Days of Past and Future: Marvel Reimagines Comic Universe
In the world of Marvel comics, nothing is sacred. Nothing is set in stone. Characters with years of backstory and an enormous fan base often find themselves getting killed off in some appropriately heroic manner, only to be resurrected somewhere down the line with only a flimsy pseudo-scientific explanation offered to justify their return to life. Of course though, this is all just a marketing strategy; sometimes characters are simply worth more dead than alive; I imagine the revenue generated from retiring crowd favorites like the Wolverine or Captain America outstrips their retail value.
But lately, the stakes have been far higher than merely life and death. Lately, writers (and producers) have been systematically reimagining and rewriting the very history of some of the Marvel Universes oldest superhero teams. How are they doing this? Through the flimsiest pseudo-science of all: time travel. The writers at Marvel have long sent heroes into the past or future to irrevocably (or not, I guess) alter the fate of mankind. Indeed, some of the franchise’s most iconic and best loved stories involve time travel, stories like Days of Future Past or Secret Wars. In the past, however, time travel was used sparingly, only as a last resort both to increase the drama of the narratives and for fear of the dreaded “butterfly effect” erasing the continuity of history as we know it in the Marvel Universe. This has not been the case recently.
First, lets look at the latest story arc of Marvel’s flagship X-Men comic, Uncanny X-men. Last Wednesday, the arc concluded when writer Brian Michael Bendis sent a mutant with the ability to manipulate time back to erase the existence of another character through ensuring that his parents never met, returning everything to the status quo of before story began. I find this problematic. For one thing, the potential consequences of altering the past at all are consistently and ominously referenced throughout Uncanny X-men, but here the fallout from even this minor change is casually swept under the rug; I would be surprised if it comes up in a later issue.
A less recent but more perplexing example is the very existence of the ongoing series, All New X-Men (2012 – present), wherein the original five X-men from 1963 travel to the present to witness what becomes of their legacy. Somehow, they are still here, despite the obvious ramifications for when they return to their own time. Sure, memories can be wiped in Marvel, but how three years of aging will be explained away is another question entirely. All New X-Men featured heavily in the X-Men’s 50th anniversary event, Battle of the Atom (2013), which featured a team of mutants from the future joining our present heroes in addition the original five to celebrate (and slightly alter) the mutant’s history. Sound ridiculous? It was.
But the X-Men are not the only ones to witness an increase in time-hopping. Marvel’s other major superhero team, the Avengers, will also feature time travelling heroes adventures this year. Writer Al Ewing is currently developing the plot of Ultron Forever, a comic event scheduled to be released in print in April. Ewing has revealed that a team of Avengers comprised of past, present and future heroes will band together to take down Ultron, a ridiculously powerful automaton bent on destroying mankind. The story will occur fifty years from now in a dystopian future and involve a diverse array of characters from a 1960’s version of the Incredible Hulk to a future-female incarnation of Thor, the god of Thunder. If this sounds like Battle of the Atom to you, then you’re in good company.
Any good Marvelite will recognize May as an important month for the Avengers franchise: Marvel’s next blockbuster, Avengers: Age of Ultron will appear in theatres on May 4. How fortuitous! Ultron will confront the Avengers both on the silver screen and on the page at the same time, and while the stories do not nominally share any plot points, the timing is significant. For one thing, this is almost precisely one year after another Marvel film (albeit, owned by 20th Century Fox instead of Disney) released another film that joined heroes from different eras to battle a common enemy. The hugely successful Days of Future Past served both to reignite interest in the cinematic version of everybody’s favorite mutants and to merge the two different eras of the films into a (somewhat) believable timeline. As a bonus, sales of the 1981 comic event by the same name spiked dramatically. Clearly not a coincidence.
“But wait,” you might say. Its one thing to use time travel to create continuity when pesky movie directors (*cough: Bret Ratner) who don’t know anything about comic books ruin a perfectly good franchise like in X-Men the Last Stand but is it possible that Marvel would even consider rewriting comic book history to line up with the cinematic version of the heroes’ origins and lives?
Well, maybe. The tandem release of Age of Ultron and Ultron Forever may not seem directly suspicious, but everyone knows that only geeky high-school and college students read comic books under a blanket at night with a flashlight, whereas everyone watches movies. Since Disney acquired the rights to make films of all Marvel characters (excluding the X-men and Spiderman, owned by Fox and Sony, respectively) there have been eleven movies featuring Marvel characters under the Disney banner, all of which take place in the same version of reality. There is no official plan to merge the cinematic universe’s continuity with the comic book universe, but its certainly not out of the question, especially in light of Marvel’s next big project which hinges on, you guessed it, time travel.
The 2015 event Secret Wars will feature not only time traveling heroes, however, but also dimension hopping and every other imaginable sort of mayhem. Beginning in May (of course), what Tom Brevoort called “arguably the biggest Marvel comic event ever” will change the past and, by extension, the future of the Marvel universe more drastically than ever before. All of the different timelines, all of the different dimensions, all of the different characters will be swept up by the events of Secret Wars and merged into a completely new Marvel universe.
What will this universe look like? No word yet, the company is keeping quiet on the details. But again, the timing seems critical. With so many events in May, fans of the movies and comics alike must be wondering “what’s next,” or, how will the franchise reconcile the cinematic and comic book versions of their most popular heroes? Without an official word, I can only conjecture. However, the lack of any non-Disney owned characters on the promotional posters may be significant. It’s starting to seem more and more likely that Marvel is putting all of its eggs into one vast, money-making basket. After all, what better way to initiate new fans into the realm of comic books than by linking the books to the hugely successful movies? How better to bypass the complex, convoluted 75 year history of Captain America than by simply sweeping it under the rug and starting fresh?
Of course, this doesn’t completely invalidate the Avengers (or even the poor, forgotten X-Men’s) former history. And I should mention that I love the time travel narratives themselves; like with so much else in comics, if you can just ignore what doesn’t make sense the stories are all well developed and offer fascinating insights into the characters’ histories. However, this recent surge in time-jumping narratives may indicate a possible reboot, the first reboot, of the entire Marvel Universe. And while I enjoyed the cinematic Avengers, I appreciate the differences between those Avengers and the one’s that inhabit pages. The comic Avengers are not written by one voice nor acted by a single star; therein lies their greatest strength. So no matter how time travel is used to rewrite the history of these books to make way for a narrow but profitable future, I can only hope that Marvel will continue to play to its strengths and to reimagine its creations in as many ways as possible.