegged his technology, and he set out to right this wrong. This quickly became a single-minded crusade, with Stark alienating his friends and allies in an attempt to assuage his personal guilt over the potentially deadly misuse of his ideas. At the time, Captain America had quit being Captain America due to a conflict with the Reagan Administration. He confronted Iron Man (in his temporary guise as “The Captain”) about the possible dangers of his crusade, but Tony couldn’t be dissuaded. During an assault on the Vault—the U.S. government’s high-security prison for super-powered criminals—Tony knocked Cap out with a cheap blow, and their friendship was irrevocably damaged.
The next real test came at the conclusion of the 1992 crossover Operation: Galactic Storm. After a lengthy outer space adventure, the Avengers were faced with the consequences of a deadly attack on the Kree Empire, in the form of the explosion of a devastating “Nega-Bomb” explosion that killed roughly 90 percent of the Kree population. After learning that the bomb was the responsibility of the Kree Supreme Intelligence—as part of a plot to jumpstart the Kree’s moribund evolution—the Avengers were split into two camps. One camp was determined to seek justice for the Kree by executing their former ruler, while the other part of the team maintained that the Avengers were not killers, and had no business murdering intergalactic heads of state without the benefit of due process.
With battle lines drawn, Captain America refused to allow Avenger to fight Avenger, and stood down as Iron Man led his contingent of Avengers to avenge the fallen Kree. Although this drove a further wedge between the former friends, it did give them an opportunity to sit and hash things out, which they did in Captain America #401. Placed near the middle of Mark Gruenwald’s long, character-defining tenure as Cap’s writer, the meeting stands as perhaps the best such confrontation, in which an honest Tony Stark comes clean about his feelings of inadequacy next to the example of a living paragon like Cap.
The most storied battle between these two great friends, however, happened in 2006 with the release of Marvel’s first Civil War, by Mark Millar and Steve McNiven. After a disastrous superhero battle results in scores of civilian casualties, the government passes a Superhuman Registration Act that polarizes the superhero community. Iron Man sides with the government and leads the forces in support of the SRA. Captain America, seeing the potential for widespread harm if the legislation were enacted, goes rogue and leads a team of rebel Avengers against Tony’s team, the forces of S.H.I.E.L.D., and the federal government. (Thor was dead at the time, as happens periodically.)
Although the series sold quite well—and remains one of Marvel’s best-selling events—the story polarized fans and creators alike. The main problem is that Civil War was premised on the selective removal of one element of suspension of disbelief. Superhero battles cause tons of carnage and in all probability, loss of life. Readers aren’t usually supposed to care about that, except when they are, and the juxtaposition of real-life concerns with familiar superhero story tropes was jarring for many. If superheroes were “real” and normal folks had to worry about being blown up as casualties in near-constant super-battles, most people would likely be in favor of strict registration. Captain America’s position, that a centralized database of superhero information would be a dangerous threat that would potentially hinder as many heroes as it would help, was premised on the kind of idealism that was strictly in keeping with superhero comic tradition.
Iron Man turned his pursuit of the anti-Registration forces into another kind of crusade, crossing moral and ethical boundaries in an attempt to bring order to the Avengers. Although the marketing for the series hinged on the question of “Whose Side Are You On?” the series itself was a bit less ambiguous: Although, again, it would be difficult to argue against the utility of Iron Man’s position, the means he used to achieve his goals undermined his cause. Over the course of the series he criminalized his friends, hired supervillains to hunt them, created a cyborg clone of Thor who went evil and accidentally murdered Giant Man, and built an extra-judicial prison for renegade heroes in the Negative Zone.
Although Tony eventually won, the consequences left little doubt in the readers’ minds as to who had been right. Soon after surrendering into government custody, Captain America was murdered. Soon after that, it was revealed that while the Avengers spent months fighting among themselves they had become victims of a long-term Skrull infiltration. The Skrulls launched a “secret invasion” of Earth, which was soon routed—but not before Tony Stark’s position as the head of S.H.I.E.L.D. was usurped by Norman Osborn, the same guy who sometimes dresses up like the Green Goblin and flies around murdering Spider-Man’s girlfriends. Stark was defeated, hunted, and humiliated for a year afterward, until he was finally forced to reboot his brain to wipe the SRA database from his memory. Iron Man literally lobotomized himself as a direct result of his hubris in Civil War—and all before Captain America could even return from the dead to say “I told you so.” (Like Thor, he got better soon enough.)
Conflict comes as naturally to these two heroes as breathing. Although they are ostensibly best friends, they remain constitutionally unable to see eye-to-eye: Steve Rogers will always fight for abstract ideals of justice and liberty, and Tony Stark will always define the terms of engagement along the boundaries of his own inflated sense of personal responsibility. Because this is comics, it’s rarely wrong to side with naked idealism over technocratic pragmatism. The conflict sticks in readers’ minds precisely because the philosophies that motivate the characters seem at once to be necessarily complementary and mutually exclusive.
In a nation that defines itself by its ideals, the conflicts of these two characters reflect the friction between moral absolutism and ethical pragmatism. Although Captain America and Iron Man were created separately and years apart, they could not have been better designed to reflect each other’s worst fears about the American character. Whatever the outcome of the cinematic Civil War, this is not a conflict that will be solved in theaters—or voting booths—this year, or for many years thereafter.