The Marvel Comics History of SECRET WARS

Secret Wars is a name that holds a lot of significance in Marvel Comics history, going back to 1984. It was the first major crossover event in comics, combining most of a publisher’s marquee heroes into one big story. The cover for issue #1 is one of the most iconic Marvel covers of all time. But the naked truth is this: the entire impetus for making this series, now geared to become perhaps the MCU’s biggest film ever, was to sell toys. But these days, the toy line is all but a footnote, while the Secret Wars comic series is legendary. To understand what may be the MCU’s most ambitious film ever, we have to go back to the beginning.

Secret Wars 2015 promo art
Marvel Comics

Secret Wars Started with Action Figures

The origins of Marvel Super-Heroes Secret Wars, which we’ll just call Secret Wars from now on, came from Marvel’s then Editor-in-Chief, Jim Shooter. Back in the ‘80s, he invigorated Marvel’s line of comics with hits like X-Men and Daredevil. Mattel Toys had recently lost the license to DC Comics to Kenner. They launched their superhero line of action figures Super Powers, and Mattel wanted a Marvel version to compete.

In order to secure the license, the folks at Mattel asked Shooter to create a series they could build a mass market toy line around. Their market research told them young boys like the words “Secret” and “Wars.” That sparked an idea in Shooter. A year-long event comic, told in 12 parts, combining most of Marvel’s biggest characters in a battle for the ages on a distant, secret world. And thus, Secret Wars was born.

Secret WarsBattleworlds and Beyonders

The iconic Mike Zeck cover to Marvel Superheroes Secret Wars #1.
Marvel Comics

Deciding to write the series himself, with artists Mike Zeck and Bob Layton, Shooter came up with the concept of Battleworld, a planet created by an omnipotent cosmic being called the Beyonder. (Think of Star Trek’s Q, only with a perm). There, the forces of good and evil would fight it out, made up of Marvel’s most famous heroes and villains. The ultimate victors would determine which was truly stronger, virtue or malevolence.

Doctor Doom stands triumphant before the Marvel heroes in the original Secret Wars.
Marvel Comics

Allegiances would shift, and heroes would betray heroes. Of course, villains would betray villains, such as when Doom betrayed them all. It’s a very simple premise, that feels straight out of a ’60s Star Trek episode. Only this had almost all of Marvel’s classic heroes in play. (Notably absent were Daredevil, Doctor Strange, Namor, and the Vision and the Scarlet Witch).

Secret Wars Was Comics’ First True Event Series

Doctor Doom with the Beyonder's powers in the original Sercret Wars.
Marvel Comics

Secret Wars was the first event series in comics history and predated DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths by a full year. (Although, Crisis had been announced as early as 1982). In fact, Crisis #1 went on sale the day Secret Wars’ last issue hit the stands. Despite a fairly straightforward story readers of all ages could enjoy, there were several cool twists, including a last-minute ploy by Doctor Doom to usurp the Beyonder’s powers, elevating Doctor Doom to the story’s true “Big Bad.” Despite not being the deepest of stories, many readers loved this cosmic battle for the ages with Marvel’s biggest characters. It set the precedent for later events, like The Infinity Gauntlet and Civil War.

Cover art for Secret Wars issue 8, from 1984.
Marvel Comics

Despite Secret Wars‘ relative simplicity, the story had lasting effects on the Marvel Universe. The series introduced several new characters, like Titania, and the new Spider-Woman, Julia Carpenter. This series began the rehabilitation of Magneto from X-Men villain to occasional ally. And the biggest of all, the alien symbiote, introduced in Secret Wars #8, became Spider-Man’s new black costume—the same symbiote that would go on to become Venom, now one of Marvel’s most iconic characters. Financially speaking, Secret Wars sold better than any Marvel comic in 25 years up to that point. Critics hated it, but fans ate it up. Interestingly enough, the toy line Marvel created Secret Wars for more or less flopped. But the comic remains iconic.

Secret Wars II Almost Became a Franchise Killer

The Beyonder on the cover of Secret Wars II issue 6.
Marvel Comics

In 1986, Marvel initiated a nine-part follow-up series with the unimaginatively named Secret Wars II. This series focused on the Beyonder coming to Earth, and attempting to learn to be mortal. Lots of weird things happened in this series, like the Beyonder (who looked like David Hasselhoff in a disco outfit) falling in love with mutant rock star Dazzler, and teenage mutant Boom Boom (don’t ask).

Earth’s heroes ultimately sent him packing. If some fans were initially lukewarm to the first Secret Wars, they downright hated Secret Wars II. Marvel rarely referenced it in any way in modern comics, despite it being a high seller. This killed the Secret Wars franchise for nearly 30 years. (A 2004 mini-series called Secret War, singular, was totally unrelated). But Secret Wars‘ eventual 2015 resurrection was well worth the wait, and exceeded all expectations.

2015: Secret Wars, Take Two

In 2015, writer Jonathan Hickman, after two stellar runs on Avengers and Fantastic Four, decided to reinvent the wheel. He created a new nine-part series called Secret Wars, which took the concept of the original series and dialed it up to 11. The art, from illustrator Esad Ribić, was jaw-droppingly good. It was both a reboot of sorts, and also a kind of legacy sequel. After setting up the concept of Multiversal incursions in both Avengers and Fantastic Four, Hickman created a fresh take on the concept of Battleworld, and Marvel’s heroes in conflict with Marvel’s villains on a grand playing field.

New Avengers: Time Runs Out, the Prelude to Secret Wars

The survivors of Earth 616 escape an incursion.
Marvel Comics

The preamble for 2015’s Secret Wars began in earnest in the pages of New Avengers, where Marvel’s Illuminati realized that incursions between universes were destroying one reality after the other, and their home, Earth 616, was next. This occurred in Hickman’s storyline called Time Runs Out. They made the hard decision to save their universe, at the expense of the others.

By the time we get to Secret Wars #1, there were only two universes left. The 616, home of the mainstream Marvel heroes, and Earth 1610, home to their long line of Ultimate Comics heroes. Both universes were obliterated, with Reed Richards only saving a handful in a cosmic liferaft. This life raft arrived on an all-new version of Battleworld, one controlled by his oldest adversary and former friend, Doctor Doom.

God Emperor Doom

Secret Wars 2015's God Emperor Doom.
Marvel Comics

Much as in the original Secret Wars, Dr. Doom, with the help of reality-altering Molecule Man, absorbed the infinite power of the Beyonders, and used his abilities to save the remaining fragments of the Multiverse into one new world. He ruled this version of Battleworld as “God Emperor Doom,” who was now married to Susan Storm. He controlled this hodgepodge reality with an iron fist.

Remnants of old Marvel events like Marvel Zombies, the X-Men saga Inferno, and dozens of others lived on as their own kingdoms within Battleworld, and travel between realms was strictly limited. Several brand new realms like Iron Man’s Technopolis were part of it too. Daredevil protected a version of Manhattan infested by demons. And the X-Men dwelled in a world of mutant supremacy, called Mutopia. The deadliest lands were separated by a giant shield wall.

The map of Battlworld, from the 2015 version of Secret Wars
Marvel Comics

There were over 40 one-shots and mini-series exploring the realms of Battleworld—some better than others. We had Spider-Island, a version of New York where everyone had spider powers. Age of Ultron vs Marvel Zombies, which is exactly what it sounds like it’s about. There was 1872, a world where the Avengers were western heroes. One of the best was Siege. This one featured Marvel characters who broke the rules of Doom, now condemned to patrol the shield wall protecting the rest of Battleworld, kind of a Marvel version of Game of Thrones’ Nights’ Watch.

Doctor Strange, Sheriff of Battleworld

The court of God Emperor Doom in 2015's Secret Wars series.
Marvel Comics

Stephen Strange was now Doom’s Sheriff, monitoring the various realms of Battleworld with his police force of Thunder Gods, the Thor Corps. She-Hulk protected the Warzone along with A-Force, an all-female version of the Avengers. Captain Britain protected the Arthurian realm of New Avalon, and the Egyptian God Khonshu, ruled over the land of Egyptia. And those were all just the tip of the iceberg. A visual guide mapped out dozens of other realms for eager readers.

Reed Richards vs. Doctor Doom in the Secret Wars finale.
Marvel Comics

Ultimately, Reed Richards and other heroes from the 616 universe defeated Doom, with the stolen powers of the Beyonder now his to command. With this power, Doom restarts a new universe, one which resembled the old one in many ways. But with added characters from now dead worlds, like Miles Morales’ Spider-Man. The story was bigger and broader than the original, with far more nuance and much higher stakes. To be blunt, it’s very cinematic. Speaking of cinema, this brings us straight to the MCU.

Avengers: Secret Wars

The logo for Avengers: The Secret Wars
Marvel Studios

Loki introduced the concept of the MCU Multiverse, and subsequent entries in the MCU such has Spider-Man: No Way Home and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness elaborated upon it further. Due to this, many fans theorized Secret Wars was on the horizon. Then, at SDCC, Kevin Feige confirmed the name of the sixth Avengers film, Avengers: Secret Wars. The movie arrives in 2025. We know next to nothing about the MCU version, which is several years away. But given that it follows Avengers: The Kang Dynasty, it’s quite possible that Kang takes the place of Doom as the main villain. Of course, Doom may yet arrive in the MCU before Secret Wars.

The MCU made huge changes to events like Civil War and the Infinity Saga, but the broad strokes remained. We imagine the basics of both main Secret Wars comics—heroes and villains fighting it out on a Battleworld—will stay. But given Kevin Feige’s well-known love for the comics of Jonathan Hickman, don’t be surprised to see the 2015 version of Secret Wars being far more influential here. One thing is very certain: based on its comic book inspirations, Avengers: Secret Wars has the potential to be the biggest most imaginative Marvel movie of all time.

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