The “illusion of change” has been the driving force behind the cyclical drama of superhero comics since the very beginning. Of the big two, Marvel’s relationship with change has been the most fascinating. Priding itself as the “world outside your window” and eschewing the massive continuity reboots that plague their Distinguished Competition, Marvel long set themselves apart from DC by eschewing the concept of sidekicks and by extension, legacy characters until very recently in their long history.
However, despite this aversion to the concept, the juggernaut of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is forced to contend with its source material’s shallow pool of legacy characters as it reaches its greatest threat yet: time.
A Brief History of Sidekicks and Legacy Heroes
Sidekicks aren’t completely absent from Marvel’s origins as we can look back to the Golden Age and find Toro and Bucky running around the Timely Comics era. When Timely pulled back from their superhero efforts in the 50s, DC comics pioneered many innovations of what would become cemented as a “superhero family” and “legacy characters.” Just as we got second iterations of the characters of Green Lantern and The Flash, Batman and Robin expanded to include Alfred, Bat-Woman, Bat-Girl, and even Ace the Bathound, a very early iteration of the “Batfamily” which still persists today.
When Marvel Comics began it’s return to the superhero fray in the Silver Age (with Fantastic Four #1), the books set themselves apart with the use of soap opera elements, meaning supporting characters are likely from the heroes’ civilian life, which left no room for sidekicks of any kind. Daredevil has no time to train a kid sidekick because he’s too busy juggling his love triangle with Karen Page and his fake twin brother.
The concept of sidekicks in the traditional sense has always been relatively odd dating back to when Captain America was brought back in the Silver Age. When Rick Jones attempted to take the mantle of Bucky, Steve shut it down and so did the line at large when it came to sidekicks (in a traditional sense. Falcon essentially operates as Cap’s sidekick but is not a teen sidekick a la Robin or Bucky.)
As the Silver Age extends into the Bronze and Modern Age, legacy characters continue to persist at DC when Wally West graduates from Kid Flash to the Flash, and a plethora of Green Lanterns surpass Hal Jordan. At Marvel there definitely weren’t as many instances of this in the long term. James Rhodes took over for Tony Stark as Iron Man, Beta Ray Bill for Thor, and arguably John Walker for Cap, but none of these changes were ever permanent, or at least not to the extent and longevity of DC’s legacies; the closest maybe being Ben Reilly to Spider-Man, but I refuse to wade into the Clone Saga.
Teen sidekicks and Legacy characters in the Marvel Universe remained such a rarity in the Marvel Universe that the oddity was a selling point when the Young Avengers appeared in the early 2000s. Conceptually they were just so opposite of what Marvel had ever done, and even still they subvert a lot of the traditional sidekick/legacy tropes in their introduction, acting as the vanguard for the concept of legacy characters entering and sticking in the Marvel Universe in the new Millennium. Not too long after, we get a major taste of legacy sharing in Ultimate Comics with Miles Morales taking over for that version of Peter Parker. Small steps, but thematic “families” of superheroes weren’t far behind in the Marvel Universe.
All New, All Different
In the 2010s the concept of Legacy at Marvel truly exploded with the Marvel Now and All New, All Different eras. Legacies were so prevalent at the time that there was a whole mini-series exploring the legacies present in that era. While it’s an exciting shift, it was far from perfect and without controversy.
The majority of these new legacy characters were much more diverse than their Silver Age counterparts which saw backlash from the conservative and bigoted elements of the comics community. The influx of women and characters of color was a plus for inclusivity, although primarily on a surface level with a number of these characters pioneered by white male creative teams. There’s also the drawback of a handful of them being heralded as a successor despite the inevitability of the original’s return (i.e Sam Wilson as Captain America, Jane Foster as Thor, Riri Williams as “Iron Man”) ending with these “progressive” strides feeling shallow; stoking the illusion of change only to revert to the status quo. Then there are the more clunky solutions with name sharing characters such as Hawkeye, Spider-Man, and Wolverine. Despite these growing pains, these legacy characters have garnered a significant amount of staying power over the years.
Marvel Comics figuring out how to deal with legacy characters is an ongoing process and is not without its awkward bumps even today. The illusion of change vs the status quo is a constant battle it feels. In the 90s, Ben Reilly was able to have a run as Spider-Man and Peter can return to re-establish the status quo. There are those who remember Ben fondly (he’s even centered in the upcoming Spider-Man: Beyond story) but largely the status quo persevered.
However there’s a greater challenge when it comes to Miles Morales, a character who has become so prevalent it’s hard to see him going anywhere. In both the sense that sidelining this excellent Afro-Latinx character is a horrible look, and that he’s the only Spider-Man with an Oscar under his belt. Because that’s the thing, unlike the 80s and 90s legacy experiments, Marvel Comics no longer exist in a vacuum and the multimedia Marvel empire is hungry for IP. And here’s where Legacy and the MCU come into play.
The MCU of it All
The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s approach to legacy and sidekicks prior to Avengers: Endgame very much mirrored its comic counterpart, even taking lengths to age Bucky up a bit to be more of a boyfriend partner to Captain America, and eschewing any real trappings of a traditional “sidekick.” The ways the MCU has actually engaged with legacy has primarily been in a very metatextual housekeeping sense, making Carol Davers Captain Marvel out of the gate (as its arguably her most recognizable codename and look), and making Scott Lang and Hope Van Dyne the Ant-Man and Wasp of the MCU to avoid the murky source material of Hank Pym and Janet Van Dyne.
For the most part, the majority of the characters in the spotlight of the MCU are their iconic Silver Age forward counterparts. Iron Man is Tony Stark, Steve Rogers is Captain America, Spider-Man is Peter Parker. And while these characters have consistently headlined their titles for fifty years, it is simply impossible to ask films starring real actors to adhere to the Marvel sliding timescale that makes that longevity possible. And since the money machine that is the MCU is showing no signs of stopping or relaunching, it must contend with a question that the comics have rarely had to contend with. How do you replace these iconic characters on an actual permanent basis?
Well we are seeing the answer in real time and it is fascinating to see, specifically because it’s pulling from the incredibly recent era of legacy characters. Sam Wilson is Captain America, Florence Pugh’s Yelena Bolova is poised to be the new Black Widow, Kate Bishop is being introduced in Hawkeye, and there’s an Iron Heart show on the way. The All New, All Different era of the MCU is here and it’s exciting and terrifying in a way. On one hand it’s exciting that by picking from this era there’s a built in promise of a more diverse MCU in the horizon, likely by more diverse filmmakers (film is somehow better at achieving this than comics). And at the same time it’s a bit daunting given the recency of these characters. The MCU has always been a remix of comics stories, but by running with characters with much shorter histories it feels like building the tracks when the train is coming. This isn’t meant as a slight but as something that kind of shakes up the expectations of looking at the comics as a template.
The MCU is in nearly uncharted waters and is primarily relying on its own successful formula as propulsion. The comics are still there but the iconography is becoming more and more self made and fueled by the collaboration of the MCU machine and the charisma of the new crop of actors. There are familiar stories teased down the line such as Secret Invasion, and there will likely be many events from Marvel’s long history mined as touch points in the future, but the participants in these events are going to continue to look different. In the early days of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I would think of it as a more effective Ultimate Comics line in the ways it would modernize classic stories for a broader audience without heaps of continuity, but as we continue on it becomes more and more like the recent Life Story imprints. These characters will age and change simply by the nature of time. The illusion of change has a very real and external threat that cannot be escaped, time is forever creeping to disrupt the status quo.
What About the Comics?
Superhero comics and their mainstream adaptations have always had a fascinating symbiosis. I’m sure you can think of several instances where a movie or show has altered a comic: Gotham getting a makeover after the Burton Batman movie, Blade’s whole look shifting after his movie, and the list goes on. However, these are pre MCU shifts and comics fans have seen the waves that this beast can make. The Guardians of the Galaxy getting a movie appropriate run, Loki’s persona changing to be in line with Hiddleston’s portrayal, and the void that is the Fantastic Four/X-Men rights issue. Even all that feels minor in the face of what the constantly evolving MCU could mean for the serial storytelling in the comics. If Sam Wilson is Cap in the movies, will he return to the role in the comics? What does it mean if he doesn’t? If the MCU reflects the diverse push of the 2010s will there be disappointment that the comics haven’t stood by that era?
There are lots of questions, not even considering comics acting more and more as an IP farm for the big screen exploits of the MCU. I’m of the belief that I don’t think we’ll see significant changes in the spotlight for these characters. Just as Falcon and the Winter Soldier pulls from the Gruenwald era of Cap, I think we are going to see these new characters go through adaptations of any number of stories, likely pulling elements and supporting characters from more recent books. As always it’ll be a mishmash that serves the story. And while synergy is often a dreaded word, I do think as we enter this era there will be a benefit. Seeing Iron Heart and other marginalized characters getting a big push in-universe to match mainstream success would be really nice, but at the end of the day, it remains too daunting to see Marvel retire their characters alongside their actors. This may be a lack of imagination on my part, but we are entering more and more interesting times. Over two decades ago it was hard to imagine Marvel committing to legacy in their books, and with the might of the MCU is it hard to imagine that they will retire characters to keep pace? Is this the beginning of the end of the ever-present “illusion of change”?