It has long been the prevailing wisdom that what separates the “Marvel hero” from the “DC hero” is that Marvel heroes were realistic characters with everyday problems while DC heroes were nearly god-like figures who had adventures trying to foil supervillians. Even if that distinction wasn’t an accurate definition, especially after the 1980s, it still summarizes how many people talked about the heroes. Lately, however, one of biggest trends for Marvel heroes is that they seem to take any opportunity to kick the tar out of each other. DC gets into the act a bit, too, raising the question: why do these guys (and gals) who are supposed to be on the same side fight each other so much?
The current blockbuster crossover series at Marvel Comics is titled Avengers vs. X-Men, and it’s both a long battle between those two teams of heroes and the return of the powerful Phoenix force. Plotted by a group of five writers (Brian Bendis, Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction, Jason Aaron and Jonathan Hickman) branded “Marvel Architects” because they have collectively shaped the general direction of Marvel’s characters and stories, the AvX story and its related titles have pitted many of the heroes directly against each other. This isn’t the first time that the Avengers and the X-Men have tangled in a series. In the 1980s, writers Roger Stern and Tom DeFalco teamed up with artists Marc Silvestri and Keith Pollard for a four-issue series called The X-Men Versus the Avengers. At this point, the bone of contention was that the Avengers thought that the recently-reformed Magneto, who had committed mass murder in the past, should stand trial. The X-Men were skeptical of whether Magneto would receive a fair trial and didn’t think the Avengers had the right to take him. There were a few scrapes, but contrary to the title, the two sides did not fight each other the whole series.
The current Avengers & X-Men series really feels different, much more in line with Marvel’s direction since Civil War than with the first Avengers and X-Men tussle. While heroes have always fought other heroes, those skirmishes tended to be short-term battles based on unfamiliarity, confusion or mind-control rather than extended wars based on ideological differences. Civil War is obviously the clearest example of the latter, as teams and old alliances (and even marriages in the case of Reed and Sue Richards) split apart depending on whether a character was pro- and anti- hero registration. This led to extended and fierce battles that resulted in casualties and deaths. And these were characters who had been friends and teammates in some cases for many years. However, this trend didn’t end with Civil War. Secret Invasion had some of the same effect of heroes siding against other heroes due to the fact that some of the heroes were actually Skrulls impersonating the heroes. Even 2011’s Fear Itself series involved characters such as Hulk and Thing (in addition to supervillians) becoming transformed by mystical powers into destructive beasts. While the heroes vs. heroes trope has mainly been utilized (and some would say over-utilized) by Marvel, DC has lately gotten in on the act with the changes presented by the “New 52” revamp. The new Justice League began by being distrustful and suspicious of each other. They eventually teamed up due to the cosmic threat of Darkseid, although the most recent issue (Justice League #11) features Wonder Woman punching and bloodying Green Lantern when the group can’t agree on a course of action.
So what accounts for all of the hero on hero violence? It’s a confluence of factors, I believe, that have ramped up the disputes. Some of it is obviously business related. The Avengers and X-Men both have audiences who will buy the series. The concept also excites many fans. There is something competitive about fandom that wants to pit my favorite hero against your favorite hero to see who’s stronger, smarter, faster, and so on. We want to know who would win in a fight: Hulk or Thor? Can Batman defeat Superman? These debates have raged for decades, allowing fiefdoms of each hero to claim why one hero would win. It’s been acted out in role-playing games, video games and message boards. These impulses were occasionally exercised in the comics to appease fan desires and curiosities. The fights between heroes have been fun and even important (in some ways, Marvel’s interconnected universe was first formed when Carl Burgos’ Human Torch fought Bill Everett’s Sub-Mariner in 1940). Since these heroes were basically on the same side, though, the fights were usually short and explained away through plot conveniences.
However, Marvel’s recent slate of hero battles stem from a different impulse. Marvel’s current writers, aiming for complex characters, frequently highlight the fact that heroism is a complicated and vague notion, which allows for a great deal of morally ambiguous grey between the lights and darks. These heroes have recently been shown to possess many unattractive qualities. They can be stubborn, egotistical and rash. Some seem to value allegiance more than loyalty. Marvel and its writers have also shown – for good and bad – that they try to hold a mirror up to the world. Themes of terrorism, fear and destruction, amongst others, appear in Marvel’s titles over the last decade. Another, albeit less extreme, real world element that has been transplanted to the comic world lately is partisanship. I believe that Civil War was designed in part as a reflection of the vast political and ideological divide the United States has experienced for many years. Democrats/Republicans or Liberals/Conservatives or Blue state/Red state – there are many versions of these extreme splits. While the two cultural sides are both American and both wish for some of the same things (prosperity, safety, international standing), they disagree vehemently about much of the particulars. One can argue whether or not Marvel’s trend of heroes fighting heroes adds anything interesting or thoughtful to the national discussion, but it’s clearly an important contributing factor to the preponderance of these storylines.
These stories can still be interesting, but I worry that Marvel will beat all of the money it can out of the “hero fight” dead horse before they change tactics. The “Heroic Age” brand was more banner marketing than narrative change. With the “Marvel Now” push, the company seems to be uniting teams in a novel way. We’ll see, though, whether the heroes stay unified once they face a certain fearsome major foe: the next blockbuster crossover.