Look, there’s a lot of really fun stuff happening this summer in Marvel’s multiverse-spanning Secret Wars event. On the whole, it’s been a success and I’m still eagerly reading almost everything that they put out. But given how high the stakes were pushed to get us here, it doesn’t really feel like anything’s actually happening. The event works well as a way to remix the characters repeatedly—but it just seems to be a summer adventure before everything gets back to normal for the fall.
Yes, the result of all this will be the end of the Ultimate universe, in favor of importing certain favorites into the main Marvel universe, or some kind of hybrid. But that seems more like continuity cleanup than something really meaningful—frustrating in light of the gigadeath apocalypse that got us to Secret Wars in the first place. Copious spoilers below—you’ve been warned.
The main event here began in Jonathan Hickman’s run on Avengers and New Avengers. First published last fall, the prelude to Secret Wars was called Time Runs Out!, a story about the Avengers holding back the incursions of Earths from alternate dimensions. Failure would mean a collision, and a collision would cause not only the destruction of the Earth, but of the entire multiverse.
As it turns out, you can destroy an encroaching planet from an alternate dimension, but you can’t really push it away. Time Runs Out! was mostly framed as the ongoing conflict between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, about whether or not the destruction of another world could be justified to save our own. An interesting moral question on its own, but Hickman’s insistence on raising the stakes knocked out the ambiguity—since a collision would destroy not only the Earth but the entire multiverse, Cap was left without a really compelling argument. In any case, Secret Wars begins when Tony Stark can’t hold back the end any longer, and the Ultimate Earth collides into the main-universe Earth, and the multiverse is destroyed. As each comic reminds us, all the remains is Battleworld, a collage of pieces of different universes, forced into being by Doctor Doom (of all people) to preserve some kind of existence. A few heroes arrive in a lifeboat, but most are already there, in various forms, from all the different alternate universes that have ever made up Marvel comics. The pre-apocalypse story line is grim. Hickman has us contemplate something more than the devastation of a war, but the actual annihilation of every life on every planet in every reality. Unfortunately, when the stakes get that high, it’s hard to give real meaning to anything that’s happened. That level of death is literally unimaginable. But the merits of such a meta-apocalypse notwithstanding, the aftermath almost instantly junks the whole debate. Battleworld, venue for Secret Wars, steers sharply away from the existential angst that brought it into being. Instead, it hosts a massive playground for Marvel’s authors, letting them play around with every different version of every different character and every different situation. Honestly, it’s a total blast. Lady Katherine Bishop steals jewels in 1602. Bucky Barnes oversees the Runaways at an elite boarding school. Sheriff Steve Rogers brings the law to the Old West. She-Hulk presides over an all-female Avengers team in Arcadia. Spider-Ham puts in an appearance. Game of Thrones spoilers cause Hulk devastation. This:
These all combine to make it a little trickier to feel like a lot of people died. Or that everyone in the universe died. Somehow, still, we have to remember where all this came from, as the main arc of Secret Wars ignores the fun to get back to the death, destruction, and existential tension that brought this together in the first place. And it just feels… pointless. It’s extremely odd to find this storyline to be less meaningful than one featuring a web-slinging pig, but I find myself caring more about Peter Porker eating bacon than Doctor Doom’s machinations. A different balance might have tipped the scales in the other direction, but it’s hard to see a way in which Secret Wars feels like it’s in sync. Genocidal threats don’t go well with AU-hijinks. The early going amped things up so high, any comic relief would have felt forced, but here, the fun stuff made it too tempting to simply ignore the darker plotlines. On top of that, you know that everything will, essentially, be back to normal come the end of the event. It’s hard to care about everyone in the multiverse being obliterated when not one person actually dies. You don’t need both—bounce around Battleworld, enjoy the good stuff, see a few far-out character treatments. It’ll shake up the roster for Marvel’s lineup this fall… but just a little bit. In the end, the End of Days motif is going to melt away as one more AU in a summer of zaniness.