Marvel is Rebooting Its Universe. So What?

“Don’t change anything, just give the illusion of change.”

Those words—or something very much like them, at any rate—have been attributed to Stan Lee for ages now, and it’s been painfully obvious that Roy Thomas, Jim Shooter, Tom DeFalco, Bob Harras, et. al. who have followed in his footsteps as editor in chief at the self-proclaimed “House Of Ideas” have taken them to heart. Nothing ever really changes at Marvel, at least on the printed page, does it?

Think about it—even the big changes, the ones we’re promised are “permanent”—never are. Sooner or later the status quo is always restored, whether it takes months (pick your Captain America death) or years (undoing the death of Jean Grey or the marriage of Peter Parker to Mary Jane Watson). Change may be the only constant in the real world, but in the Marvel Universe it’s more notable for its absence than anything else. It all reverts back to square one at some point in the hope that everything old will be seen as new again—and again—and again.

Which is why I can’t greet the “big news” that Marvel will be re-launching its so-called “616 Universe” this year with anything but a shrug. We’re promised that this is “the big one,” but damn—we’ve heard that soo many times before.

What we (apparently) know for certain is that the so-called “Ultimate Universe”—which Marvel has been allowing to wither and die on the vine for the past five years or so—will be ending, and that the only popular character they’ve got left over there, Miles Morales (a.k.a. The Ultimate Spider-Man) will be moving over to the new, consolidated universe in some capacity. Beyond that, there are rumors of the Inhumans and mutants being shoe-horned into one group (called either the NonHumans or UnHumans, depending on who you choose to believe), but even if that is happening—and it’s a mighty big “if”—it doesn’t represent too big of a shift given that the explosion of the gene bomb a year or two ago triggered a secret “Inhuman gene” in various members of the general public that’s more or less indistinguishable from mutation, anyway.

The other thing that has me more in a mindset of “here we go again” rather than “wow, maybe they really mean it this time” is the fact that they’re going back to the Secret Wars well in order to roll this “new” universe out, and that the first big cross-over event after that (they have, what? Two or three a year now?) is slated to be a re-telling of Civil War. What is it that Secret Wars and Civil War have in common again (besides being re-tread ideas?) Oh, that’s right—they were both “game changing” mini-series “events” that, within a year or two, were either completely nullified by subsequent stories, or wiped from continuity altogether. But hey, at least we’ve got Alex Ross doing the cover honors this time around.

On the confusing front, while Marvel is assuring readers that this new relaunch will be of far greater significance than their last two “soft reboots”—namely 2013’s “Marvel Now!” and 2014’s “All-New Marvel Now!” (I have it on good authority that “Marvel Right Now!” and “Marvel—What Now?” were scheduled to be next)—in that those were just “jumping-on points” for new readers and this marks a whole “new” beginning. They’re also claiming that nothing from the current universe will be “retconned” out of existence. I’m not sure how that goes together at all, but the scuttlebutt on social media and in the comics press is that this is not going to undo all that has come before a la DC’s “New 52” initiative. Hmmm—is it just me, or is that already an admission by default that nothing’s really going to change here apart from the “Ultimate Universe” finally giving up the ghost (which is more a mercy killing at this point, anyway)?

Also worth noting is the fact that Marvel has said absolutely nothing about altering their business plan of the past several years, so it’s a pretty safe bet that the raft of new first issues we’ll be getting in the wake of Secret Wars will probably be for titles that only last a year, maybe two at most, before they’re, at the very least, “soft rebooted” all over again—so if this whole thing didn’t seem pointless enough already, you can add that into the mix, as well.

Maybe I’m just showing my age here but I remember the first Secret Wars from 1984, and even though I was just a little kid at the time, I knew that I was being hustled. That it was a big cash grab that wouldn’t result in anything truly different. That it might “shake things up” for a few months, but everything would eventually settle back down. So who knows—maybe we can credit Marvel for the birth of my cynicism. In subsequent years, I would learn that Spider-Man stopped changing the minute Steve Ditko left the book and Stan Lee and John Romita Sr. transformed Peter Parker from a neurotic, insecure bookworm into a wise-cracking, popular kid who just happened to like science, and that the rest of their original characters, with the notable exception of Daredevil, started to stagnate the moment Jack Kirby took off. Writers and artists like Steve Gerber and Jim Starlin did some interesting and occasionally even groundbreaking things with characters they created in the 1970s, but the initial wave of Marvel heroes—as well as their primary villains—remained in a kind of stasis and/or eternal adolescence. Of course, the true innovators who gave birth to the universe those characters shared—Kirby, Ditko, Wood—would continue to push the envelope and transform the medium for other publishers, but change—real change—would never happen at Marvel again once they were gone.

When you look at things from that perspective, then, maybe the truth is that the Marvel Universe that’s supposedly “ending” in a few months’ time actually died decades ago, and they’re just making it official now.

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Ryan Carey maintains a B-movie (with occasional comics-related content) blog at, and writes about films and comics for sites such as,,, and now Sequart. You can follow him on Twitter @trashfilmguru.

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  1. All the people who are writing different versions of this article are gonna be really embarrassed when Marvel doesn’t reboot.

  2. Do you read current Marvel comics? I don’t. But they’ve changed a lot. The characters, the stories, the art… There’s a whole book to be written about these changes. I don’t understand what people mean when they ask for change. Is it death? Retirement?

    When people complain that the real Marvel Universe ended years ago (and everyone will pick a different date), they’re acknowledging these changes.

    Look, I agree about the repetition, the events, I do. There’s a reason why I don’t read this stuff anymore. But, in their way, they have changed. Like the times, like society, like America, like the world. A lot remain the same, and will remain the same, but you can’t deny that there were significant changes.

    Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, X-Men, Hawkeye. You get a book from the early sixties, one from the mid eighties (chosen because that was my Marvel), and one from the last five or ten years. The changes will be very clear.

  3. Ryan C. says:

    Sure, they’ve changed — stylistically. But the characters all remain in essentially the same place they’e always been, and do more or less the exact same things. Cosmetic changes are one thing, but actual, concrete, substantive changes? They might happen for a brief time, but they always revert back to the baseline at some point. To Matthew’s earlier point — no chance of that, the cat’s out of the bag, Marvel have announced that they are definitely rebooting.

    • Yeah, I don’t know. I have the impression that what remains the same is Cap fighting the Red Skull over and over again. But then, what would one expect? And some of these reversions are even part of the story, coming from a long tradition of heroes losing the first battle and winning the second. So Tony will be rich again and Matt will be a lawyer again. It’s part of the game.

      The question isn’t so much if a character stays married or not. Once he gets married, there is a change in the idea of secret identity. And it changes his relationship to at least one supporting character. And after a few years, these changes start to affect the whole line. And these changes don’t reverse.

      But really, I don’t know enough about what Marvel’s been doing in the last 20 years to properly defend my point.

      And I admit that whatever change there is, it usually doesn’t come from when they yell: “look at us, we’re changing everything.”

  4. Ryan C. says:

    Well, in the case of Peter Parker’s secret identity specifically — first, Mary Jane knew it, just before they got married. Then, she got her memory of both his secret identity and their marriage retconned out in a fight with — I kid you not — the devil. Then, a few years later, Spider-Man revealed his secret identity to the whole world in “Civil War” — and year or two after that, everything that happened in that series was reversed via some goofy and cheap time trick. So I rest my case — nothing ever really changes.

    • Oh, sure, I get it. If you focus on what happens to Peter. But in the big picture, secret identities are losing importance in the last 30 years. Not a bad thing, it makes sense, secret identities are great when you are a teenager, but not so much as you grow older (and the audience has grown older). That’s something you can’t revert in one Spider-Man story. I’m guessing that right now his identity is not a burden that he has to carry alone, as he did for decades (not counting the dead and the amnesiacs). And, if it is, I will be surprised if it lasts long. That’s a change.

      And do you have any doubt that eventually Peter and Mary Jane will get together again? Marvel and the devil may try hard, but the audience has read about the married couple for what? 15 years? It’s their destiny, they “belong together” (personally, I’ve always preferred Gwen). The best we can hope for is that it won’t become such an annoying loop as good/ bad Magneto.

      The problem is not that they don’t change. They do. But then they change back. Or the changes are not consistent. Or they repeat the same changes. They end up looking like clowns, no doubt about it. But… In the last ten years, Steve has carried the shield for how long? Five years? Six? It’s a serious question, I don’t know, but I know Bucky was Captain America for a long time, now Sam is Cap, and in between something happened in Dimension Z which I don’t know if it affects this at all. Now of course Steve will return in time for the next movie, but after that… How long will we have to wait for Sharon to be Captain America?

      The endless repetition is annoying, sure. But also part of the game. It makes some sense. Thanks to this discussion, I grabbed the closest modern superhero comic I had here. It was Final Crisis (most of the modern superheroes I read are by Morrison). And I can follow it, despite some surprises here and there (The Question and Captain Atom are girls). It doesn’t seem to take place in a very specific moment in time I had to know about (at least not yet, I’ve read it till the ridiculous “put it in my mouth” Supergirl cover). And that’s great, that makes it accessible. Once it starts to get too boring, if you feel that you read every possible variation, you move on. That’s what most of us here did, including, I’m guessing, you. Yes, they lost us, but they get new readers, who will enjoy this stuff for 5-10 years and then move on too. At least these readers are getting stories that are, hopefully, more in tune with their sensibility and temper.

      Nothing to do with Secret Wars, sorry. My mind wanders. Good editorial.

  5. The changes are like iterations, or like Nietzsche perpetual return: they’re the exact same goddamn story over and over again with the same goddamn characters, except this time it’s: what does 1980 do with this story? And then it’s: what does 1997 do with this story? It’s like a kind of progress, in that we see Captain America going from punching dirty japs for being dirty japs to petitioning for better immigration laws, but it’s more the culture that’s progressing and not the stories.

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