Marvel is shaking up its sandbox like seldom before with the launch of Marvel NOW!, making co-stars out of characters that previously had only brief interactions with each other. This strategy of mixing and matching for team books could inject new life into character dynamics, or it could water down what makes characters unique.
At the end of 2004, Marvel and writer Brian Michael Bendis got flak for putting perpetual loner Spider-Man and X-Men-exclusive Wolverine on the same team as Avengers standbys Iron Man and Captain America for the launch of New Avengers. While there are still some fans who complain about this eight years later, sales told Marvel all the publisher needed to know. Soon Luke Cage was an Avenger. Daredevil, too (in a way). Wolverine became a member of everything. Namor became an X-Man. (The Namor I used to read would respond to such a notion with, “the Sub-Mariner will star in thine own perpetually canceled solo series or none at all! Imperius Rex!”)
Now the unexpected mashing together of characters is reaching a new level after the ultimate sandbox throwdown of Avengers vs. X-Men. Who would ever have guessed that Thor and Havok would be teammates (Uncanny Avengers)? New Mutants Cannonball and Sunspot on Hickman’s Avengers is madness! Putting the Punisher on a superhero team (Thunderbolts) is so blasphemous to writer Greg Rucka, he’s done with the character (OK, among some other factors). And Avengers Arena is a veritable grab bag: throw in some Runaways, some Avengers Academy, some Annihilation, and shake vigorously.
On one hand, this is a great way to inject life into the chemistry of a book’s cast. I mean, Cyclops and Wolverine have been getting on each other’s nerves since 1975. The Marvel Universe is full of characters with strong personalities and opinions, so there’s no need to keep to the same old routine. The new technique seems to be to shake things up trading card style: an X-Man over here, an Avenger over there, add in a popular solo character, a cult favorite on the side … voila! You’re Marvel NOW!
With a shared fictional universe like Marvel, which has had characters passing in and out of each other’s titles since the early ’60s, you’d think this approach would’ve been used before. But aside from the semi-annual crossovers, special epics, team-ups and guest appearances, the Marvel Universe has mostly remained a pretty segregated space when it comes to building a cast for a longer ongoing narrative. (There are exceptions, of course: The original New Warriors starred lesser-known characters from several corners of the MU.)
But maybe there’s a reason it hasn’t happened to this degree until now. For those who have read for even a little while, some of this just seems kind of odd. And why is that? It reminds me of when I’d play with toys when I was young (definitely not last week, no sirree). Sure, I might have had my Transformers, G.I. Joe, Star Wars and ThunderCats action figures all come together for a big adventure sometimes, but it never lasted long because … well, just look at them: The scale was all off. The Transformers were too small, the ThunderCats were too big. G.I. Joe and Stars Wars kind of worked, I guess. That’s kind of a silly way to think about it, but it’s a visual representation of how the characters existed in specific and unique worlds very much tied to them as characters. That might make for fun visits with each other but it just doesn’t feel right to make them permanent residents.
You could argue that the Marvel Universe isn’t quite that varied as those four different fictional universes, and I would agree. But there’s an aspect that rings true. Some of these characters exist in distinct environments and stories, and to yank them out and throw them into a mishmash waters things down. Some of the mixing and matching can and has worked — but pushed too far or too much, and you get Lion-O towering over Optimus Prime. And that’s just wrong.