Marvel Comics has been telling one main, ongoing story for the past 76 years.
This story, called the Marvel Universe, involves countless characters ranging from cosmic beings to common people living in a shared space, interacting with each other and being shaped by small and large events, told through tens of thousands of episodes that are considered canon. It is an amazing creation and an important one in the emergence of comic books as a form of storytelling.
And now it’s all coming to an end, as the publisher announced early this week. Although we don’t exactly what that means, the idea is that Marvel will abandon the idea of a single core universe and embrace the combination or simultaneous existence of many equally prominent universes, featuring different versions of characters.
Many will be upset by this surprising development, yet for all the wonders of the MU, destroying it could be the smartest thing Marvel has done in years.
After all, it’s hard to tell the same story for so long and keep it interesting, especially when commercial interests limit how the story develops and what happens to characters. Thus the MU has turned into a mausoleum where little changes and similar stories get told again and again.
America in the MU remains a slightly enhanced but not significantly different version of real-life America. Most characters today remain within a few years of their age at their comic debut. Popular characters almost never die and anyway few of them stay dead.
When characters do change — such as when Peter Parker, aka Spider-Man, grew out of his nerdy high-school years and became a yuppie with a supermodel wife — those changes can make a character less interesting or at least less marketable, and Marvel will often find a cheap plot device to revert them — like when
the devil made everyone forget that Parker was married.
Another problem with having everything in one universe is when those popular crossovers come along, most series get ripped out of their ongoing story and are forced to join the spectacle.
Another problem for the MU is its overwhelming complexity, which is a turn-off for many readers.
One solution to the problem of canon is to create alternate universes, where radical storylines can happen with impunity, and Marvel has done this many times. But those alternate universes were mostly forgotten in time or remain on the brink of being eclipsed by the core MU.
DC, which has developed its own epic shared universe, also struggled with the burden of canon. The other big publisher finally chose the nuclear option in 2011 when it initiated a total-brand relaunch. The New 52 did lead to a mild boost in sales, though the reception has been mixed, with some fans angry at seeing everything erased. And it’s not clear how the relaunch will prevent the problems of canon from cropping up again (though DC’s upcoming Convergence event may do something similar to Marvel’s plan).
And so we get to Marvel’s epochal shift coming this summer.
What we know is the heroes of the MU will fail to stop their universe from colliding with another universe or multiple universes, and the result will be an amalgam called Battleworld that contains patches of previously established universes — including the formerly core MU (aka 616), the popular Ultimate universe featuring alternate versions of characters including a more diverse Spider-Man, the Age Of Apocalypse universe from the popular ’90s crossover, the Days of Future Past universe referenced in a recent X-Men movie, a universe featuring Peter Parker reunited with Mary Jane and with a daughter, and many more.
How all of these universes will fit together is, again, unknown; yet the publisher has promised this shift is permanent and many of these universes will get their own ongoing series.
“The Ultimate Universe, the Marvel Universe, they’re going to slap together,” Marvel Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso said on Tuesday. “Imagine two pizzas: They’re going to combine toppings, some toppings are going to drop off. And that is the Marvel Universe moving forward. It’s more than the Marvel Universe and the Ultimate Universe, it’s all the universes you can imagine. That is the Marvel Universe going forward.”
It looks like Marvel is embracing the ability to tell whatever story it wants without the need to protect and preserve a single canon storyline. That shift would make it easier to tell the stories that creators want to tell, jumping in medias res into past worlds or new ones, without worrying about how they all fit together.
This would also be good for the business, opening the possibility of expansion in many directions, including universes and storylines related to those hit Marvel movies. It would laso make it easier for new fans to jump on-board.
“You’ll be shocked at the chances we’re willing to take,” Alonso said.
That’s exactly what comics need right now.
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