Despite telling readers to "embrace change," Marvel's Secret Invasion only offered changes that are cosmetic and temporary. With the final part of the big comic event hitting stores this past week, we look at why this latest alien invasion disappointed, and was ultimately all about the status quo.
It was Marvel Comics creator Stan Lee who (aprochryphally) told his creators that Marvel Comics didn't give its fans change but the "illusion of change," something that today's Marvel is taking to heart. Here's editor in chief Joe Quesada talking about their universe post-Secret Invasion:
I'd say less "dangerous," more "unpredictable." At least I hope that's what I've been saying! It is a more dangerous place, because Osborn's in charge. But the truth of the matter is, we wanted it to be more unpredictable. Being unpredictable, I believe, leads to better storytelling. It's not clichéd storytelling. Again, we get or characters in a place that readers don't necessarily expect, get their backs against a wall, and see what happens. Look, at the end of the day, I think that's what leads to great storytelling—put your characters in a place that readers never saw coming.
Sounds exciting, right? After all, who doesn't want unpredictable stories and better storytelling? Only problem is, there was very little unpredictable about Secret Invasion; everything you'd expect to happen happened - including the "shocking death" of a beloved character and last minute reveal of a new status quo. For those unfamiliar with the series, Secret Invasion was a summer series of comics (a lot of comics) that acted as the culmination of five years of planning by Marvel's de facto head writer Brian Michael Bendis; familiar characters had been removed over the last five years and replaced by aliens, and now everything was coming to a head as the aliens declared war on Earth. To the surprise of no-one, the aliens lost; to the surprise of some, the status quo was pretty much reset at the end of the story to what it had been before.
There were two parallel WTF moments during the series, for different reasons, that ultimately show the lack of conviction in being "unpredictable" that the story had, both involving spaceships with unexpected occupants. The series opened with a crashed ship full of superhero duplicates who may or may not have been the real thing, meaning that the heroes everyone had been reading about for years had been alien fakes - except, of course, they weren't. After three issues of doing nothing with the idea, magic technology was invented that revealed that, yes, all of the ship's occupants were aliens and everything was exactly the way that you thought it was in the first place (Magic technology was a running theme of this series; things were scientifically impossible until they weren't: "We couldn't duplicate the abilities of the humans until I invented this new technology!" "We couldn't detect the aliens until I invented this new technology!" and so on; it was an ongoing cheat that, ultimately, neutered the impact of the story. The big death at the end of the series fell victim to it - the Wasp died because somehow she became a nuclear bomb through an injection or something? Maybe? It's hard to care about something when you don't even really understand what's happening). The same kind of letdown happened at the very end of the series when another spaceship opened up to reveal everyone who had been replaced by the aliens, completely healthy and awake, because the aliens needed to have the originals alive in order to impersonate them. Despite, you know, having impersonated two dead heroes earlier in the series (Captain Marvel and Captain America; they don't count because hey, why are you asking questions, okay?, as far as I can tell). In both cases, the creators - and I don't think that blame can really solely been laid at the feet of Bendis here; editors and, most likely, licensors would've been unhappy to have seen characters revealed to have been alien imposters had it happened - went with the safest, less interesting, more comforting to fans, route possible: It's okay, they said, things aren't really changing.
Publicly, of course, it's a different story. Here's Bendis talking about just how the end of the story - in which Iron Man's SHIELD Homeland Security-style organization is replaced by a new Homeland Security-style organization headed up by Norman Osborn - changes everything:
What I pitched was that what happens at the end was there's a power shift in the Marvel Universe that creates a situation where most of the heroes get to feel what it feels like to be Peter Parker all the time, that even when you win you lose. And it was interesting to me to have Luke Cage or Clint Barton or even Captain America feel like they know what Peter Parker always feels like. And everyone got charmed by that idea at Marvel.
See? That's entirely different from the status quo of the Marvel Universe for the past few years, where America's become a police state where the government controls the superheroes and Luke Cage or Clint Barton or even Captain America have been forced to work underground because they refused to sign up! Except, of course, it's not; the identity of the head of the superhero police may have changed - and even then, barely; Norman Osborn has been in charge of a government superhero task force since the end of 2006's Civil War series - but the dynamics of a world in which you do what you're told or you're unpopular ("Feared and hated by a world they've sworn to protect," as the X-Men used to be described as, and this particular paranoia about authority and popularity is so much more an X-Men outsider fantasy than a nerdy highschool Spider-Man one) are essentially the same.
By the end of Secret Invasion, all $400-or-so of it, nothing of note has really changed (One character died, yes, but another one was revealed to have never died at all, so even that's a wash). The status quo has been successfully maintained, as has the continuity of fans' collections the world over. And, most importantly for Marvel, a lot of comics have been sold by successfully baiting and switching readers with the possibility that everything they know is wrong... Nah, only joking.