“They were just men and women, and people need to believe in something more.” The most cliché view of superheroes as a universal solution in comics is clearly stated, and then just as clearly averted in the first few pages of Marvel’s “Secret Wars” crossover event. Jonathan Hickman’s current nine-issue epic chronicles the inevitable collision and destruction of the Marvel multiverse despite the most noble and brave actions by the superhuman cast of characters. The result is a character-focused story that is not just about superheroes, but also a touching reminder of those heroes’ humanity.
The event begins in the last moments before the mainstream Marvel universe and the Ultimate Marvel universe collide. The opening depicts the actions taken by an extensive cast of heroes and villains on what they are certain is their last day. In one particularly striking panel, Spider-Man makes one final effort to save the citizens of New York despite knowing the world is doomed.
Meanwhile, a determined Mr. Fantastic leads the Fantastic Four to build a high-tech life raft for his team, as well as a few other specially chosen team members, as part of a contingency plan for after the destruction of the multiverse.
However, when the Ultimate Universe’s version of Mr. Fantastic, Maker, executes his plan to ensure he is the only survivor, the raft’s hull is breached and the team loses Mr. Fantastic’s team and his children.
The result was yet another overwhelmingly human moment when he is confronted with the ultimate loss as he watches them fade into oblivion. Reed Richards stands out as his own character for arguably the first time since he was introduced in 1961, and if screenshots from that scene were shown instead of the most recent Fantastic Four movie, it may have gotten better reviews.
The rest of the issues so far operate on an intriguing premise after the heroes exit the life raft as the sole survivors of their universe. It is revealed that Doctor Doom had gone to the supernatural forces of the Beyonders and managed to succeed in rebooting reality.
Doom creates a patchwork universe out of the remains of the multiverse, where hundreds of different realities exist in harmony, and everyone who died before the collision appears to have been revived in many alternate forms. The stories of the other realities, such as a zombie wasteland and one where all heroes but a married Spider-Man are dead, are continued in many coexisting tie-in books.
However, there is a catch. Doom has become undisputed God-Emperor of the new world, with the interesting twist that he is clearly doing it for reasons other than self-gain. In a surprising role reversal, Doom is established as fighting for the fate of the human race in his own way, with his new patchwork reality as a radical method of keeping everyone safe.
The rest of “Secret Wars” unfolds as the survivors of Mr. Fantastic’s life raft confront and attempt to overthrow Doom in order to try to restore the old universe. A battle of good intentions ensues and the novelty of the event then becomes the inability of the reader to tell who is right, if anyone, between the two forces. Unlike other comic storylines, there is no clear bad guy, only a world where people are trying to do their best where it is far too easy to do your worst.
The juxtaposition of Mr. Fantastic and Doctor Doom as well-intentioned adversaries in “Secret Wars” is especially fascinating. Doom stands out as the proverbial Knight Templar, determined to fight for the future of the human race despite the costs. Reed struggles with his loss after the first issue and has adopted a worldview that there is nothing left to fight for except retaliation against those he feels responsible.
The arcs of the two characters therefore represent a deeper internal battle of idealism vs. cynicism, which still manages to stay true to the characters’ roots. Doom is still an extremist and Reed is still determined to fight for his family, despite their loss, although Hickman does a brilliant job of bringing both characters continuously into a gray area of morality as they lead their respective sides.
“Secret Wars” ultimately serves to revitalize the Marvel universe and makes its mark as a welcome testament to the humanity that exists in us all, which asks the decidedly open-ended question of “what is right?” There are no true heroes or villains in this story, but the fun lies in learning which idea of “right” will eventually win out.