Seriously, it’s a big one.
Superhero deaths happen—and get reversed—so often that they’re not shocking anymore. The big death that happens today in Civil War #3 isn’t just major because of who passes away, but also for what it signifies about Marvel’s current stewardship of its characters.
The build-up to Civil War #3—written by Brian Michael Bendis with art by David Marquez, Olivier Copiel, Justin Ponsor and Clayton Cowles—has been months in the making. After a new Inhuman character named Ulysses gains the ability to experience visions of the future, philosophical debate about what to do with foreknowledge of catastrophic events splits Marvel’s heroes into anti- and pro-interventionist camps. One of the first pre-emptive battles stopped cosmic conqueror Thanos from wreaking on Earth but also claimed the life of another longtime hero. His passing was an indirect consequence of the interventionist debate but the character who dies in this week’s comic does so in a way directly connected to Ulysses’ visions.
In Civil War #2, a group of Marvel heroes simultaneously experienced one of Ulysses’ predictive seizures with him, seeing a moment where the Hulk seemingly killed the majority of the Avengers. That issue ended with pro-intervention faction leader Captain Marvel paying a visit to the super-scientist.
Civil War #3 picks up where that issue left off, showing a confrontation between the blissfully Hulk-free Banner and his Avengers cohorts. Recent issues of the main Hulk title have shown Bruce Banner adjusting to a reality where he doesn’t have to worry about turning into a raging engine of destruction anymore. He hasn’t posed a danger to anyone for a while.
Yet, he still might. That’s the reason that the Avengers, X-Men, and Inhumans converge on Banner’s secret lab while Carol Danvers and Tony Stark talk to Banner about Ulysses’ visions.
It turns out Banner has been running gamma-related experiments to (according to him) minimize the possibility of him Hulking out. This revelation causes tensions to escalate and Bruce gets understandably angry at the suspicion being cast on him.
Then, the ultimate pre-emptive option suddenly gets exercised.
The events of that fateful day are being related in retrospect, at a trial being held to determine the guilt of Hawkeye. During Clint Barton’s testimony, he tells the court about a conversation he had with Banner months before. Barton says that Banner gave him a special arrowhead designed to kill him if it ever seemed like he would change into the Hulk again.
That device was what Hawkeye used but it’s left unclear as to whether Banner was actually going to transform.
My biggest problem with Civil War II #3 is how Banner is portrayed. This isn’t the man who stared at the horizon, calmer and more at peace with himself than ever before.
That wonderful moment of self-acceptance gets cut off at the knees by images of Banner screaming and unable to control his reactions. Are his reactions within the realm of safe emotional response for him? Probably, but it feels like Bruce’s window of loving his new life is cut short because the plot demanded it.
And so, Bruce Banner is dead. For now. Since this is superhero comics, there’s every chance that he’ll come back; that’s a matter of when not if. But the impact of his death has more meaning outside the Marvel Universe than inside the fictional continuity.
The House of Spider-Man has been aggressively diversifying its characters over the last few years with new heroes from different genders and ethnic backgrounds. Some like Kamala Khan/Ms. Marvel took on heroic monikers that were defunct. Others, like Miles Morales and Sam Wilson, are sharing the titles alongside the first people who were Spider-Man and Captain America. The general understanding around the latter paradigm has been that fans who prefer Peter Parker and Steve Rogers still get to see them in action while providing offering readers who want a different flavor of wall-crawler or shield-wielder. The multiplication of these various heroic legacies makes business sense as it broadens demographic appeal and seemingly suggests new directions for film adaptations as actors age or opt out of their roles.
However, Banner’s death signals a change. Moving forward, Amadeus Cho will be the primary green-skinned, gamma-powered giant on the Marvel Comics landscape. (She-Hulk’s status is still up in the air after she suffered grievous injuries in the Thanos fight, while General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross will be resuming his Red Hulk persona in the upcoming U.S.Avengers title.) The Hulk of the old guard won’t be there for those who want to ignore Cho.
The same goes for the Tony Stark’s Iron Man and the Clint Barton’s Hawkeye, neither of whom seem to be part of the upcoming slate of Marvel Now titles that will debut after Civil War II. There’s a new level of dramatic uncertainty to the future of the Marvel Universe now, because it seems like the status quo where heroic mantles are shared by multiple people is shifting. There may be more than one Thor, Captain America, and Spider-Man in the months and years ahead or there might not. And the ones left standing may not be the characters that many fans grew up with.