Marvel has historically been the more grounded of the Big Two comic book companies. Its world (commonly called Earth 616) was, by original editorial fiat, our world. There were few fictional settings, with most of the action taking place in an NYC identical to ours save the Baxter Building and Avengers Mansion.

The extra abstraction layer in the Marvel world (as well as DC and other comic book universes) is that SF and fantasy tropes exist in almost equal measure, and in vast numbers. Aside from comic books, such a robust slathering of concepts from both SF and fantasy (not to mention a dollop of horror) is exceedingly rare. The mystic and the mechanical seldom intermingle on such a grand scale successfully. This is especially true in fictional universes that have well-established sandboxes. Miles Vorkosigan will never discover he’s destined to become the next High Mage. Westeros will never encounter a rogue berserker probe.

But on Marvel Earth the Sorcerer Supreme has an android on speed dial, and the Sentinel of the Spaceways is on a first-name basis with the Son of Satan. Gods and aliens are common. Atlantis is a thriving empire. Dinosaurs dwell in Antarctica. Yggdrasil and Counter-Earth are known phenomena. In its history Marvel has assimilated Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, Conan, Abdul Alhazred, Godzilla, Doc Savage, KISS, the Arthurian legends, 2001: A Space Odyssey, the War of the Worlds and assorted toy lines. Not as franchise crossovers, mind you, but as in-continuity (at least for a time) elements.

As a result, the Marvel universe can be inherently unstable setting in which to carry out a narrative. The accumulation of rules, both “real world” and fictional, make it nigh-impossible to tell a story without violating some piece of obscure continuity. Unlike DC, Marvel has never had a universe-wide reboot to clear away the deadwood. Writers and editors continually choose how much baggage a given storyline has to bear. As a reader, especially one who has been following the events in Marvel for decades, you have to accept a level of instability.

It is to be expected that, in very broad strokes, there is an ebb and tide as the influences of SF and fantasy alternately pull a little harder, and over the years there have been cycles where one or the other becomes dominant for a period. These can be catalyzed by pop culture trends, new creative teams coming in, or company-wide crossover events. Demons, gods, space opera, and urban fantasy have all had their moments in the spotlight.

We’re in a period where SF is prevailing. Right now, Marvel is still flush with the high-profile exposure of the Avengers movie, and has been giving the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes a lot of dynamics to work with. The result has been technology-driven stories, a return to cosmic arcs, and alien interventions. The assorted Avengers books are incorporating transhumanist elements such as artificial intelligence, macro-engineering, and post-scarcity scenarios. It is refreshing, but not without some troubling overtones.

A lot of the credit for this shift goes to writer Jonathan Hickman, who is currently penning the two banner Avengers books. He is a solid writer bristling with big ideas, on display in such standalone books as Pax Romana, Transhuman, and Manhattan Projects.

In the flagship book, Avengers, a number of alpha-level (albeit emotionally damaged) heroes such as Hyperion and Captain Universe are now among the ranks of more familiar heroes. By my reckoning, Thor is now the fourth or fifth most powerful Avenger.

An entity named Ex Nihilo has terraformed Mars, and has tried to turn Earth into a posthuman garden of delights. As a result, a species of adaptive human totally devoid of need has appeared. And the burgeoning consciousness of the planet is damaged. The upshot is that there are hidden metaphysical laws that foster the rise of superhumans, and these laws are collapsing. It’s a clever premise, one that attempts to not only address the instability I mentioned, but to justify its necessity. Stripped down, SF and fantasy become two more fundamental laws of the universe, transformative forces existing just beyond perception, and the world is on the verge of breaking because of them.

Hickman also writes The New Avengers, whose current storyline runs parallel. This book features the Illuminati: a horrible bit of retconning introduced a while back where all the smartest people in herodom have been secretly manipulating events throughout Marvel history. In this story, a cryptic lady from another dimension informs the Illuminati that events resembling those in DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths are occurring, where barriers between universes are collapsing and parallel worlds are intersecting. Except in this case, a world can only survive these incursions if another world dies. Earth will be shattered unless the heroes pre-emptively destroy its nearest parallel.

(Fanboy rant: this runs counter to things we’ve learned about the Marvel multiverse too numerous to list. For a more detailed explanation, find a comics fan. Or meet me in the comment section.)

This kill-or-be-killed worldly dynamic posits a multiverse finely tuned to self-destruction and racking up a body count. It’s a bit of a dichotomy: Existence has deep-coded systems and mechanisms for the preservation and enhancement of life, but could cease to be in a single violent moment. Marvel readers know that the universe has a living embodiment in the form of Eternity. These recent stories would suggest that perhaps Eternity suffers from a split personality, or at least a form of manic depression.

Comics are the perfect medium for epic “widescreen” stories, and for the most part these conflicts set against existential emergencies are a welcome change from the last decade. Marvel had gotten a lot of mileage out of 9/11 analogies and a thinly re-characterized War on Terror, but they always felt hollow and low-impact in a world that has repeatedly stood down Kang the Conqueror, Apocalypse, and Galactus. And allegories of racism and classism are pretty much moot in a world that has an actual master race, more than a few sub-human races, despots and sovereigns who tout their superiority, actual classical pantheons and advanced alien races involved with Earth affairs, and (don’t forget) where a non-trivial portion of the population have superpowers. Consider the effects that real-world crises and violence have had on our society, the repercussions felt from people’s everyday habits all the way to the state of the economy. Now imagine a world where planetary-level acts of conquest and destruction are near-annual events. Our culture would be unrecognizable.

The current cosmological threats and bio-dystopian uprisings in the Avengers books would certainly bring business as usual to a halt. But, because this is comics we’re talking about, it doesn’t. Themes of sweeping change and futurism-tinged advancement are the perfect fit for Marvel, which has embraced both repeatedly over the years, but they’ll be unsustainable if the pre-eminent risk to survival is the cosmos-at-large’s volitional intent to destroy everything. At some point I expect to see Reed Richards say “You know what? Let Doctor Doom conquer Europe. We’re fighting the universe here.”

“Earth will be destroyed” has become the default outcome if the protagonists fail, and it is getting a little tiring. It’s nice that Marvel is attempting to keep up with contemporary SF, but a touch disheartening to see it do so by maintaining levels of destruction and nihilism as its main dramatic riff.

Meanwhile, I continue my vigil for the return of Howard the Duck

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