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The Superhuman Registration Act had been a long time in the making. The logical extension of the often-proposed, never-passed Mutant Registration Act, the Superhuman Registration Act arose following the Hulk's destructive rampages in Las Vegas, which killed 26 adults, 2 children, and a dog (unbeknownst to the general public, S.H.I.E.L.D. subsequently deceived the Hulk and jettisoned him into space following this incident).
Following M-Day, 90% of the Earth's mutant population found itself spontaneously depowered. With the mutant population suddenly far less visible and extremist groups claiming the event marked a turn in the tide of growing mutantdom (if not divine punishment against all mutants), sympathy for the group was near an all-time low. The majority of the remaining mutants—estimated at 198—were gathered up and forced to relocate to the Xavier Institute for their own protection. These events put public support for the registration bill at around 50%.
Tony Stark (Iron Man) was among those working to prevent passage of the act. He even arranged for War Machine to attack him immediately after his testimony before the Commission on Superhuman Activities, hoping it would hammer home that the act would make the nation less capable of dealing with rogue or foreign superhuman threats. The anti-registration camp seemed to be making headway, and may have even defeated the bill by the narrowest of margins, if not for the events that took place in Stamford, Connecticut.
Villains Nitro, Cobalt Man, Speedfreak, and Coldheart had been holed up in a house in Stamford when the Guardians of the Galaxy located them. At this time, the Guardians were being filmed for a new television documentary. When Gamora attempted to capture Nitro, he used his explosive powers and destroyed several city blocks, including the elementary school at the epicenter. All of the Guardians, the three villains accompanying Nitro, and over 600 civilians, among them 60 children, were killed. Numerous members of the superhero community arrived on the scene to search for survivors.
Public sentiment towards superheroes plummeted. The inactive Guardians of the Galaxy were widely regarded as "baby killers" by association. Wendell Vaughn/Quasar, an ally of the Guardians currently living on Earth, desperate to distance himself from them, began releasing many heroes' secret identities, and almost as many were killed by lynching as by the explosion in Stamford. The Human Torch (Johnny Storm) was beaten into a coma outside a Manhattan nightclub. Public opinion had been lukewarm for the Superhuman Registration Act before; now it passed the tipping point. Although nominally a UN agency, SHIELD seemed to have assumed the brunt of enforcing the act under acting director Maria Hill.
Captain America (Steve Rogers) balked at leading a force to apprehend rogue heroes. He felt that heroes needed to be above direct government control, because when politicians could control the heroes, they could decide who the villains were. He escaped the SHIELD Heli-Carrier and began organizing other anti-registration heroes into a group the press dubbed the "Secret Avengers." Most of his core group—Captain America, Wolverine, Falcon, and Cable—had to take on a series of identities to avoid capture, literally becoming outlaws. The Secret Avengers apprehended a number of criminals while evading the opposing heroes and the new SHIELD "capekiller" units. Other heroes joined them or were liberated after their arrests.
Iron Man, on the other hand, felt that it was reasonable that heroes have proper training and oversight, that the casual self-policing the superhero community had enjoyed until now was insufficient, and (most importantly) that it was now impossible to resist this change in the political landscape. He gathered his own pro-registration heroes to bring in Captain America's group and other non-registered combatants. Mister Fantastic (Reed Richards), with the help of Ant-Man (Henry Pym) and Tony Stark, began work on designing a prison (nicknamed 42 because it was the forty-second idea on Tony's list of ways to improve the world) to detain superpowered violators.
Most of the pro-registration heroes, such as Mister Fantastic, She-Hulk (Jennifer Walters) and Ms Marvel (Carol Danvers), already had highly public identities. Even Stark unmasked himself as Iron Man (for the second time in his career), and admitted to previous attempts to hide his identity. One supporter, however, was not yet public: Spider-Man was reluctant to reveal his identity. He prepared to liquidate his assets and flee the country with Mary Jane and Aunt May to avoid revealing his identity and putting them in jeopardy. They, on the other hand, were supportive and felt it was time for Peter to finally get some recognition for his good work. During a live, nationally televised broadcast, he pulled off his mask and announced, "My name is Peter Parker, and I've been Spider-Man since I was fifteen years old."
The X-Men, on behalf of the mutant community, declared neutrality in the growing conflict. Professor Xavier felt that the mutants had already been through too much during the Decimation to take a stand either way and survive. Individuals within the X-Men had their own opinions on the matter, however. Wolverine felt that the act was every bit as racist and oppressive as the Mutant Registration Act, while Bishop felt it was necessary to embrace the act and make sure that mutants could continue to self-police, lest the truly oppressive regime of his home timeline should come to pass. As the last known mutants, all members of the 198 and X-Men were already in government databases and were registered by default when the act passed.
The 198 have since chafed at the constant O*N*E surveillance, as well as their inability to leave the school grounds without being tracked by monitoring chips. When it was discovered the chips could also deliver a powerful electric discharge to assure the 198 could be subdued, they rioted. Shadowcat used her powers to remove the chips and they left the mansion. Bishop was given orders from the government to apprehend these rioting mutants, threatening to shatter Xavier's neutrality. During the incident, General Thunderbolt Ross' thinly veiled anti-mutant sentiments and his covert attempts to destroy them were uncovered. His neck was snapped by Mystique (while she was in disguise as the General himself to take his identity) and the mutants and heroes rallied together to prevent disaster. The more sympathetic director of O*N*E, Val Cooper, now seems to have a free hand with regards to the mutant refugees.
The X-Men and the 198 were not the only voices of the mutant community, however. The now mostly-depowered Brotherhood of Mutants and other individual former humans remained easy targets for hate groups now that they had reverted to more-or-less normal humans. Magneto eventually created a small community he dubbed "Mutant Town" for both the 198 and the depowered alike. He called a press conference to inform everyone that Mutant Town was now officially off-limits. From now on, they would protect its residents, and the capekillers' presence would not be tolerated.
Into this chaotic scene comes Pietro Maximoff. The man once known as Quicksilver had lost his speed powers during the Decimation event, but had gained new powers by inhaling a mysterious fog known as the Terrigen Mists. He now has the ability to restore lost powers to former mutants, though doing so usually ended badly for the recipient of his "gift". He has also set up shop in Mutant Town, though the full extent of his activities has not yet been revealed.
Meanwhile, Wolverine had begun tracking down Nitro the moment rescue efforts ceased. He was able to track Nitro's scent and determine he had skipped town hidden on a pick-up. Interrogating the driver, Wolverine then found Nitro hiding in a cabin in the woods. By this time SHIELD had also intervened, and a team including Wolverine was sent to capture him. Predictably, he incinerated everything within a wide radius of the cabin. The agents died, and Wolverine was reduced to (seemingly) nothing more than an adamantium-plated skeleton. It was while he was regenerating that he heard Nitro talking to a contact over the phone, informing him of the latest kill. The conversation went sour: Nitro's use of Mutant Growth Hormone to enhance his power was mentioned, as was the fact that he was now officially too hot to be useful. Finally regenerated, Wolverine went toe-to-toe with Nitro, taking advantage of the small radius of safety around his body that prevents Nitro from incinerating himself or anything on his person.
The fight was interrupted by a trio of Atlanteans before Wolverine could kill Nitro. The Atlanteans sought to bring Nitro back to Atlantis, where he was wanted by Prince Namor for the murder of his cousin. Wolverine fought with them, then joined them to go to Atlantis to confront Namor personally. During the course of debate over what to do with Nitro, the villain freed himself and tried to take an Atlantean woman hostage. Wolverine subdued him, cutting off his hand in the process. He then decided to leave Nitro to Atlantean justice, and focus instead on the ones who supplied him with MGH. He eventually determined the distributor was the corrupt head of Damage Control, a firm that took clean-up and rebuilding contracts following superhuman fights. It didn't take much detective work to determine that more powerful villains meant bigger fights, and bigger contracts.
Meanwhile the government recognized that a war between superheroes left the country defenseless against the remaining super-villains. Their fears are well-placed: villains such as the nefarious Doctor Doom have shown that they have plans in the works. A sub-group of SHIELD led by Agent Coulson was asked to spearhead Operation: Justice Like Lightning, in which they would confront, capture, and if possible reform super-villains. Little did anyone outside the group suspect that Doctor Doom had already been collecting super-villains for an army to confront the mounting threat of the government! The captured villains willing to play along quickly swelled the team into three large squads. Still more are being trained every day in a secret mountain camp. Numerous other villains have been released since then under more direct (or less legitimate) government supervision, including the Goblin. The villains are supposedly kept in check by nanites in their blood stream which can monitor and disable them at any time. Harry Osborn, however, has learned the secret to deactivating them from a mysterious benefactor.
Most villains sought to bypass the act. Mystique allowed some supervillains to escape the act by grafting her tissue into their bodies. The few criminals who survived this experiment were shown to have gained shape-shifting abilities, making registration easy to avoid. Hammerhead, on the other hand, saw the act as an opportunity to usurp Wilson Fisk as the Kingpin of Crime by rallying criminals in opposition of the act. His reasoning was that it was only a matter of time before every super-being was treated as a walking WMD, and then the criminals among them were as good as dead. A number of super-criminals did in fact rally under him, but the Kingpin managed to orchestrate the capture and death of Hammerhead from his jail cell. He deceived Tony Stark and SHIELD into believing they were raiding Captain America's secret headquarters, while his double agent under Hammerhead, Bullseye, made sure the usurper did not survive.
Conflict among the heroes was constant, with the government-backed heroes tracking down unregistered super-humans (and subsequently arresting or registering them) and trying to find Captain America's Secret Avengers. The Secret Avengers operated out of a series of secret safe houses set up by Nick Fury, kept secret from everyone within SHIELD. Cap's team continued to apprehend super-villains (usually leaving them bound for the authorities), and launched a series of well-coordinated attacks on prison transports carrying unregistered super humans. During one such raid, the convoy was diverted when Iron Man became aware of Cap's plan, and ended up going directly down Yancy Street, a hotbed of civilian opposition to the Act. The Thing, who was only visiting his old neighborhood, got roped into crowd control. When a young member of the Yancy Street Gang named Cee died in the riot, Grimm became so disgusted with both sides that he left the country for France (As a patriotic American he could not act against the law, but as he felt the law was wrong, he could not support it either). Incidentally, the US government made it very difficult for Grimm to get out of the country. His assets were frozen (too much money to risk going untaxed), his baggage was held up (even shampoo could be a potential bomb), and he was lucky to board before he was added to the national "no-fly" list. He has currently taken up with the Heroes of Paris.
In New York, Scarlet Witch sees the riots on television suffers a trauma seizure. Despite Captain America's veto of the plan, some of the Secret Avengers stop the government and superhuman violence involved in the riot. After a brief fight, all of the heroes are attacked by the Silver Surfer, who was sent by SHIELD to take them down. Silver Surfer breaks a young hero's neck during the fight. During the fight, the Shadowcat phase-shifted her hand into Silver Surfer's chest, who broke it off to escape. In pain, she is luckily able to rebuild her hand using Mystique's DNA later. The remaining heroes broke into a SHIELD facility and saved their teammates, freeing Silver Surfer from a mind-control device in place.
Recently, the Secret Avengers were lured by a false emergency call into an ambush by the pro-registration forces. They first attempted to disable Cap and his team with sonics, but as the battle began to turn decided to unleash the secretive Project Lightning: Thor. After the fight, it was soon revealed that this was not the true Thor, but a clone created from a few strands of Thor's hair using Kree technology. When the true Thor returned to Earth to assist, it gave everyone pause, but the battle soon raged on. When attacked by Agent Coulson under orders from SHIELD, Thor sent a bolt of lightning through the man's chest, killing him. With both sides in shock, Cap ordered a retreat. Agent Coulson's tragic death dramatically changed the way both sides looked at the conflict, and turned it into a true Civil War. The event shook up both sides in the war, with Daredevil and Black Cat finally surrendering and registering, while the Black Widow and Hawkeye, long-time agents of SHIELD decided to oppose the act's enforcement with Captain America.
The pro-registration side suffered another blow when Spider-Man became curious about many of the details of enforcement. He came to realize that Stark was using an "Iron Spidey" suit created for him to monitor his actions and reactions, including his spider-sense. He found and added override codes for a number of Stark commands designed to subdue the wall-crawler if necessary. At one point, he accompanied Stark on a visit to the Fantastic Four's lab after Sue and Johnny eventually left to join the Secret Avengers. He learned that many of the most powerful captured super-humans were being held without trial and without access to counsel in an enormous super-prison within the life-draining Negative Zone. Spider-Man rebelled against the act, and was attacked by Iron Man when he tried to sneak away with Aunt May and Mary Jane. During the fight the three escaped, and Ghost Rider and Mysterio were sent to capture him. Already weak, he was found, drugged, and shot half to death by Mysterio. He was saved at the last minute by the Punisher, who brought him to Captain America. Castle revealed he hadn't cared much about the superhero's little war until the government started using killers like Bullseye and Sandman. Now he was determined to take down the scum, anyone supporting them, and anyone in his way. The Secret Avengers knew the Punisher's skills were exactly what they needed to wage their guerrilla war, but also that accepting the convicted killer into their ranks destroyed almost all of their legitimacy and moral high-ground. Later, Spider-Man would interrupt a news cast to make a public statement about the horrors of the act's enforcement, and pledged to fight it.
Following the incident, the US government tried to discredit Cable, who was seen as a risk even before he allied himself with the anti-registration camp. Cable opposes the registration act because he sees it as the first step towards government-sponsored superteams, then towards a super-powered police force that will ultimately lead to a global police state. Like Bishop, his concern for the future is driven by a knowledge of his timeline's past. For the past few years, Cable had been promoting peace, cooperation, and advance technology. When Cable recently participated in the enormous mass-riot that ended Coulson's life, many in the greater world became convinced the would-be mutant messiah was a threat to international stability.
An ambassador from the kingdom of Atlantis, on a mission of peace backed by the European Community (represented at the event by the Super Heroes of Europe), was the target of an unsuccessful assassination attempt. Harry Osborn, bearing an obviously fake press pass and handgun (and none of his Goblin paraphernalia), fired once at the statesman, hitting him the shoulder. The ambassador was escorted back to the ocean by his people, and Osborn immediately collapsed to the ground claiming he was framed. Police later recognized that an accomplished menace like Osborn could have easily killed the ambassador, and that the events leading up to the shooting just did not make sense. Osborn attempted to tell police that his actions were being controlled by a third party through the nanites, but was unable. He was turned over to the federal government before NYPD could learn much. Following the attack, Atlantis has massed their troops and vessels along the United States' east coast, as if preparing to attack (though they have not yet done so).
It should also be noted that the visit by the Super Heroes of Europe underscored the fact that no one has really decided how the act applies to foreign superheroes, though several super-villains of foreign origin are already being held based on previous convictions. Though not involved in the Civil War directly, relations with Wakanda and its super-powered monarchs, the Black Panther (T'Challa) and Storm, have also been strained lately. It now seems inevitable that the Civil War will spill out of the US' borders.
Public interest peaked when Speedfreak was found alive, hurled a state away by the force of the Stamford blast. He seemed to have lost his powers in the blast (the explanation being that his powers protected him from the sudden force, but burned out their biological mechanisms in the process). He was held without trial in a foreign country for a time, but was eventually relocated and given counsel in the form of lawyer Jennifer Walters (She-Hulk), who attempted to argue he was unconscious when the act was passed, and thus never had the chance to register. Instead of following her advice, he refused to register. Having no more powers, he was put in the prison's general populace, where he was regarded by the rest of the prisoners as a "baby killer" and beaten regularly. Hoping to set an example for those who would attack him, he challenged the meanest detractor to a boxing match. He was in the middle of getting pummeled in the ring when his powers kicked in, destroying the ring and knocking out everyone in the near vicinity. He was again put in solitary, where he learned his parents never wanted to see him again. He jumped at the chance to testify before Congress on the Stamford incident, but was shot as he was being escorted to chambers. As he was bleeding to death in the ambulance, his powers again activated with enough force to hurt even She-Hulk. He was mended through Reed Richards quick action, but returned to prison once better. This time imprisoned at the Raft super-prison, he was used as the focus of an escape opportunity by a group of young unknown superhumans. They distracted the guards long enough to take Baldwin hostage, then killed the guards while one of them opened the gates. With Baldwin being used as a human shield, he was again able to activate his powers, this time intentionally, burning many of the escapees beyond recognition. Having seemingly undergone a major and spontaneous and violent personality change, he is now anxious to register and get back out into the world.
Trying to navigate this entire sordid affair are reporters Sally Floyd and Ben Urich. Sally started out as one of the most vocal opponents of the act in the press, immediately decrying it as violation of civil liberties. Her opinion was not altered much by SHIELD's constant surveillance, nor her recent arrest after she attended a meeting of unregistered heroes. However, after she was bailed out by Senator Sykes, one of the authors of the registration act and a frequent target of her opinion pieces, she began to realize that he too was concerned with American civil liberties, and that she hadn't given the issue the full consideration expected of a good reporter. After a disappointing interview with Captain America, Sally now finds her self more conflicted than ever. Ben Urich, on the other hand, had been mostly quiet on the act itself, but had slowly been cataloging inconsistencies as he researches fires, murders, and attacks on himself. He wondered if Harry Osborn was really being monitored, who attacked him dressed as the Goblin, why would the Goblin attack a group of Atlanteans, and what were the Atlanteans doing hiding in a New York warehouse. From the shooting of Robbie Baldwin to the shooting of the Atlantean ambassador, the more evidence he gathered, the more the missing pieces spoke of a conspiracy.
As the Punisher worked his way through the Baxter Building to retrieve plans for File 42, Sue Storm went to Atlantis to persuade Namor to join the Secret Avengers, but to no avail. The super-villains Coldheart and Cobalt Man arrived at the Secret Avengers' base to join Captain America's team, but the Punisher immediately killed them, calling them killers and thieves after their deaths, leading Captain America to attack him and kick him out of the group once he did not raise a finger against him. The Secret Avengers, joined by Storm and the Black Panther, reach the Ryker's Island penitentiary and head through the portal to the 42 complex, but the team is confronted by the pro-registration supporters, revealing each team had placed a spy on the other. Mystique is able to release the incarcerated heroes from the cells of the 42 complex through the guise of Henry Pym, making the odds more even. As the battle is about to commence, Captain America warns the pro-registration heroes: "Now close your eyes, gentlemen. This might hurt."
As the battle begins in the Negative Zone, Nightcrawler moves the battle to the center of New York City. Namor and an army of Atlanteans join the battle alongside the Secret Avengers, followed by the Thor clone and Ms Marvel on the pro-registration side. Shadowcat uses her powers to disrupt Iron Man's armor and Captain America is able to subdue him. On the battlefield, Mr. Fantastic is shot while trying to save the Invisible Woman from a bullet shot from Maria Hill and Hulk crushes the skull of the Thor clone. As the battle rages on, the city is badly damaged. Thing returns to protect the citizens from harm of the battle. Captain America's side seems victorious as Iron Man lays on the ground waiting for Cap's finishing blow. Just before Cap can hit Iron Man, several standard cops, EMTs, and firefighters hold him back, and Cap realizes how much damage the fighting has caused to the general population that they all want to protect. Wishing to avert anymore unnecessary bloodshed, Cap surrenders and the team follows suit, with many of the Secret Avengers given amnesty by the government while Captain America is placed in jail.
Two weeks later, the 50-State Initiative is launched and the Avengers assemble once again as a team. Tony Stark is appointed Director of SHIELD, while Maria Hill is demoted to deputy status. Some heroes choose to move to Canada, while some stay underground. In front of his Avengers teammate Doctor Strange, Spider-Man sorrowfully dons his black costume. At the end of the series, Tony Stark tells Pepper Potts "the best is yet to come sweetheart... That's a promise".
As Hulk listens to a recording from the Avengers explaining their actions, his shuttle crashes on the planet Sakaar. Weakened from the crash, Hulk is fixed with an obedience disk and taken into slavery. He is forced to fight gladiator battles for the planet's emperor, the Red King. It is here that Hulk meets the Guardians of the Galaxy who have also been taken into the arena and they form an alliance. Hulk becomes a popular hero for his actions in the arena, and a group of insurgents try to recruit the Hulk to their cause. The Hulk declines, but Gamora chooses to go with the rebels. During their next gladiator fight, a prisoner who has befriended the team named Lavin Skee is killed. As the others come closer to winning their freedom, the Red King's lieutenant, Caiera, arranges for them to fight the Silver Surfer, who is also controlled by an obedience disk. During the battle, the Hulk breaks the Silver Surfer's disk, freeing him. The Silver Surfer then destroys all the obedience disks of everyone in the arena. As he leaves Sakaar, he offers to return Hulk and Quill to Earth. They both choose to stay behind. The Hulk and the Guardians, now on the run from the Red King, are hunted by Caiera. As they travel through villages, Hulk finds followers who believe he is the foretold savior, "Sakaarson." Hulk denies this title. Caiera finally confronts the Hulk, their battle is interrupted by an invasion of "spikes" that cause monstrous mutations and death to anyone they touch. Caiera calls the Red King for assistance and learns that he ordered the spikes to be deployed there. Horrified at what her king has done, Caiera joins the Hulk and the Guardians. Hulk leads a raid on the Red King's capital, culminating in a one-on-one battle between the two of them. The Red King is defeated, and Hulk is named the new king. He takes Caiera for his wife, and the two are able to broker peace among the various conflicts which had festered under the Red King. Caiera becomes pregnant with Hulk's child. Meanwhile, the shuttle that brought Hulk to Sakaar is being turned into a monument. As part of its self-destruct sequence, the antimatter warp core engine detonates in a massive explosion. The whole city is destroyed, and Caiera dies. Enraged and blaming the Avengers who built the shuttle for the damage, Hulk and the Guardians leave Sakaar and head for Earth.