SECRET WARS Rebirths And Reaffirms The Marvel Universe
All spoilers ahead.
I was a cynic. When the new Marvel Secret Wars was announced I was cynical. Beyond cynical, in fact - I saw it as a blatant universe reboot in line with what DC had been doing again and again for the last few years, and I all but threw a hissy fit about it. I wrote a whole thing about how if Secret Wars rebooted the Marvel Universe I would quit, that my days reading Marvel were over (which, to be fair, wasn’t an empty threat - when the New 52 wiped out the post-Crisis DC Universe I threw up my hands and completely gave up on that publisher). As the event geared up I bemoaned what writer Jonathan Hickman was doing in his Avengers titles - these books became dark and ugly, and the heroes acted not like the heroes I knew but like particularly shitty What If…? versions of them (“What If… Captain America Was A Total Piece Of Shit All The Time?”). I read the countdown titles out of a sense of obligation, cringing at every new piece of darkness, hate and ugliness.
Then Secret Wars started and I liked it! The premise was strong - the universe had been destroyed but, in the final moments of existence, Doctors Doom and Strange, working with the all-powerful Molecule Man, had grabbed pieces of various realities and merged them together into a Battleworld, a strange new universe where many iterations of our heroes lived side by side, ruled over by Doom as god. It was cool, and it provided a big playing field for a lot of weird and fun stories (like 1872, which has the Marvel heroes in the Old West, for example). Then the book started getting delayed, and then they added an extra issue, and then the whole thing sort of spun out of control. I didn’t mean to, but I checked out around issue 5; the book’s spotty schedule lost me.
Cut to this week. Secret Wars #9, the final issue, hit the stands. I fired up the old Comixology and figured I would do my due diligence and see how the whole thing ended. With a big fight that returned the Marvel Universe, I figured - the lateness of the series meant that the new Marvel U (not that different from the old one, not a reboot at all) had already debuted, so we all knew how this would end. I expected a sort of standard punch up and deus ex machina ending that would be cool but something I had seen a zillion times in comics, and I got to reading.
What I found instead was a final few pages that are possibly among the greatest ever published in a Marvel comic. The ending of Secret Wars is a standard punch up - an army of zombies and and the Annihilation Wave come into play, and a giant Ben Grimm fist fights Galactus while Reed Richards and Doctor Doom grapple for the fate of the world - but with an unexpected layer of emotion, meaning and - yes! - unbridled optimism. The series that had begun from the most cynical place possible - what if our heroes couldn’t save the world - had actually been a set up for a story about the ultimate triumph of good.
The first hint of this came in the Thing/Galactus fight. Long story short but Franklin Richards, who is usually Reed and Sue Richards’ son but who, on Battleworld, thinks he is Doom’s child, is controlling Galactus. The Thing has been out of the picture for the whole series, but he remembers the old universe, he remembers who Franklin is, and the moment he realizes who is controlling Galactus he allows the kid to kill him. How can he possibly fight the child of his best friends? His nephew? Faced with a life or death battle against his kin, he chooses death.
Look, you know he’s not dead. We already know what he’s doing in the new Marvel Universe - he’s running around with the Guardians of the Galaxy - but that doesn’t impact the emotional resonance of the choice in the moment. It’s a truly extraordinary moment, and it speaks volumes about who Ben Grimm is, and what his values are. It’s a moment that comes from character, not spectacle - an unusual choice for a crossover event like this.
But wait! There’s more! As the rest of Battleworld fights it out in the face of inevitable destruction, Reed and Doom have their final confrontation. When Doom created Battleworld he left Reed out of it, and he assumed his position. Sue is his wife, Franklin and Valeria are his children. He exiled Ben Grimm and Johnny Storm to be very weird cornerstones of Battleworld (The Thing was a wall that kept zombies away and Johnny Storm became THE SUN). But Doom didn’t know that Reed had survived the destruction of the universe himself, and he has come to reclaim what is his.
Sort of. What follows was one of the all-time great confrontations between Doom and Reed, not because of the battle - it’s Reed wrapping himself around Doom a lot, like always - but because of what is happening emotionally. Here are the two foundational characters of the Marvel Universe - the head of Marvel’s First Family and first superheroes and his friend and archfoe - having the ultimate battle, one that is about who they are and what they stand for more than anything else.
Both men are flawed, and in this battle both men come to understand that. For Reed it is the understanding that his pursuit of perfection - of the ideal solution, of the perfect equation - has meant he loses sight of what is good enough. Reed’s plan at the end of the universe could save only a handful, while Doom was able to save millions upon millions. This manifests itself in how his own family sees him, a psychological weapon Doom uses against him in the fight.
But for Doom the understanding cuts even deeper. “You think you are better than I am!” he rages at Reed, and Reed replies, “No, Victor, you’re wrong. I’ve always believed you could be better than what you are.” And here we have one man who won’t compromise perfection against another man who has too often compromised himself in pursuit of his goals. And it’s when he realizes that Reed is right - it’s not that Reed is better, it’s that Doom himself could be better - that the fight is over. Molecule Man, who has been watching and judging who deserves the right to make the world, decides. Doom’s power is gone and the world is remade, largely as it was before the events of Time Runs Out (it remains to be seen how much of that ugliness has been retconned away).
It’s a great moment for a number of reasons. It’s the confrontation Hickman has been ramping up towards since his Fantastic Four and Avengers runs, but more than that it’s the culmination of the entire Marvel Universe to this point - these two men having their most personal, most honest moment with each other. The history of Reed and Doom is long and complicated, and they are very much sides of the same coin, a concept illustrated wonderfully by artists Esad Ribic and Ive Svorcina in this panel, where their faces are entwined in a checkerboard pattern:
Reed’s final defeat of Doom isn’t physical or through science or magic, it’s through basic psychology, and it’s a defeat that, frankly, could make Doom a better man. It’s a moment that allows Doom to understand himself a little more. It’s the most upbeat and positive way I have ever seen a villain defeated. What’s more, that defeat is a meta rebuff to everything that has come before in this series and its lead up - the Time Runs Out storyline, the entire concept of a superhero Illuminati secretly making choices for mankind - all of these come out of a modern belief in situational ethics, that doing a bad thing for the right reasons is okay. Doom’s Battleworld, in that philosophical construct, is good. It’s not the best solution for the destroyed universe, but it’s one that prizes survival and continuation. It all manifests in Reed bringing back the original Marvel Universe, in all its imperfect and chaotic glory. Given the chance to rewrite reality, Reed doesn’t make it in his own image, as Doom did, and he doesn’t strive for perfection. He lets go, and he allows it to be the thing it was meant to be.
But that isn’t the ending! We see the reborn Marvel Universe, and we see that Black Panther has kept the Reality Gem from the Infinity Gauntlet he wielded on Battleworld. As the Gem disappears into smoke we see Wakanda, which had been largely destroyed pre-Secret Wars, seems to be back. More than back - Wakanda has a massive space program, and they will be creating in-system stepping stones to help bring humanity to the stars. After a lot of comics where Black Panther is running around using technology destructively to save humanity this is a nice change of pace.
Meanwhile we see that Reed, Sue and the kids are no longer in the Marvel Universe. They exist somewhere else, and using the vast mutant powers of their child Franklin and the godlike abilities of the Molecule Man they are repopulating the multiverse. Franklin comes up with an idea for a new universe and they shape it and create it and send it out into the cosmos. Marvel’s First Family is doing what they did so many decades ago when they birthed the Marvel Universe - forging new realities, bringing imagination to life, being the starting point for adventure and excitement and hope. In some ways this a moment that’s corporate-mandated - the FF have been ordered off Marvel’s table for the moment - but it works perfectly as the conclusion to so many story threads. It’s a fitting and touching send-off, not dissimilar but vastly superior to how DC sent off the pre-Crisis Superman at the end of that maxi-series, giving him a happy retirement. The happy retirement for the FF is to not only explore new universes, but to generate them.
And that brings us to the ending, one of the most emotional scenes I’ve come across in a mainstream superhero comic. Reed is telling Sue how his perspective has changed, how he has learned to stop letting fear of losing what he loves - his family, his universe - control him. How he has learned to not hold on as tight, and that comes partially because he has had a vast philosophical change - he no longer believes in entropy and the inevitability of universal death, but rather he believes that everything lives, that things endure and expand infinitely.
As all of that is being said we see the exterior of Castle Doom in the reformed Marvel Universe, and Ribic slowly zooms in on the figure of Dr. Doom standing on the ramparts. Doom touches his face and removes the mask he always wears. Previously in Secret Wars Doom took off his mask and we saw - for the first time in Marvel history - the horrific, mangled features underneath. I hated that scene in the moment, as I had always felt the question of Doom’s features would be more powerful than the reality. But I was wrong, because that reveal was a set-up for this incredible moment: Reed had reformed the universe mostly as it was, but he had healed his friend’s face. Doom stands laughing, face whole again, as Reed’s dialogue box tells us “Everything lives.”
It’s a powerful moment, especially in the context of the history of these two. It’s a small, beautiful gift, a moment of forgiveness that we don’t usually see in superhero stories. It’s a moment of profound optimism and hope. It’s a small thing, but it’s incredibly meaningful between these two. I loved it.
The entirety of Secret Wars is a bit shaggy - Hickman was more ambitious than he could quite handle, and he plotted the whole thing in a weird way, with issue 1 being an almost complete waste of everybody’s time. Some of the characters who appear in the book feel like they’ve been thrown in to please the corporate level guys and to offer synergy with the movies (who would have ever imagined that fucking Groot would have a major role to play in a huge, universe-impacting Marvel crossover?). There’s meandering and excess fat, but in the end Hickman brings it down to a totally intimate level and reduces all the conflict, all the sturm und drang to two wounded men trying to figure their shit out.
And in doing so he has done the incredible - after dragging the Marvel Universe down to, in my opinion, its lowest and ugliest point ever, he has built it back up as a reaffirmation of the positivity and brightness that made me originally love the place. He needed to show us the worst to contrast the best - we needed the dark to better appreciate the light. He ended Secret Wars, billed as the end of the Marvel Universe, with the unlimited beginning of an infinite possibilities, with a celebration of Marvel’s core values of imagination and adventure and hope. And Reed Richards is right - it’s all about how you look at these things. Everything ends, as the Time Runs Out promos told us, but also everything lives.