Friday, July 28, 2017

Review - Ms. Marvel: Civil War II by G. Willow Wilson, Takeshi Miyazawa, Adrian Alphona, and Mirka Andolfo

Short review: This book has a story that feels a lot like Minority Report, except that it has Kamala Khan instead of Tom Cruise, and the plot isn't very good. On the other hand, everything but the plot in this book is excellent.

First, a science fair
Then, some predictive justice
Last, stand on your own

Full review: Marvel doesn't really seem to have a particularly strong track record when it comes to "events" in which super-heroes turn against other super-heroes. The original Civil War event was a giant mess and pretty much a terrible story. The current Secret Empire event with Captain America leading a version of Hydra to impose a fascist order upon the United States has gone over about as well as a lead balloon. At its most overarching level, Civil War II was almost as poorly thought out and poorly executed as either of those two events, with an unconvincing attempt to make two morally unequal sides to a debate morally equal just to have the joy of seeing various costumed heroes punch one another. Despite the lack of structural integrity for the overall event, some of the individual story lines in the Civil War II series were actually quite good. Ms. Marvel, in the capable hands of G. Willow Wilson, is one of the good stories.

The volume opens on what is simultaneously a completely mundane and extremely exotic note: A science competition between teams from New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut with a year's supply of duct tape at stake, and representatives from a myriad of technically oriented institutions of higher-learning in attendance. Naturally, Kamala is on New Jersey's team, which is headed up by her best friend Bruno, but in a twist it turns out that the New York team's secret weapon is none other than Miles Morales. There is some humor resulting from the fact that Kamala knows Morales' secret identity but he does not know hers, but for the most part the competition goes on about as one would expect a science competition between high schoolers who can produce improbable superscience projects with equipment they have on hand in their classroom laboratories would go. The New Jersey team produces the "Skyshark", the New York team responds with the "Re-Aktron", and then Bruno ups the ante with the "FusionMaster 2000", and then everything goes wrong, ending the event, causing Ms. Marvel, Spider-Man, and Nova to all show up for the rescue operation, and the precognitive Inhuman Ulysses to intone some ominous lines in what amounts to a voice-over.

The book then shifts in both time and place to India during the period following the 1947 partition that formed the countries of present-day India and Pakistan, with Kamala's grandparents among those Muslims living in what has become Hindu-dominated India among those affected. Much of the story in this volume revolves around Kamala making hard decisions, and these background sequences about her personal and family history, like others that are scattered throughout the book, give context to her decisions - essentially showing how Kamala came to be a Pakastani immigrant living in Jersey City, and and in the process showing how she came by the values that inform her choices. There is a certain basic expectation that super-heroes will fight on the side of "right", but often the question of what "right" means to a particular character is left unexplored, or is poorly defined. Wilson lays out what it means for Kamala (and in a sense, for the other Khans), highlighting their familiarity with being the oppressed and the outsider. In a telling scene, Kamala's father offers to pay the school fees of a boy he doesn't know upon learning that the boy has been displaced from his home and his grandparents are struggling to take care of him. He knows how it feels to be the person on the outside, and so he does what he can to alleviate the pain that causes when others find themselves in that position. This identification with those on the bottom of the social order is clearly at the core of Kamala's idea of what "right" means, and this notion has serious consequences in the story when it comes into conflict with Kamala's other notions about who to idolize and look up to.

In short order, Captain Marvel calls Ms. Marvel up to her space station to get the main plot of the book started, and it revolves around the Inhuman Ulysses. It turns out that Ulysses can predict the future, and Captain Marvel wants to use this ability to apprehend criminals before they commit a crime. If you think this sounds a bit like the set-up for the movie Minority Report, the book agrees with you, and even lampshades it with what amounts to as direct a reference as one could make without actually saying the name of the movie. If it seems like one would expect that this plan would go wrong based on that precedent, one would be correct, but Kamala is so star-struck by a request from her idol that she agrees to head up the pilot program for this idea. Not only that, Danvers gets together a group of assistants to help Kamala, which means, as Kamala says, that she now has sidekicks. This is pretty much the set-up that Kamala dreamed of: Trusted by her idol, given a special assignment, and with her own team to lead to boot. And, if there is anything that is consistent in the Ms/ Marvel series, it is that when Kamala gets everything she ever dreamed about, the reality is much less satisfying than her dreams. In fact, the reality almost always turns out to go horribly wrong.

To make a brief digression, given the history between Kamala and Danvers, this decision by Danvers to ask Kamala to lead this pilot program seems just a bit odd. On the one hand, the two start the story with something of a mentor-apprentice bond, with Kamala idolizing Danvers and seeking to emulate her, while Danvers has mostly been there to provide guidance and advice when Ms. marvel needed it. On the other hand, Kamala is a teenager, and has been portrayed as being pretty much as irresponsible and incapable as most teenagers actually are. After all, the last time Danvers interacted with Kamala was when Kamala called in Captain Marvel to prevent Jersey City from being overwhelmed by an army of clones created when Kamala and Bruno messed around with some Asgardian technology Loki left behind when the world was ending. Further, Kamala had created the clones because she was overwhelmed and unable to keep pace with her responsibilities. Given this background, it seems strange that Captain Marvel would decide that this awkward and well-meaning, but naive and entirely too busy teenager would be a good choice for this additional delicate responsibility. The fact that Danvers would hand off the job of running this program to someone like Ms. Marvel without detailed guidance and close supervision really makes one call into question Captain Marvel's leadership skills and judgment. One almost suspects that this story line was forced into the Ms. Marvel series by someone managing the overall Civil War II event, because everything about it feels forced. The character development is, as always, excellent, but every time the actual Civil War II event intrudes, the story kind of falls down a little bit.

At first, at least, the "predictive justice" system seems to work reasonably well: The crew is told that Hijinks, the leader of a band of Canadian anarchist ninjas, is due to steal an experimental tank and drive it around Jersey City until its automatic self-destruct sequence goes off, causing an explosion in the heart of the city and killing innocent bystanders. With the heads up from Ulysses, Khan and her sidekicks are able to apprehend Hijinks before the tank self-destructs. And this is where the book kind of falls down a bit, because everyone involved - both Hijinks and Kamala and her crew - all immediately start talking about the incident as if nothing illegal had been done. Hijinks maintains that he shouldn't be held because he hasn't actually committed a crime, and Kamala and her crew talk about the fact that they are holding him extralegally because he can't be charged with a crime. The only problem is that Hijinks quite clearly did commit a crime. He stole a secret experimental piece of military machinery and then drove around an urban area in that vehicle. There are probably a couple dozen criminal violations contained in that action, and the most obvious one is theft, which is a crime. Not understanding what is and is not legal seems to be a common thread running through both iterations of the Civil War events, as witnessed in the original Civil War event when Agent Hill attempted to arrest Captain America for refusing to help enforce a law that had not even been enacted by Congress yet. I don't expect that comic book writers will know every nuance of the law - I would not expect, for example, a writer to know that willful violations of the Anti-Deficiency Act are potentially prosecutable as criminal offenses, but I at least expect a writer to know that theft is a crime. The fact that none of the characters seem to know that Hijinks has actually committed a crime kind of undercuts the story at this point, which is in large part about the limits of an idea like "predictive justice". Essentially, the prime question posed by this story is whether it is just to detain someone because you have an at least somewhat reliable means of predicting that they will commit a crime, and having the first example be a character who has already committed a crime simply waters down the resulting conundrum. At least it does for the reader, because the characters seem not to realize that theft is a crime, making the reader think that they are all too stupid to be entrusted with any kind of law enforcement, let alone something as potentially fraught with moral hazards as predictive justice.

The story does get around to making its point, with Ms. Marvel and her crew apprehending people who have not yet committed a crime, but who Ulysses has predicted will commit a crime in the very near future. Everything seems to be going swimmingly, when Kamala is confronted with apprehending someone she knows, and her sidekicks prove to be more than a little bit overzealous in carrying out their part in the process. Things spiral out of control and people close to Kamala are first alienated from her by the "predictive justice" program with an especially brutal line where one of her classmates pronounces that none of them are friends, but are rather background characters. Eventually the fallout from the pilot program claims Kamala's closest friend, and she finally gives voice to her growing misgivings, arranging a demonstration for Captain Marvel of the limits of "predictive justice". This first leads to a confrontation with the most ardent of her own sidekicks, nicknamed "Basic Becky" in the story, and then with Carol Danvers herself. The problem with "predictive justice" is that it takes someone who has not committed a crime and treats them as if they have, and since Danvers outright states that they are operating extralegally, doing that is a crime in and of itself. As Kamala states, they may have stopped those crimes from happening, but they have just created a new collection of victims in the process. Kamala identifies with the people who are being oppressed, while Danvers can only see that the statistics show that crime in Jersey City is down. The notion that in the process people's civil liberties were stripped away and their rights were infringed seems to be an unimportant detail to her. No matter the ideological reason for the split, the key element here is that this represents an important break for Kamala, a part of her coming of age story, and it is pretty much done with beautiful poignancy.

Unfortunately, once again the absolute mess than Marvel writers make of legal issues crops up again when Captain Marvel shuts Ms. Marvel's project down and orders that "Basic Becky" be court martialed. There are a couple of problems with this sequence, most notably that since "Basic Becky" is not in the military, she can't be court-martialed, and second, when the civilian cops show up to arrest her, they take her in for kidnapping. But if "Basic Becky" is guilty of kidnapping, then so are Kamala, all the other members of her gang of sidekicks, and even Carol Danvers. In point of fact, they would not only be guilty of kidnapping, they would be guilty of a criminal conspiracy to commit kidnapping. One might argue that Captain Marvel is operating under some colorable authority (despite the fact that she had earlier said they were operating extralegally), but if so, then "Basic Becky" cannot be charged with kidnapping as she was acting under the rubric of Danver's authority. One thing that neither Kamala or Stark see fit to point out is that Danvers also created a new collection of criminals, namely Danvers, Kamala, and all of their eager helpers, and this omission seems rather glaring. These issues don't make the split between Ms. Marvel and Captain Marvel any less dramatic, or the rift between Kamala and Bruno any less tragic, but the clumsy way they are handled does detract from an otherwise magnificent story.

The story has something of an epilogue, with Kamala taking a journey to visit her relatives in Pakistan as a means of getting away from her troubles in Jersey City and dealing with her mixed feelings about being on the opposite side of a dispute from Captain Marvel. The story has used the passing down of a set of wedding bangles as a connecting device, and now Kamala returns to the place where this sort of jewelry has meaning. Having shed the artificiality of the Civil War II event and returned to focusing on Kamala's struggles with being a teenager who must balance being a super-hero with all of the other usual responsibilities that come with growing up, the book almost immediately returns to the usual level excellence for this series. The first resalization Kamala has is that even though she has never felt that she fits in fully as an American, she also doesn't fit into Pakistan any more. She has been irretrievably changed by her experiences, just like the wedding bangles have been altered during their travels. Despite her plan to shed the Ms. Marvel persona for the duration of her visit to Pakistan, local gangs running water extortion rackets spur her to action, but since she doesn't know the local situation, she kind of messes up. She is more or less called off by local super-hero Laal Kanjeer ("the Red Dagger"), who essentially tells her to stay out of things unless she knows what she is doing. To a certain extent, this assuages Kamala's guilty conscience and leads to her second realization by highlighting that even though Captain Marvel is Captain Marvel, she directed the "predictive justice" project literally from a space station and really didn't understand the conditions on the ground in Jersey City like Kamala did. In short, Kamala is actually growing up and beginning to see that she has to chart her own course and pilot her own path.

Ms. Marvel: Civil War II demonstrates that even when handed the thankless task of writing a story in a poorly-conceived and badly executed continuity-wide "event", a skilled writer can salvage a pretty good book out of the larger mess. G. Willow Wilson is a skilled writer, and although this volume kind of falls apart whenever the overarching Civil War II story takes center stage, the elements related to Kamala's character and that of those around her are masterfully presented. The Ms. Marvel series has always been at its best when it focuses on Kamala's relationship with her family, her faith, her heritage, her friends, and her super-hero identity, and this volume is no exception. Despite the fact that the Civil War II elements of the plot are mostly not all that good, the portion of the story that is about Kamala grappling with all of the relationships in her life and trying to decide who it is she actually wants to be is so magnificently done that the overall end result is a superior book.

Previous book in the series: Ms. Marvel: Super Famous

G. Willow Wilson     Takeshi Miyazawa     Adrian Alphona     Mirka Andolfo

Book Reviews A-Z     Home

No comments:

Post a Comment