The Marvel Universe may be a convoluted mess, but that's part of the fun. Tracing the history of Wolverine or Peter Parker back through their decades is a daunting task, but one that die-hard fans relish. That is why, when Marvel announced it's new Secret Wars storyline last week, there there was as much trepidation as there was excitement: Will this be the first-ever Marvel Comics reboot? What will happen to our favorite heroes' shared histories? Who will wear the Spidey-Suit when all is said and done?
What we know so far (which isn't all that much) is that this year's Secret Wars series will end with the Marvel Comics characters and stories smashed together into one single, totally-bonkers new universe called Battleworld. And what happens on Battleworld could eventually lead to a new start for some of your favorite heroes. Whether or not that's a full-on "reboot" may be a matter of semantics, but needless to say, it's a very exciting (and very confusing) time to be a Marvel fan. So confusing, in fact, that we decided to put together this handy guide to the Marvel Universe as we know it. (Or, more accurately, Marvel Universes—but we'll get to that.) For comic book readers looking catch up before Secret Wars, or casual fans looking to dig deeper than the occasional summer blockbuster, this is the place to start.
You probably know more about the Marvel Universe than you think.
The Marvel Universe is a multiverse.
The Ultimate Marvel Universe is different from the regular Marvel Universe.
The Marvel Universe canon has (sort of) remained constant since the 1960s.
Wait, but what's the Marvel Cinematic Universe?
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is the collection of all the Marvel characters owned by Marvel Studios, which is, itself, owned by Disney. This includes (but is not limited to) Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, Captain America, Daredevil, Inhumans, other assorted Avengers, and Guardians of the Galaxy. However, it does not include Marvel favorites like Spider-Man (owned by Sony) or The X-Men and The Fantastic Four (both owned by Fox).
The way the chips fall has to do with when and where characters first appeared in the books, which decides whose copyrights are associated with what specific characters. For instance, Silver Surfer is stuck with Fox because he first appeared fighting the Fantastic Four alongside Galactus. (This is also probably why Thanos is such a big deal in the Cinematic Universe—with Galactus out of the picture at Marvel Studios, he's the next best cosmic bad guy.) Still, the legal rigamorale surrounding the trademarks tends to get muddy for lower-tier heroes, resulting in characters like Quicksilver appearing in both the Marvel Cinematic Universe (as an Inhuman) and Fox's X-Men franchise (as a mutant). While the copyright issues behind the three-way split-up could some day be ironed out, for now we're more likely to see The Avengers team up with Han Solo than Wolverine on the big screen.
So what's with Secret Wars?
Why does Marvel want to combine all the universes?
Though all of the Marvel Universe stories are considered canon, Marvel has had to go through some seriously goofy logic to hold everything together over the years. Take Spider-Man's recent Brand New Day arc, in which Marvel essentially rebooted Spider-Man without rebooting him by having Peter essentially forget that he was ever married to Mary-Jane. Still, everything Peter Parker did before those events still "happened"—it's just that nobody remembers them. If a tree falls on Spider-Man in the forest but nobody's there to hear it...
There are countless similar situations where storylines are just as confusing or convoluted. From a writer's perspective, it has to be a huge pain to keep everything straight and tell your own story; even from a longtime fan's perspective, it can be downright confusing to make sense of it all.
And what does this mean for the movies?
Overall, this is a good thing for the Marvel Universe.
Marvel is staunch in its opinion that Secret Wars and Battleworld are more than calculated marketing moves. The events in Secret Wars have been building for a long time now. Currently, Hickman is working on an Avengers storyline called Time Runs Out. Once that arc comes to a close, the realities of all Marvel characters will be condescended into the uber reality of Battleworld. And, to be fair to Marvel, Hickman's writing has been fantastic; if there's a guy with the chops to unite disparate storylines between infinite realities and a half century of material, he's the guy to do it.
As Marvel Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso recently told Comic Book Resources:
Come May, Secret Wars is the Marvel Universe and all of its stories lay down the building blocks for the Marvel Universe moving forward: the characters, artifacts, territories and other stuff that will be the Marvel Universe when the event is over. Secret Wars is not an intermission from our regularly scheduled program; it is our regularly scheduled program.
Of course it will still be a year before the eight issues of Secret Wars come to a close. But after all is said and done, we will likely have a much simpler and more streamlined Marvel Universe across every franchise. While that may be a bummer to some diehard fans, I can't imagine that it's not a very good thing in the long run. The possibilities for Battleworld are as infinite as the multiverse. Will Miles Morales replace Peter Parker in The Amazing Spider-Man? Will Wolverine return from the dead? Will Howard the Duck make his epic return? These are questions fans have been speculating about since Secret Wars was announced. While we don't know what will happen on Battleworld, a simpler, less convoluted Marvel Universe is something fans and creators alike should celebrate. And hey, it's not really a reboot. Even if the superheroes won't remember it, the fans sure will.