Avengers: Endgame is loose on the world, and with it the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s 22-film “Infinity Saga” comes to a close. I didn’t know I was watching the first installment of a decade-long franchise when I saw Iron Man in 2008 — sometimes I wonder if Robert Downey Jr. knew either — but hot damn y’all they sure did the dang thing. The median level of quality in this franchise defies all probability, and while there were definitely some stinkers, the work as a whole is a truly exceptional accomplishment. (Shout outs to the tens of thousands of visual effects artists that made these films possible, y’all didn’t get paid enough but I sat through all y’all’s credits, for what it’s worth.)
But! If you think that the release of Endgame can stop the churning vortex of capitalism, you’re sorely mistaken buckaroo! They’re gonna keep making these movies until the sun burns out, and having seen Endgame at a midnight-ish premiere last night, I’m okay with that. I do, however, believe that it is time for a changing of the guard, and that new blood must be infused into the MCU for it to prosper. That’s why I’ve selected three heroes from the Marvel Comics canon, who I believe are essential to the future success of the franchise. Push your glasses up with your middle finger and read on:
No, not Swamp Thing — that’s the DC Comics plant guy. I’m talkin’ ’bout Man-Thing, who is a totally different and way cooler plant-based hero from the early 1970s. Like a lot of powered folk in the Marvel Comics universe, Man-Thing is an unintentional result of a S.H.I.E.L.D. effort to recreate the super serum that turned Steve Rogers into Captain America.
Biochemist Dr. Theodore Sallis (Ted to his friends) was assigned to a clandestine operation hidden deep within the Florida Everglades, dubbed “Project: Gladiator,” where a small team of S.H.I.E.L.D. scientists worked to recreate the serum. Sallis’ wife, Ellen, was actually a sleeper agent for the terrorist organisation “A.I.M.,” and arranged for Ted to be kidnapped by her evil cohorts. When this pops off, Dr. Sallis makes a break for it but ends up crashing his car into a swamp that just happens to be the nexus of all realities. Magical energies from the swamp combine with a sample of experimental serum that Sallis has on his person, transforming him into the enormous Man-Thing.
Unlike the Hulk, who is always sentient even though his intelligence varies over time, Man-Thing exists on the line between animal instinct and cogent thought. Man-Thing is a deeply empathic creature who responds to the intents and emotions of those around him; fear, anger, or a malicious intent to do harm enrage Man-Thing and cause it to secrete an acid capable of immolating a normal human in seconds. Its body is composed of the muck and plant matter of the swamp, and as such can be grown, cut, reformed, or squished to suit any situation. This malleability makes Man-Thing incredibly strong and practically immortal, as it can regrow anything lost in battle.
My favorite (man)thing about this character is that it’s not, like, actively out there trying to do hero stuff, it’s just a big plant monster that likes being around nice people and has a terrifying, unstoppable intolerance for negativity. Man-Thing doesn’t have Captain America’s sense of duty, or Tony Stark’s vision for a brighter future, it just can’t abide people who make it or others feel bad.
Though Squirrel Girl has existed since the early 90s, she was never given an opportunity to really come into her own until the release of Ryan North and Erica Henderson’s The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl serial in 2015. Squirrel Girl, aka Doreen Allene Green, was born with a prehensile squirrel tail, superhuman
agility squirrelgility, and the ability to talk to squirrels. She has, over the course of her career, defeated Deadpool, MODOK, Wolverine, Bi-Beast, Brain Drain, Whiplash, Kraven the Hunter, Mysterion, Doctor Doom, and even Thanos. (Thanos disputes this, with the official ruling coming from Uatu the Watcher, who was present for the battle and gave the victory to Squirrel Girl.)
Squirrel Girl’s strongest power, however, is friendship. She was able to convince Galactus to not eat Earth by just spending some time with the guy and listening for once, and by showing him how delicious nuts are. Her victory over Kraven came not through force, but by showing him that there were many dangerous creatures in New England more worthy of his hunt than the gentle squirrels that populate the Empire State University grounds. And after defeating Brain Drain, Doreen and her roommate Nancy overhauled his programming and gave him free will, which he used to take computer science courses. Squirrel Girl is nice. Can’t we have somebody around who’s just nice? Marvel??
Alright, so, this one is maybe just me being a little self-indulgent, but hear me out. Back in the 1970s an evil scientist named the Jackal cloned Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy, the latter of whom had recently been killed off. Both Parkers believed that they were the original, and were forced to fight to the death by Jackal as penance for the original Gwen Stacy’s death, which Jackal blamed on Peter. (Jackal was actually Parker and Stacy’s professor, Miles Warren, who had been infatuated with Stacy.) Eventually both Parkers decide to team up against the Jackal, but an explosion at his lab kills the Jackal and one of the two Peters. The remaining Spider-Man concludes that he must be the original, since he’s in love with Mary Jane and not Gwen Stacy, and that didn’t happen until after all this clone stuff started. I know that doesn’t make a ton of sense but we have to keep moving if we’re gonna get through this.
Jump ahead to the mid-90s (but by only five years in Spider-Man continuity time), and it turns out that other Peter Parker wasn’t killed in the explosion. He’s back, and he’s been living under an assumed identity: Ben Reilly. Ben wants just as badly to protect New York City as Peter Parker does, so he becomes the Scarlet Spider. This sets off an unbelievable train wreck of a plot that engulfed all four ongoing Spider-Man series for two entire years, and during this time both Ben and Peter are confirmed to be the original, or not the original, and also there’s some other clones and one of them is evil? At one point the editorial staff planned to resolve the whole thing with time travel, but then a bunch of people got fired and the new guy decided that Norman Osborne was responsible for everything, even though he’d been dead for years.
By all accounts, the original plan was a lot more succinct. Initial sales were so strong, however, that the series was extended multiple times over, resulting in what became one of (if not the) most infamously convoluted story lines in the history of the industry. Multiple editors quit in disgust during the course of the Clone Saga and by the end of it, neither readers nor Marvel were happy with the end result.
The one good thing that came out of the Clone Saga was Scarlet Spider, who, when briefly allowed to have his own exploits at the start of this whole nightmare, was a genuinely cool character with a badass costume. The idea of a hero who’s trying to define himself as his own person, but whose only means of doing so comes from someone else’s past, is genuinely great one. If the MCU could bring Scarlet Spider into the fold while somehow avoiding what made the Clone Saga so interminable, it could tell some really spectacular stories.