On Tuesday, Marvel previewed its major comic initiative for the summer, Secret Wars. A full reboot of the Marvel Universe along the lines of DC’s New 52, Secret Wars (a throwback to the Marvel of the 1980s) will merge a constellation of different stories and characters into a single narrative world. It’s tempting to wave this away as minutiae for nerds, but it’s a change that could reverberate through the Avenger films and other Marvel properties, i.e., the products ordinary people actually care about.
For years, Marvel Comics has maintained two separate continuities for its wide array of stories and characters. The first, officially called “Earth–616,” is the mainstream Marvel Universe effectively launched with Fantastic Four in 1961. It features the most well-known versions of the characters that define the company’s 50-year history, from Captain America and Iron Man to Black Panther and the Hulk.
The second continuity, called “Ultimate Marvel,” is a modern retelling of those original stories, launched in 2000. Basic elements stayed the same—the X-Men were still mutants and the Fantastic Four were cosmic explorers—but most of the details were jettisoned in an effort to broaden the company’s base and appeal to people turned off by a half-century of narrative cruft.
But fifteen years in, the “Ultimate” universe has also grown large and unwieldy, with convoluted plot lines and unclear narratives. What’s more, the emergence and wide popularity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe—which borrows from both classic and Ultimate Marvel—has made things confusing for new fans who want to follow the comics. If all you want to do is catch up with Wolverine, what do you read? Read one of the gaggle of classic X-Men titles? Read Ultimate X-Men? Read Ultimate Wolverine?
Marvel tried to untangle this knot with its Marvel NOW re-launches in 2013 and 2014, which reset titles in both continuities and offered an easier entry point for new readers. Secret Wars is a much larger overhaul. According to Nerdist, Marvel will use the storyline—which involves heroes trying to stop an incursion from a parallel Earth (it’s…convoluted)—to end both continuities and establish a new one, where classic and Ultimate heroes co-exist. Think of it this way, says Marvel vice president Tom Brevoort,; “The Ultimate Universe, the Marvel Universe, they’re going to slap together. Imagine two pizzas: They’re going to combine toppings, some toppings are going to drop off.”
Given the fact that Marvel Studios is, at this point, far more popular and profitable than its print counterpart, it’s impossible not to wonder if this is an attempt to fully align the two, and make a seamless transition for viewers interested in reading. There’s also the question of one particular character who looms over this entire project, with huge stature in film and on the page—Spider-Man.
Thanks to a deal made in 1999, Sony Pictures owns the right to the Spider-Man film franchise. That’s why the Spidey movies since Sam Raimi’s original haven’t featured other Marvel heroes —which aside from the X-Men and the Fantastic Four are owned by Marvel Studios—and why the recent wildly popular run of Marvel movies haven’t featured Spider-Man in their constellation of heroes. But in recent years—and with The Amazing Spider-Man 2 in particular—Sony has run the property into the ground. A critical bomb and the lowest-grossing Spider-Man movie ever, ASM 2 may have completely derailed Sony’s plans for the character.
Meanwhile, Marvel Comics has two Spider-Men to play with. The first is the classic Peter Parker, and the second is Miles Morales, the current Ultimate Spider-Man and one of the most popular characters in the company’s stable. Introduced in 2011—and partly inspired by the fan campaign to cast comedian Donald Glover as Spider-Man in the first Amazing Spider-Man film—Miles Morales is a half-black, half-Latino successor to Peter Parker, and an explicit return to the character’s roots as a vulnerable, heroic teenager facing the world for the first time.
It’s no secret that Marvel wants Spider-Man for its movies, but while reports say Sony is open to a partnership, neither side will budge on casting. Sony wants actor Andrew Garfield, who played Peter Parker in the last two films; Marvel wants a clean slate.
Enter Secret Wars. Outside of Marvel, no one knows the relationship between this reboot and the films. But it’s possible that this new continuity will lay the groundwork for bringing a different Spider-Man—Miles Morales—to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Indeed, of the characters to integrate into this new comic continuity, Morales makes the most sense: He’s popular and already present across different media.
Of course, whether we see Morales in theaters depends on the terms of the contract with Sony. Does the studio own the rights to Spider-Man in all of his forms, or does it own the rights to Spider-Man as Peter Parker? If it’s the latter, then Marvel has a chance to make a splash with another big screen black superhero.
Guardians of the Galaxy demonstrated that Marvel can be daring and forward-thinking with its movies. It’s hard to imagine a more daring move than rebooting the Spider-Man films with an entirely new character. It’s hard to imagine a more forward-thinking one than introducing a character to the movies who—perhaps more than Peter Parker—resonates with the whole range of Marvel’s audience.