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What The?: 20 Controversies That Almost Tarnished Marvel's Most Popular Characters

Marvel Comics is pretty much on top of the world right now. Their comics are leaning heavily into the future, their company has the House of Mouse on speed dial, and, of course, they are basically printing their own mint with the money from the insanely lucrative Marvel Cinematic Universe. Turns out that writing visual novels for kids in the mid to late 20th century can be pretty profitable long term, but Marvel’s success relies solely on one thing: their characters -- every comic relies on characters. That is why their names are emblazoned across the top of every single issue, not just to entice people to buy them but to draw them into a particular hero’s journey, forcing them to feel compelled to buy the next issue and the ones after that.

Unfortunately, while they may currently share the wholesome image of the all-powerful Disney corporation and brand, Marvel was not always such a gleaming monolith of success. To be quite frank, they have been incredibly vague in the past and have made a fair amount of mistakes, often to the detriment of the characters that sometime only barely kept the company afloat. Occasionally, these mistakes, either in company policy, business, or content, were so big that they threatened to derail some of Marvel’s most valuable intellectual properties, but thankfully they've recovered quite nicely and are one of the biggest media companies in the world. Here is just a few times where they nearly lost control of what is essentially the one and only thing keeping them in business.

20 FALCON'S RETCON

For a long time, Sam Wilson, aka the Falcon, shared a series with Captain America which portrayed the two as partners, with neither one the lesser of the two. As one of the first prominent African Americans in Marvel’s history, Falcon was initially portrayed as an ideal hero who stood by the law and promoted justice.

Then his origin story was abruptly retconned. Instead of escaping the projects to become a hero, it turned out that Sam Wilson was actually a street criminal by the name of Snap. He only played at being a hero because Red Skull brainwashed him, turning him into a double agent to use against Cap. Needless to say, a black role model being turned into a gangster didn’t go over well with fans.

19 PENANCE

While a benchmark Marvel comic today, the ‘Civil War’ event storyline was initially poorly received as it involved many heroes acting wildly out of character. None more so than Speedball, the peppy force-field generator who accidentally started the whole thing. After surviving a blast which claimed 612 lives, Speedball was imprisoned.

After his powers morphed, he ordered a new suit with 612 spikes driving into his body at all times and renamed himself Penance. Readers hated the transformation, seeing it as the epitome of everything wrong with the story. Fortunately, Penance was parodied in Squirrel Girl and comic book fans found a way to forgive him.

18 PSYLOCKE'S SHIFTING RACE

Psylocke’s backstory and racial background has always had more than a touch of the problematic about it. The twin sister of Captain Britain, she was born blonde and English but, through the machinations of comic book weirdness, switched bodies with a Japanese woman who perished in her body not long after, leaving Psylocke trapped as an Asian woman.

Because she felt, for whatever reason, that this counted as her being willfully adopted into a wholly different culture, Psylocke learned the ways of the ninja and even developed her signature psychic blades in the style of traditional Japanese katanas. Ever since, her character has been tinged and haunted with the racial appropriation inherent of an upper-class British woman literally inhabiting an Asian body.

17 MAGNETO IS XORN... EXCEPT HE ISN'T

When Xorn was introduced in 2001, he was an instant fan-favorite. He suffered persecution like any good X-Man should, had a unique look that made him stand out, had a likable fish-out-of-water personality, and a cool, malleable power set. For three years, he was a member of the X-Men and served with them admirably. Then came the ‘Planet X’ storyline where he took off his mask and was revealed to just be Magneto in disguise.

The twist made no sense and totally ruined the character that everyone really liked. This was all retconned in the most confusing way possible and there is now another Xorn, supposedly the original’s brother, who crops up every now and again to make things more convoluted.

16 LACK OF FEMALE SUPERHERO FILMS

Superhero movies are all the rage these days, racking in billions at the box office and often signifying huge social changes as nerd culture becomes more and more mainstream. But with Marvel undeniably leading the pack, a huge issue has been brought up numerous times: female stars and superheroes are consistently devalued.

From Black Widow not getting an action figure tie-in to it taking over ten years to make a female-driven film, Marvel hasn’t really been ahead of the curve when it comes to representing women in the MCU and, as a result, all of them have started to feel like side characters. Even Wasp, the first woman to get title billing, wasn’t really necessary to the plot of her own film.

15 MCU MANTIS LEANS INTO STEREOTYPE

While pretty much everyone adored Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, one prominent person who didn’t was Steve Englehart, the comic writer who created, among others, Mantis. After seeing the film, Englehart eviscerated his creations characterization in the press. In his takedown, he pointed out how the Mantis on-screen not only wasn’t representative of his work, but was a blatant stereotype of an Asian woman.

And…yeah, he’s not wrong. The Mantis that actress Pom Klementieff portrayed had a thick accent, was completely co-dependent, and had virtually no autonomy of her own. Fans easily picked up on this and complained that they didn’t want their heartfelt film about fatherhood, family, and failure to contain overt racism.

14 PHIL COULSON'S RESSURECTION

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has inexplicably been on the air for five seasons even though their general premise was violently ripped out from under them by the events of Captain America: Winter Soldier. But it already was a pretty off-kilter project as it reintroduced Clark Gregg as Agent Phil Coulson, who was famously killed off in 2012’s landmark Avengers film.

There was a convoluted reason for his unexpected resurrection, following the bizarre nature of comic book logic, but his sheer presence remains a distraction. Why was it necessary to bring him back? Why has he not interacted with the Avengers since? Do they know he’s still alive? Will they ever find out?

13 MCU MAXIMOFF TWINS RETCON

Because of film right disputes emerging from the legal bungle that was Marvel in the '90s, the company isn’t technically allowed to include any X-Men or even say the word ‘mutant’ in their films. So instead of being born with the X-gene, Pietro and Wanda Maximoff got their powers by volunteering to be guinea pigs for Hydra and were experimented on with Loki’s scepter.

Normally, this would be fine, changes have to be made for adaptations, but the Maximoff family is famously Jewish in the comics, making it pretty unacceptable for them to be shown teaming up with a fascist spin-off organization.

12 WHITEWASHING THE ANCIENT ONE

Whitewashing characters is a huge problem in Hollywood dating back to the inception of the industry. It’s being called out and dealt with in modern day films, but the cloud of oppression still hangs over the studios. Still, Marvel Studios felt different enough that Tilda Swinton, a white woman, was cast as the Ancient One, typically portrayed as a Tibetan monk, in Dr. Strange.

The reasoning behind the casting choice wasn’t so much based in racial bias as much as finances. Marvel films tend to make about 20% of their international box office from China and the Chinese government is not particularly fond of Tibetans, particularly Tibetan monks. Still, it was bad form for Marvel and threatened to overshadow the film.

11 JEAN GREY'S RESURRECTION

The first time Jean Grey was resurrected, it must have felt like a novelty. Sure people did tend to come back from the grave in comics, but Jean Grey had been killed off in the amazing ‘Dark Phoenix Saga,’ a landmark comic that permanently changed the makeup of the X-Men, meaning she was carrying over her new characteristics.

Plus, it would surely just be a one-time thing, right? Nope. In the following decades, Jean Grey has passed away countless times and yet has somehow been brought back every time. By now, fans expect it to the point where the ‘Dark Phoenix Saga’ has been significantly devalued because of it.

10 IRON FIST ON NETFLIX

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has developed a reputation for quality. It can take heroes as silly and bizarre as Ant-Man and make blockbuster films with heart, action, and a moral. Even tangents like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Netflix shows were at least above average. So it was a legitimate and disappointing surprise when their first big flop was also Iron Fist’s introduction to the franchise.

His Netflix show was terrible and, when not terrible, generic. Finn Jones was universally loathed as the titular character and the story was droll. Fortunately, things look to be improving for the character in the future, but it still leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth.

9 BACKLASH TO DIVERSITY INITIATIVE

In the last 20 years, Marvel has been on something of a redemptive arc. After the comics of the '90s nearly bankrupted the company, they began a slow and subtle initiative to both return to their characters’ roots and introduce a more diverse roster. This drive began to fill the Marvel lineup with heroes of color, LGBT heroes, and more social-oriented stories.

Miles Morales, Kamala Khan, and the more philosophical second superhero civil war were born from this. Unfortunately, a vocal host of more traditional comic fans have rejected this outright, boycotting Marvel until they return to the legacy characters, tinting the success of the newer ones.

8 HEAVY FOCUS ON EVENT COMICS

Marvel has become somewhat famous for its emphasis on major comic events. The two ‘Civil War’ storylines, ‘House of M,’ ‘Secret Empire,’ and the numerous ‘vs’ titles have becoming defining, character and world altering comics which keep readers invested in seeing how the continuity plays out. Unfortunately, this has a noticeable side effect of seriously devaluing individual characters and series.

After all, it’s hard care about the exploits of a single superhero when you have to also care about the 50 or so others who are currently embroiled in whatever major battle is happening simultaneously. Comic sales for individual series noticeably drop during these events and it makes it seem like those characters don’t matter.

7 THE ULTIMATES AND EVERYTHING THEY STAND FOR

The Ultimates and the Ultimate universe were bad ideas from start to finish. Everyone’s favorite characters were redesigned to be vindictive, petty, and generally unlikable. It could have been deconstructive, but that would require the writers to make a statement on the nature of comics or superhero characters.

The Ultimate universe writers seemed to be content just to play with their new toys. Though a few elements gained some traction of popularity, such as the new Spider-Man Miles Morales, the majority of the universe was scrapped due to people surprisingly not turned on to the idea of watching the characters they loved being jerks.

6 THE RISE AND FALL OF THE INHUMANS

One of the unintended consequences of Marvel selling the X-Men’s movie rights was that the subsequent X-Men movies were really popular and had Marvel kicking itself for selling the rights. As backlash, the company cancelled many of the X-Men comic lines and relegated them to the backburner on stories for years.

To replace them, Marvel reinvented the Inhumans, a bunch of old Fantastic Four side characters retconned into a monarchical society on the moon. Marvel pushed hard for people to like the Inhumans, which, as any wrestling fan can tell you, would only make audiences hate them more. Eventually Marvel stopped being so forceful, but by then the damage was done.

5 SELLING THE FANTASTIC FOUR FILM RIGHTS

Due to a series of really bad business decisions, failed marketing ploys, and a general drop in content quality, Marvel was pretty strapped for cash in the '90s. Its solution was simple: cash in on the slow return of superhero films by selling the film rights to their most popular characters to studios.

Among those sold off were the Fantastic Four, who Fox bought at a steal. However, Marvel included a clause in the sale which stated that Fox would have to use the rights every so often, otherwise they would default back to Marvel. This initiated a slew of laughably bad, underbudgeted, nonsensical, and otherwise terrible movies based on Marvel’s first family which more or less crippled the characters.

4 DEADPOOL IN X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE

Ryan Reynolds has basically reinvented himself as an actor thanks to his Deadpool films, but he was only inspired to make them because of the performance he was forced to give in the abominable X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

The film, which was the first time Deadpool had been realize in live-action, presented him as a bland, watered-down version of his comic book self who had a random grab-bag of powers, a stupid story, and eventually had his mouth welded shut. Because who would want the character best known for his physics and world-breaking dialogue, nicknamed the “Merc’ with a Mouth,” to talk, right?

3 SINS PAST RECONTEXTUALIZES DECADES OF COMICS

For decades, the death of Gwen Stacy haunted Spider-Man like a disease. Peter Parker is a character who is virtually dependent on his inadequacies so having the passing of yet another loved one on his hands simultaneously makes him more hesitant and more motivated. And then the ‘Sins Past’ storyline happened and recontextualized the entire ordeal.

Turns out that Gwen, a teenager at the time, had cheated on Peter with Norman Osborn, a grown man who also happened to be a villainous sociopath. She even bore twins by him, who grew up into supervillains themselves. Suddenly, Peter wasn’t fighting for the honor and memory of his deceased girlfriend, making all his heroics for the last thirty years based on a lie.

2 MARKETING STAFF REPLACES WRITING STAFF

The '90s were an awkward period where everything had to be either totally over the institutions of society or radically x-treme. Oh, and comics got pretty stupid too. Marvel in particular made a huge mistake in prioritizing marketing over content, going so far as to replace their editorial staff with their marketing department. Suddenly comics weren’t being written by actual writers, but by people whose main goal was to attract readers with flashy visuals and anti-status quo stories.

Ironically, this only made the comics more formulaic and forgettable, particularly the poorly-handled ‘X-Men’ titles which became about as edgelord as you can imagine. It was a poorly thought out decision which ended up nearly bankrupting the company.

1 CAPTAIN AMERICA: HYDRA AGENT

In his very first appearance, Captain America punched Adolf Hitler square in the jaw, immediately identifying him as an anti-fascist force for the Allied powers. While he’s transformed in the seventy odd years since from a commie-smasher to a nomad to a super spy, one truth has remained constant: Captain America punches evil.

Then it was revealed that he is and always has been a Hydra agent, a deep-cover evil agent who infiltrated the Allies, tricked them into giving him superpowers, and then secretly supported fascism for several decades. Needless to say, fans were outraged. It was part of the ‘Secret Empire’ storyline, but that only made it worse when he became a supreme dictator. What the heck, writers?!

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