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With Ant Man hitting theaters this Friday and Marvel’s Secret Wars event still going strong across all titles I thought now would be a good time to take a look at a very strange collision of those two popular trends. It turns out that the recent films aren’t actually Marvel’s first attempt at a shared universe of material. The first time Marvel tried the idea was in their massive stable of animated shows that ran across the 1990s. The universe started with X-Men in 1992 and found another major success with 1994’s Spider-man. From there it branched out to include animated version of Iron Man, Hulk, The Fantastic Four, and Silver Surfer.
The various shows tended to overlap quite often, with plenty of one-off crossover episodes and unique cameo appearances. Beyond the title character Marvel ended up with a sprawling animated universe that also included Blade, Ghostrider, Thor, Alpha Flight, Captain America, Daredevil, and the Punisher. However producer Avi Arad, the man who gave us the initial push of Marvel films in the early 2000s, though things could get even bigger. So in the final season of Spider-man they orchestrated a mega-crossover series of episodes entitled Secret Wars.
Secret Wars the animated three-part adventure is actually a pretty serviceable synthesis of a lot of key elements from the original 1980s event comic. The basic pitch is that a mysterious being known as the Beyonder summons Spider-man to an alien planet for a battle of good against evil. This is more or less accurate to the original story, the central difference being the greater focus on Spider-man as the story’s main hero. The Beyonder’s pitch is that he’s let loose a ton of villains over a peaceful alien planet and will allow Spider-man to summon a group of heroes to help defeat them. Standing against Spider-man is Doctor Octopus, The Lizard, The Red Skull, Doctor Doom, and Alistair Smythe.
Smythe is easily the odd man out of the group and is probably the only villain you’ve never heard of. He was an obscure Spider-man foe from the comics that the animated series fell madly in love with for no discernable reason. He’s basically a crazy science inventor in the standard vein of most Spider-man foes notable only for having invented the Spider Slayers. To combat such masters of evil Spider-man summons to his aid Iron Man, Storm, Captain America, and the Fantastic Four.This was an incredibly ambitious set-up from the Spider-man guys. Sure, the X-Men show had multiple characters and 4 years later DC’s Justice League show would come along to make this seem like nothing but at the time this was actually a pretty out there and groundbreaking idea. In the case of other shows they started from the premise of introducing a large and engaging cast. With Spider-man’s Secret War, the whole idea was to pull in a bunch of cameo heroes and even some that had never appeared before. It’s actually pretty similar in concept to what CW has done recently with its Flash show. It’s also pretty impressive just how good the animated Secret Wars ended up. The same ambition that informed the concept bled over into the actual text with a major emphasis on dramatic shifting loyalties, character development, and big scale action. It’s also thoroughly intriguing seeing how the show adapted key sequences form the Secret Wars comic like Dr. Doom stealing the Beyonder’s powers or having a mountain drop on the heroes only with a smaller cast of characters.
The biggest difference between the two aside from the roster switch is in the portrayal of the Beyonder himself. In the comics the Beyonder was framed more as a petulant child figure, smashing together heroes and villains mainly for his own amusement. Here, the Beyonder is more mysterious but also ultimately more benevolent. He’s also been redesigned to look more like the obscure Spider-man Clone Wars character Judas Traveler. That’s not an accident either as the Secret Wars story found its conclusion in an event called Spider Wars. Spider Wars was basically the Spider-man show’s take on the infamous Clone Saga that ran throughout the Spider-man comics of the ‘90s. Here the idea is that in an alternate reality the clash between Peter Parker and his clone Ben Reilly became so destructive that Peter chose to merge with the Carnage symbiote, becoming the villain Spider-Carnage. Desperate to annihilate all realities the Beyonder pulled together a team of Spider-men from various universes to combat Spider-Carnage.
It’s honestly shocking how much of this final event has gone on to impact current Marvel comics. The theme of multiple Spider-men being drawn together is right on course with Dan Slott’s Spiderverse event comic from earlier this year and reassigning the Beyonder’s abilities to focus on combining parallel realities instead of just different heroes is the basic set-up of the latest iteration of Marvel’s Secret Wars. It’s also pretty damn impressive how well the animated show was able to take a concept as broken, convoluted, and inflated as the Clone Saga and hammer into a narrative that was exciting, moving, and easy to follow.
For as much flack as the ‘90s animated Spiderman show gets, and rightly deserves given the show’s manic editing and bizarre network standards, there’s an energy, vibrance, and enthusiasm to the series that really can’t be denied. This probably won’t be the last time I look at the ‘90s Marvel animated universe given just how much of it seems to still be influencing the Marvel comics and movies of today.