If you’re a casual fan of superheroes and you decide to pick up a Marvel comic featuring a character you recognize, odds are, you are going to be highly confused. If you’re like me, you grew up watching cartoons featuring the X-Men or Spider-Man, and you might think the comics will be a continuation of the world you know. What you have to keep in mind is that the superhero stories that appear in media are way, way behind what’s going on in the comic world. Most movies are still telling origin stories, while the comics have progressed to whole different places. Learning the back story can be daunting: some of my friends say they won’t read a single comic if that means reading having to read back issues. So, for people who don’t want to read old issues, I’ve decided to write up a brief guide to understanding what’s been going on in Marvel over the past decade. This mostly covers the big cross-over events. I realize I’ve left out a lot, but this should at least clue you in to what the stories are referencing.
If you don’t like spoilers, stop reading now.
Avengers Disassembled/ House of M:
The story begins with the world going screwy in the Avengers. Tony Stark (Iron Man), who hasn’t touched a drink in a long time, suddenly delivers a long rambling harangue at a UN meeting, and is demoted from his position with S.H.I.E.L.D. (gov’t agency, covert missions, kind of like the CIA). Other things start happening–the Avengers mansion is blown up by a former teammate and aliens attack. At the end of the story, it’s revealed that the Scarlet Witch is responsible. She’s Magneto’s daughter, a former Avenger who has the ability to change reality. As it turns out, she’s lost her mind, which leads to House of M.
In House of M, the Scarlet Witch tries to remake the world in a way that would make mutants happy, but the plan backfires and her fellow heroes insist she stop. In a quick turnaround, she utters the words “No more mutants,” and like that, the mutant population is decimated. Thousands of mutants lose their special abilities, and no more mutants are born.
After House of M, the Marvel universe is in a state of confusion for a long time. The Avengers are no more, but the New Avengers have taken their place. Unfortunately, the New Avengers are broken up by a tragic event: a group of annoying teenage heroes, anxious to start their own reality show, get into a run of the mill battle that ends up taking out an entire suburb full of innocent civilians. Tony Stark says this is the fault of ungoverned superheroes being allowed to act out their vigilante fantasies without oversight. Tony then drafts up the Superhero Registration Act, which requires every superhero to unmask themselves publicly and join a special organization to police the US district by district. As you’d expect, some heroes are not okay with this, which causes a splintering in the superhuman community, with Iron Man on one side and Captain America on the other. Both gain followers. The mini-series ends with hordes of superheroes infighting on an American street. Eventually, Captain America realizes that although Tony is in the wrong, their fighting is putting Americans at risk, so he turns himself in to the authorities… only to get shot and killed on his way to the courthouse.
The other significant effect of the Civil War is that Spider-Man revealed his secret identity to the world. This inexplicably leads to Aunt May being mortally wounded by a bullet meant for him. To save her life, he and Mary Jane strike up a deal with Mephisto, agreeing to erase all memory of their married life in exchange for the life of Aunt May. Thus begins Brand New Day, and Peter is again a swinging bachelor.
Shortly after the events of Civil War, the New Avengers go to Japan, where they encounter a mafia led by Elektra. After a long battle, Elektra is killed, only to revert to Skrull form as she expires. The heroes then piece together that they’ve been infiltrated by Skrulls (shapeshifting aliens), and not only that, but they’ve been on Earth for a long time. What starts as a story of espionage escalates into a huge battle right in Central Park. It’s revealed that Spider-Woman (Jessica Drew) had been replaced by the Skrull queen long before the event started (before even New Avengers #1, where she became a constant team member).
Also around this time, Thor returns from the grave (although I don’t know how he died to begin with).
Secret Invasion climaxes with the Skrull Queen being assassinated by none other than Norman Osborn (formerly the Green Goblin, still a sociopath).
To read a longer post I’ve written about Secret Invasion, click here.
Dark Reign/ Siege:
After he’s seen as a hero for his role in Secret Invasion, Norman Osborn is made director of H.A.M.M.E.R., a new organization started to replace S.H.I.E.L.D. Norman recruits the Thunderbolts to become his henchmen, and creates an uneasy alliance with Loki (Thor’s arch-nemesis, also newly returned from the grave).
Thor, since returning to life, has relocated Asgard to the Midwest town of Broxton. Loki wishes Asgard to forever remain in the mythic realm, and convinces Osborn Thor has no right to house his fellow gods on American soil. Osborn then stages Siege, sending all of his underlings out to defeat Asgard in one foul swoop.
Captain America returned to life shortly before the events of Siege (for more on that, click here). Prior to Siege, he had been keeping a low profile, but decided he had to rise up to protect Asgard, along with Thor and Iron Man, making it the first time they’d all three fought together in years.
Unfortunately, the combined efforts of many of Marvel’s greatest heroes isn’t enough to save Asgard once Osborn unleashes The Sentry, an immensely powerful mutant who is mentally unstable. The Sentry destroys Asgard but is killed shortly after by the heroes.
Osborn is exposed as a menace, and is immediately deposed by the president. Steve Rogers tells Bucky Barnes to continue being Captain America.
The earlier storyline featuring Steve Rogers returning to life also involved the apparent death of the Red Skull. At the start of Fear Itself, Red Skull’s daughter Sin decides to get her revenge by teaming up with the Serpent, a god who is actually Odin’s brother and who is possibly the rightful king of Asgard. The Serpent begins their reign of terror by causing several mystical hammers to fall to Earth (similar to Thor’s hammer Mjolnir). Each hammer possesses whoever wields them, bending them to The Serpent’s will. Among the possessed are The Thing and The Hulk. Sin also gets a hammer. Their plan in large part involves being as destructive as possible. The Thing, during a battle with Red Hulk, destroys the Avengers Tower.
Captain America (Bucky Barnes) is among the first heroes to encounter the newly empowered Sin. He tries to bring an end to the conflict by facing Sin himself, but is tragically killed as she brings her hammer down on his chest.
Hearing news of his brother’s return, Odin decides to retreat, moving all of Asgard to the mythical realm in the process, and begins plans to destroy the Earth itself to stop The Serpent. Thor pleads that he be allowed to attempt to defeat The Serpent, and it’s revealed that its been foretold that only Thor can kill The Serpent, but he too will die in the conflict. Thor resigns to his fate and goes to confront his foe, only to face both The Hulk and The Thing (still possessed) before he can get to The Serpent. In battle, Thor mortally wounds The Thing and throws the Hulk into the stratosphere, then goes on to confront The Serpent.
In the meantime, Iron Man makes a bid for Odin’s help, but can only get his attention by drinking (Tony has had long battles with alcoholism, see Demon in a Bottle). Odin forges special weapons for the heroes, and they go out to make one last effort to save the Earth.
Thor fights and defeats The Serpent, but as fate foretold, dies at the end of their battle. Steve Rogers returns to wearing his Captain America costume and seeks to avenge Bucky Barnes. During the fight, his shield is shattered (it was always thought to be unbreakable). Eventually he defeats Sin, but she manages to escape.
Franklin Richards, son of the Fantastic Four members Reed Richards and Sue Storm, who is also considered one of the most powerful mutants on the planet, finds The Thing and heals him.
Okay, that takes us to the present. There’s a lot of smaller events I’ve left out, but if you pick up any new Marvel issues, this guide should give you the gist of what’s going on.
Avengers Disassembled, House of M, Secret Invasion and Siege were written by Brian Michael Bendis. Read more about him here.
If you liked this brief guide to the Marvel Universe, you might like this post titled My Adventures in the Marvel Universe.