In the world of Marvel Comics, nothing is sacred and nothing is set in stone. Writers tend to kill off characters with years of backstory and an enormous fan base in some appropriately heroic manner, only to resurrect them somewhere down the line with only flimsy, pseudoscientific justifications for their return. Of course, this is all a marketing strategy, as sometimes characters are simply worth more dead than alive. The revenue generated from retiring crowd favorites like Captain America is often formidable; March 2007’s Captain America #25, in which Captain America dies, sold more than any other comic that month.
But lately, the stakes have grown higher than merely life and death. Writers and producers have been systematically reimagining the very history of some of the Marvel universe’s oldest superhero franchises. How are they doing this? Through one particularly flimsy form of pseudoscience: time travel. The writers at Marvel have long sent heroes into the past or future to irrevocably (or not, I suppose) alter the fate of mankind. Indeed, some of the franchise’s most iconic and beloved stories, like Days of Future Past and Secret Wars, involve time travel. In the past, however, writers utilized time travel as a last resort, both to increase narrative drama and for fear of a dreaded “butterfly effect” that could erase the continuity of history as we know it in the Marvel universe. This has not been the case recently.
Let’s 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 back in time to erase the existence of another character by ensuring that his parents never met, thus returning the series to pre-arc status. This frustrates me. 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 to present), wherein the original five X-Men from 1963 travel to the present to witness what has become of their legacy. Somehow, they are still in the present in this series, despite the obvious ramifications for when they return to their own time. Sure, memories can be wiped in the Marvel universe, 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, 2013’s Battle of the Atom, which featured a team of mutants from the future joining our present heroes and the original five to celebrate — and slightly alter — mutant history. Sound ridiculous? It was.
The X-Men are not the only Marvel superhero team to witness an increase in time-hopping. Marvel’s other major superhero team, the Avengers, will also feature time-traveling adventures later this year. Writer Al Ewing is currently developing the plot of Ultron Forever, a comic event scheduled to be released in print this April. Ewing has revealed that a team of Avengers composed of past, present and future heroes will band together to take down Ultron, a powerful villain bent on destroying mankind. The story will occur 50 years from now in a dystopian world, involving a diverse array of characters, from a 1960s version of the Incredible Hulk to a female incarnation of Thor from the future. If this sounds like Battle of the Atom to you, then you’re in good company.
Any dedicated Marvel fan will recognize May as an important month for the Avengers franchise: Marvel’s next blockbuster, Avengers: Age of Ultron will appear in theaters on May 1. How well-timed — Ultron will confront the Avengers on both the silver screen and on the page at the same time. While the stories do not nominally share any plot points, the timing is significant. For one thing, this is almost precisely one year after the release of another Marvel film — one owned by 20th Century Fox instead of Disney — that joined heroes from different eras to battle a common enemy. The hugely successful X-Men: Days of Future Past both reignited interest in the cinematic version of everybody’s favorite mutants and merged 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, this sort of timing is not a coincidence.
It’s one thing to use time travel to create continuity when pesky movie directors (think Brett Ratner) who don’t know much about comic books ruin a perfectly good franchise, like in X-Men: The Last Stand. However, 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 since Disney acquired the rights to make films of all Marvel characters — excluding the X-Men and Spider-Man, who are owned by Fox and Sony, respectively — there have been 11 movies featuring Marvel characters under the Disney banner, all of which take place in the same fictional world. There is no official plan to merge the cinematic universe’s continuity with that of the comic book universe, but this is 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, but also dimension-hopping and every other imaginable sort of mayhem. Beginning in May, what comic book editor 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. Different timelines, dimensions and 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? At this point, 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 will be wondering how Marvel will reconcile the cinematic and comic book versions of its most popular heroes. Without an official word, I can only guess. 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, moneymaking 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 Captain America’s convoluted 75-year history than by simply starting fresh?
Of course, this doesn’t completely invalidate the Avengers’ former history, and I should mention that I love the time travel narratives themselves. As with many other things 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 ever — of the entire Marvel universe. And while I enjoyed the cinematic Avengers, I appreciate the differences between them and those that inhabit comic book pages. The comic Avengers are neither written by one voice nor acted by a single star, and therein lies their greatest strength. So, no matter how time travel is used to rewrite the history of these books and make way for a narrow but profitable future, I can only hope that Marvel will continue to play to its strengths and present its creations in varying ways.