Within my social circles, I’m known for my enthusiasm and extensive knowledge of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Heck, I even sat through all of Inhumans, if you want an idea of how much a completionist I am. But to the surprise of many, I’ve never really delved into the comic books. The reason is quite simple: the comic storylines have gone on for so long that they’ve become hopelessly convoluted to me. At various points, the mainstream Marvel comics continuity, named Earth-616, has been a tangled mess. Perhaps that’s why I’ve gravitated towards the films, because I didn’t think they’d ever get into multiverse nonsense.
Yet, here we are.
Sure, Spider-Man: Far From Home may look like it has some promise, but a key part of the latest trailer had many fans talking, and myself quite worried. They said the “m” word. We may have heard it uttered on Doctor Strange and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 5, but it looks like the MCU is exploring the concept even further. Now, think back to the cover of DC’s massive “Crisis on Infinite Earths” crossover event. Remember that image of all of the Earths crashing into each other and all of the characters screaming in terror? That’s how I feel thinking about all of this.
Don’t take it from me, but rather from Marvel Comics figureheads Tom Brevoort and Joe Quesada regarding the “Earth-616” number designation for the mainstream comics universe. Regardless of your opinions on their creative work, I’d have to agree with their assessments. Said Brevoort:
I can tell you for sure that those of us actually working on the books virtually never use the term — and I kind of wince inside whenever I hear somebody use it. It just sounds so stupid to my ear, and so counter to the kind of mindset we try to foster in regard to the stories we create and the thinking we try to employ.
Quesada backs this up:
I never use it, I hate the term pure and simple and agree with Tom’s assessment of it. I can’t remember ever hearing it in the office and only really see it used online for the most part. I think the term really came into vogue when the Ultimate Universe came into prominence, but in my world, the language and distinctions are simple, there is the Marvel Universe and the Ultimate Universe. Anything other than that reeks of all that DC Earth 1, Earth 2, Earth Prime stuff which I’ve never really taken to, but then again, I got into DC when they got rid of all that stuff so it was from and for a different era than my own.
Yes, “One More Day” from Quesada sucked, but it does highlight my issues with DC comics, which the Arrowverse television shows eventually inherited. There’s a point in comic books with their floating timelines and expanding fictional universe where the editorial team has to reboot everything to some degree and clean up continuity, leading to events like “Crisis on Infinite Earths.” Perhaps it was fine and necessary Spring cleaning at first, but this “Crisis” lead to a number of other events of similar monumental scale, getting the mythology to a point that I find impossible to follow.
Granted, Marvel Comics isn’t innocent of these types of retcons and reboots—just look to the most recent iteration of “Secret Wars,” which bashed a number of universes together for a limited event, and resulted in 616 and the Ultimate universe combining by the end of it all. Because of the very nature of comic books, because of the need to change, then reset and revert, comics eventually become an absurd soap opera of sorts with super-powered, un-aging immortals in the lead roles. With that in mind, the more grounded and practical nature of ongoing film franchises is why the MCU is much more digestible.
Let me clarify that I am not opposed to the existence of the Marvel multiverse—I simply have issues with how far the concept can be taken after a certain time. The multiverse could work well in standalone stories, with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse being an absolute favorite of mine, but opening the universe up to larger, behemoth, inaccessible stories like the DC Crises could prove to be dangerous. I appreciate the relative straightforwardness of the MCU thus far, and while I bet I’d be able to handle any multiverse nonsense that the films may throw at me, Marvel Studios could risk alienating the general audiences that they depend on to watch these popcorn flicks.
Quick acknowledgement, however: the MCU is absolutely a part of the larger Marvel multiverse. If the official Marvel handbook is to be believed, the MCU has the designation of Earth-199999. That is, unless you let a recently leaked clip from Far From Home shatter that piece of trivia. According to Jake Gyllenhaal’s Quentin Beck (aka Mysterio), the MCU that we know of is Earth-616, while Mysterio hails from Earth-833 (in the comics, this is the home of Spider-UK). And just like the “Eight Years Later” title card in Spider-Man: Homecoming (it was actually six years), the fandom spiraled down into confusion.
By introducing number designations, something that Marvel editorial is on the record of hating, Marvel Studios is opening up the box for more alternate universe hijinx. Not to mention, why use “616” for the MCU? Does 199999 consider itself 616, and vice versa? Did Mysterio, who totally has to be a lying hack barring some sort of twist, pull that number out of his fish bowl helmet? Or is it just an easter egg, meant to give a nod to fans, instead of hopelessly confusing them? I’m willing to bet that it’s the last option, but regardless, this little bit needlessly irks me.
While Avengers: Endgame was the end for many characters and plot threads in the MCU, it also built a foundation for many new ones to be created. While there are a number of original projects like Shang-Chi and The Eternals coming up, I am wary that many of these future plans will involve alternate timelines, given how Endgame introduced the possibility. An alternate Loki is now running around, presumably to become a star in his own Disney+ show, and an animated show is even due to show a number of What If? scenarios in the MCU. Like Spider-Verse, these could work very well by themselves—the problem here is that Marvel Studios can’t seem to make up its mind on how their own time travel and alternate timeline rules work.
Seriously, interviews have given us contradictory information from Joe and Anthony Russo and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, even though the four of them worked on the same darn movie. If you ask the Russo brothers, when Steve Rogers traveled back to the 1940s, he created an alternate timeline where he lived out his life as Peggy Carter; this would match up with the Ancient One telling Bruce Banner how new timelines are created. But if you ask the two writers, they interpret the Ancient One’s explanation as being only possible if Infinity Stones are taken out of the timeline, which is the example she gave to Banner; that would mean that Steve Rogers is canonically Peggy Carter’s husband in the prime MCU timeline, which also means that in this version of events, he macked on his niece Sharon Carter in Captain America: Civil War.
Even if you somehow forget about how gross that possibility is, it’s hard to not scratch your head of how out of sync these filmmakers are.
Whatever the case, it would be foolish to assume that Disney and Marvel Studios would never reboot their gigantic franchise in the far future—perhaps “Secret Wars” will finally come on screen. But I do enjoy some of the precedents the studio has taken with Endgame. We’re used to Hollywood recasting Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man every few years, but Marvel Studios straight up retired the characters of Tony Stark and Steve Rogers. Heck, Fox did that with Wolverine in Logan years before.
It is likely more due to the fact that Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans are living and breathing people instead of drawings on a page, but I enjoy the idea of the MCU focusing more on legacy and moving on than simply rebooting whenever it needs to. Tony and Steve may be gone, but plenty of new MCU figureheads are here to fill in the void and continue on—Disney won’t have to depend on Iron Man for box office returns and name recognition, because now they have Black Panther and Captain Marvel.
And so I urge Marvel Studios to keep on this track. Multiverse can be fun for a time, but it will eventually end in confusion. The more the timelines branch, and the more they factor in as essential to future stories, the less accessible the MCU gets, and the bigger chance they lose their audience. The MCU has successfully emulated the comic books in building a formidable shared universe—they just don’t need all the baggage that comes with it.