Marvel’s taken an old dog and taught it new tricks over the last decade: the Big Tentpole Event. The one threat that will end humanity, blow up the planet, blot out the sun, or in some way or another change the Marvel Universe as you know it! It’s a practice as old as... well, comics, but Marvel’s found new ways to invigorate the trope in the last ten years. There have been stumbles and misguided -- though well-intentioned -- efforts, and the missteps seem to outweigh the solid ones as of late. They announced this week what is looking to be 2012’s Big Event that will make things never the same again!, X-Men vs Avengers. It seems Marvel has looked at what has worked and what hasn’t, and are gearing up to knock another one out of the park.
Let me save a few of you some grief right here at the top: this article is going to require some knowledge of the Marvel universe over the past ten years, or a whole lot of Wiki-fu on your part.
Marvel’s events are best when they find a way to pit heroes against heroes. The conflict in that makes for incredible stories. However, that conflict can be negated by taking the easy way out: turning a “good guy” into a “bad guy”. The conflict doesn’t come from seeing your favorite powers getting used against your other favorite powers. That story could easily be told with a Michael Bay movie. The stories that work find a way to turn former allies against one another without forcing any of them to abandon their previously-held values.
Consider Civil War and Secret Invasion. Both, in my mind, are the best that the grand global Marvel events have been in the past decade. Those were stories where we saw what would happen when the little cracks in allied heroes’ different sets of values had dynamite shoved in them. Captain America is a soldier, a freedom fighter, and a believer in the greater good, but first and foremost, he’s a soldier. And as a soldier, all he’s ever really had to his name is the cause he fights for. Iron Man is a billionaire in charge of a worldwide corporate technology conglomerate. Millions of lives (and trillions of shareholders’ dollars) depend on his every decision, and accountability has to play a huge part in his life.
Most of the time, accountability to the public and the American Dream go hand in hand. But when Civil War threw the Superhero Registration Act into the mix, we saw what happens when those two ideals are thrown at odds against one another. Iron Man believed in accountability, Captain America believed in individual liberties, and soon both found themselves each other, even though neither had ever switched sides or compromised on their ideals. The rest of the heroes followed suit; we even saw some switching sides. What made the story intensely compelling was seeing how it would end -- in most straight-forward capes ‘n’ tights stories, the bad guy loses, and the bad guy is usually very easily identifiable. In Civil War, the good guys were all still good guys, yet still found themselves on different sides of the line.
Secret Invasion was Marvel’s follow-up event the next year. Our heroes suddenly found that the ultimate alien sleeper agents were already amongst us, and had been for years. No one knew the extent of the infection or how to determine who was alien, who was human, and who was brainwashed in to believing they were human. No one could be trusted, and once again, we found the heroes pitted against the heroes not in combat, but in a battle of subterfuge and espionage. Moles, secrets, allegiances, mind games, and intelligence has to step up where fists and lasers fell short. Heroes couldn’t trust each other, and Marvel found themselves once again with a winning series. In the end, the readers knew that the writers wouldn’t allow humanity to ultimately lose, so we had a better idea of how this would end than Civil War, but the lines in the sand remained murky until the final issue.
Marvel’s last two events, however, tried to live up to this idea -- good guys against good guys -- but, in the end, failed. Siege was a story of power corrupting totally (though the case can certainly be made that Norman Osborne was just corrupt to begin with). Norman Osborne, as commander of HAMMER, America’s top policing agency, storms the Norse gods’ city of Asgard which was floating over the plains of Oklahoma (it’s a whole thing, just say, “It’s comics,” and accept it) at the time. Heroes went out to take care of the crazed megalomaniac and dispatched him so quickly it took only four issues. Fear Itself just recently wrapped up, and in this, we saw the ancient Norse God of Fear rising from his ancient, deep-sea tomb to join with Nazi forces and demon-possessed heroes in order to... you know what? Forget it. It’s insane. All you need to know is it was another magical, world-ending event, and all the stakes were at stake! -- but our heroes pulled it out in the end, like we knew they would.
Where Marvel went wrong with Siege and Fear Itself, and so wonderfully right with Civil War and Secret Invasion, wasn’t the stakes, or the threat, or the villain. It was whether we could guess the end result within five minutes of reading the plot teaser for the whole event.
Iron Man vs Captain America! Liberty vs security! Who will win?
I... I don’t know. I want both of those guys to win, but they can’t!
Aliens have been living amongst us and posing as our friends and family for years! Who can we trust? Will we stop the secret invasion in time?!
HOW CAN WE KNOW?! I mean, we’ll stop the invasion somehow, but HOW?! And who’s an alien imposter, and who’s still my friend?!
Former super villain and known murderer Norman Osborne is now in charge of a large, fiercely-loyal army and is using his power to--
--Norman Osborne will be revealed for the power-hungry madman everyone already knew he was and will be publicly disgraced in the most humiliating way possible.
Magic stuff happens and an ancient fear god wants to kill everyone--
--We’ll stop the fear guy with nothing but guts. Are you guys even trying anymore?
Here’s the thing: outside of these events, all we get all year are stories where the hero is beaten within an inch of his or her life, then pulls out a miracle win in the last second. We always know this because we know who’s name is on the cover, and we know they still need to be alive at the end in order to sell the next life-or-death situation. Pumping that story full of more heroes and bigger threats isn’t going to invigorate readers who are used to seeing their heroes win. And even when they die, we’re not impressed, because again: there’s a name on the front of the book. The trick is to give us an ending we can’t see coming.
Next year’s planned Avengers vs X-Men event is going to give us that. First off, the X-Men have been a bit absent in huge company events of late, so it’s going to be great to see them bring their heavy hitters onto the same field as the likes of Iron Man, Hulk, and Thor. More importantly, the X-Men have been causing quite a stir in the MU over the last few years, too. After the events of House of M and Decimation, mutants’ worldwide numbers have been cut from millions to hundreds, and the homo superior species faces some serious kind of extinction.
The X-Men have since retreated to a new, separate sovereign nation off the coast of California, and all mutants are called to join them. Naturally, this is seen as both a threat and a target by all manner of worldwide power elite, America included. And with the recent events of Schism, the X-Men find themselves divided at a time when they can’t afford it, with Wolverine and Cyclops splitting ways, the former taking his own band of field agents and students back to the X-Men’s original birthplace of Westchester, NY.
In all this, Cyclops and his team are starting to look a lot like rogue agents in the eyes of the world, and America’s security agencies in particular. If it’s gotten so bad that Wolverine -- Wolverine -- has split off and come back to American soil, then what does that say about what’s going on out there on that rock? And in the eyes of Cyclops and his people, they are the last vestige of a species on the edge of extinction, a species being hunted and hated for simply existing.
Something will happen, on par with Stamford, Connecticut, but directly involving mutants. The Avengers will ask Cyclops’ X-Men to stand down. Cyclops will refuse, citing species-wide self-preservation. A colossal stare-down will commence, ending with all-out war between the mutants and the rest of America’s super-humans. The real drama will be in the stories involving those with a foot in both camps: Wolverine, X-Men veteran and double-duty Avenger, or any of the mutants in the Avengers Academy.
It seems Marvel has finally latched on to what makes their stories superb, and if they can follow this out, we’ll have another incredible epic on our hands next summer. And at 12 planned issues, it better be, or they will have at least one pissed off fanboy with a drained, disappointed wallet.