Marvel's latest summer event invokes the title of one of the publisher's previous ones: the original universe-altering Heroes Reborn line.
But judging by how Marvel has built its new Heroes Reborn universe around their most famous DC analog characters the Squadron Supreme, and are even expanding the DC-esque nature of their backstories, it's starting to look like they're hoping to capture the energy of 1996's other major comic book event, Marvel Vs. DC.
The picture Marvel has painted of the Squadron Supreme's place in the new world of Heroes Reborn 2021 - and the publisher's expansion of the Squadron's DC-pastiche origins - may point to Marvel preparing to pit the Avengers versus the 'Justice League' all over again.
What's more, Marvel just announced that Heroes Reborn 2021 will run for seven issues, with a final eighth comic (a still untitled mystery one-shot), to cap off the story – a perfect platform for such a clash.
Though Marvel and DC can't directly acknowledge the 25th anniversary of their big throwdown (and its aftermath, the Amalgam Universe), at least Marvel seems to be embracing the spirit of the event in a way that may slyly nod at the legacy of Marvel vs. DC while staying firmly in the Marvel Universe.
Squadron Supreme Reborn
With 2021 marking the 25th anniversary of two landmark Marvel events, Heroes Reborn and Marvel vs. DC, it makes sense the publisher would want to celebrate both. But without a DC Universe on hand to pit against the Avengers for a renewed Marvel Vs. DC, Marvel has to build their own.
Fortunately, Marvel has had the building blocks of its own private, ersatz DC Universe since 1969's Avengers #69. That's the issue that introduced the Squadron Sinister – a team of villains, who resembled, at least in concept and powers, some of the core heroes of DC's Justice League. That's not a coincidence; the Squadron was a way for writer Roy Thomas to have the Justice League and Avengers fight on the page in a time when such a crossover wasn't feasible (a lot like 2021).
While the Squadron has a long history all its own, some of which seems to inform the events of Heroes Reborn 2021, the TL:DR is, the Squadron Sinister was quickly reintroduced as the Squadron Supreme, a team of heroes from another world in Marvel's Multiverse with an expansive roster resembling members of DC's Justice League.
In the current Marvel Universe, the Squadron consists of Hyperion (Superman), Blur (The Flash), Nighthawk (Batman), Power Princess (Wonder Woman), and team leader Doctor Spectrum (Green Lantern). Rather than interdimensional heroes, they're magical constructs crafted by the demon Mephisto in a deal with their handler, Phil Coulson, who guides them as the United States' personal super-team, the Squadron Supreme of America.
The new Heroes Reborn universe will be created as a result of the current 'Enter the Phoenix' Avengers story, in which the cosmic entity of death and rebirth the Phoenix Force is holding a tournament to determine who will be its next host.
Whatever the still undetermined outcome of the tournament winds up to be, the power of the Phoenix will be used to remake the Marvel Universe into a world where the Avengers never formed. Characters like Captain America and Tony Stark exist, but Cap was never unfrozen after WWII, and Tony never became Iron Man.
As a result, the Squadron Supreme of America - the Mephisto versions - have been remade as the world's greatest protectors. Meanwhile, Coulson himself is apparently running for president – perhaps based on the strength of his relationship with the Squadron Supreme.
The Distinguished Competition
Along with putting the Squadron Supreme in the spotlight for Heroes Reborn 2021, Marvel is leaning even more heavily into the team's DC roots, especially in regards to Hyperion, the team's Superman-style powerhouse.
In Heroes Reborn 2021, Hyperion is a survivor of an alien world with incredible powers (sorta like he usually is in some form or fashion, Mephisto construct notwithstanding). But the new universe fleshes out his history and supporting cast as a hero – including giving Hyperion his own versions of Superboy, Jimmy Olsen, and the Legion of Super-Heroes.
Hyperion is one of the greatest heroes of the new world of Heroes Reborn, and as such he's got a whole retinue of corresponding characters, including Peter Parker who, rather than taking pictures of his own superhero alter ego Spider-Man for the Daily Bugle, has no powers and is more of Hyperion's 'pal' and personal cub reporter – a la Superman's pal Jimmy Olsen.
And Hyperion's superhero career didn't begin in his adulthood in the new Heroes Reborn universe – instead, he was a teen hero who trained in the Shi'ar galaxy alongside the alien members of the Shi'ar Imperial Guard, much the same way Clark Kent time-traveled to the 30th Century to be part of the Silver Age Legion of Super-Heroes team during his time as the teen hero Superboy.
The Imperial Guard are, themselves an existing pastiche of the Legion of Super-Heroes. Created in 1977's Uncanny X-Men #107 by writer Chris Claremont and artist Dave Cockrum, the Imperial Guard are the elite warriors of the Shi'Ar Empire. Cockrum, who had previously worked on DC's Legion of Super-Heroes, brought several unused characters he created for the Legion to the X-Men (including Storm and Nightcrawler) when he made the jump to Marvel.
When Cockrum and Claremont created the Imperial Guard, they leaned into the influence of Cockrum's previous work and made each character a version of a prominent Legionnaire (Smasher is the Imperial Guard version of Colossal Boy, Fang is a lot like Timberwolf, and so on), with the Guard's leader, Gladiator, himself a stand-in for Superboy – another Marvel pastiche on Superman lore.
Incidentally, that means that one of Marvel's stand-ins for Superman, Hyperion, is trained by another, Gladiator, in the world of Heroes Reborn 2021.
The Squadron Supreme also has their own team of sidekicks and young spin-off characters, a la the Teen Titans to the Justice League, in the Heroes Reborn version of the Champions, known as the Young Squadron.
This team comprises Kamala Khan, wielding an artifact from Power Princess's homeworld; Sam Alexander, powered by a device similar to Doctor Spectrum's Power Prism; and Miles Morales, the new sidekick of Nighthawk, replacing his now deceased former partner (a clear but sorta morbid homage to Batman's second sidekick Jason Todd, who was replaced as Robin by Tim Drake when Todd was apparently killed by the Joker following a fan vote to kill him in the story 'A Death in the Family').
As for the rest of the world, it's populated by twisted, sometimes mashed-up versions of other Marvel heroes and villains - a conceit that draws some history from the aftermath of Marvel Vs. DC on its own.
Doctor Doom has been twisted into Doctor Juggernaut, for example – an armored megalomaniac with the power of the Gem of Cyttorak. The Squadron Supreme is threatened by European supervillain team Zemo and the Siege Society, a kinda mash-up of the Masters of Evil and Thunderbolts, which includes its own host of mash-up characters like Silver Witch, a cross between Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver. Many more such characters and combos populate the world.
Rather than an ever-growing nation of X-Men on Krakoa, Magneto leads a ragtag group called Mutant Force, who fight for the preservation of mutantkind, under threat since the Squadron Supreme of America made an anti-mutant policy, resulting in the Heroes Reborn 2021 universe's version of the 'Mutant Massacre' – pointing to evidence that, once again, the Squadron isn't exactly the pristine group of heroes they are sometimes made out to be.
And, given the demon Mephisto's involvement in their current origins, they may have more in common with the original Squadron Sinister than the heroic-but-flawed versions of the Squadron Supreme who were part of the Marvel Universe for decades.
Marvel Vs. Marvel
With months between now and when Heroes Reborn #1 arrives in May, there are still many questions about the plot, cast, and even the scope and size of the event – and plenty of time for twist, turns, and monkey-wrenches to be thrown into our working knowledge of what Heroes Reborn 2021 entails.
What's becoming clear, however, is that Marvel is predicating many of its ideas for Heroes Reborn 2021 around its well-known DC stand-in characters, building a world around them that somewhat resembles the world the characters to whom the Squadron Supreme and others pay homage live in.
That may simply be a matter of creators having good fun carrying on a Marvel tradition while crafting some new ideas in their own world – in fact Hyperion and the Imperial Guard writer Ryan Cady stated in the title's announcement that the meta aspect is part of the appeal.
But there's a lot to suggest that what's really happening is a clever way to take Marvel's longtime conceit of the "illusion of change" and run with it straight to the endzone of a new version of the classic Avengers/Justice League showdown in a time when such a thing is almost impossible for corporate logistical reasons.
The last time the two teams faced-off for real was in 2003-4's Avengers Vs. JLA by writer Kurt Busiek and artist George Perez, who made his reputation working on both the Avengers and JLA in the '70s and '80s - with the crossover originally planned in all the way back in 1979 before corporate interference scuttled the idea.
Seen by many fans as one of the best examples of Marvel/DC crossovers (of which there were more than a handful in the decades leading up to the limited series), Avengers Vs. JLA came to fruition after 1996's Marvel Vs. DC, in which both companies co-published a slugfest between their top characters, with some contests even decided by fan vote – kind of the ultimate take on the classic comic book store arguments about which universe has the more powerful heroes.
Though the fights between top Marvel and DC heroes were a huge draw, the conclusion of the event led to something almost even more curious – the Amalgam Universe, in which Marvel and DC heroes were mashed-up into new creations with aspects of both original heroes.
Wolverine and Batman combined to become Darkclaw, Superman and Captain America became Super Soldier, Iron Man and Green Lantern became Iron Lantern, and so on, with two waves of titles created by some of the hottest names in comics of the day capturing fans' attention before the phenomenon (and publishing agreement between Marvel and DC) subsided.
Now, 25 years later, Marvel is celebrating their other major 1996 event Heroes Reborn – at least in name. What's odd is that the new premise - a world where the Avengers never formed - while still revolving around a new, remade universe, is sort of the opposite of the original, which was a world where the Avengers were separate from most of the rest of the Marvel Universe.
Partially a play to goose the sales of titles like Avengers and Fantastic Four against the popular and expansive X-Men and Spider-Man lines, Heroes Reborn brought back former Marvel creators turned independent superstars Rob Liefeld and Jim Lee to revitalize the franchises.
(It's a long story, with huge ramifications on the comic book industry at large. Read all about the original Heroes Reborn right here).
Oddly enough, Lee is now the publisher of DC, adding one more small level of metatextual coincidence to the revival of the Heroes Reborn branding in a form that more resembles the spirit of Marvel Vs. DC.
Marvel would be keenly aware (as are fans and, ahem, journalists) that 2021 also marks the 25th anniversary of Marvel Vs. DC, and given the realities of the publishing world, it's not conspiratorial to suggest that if they want to draw on some level of the conceit of Marvel Vs. DC to celebrate that milestone, they've gotta do it without DC's involvement.
Now, we're not claiming some kind of Marvel conspiracy to clone DC - at least not in any kind of malicious or subversive way.
We can't claim to know the motivation or peer into the minds of Heroes Reborn 2021 creators Jason Aaron and Ed McGuinness (at least not till our X-genes manifest), and we'll be the first to say that it's not exactly likely Marvel is playing up some big secret ploy to trick DC or something (hiding an impossible to market or even reference concept in your story is not exactly big-brain business).
But bringing in the Squadron Supreme, and playing up their DC analog history in a way that directly creates an opportunity to pit the powers and sensibilities of the Justice League against the Avengers – perhaps in a big marquee Avengers Vs. Squadron Supreme one-shot, like the one that hasn't been named by Marvel yet – seems like too much coincidence, and frankly too much fun to be totally lost on the creators, at least in spirit if not in tone.
And let's not forget those mash-ups like Doctor Juggernaut and Silver Witch – their own kind of Marvel-specific Amalgams sorta in keeping with the essence of one of the most popular, most unrepeatable gimmicks in modern comic book history.
What it all seems to add up to, whether directly intentional on Marvel's part or not, is an opportunity for both fans and creators to embrace the spirit and bombast of '90s comics 'try anything' mentality, right down to the fervor that went into seeing the heroes of the Avengers and Justice League face off on the page for real.
Marvel has often paid homage to its past tales, including reviving some of the best Marvel stories of all time.