Peter Parker, otherwise known as the Amazing Spider-Man, will be dead soon.
Well, Marvel Comics is teasing readers with the notion of his death, anyway. What we know for sure is something will happen to Peter in the early Fall that will force him to give up being Spider-Man, and dead or alive he'll be replaced by his clone Ben Reilly or some version or versions of his clone Ben Reilly (it's a long, long story).
But Marvel Comics isn't leaving any doubt that Doctor Strange will soon die and they really, really want you and everyone else with even a peripheral interest in Marvel comic books or the MCU to know the Scarlet Witch (Wanda Maximoff to her friends) is dead too, seemingly murdered by her father-figure Magneto in a storyline going on in the Marvel X-Men titles. (or at least he's the prime suspect).
And for the moment, let's just say … well, Marvel's timing is very interesting.
Now, none of these are unusual circumstances. Unlike in real life, death in comic books is somewhat akin to jury duty - it's a nuisance everyone has to deal with periodically but it's only temporary. And, while frustrating, you'll usually be back to your normal life and job in no time.
The death and/or retirement and/or incapacitation of superheroes is also part of a marketing cycle that's particularly useful for characters that are published periodically and indefinitely for long periods of time, and in the case of iconic superheroes - that means for decades, sometimes several times a month for years on end.
It's all a part of what Stan Lee called "the illusion of change."
During a DC Comics panel at what would have been the 1998 or 1999 Comic-Con International: San Diego, long-time DC editor/executive Mike Carlin answered a fan question about the Superman Red and Superman Blue storyline (the fan was less than enthused, as I recall) that has stuck with me in the 20-plus years since I heard it from the back of the panel room.
I'm liberally paraphrasing, but I believe Carlin's sentiment was to the effect of "Sometimes you have to publish Electric Blue Superman to remind readers how great regular Superman is."
What I think he meant was sometimes when privileged with reading about great and classic characters every single month for long periods of time, readers can begin to take them for granted. And sometimes it takes an Electric Blue Superman, or for another example, someone else in the Iron Man armor like Doctor Doom, to refresh fans' interest in the classic iteration of the characters.
Most major superheroes have died and/or retired during their history (sometimes on multiple occasions), only to triumphantly return to their namesake comic book series eventually with a boost in sales. Readers often react to this common cycle with derision, but as an observer of the industry and sales for over two decades (and the person in charge of marketing Marvel comics to comic book stores for 14 months once upon a time) I can state unequivocally that it works.
In the case of Doctor Strange, he's been dead (he got better) and replaced by other characters as the Marvel Universe's Sorcerer Supreme before, including by Doctor Doom (him again), Brother Voodoo, and Loki.
In Spider-Man's case, he's been replaced several times as well, including by his arch-nemesis Doctor Octopus most recently and most pertinently by his clone Ben Reilly, who in October as we mentioned will be replacing him in Amazing Spider-Man title for a second time (you might have heard of the infamous 'Clone Saga').
As for the Scarlet Witch, we're just gonna put a pin in this one for the moment. It's too soon to draw too many conclusions and in the X-titles there is currently a pretty easy, peasy way to resurrect dead mutants.
And on that note and in the interest of full disclosure for you casual or non-comic book fans reading this - it's nearly certain Stephen Strange and Peter Parker will one day be resurrected from the dead (assuming they're even really 'dying' to begin with) and be re-installed in their traditional roles of Doctor Strange and Spider-Man, be it months or years down the road.
And if the Scarlet Witch is really dead, then ditto.
Because comic books.
As Stan said ... illusion of change.
So none of that is much of a noteworthy surprise.
But what is interesting about this particular cycle is the timing of their deaths or apparent deaths and replacements. Because all are happening right before the characters have high-profile new MCU films coming up.
The comic book switch from Peter to Ben happens in October, just two months before Tom Holland's Peter Parker returns in Spider-Man: No Way Home on December 17, featuring an appearance by Benedict Cumberbatch's Doctor Strange.
Cumberbatch then returns to star in March 25, 2022's Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness. And that movie opens just months after the conclusion of the five-issue monthly limited series that launches in September - The Death of Doctor Strange. And, of course, Doctor Strange will be joined by Elizabeth Olsen's Scarlet Witch as the film's co-star, just off of her Disney Plus star-turn, WandaVision.
And even overlooking the fact that Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige now has purview over all of Marvel Entertainment including Marvel Comics, either way, we can assure you this is no accident. Marvel Comics knows exactly what it's doing and when it's doing it.
It's no trade secret that Marvel along with DC usually prepares for the release of major films by having products starring the characters on the shelves of comic book stores and mainstream bookstores timed to the film's opening. Hence Marvel just completed a Shang-Chi limited series that has been collected and just launched a new ongoing Shang-Chi series with the film Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings opening September 3.
For their part, DC has recently installed the obscure-ish character Peacemaker into a new Suicide Squad series and specials in anticipation of John Cena's role in James Gunn's The Suicide Squad opening in theaters and streaming on HBO Max beginning August 6.
The logic of it is pretty straightforward - give potential new or lapsed readers something in a comic book and/or a collection resembling the movie they just watched.
But in the case of Doctor Strange and Spider-Man, if we take Marvel at face value by the time these two films open readers will find a new Sorcerer Supreme in the Marvel Universe (we actually expected it to be the Scarlet Witch in an interesting twist that we now have to re-examine) and a blond Ben Reilly in a new costume in the pages of the Amazing Spider-Man.
There are a few potential explanations for this unusual development.
One is just that Strange, Peter, and Wanda aren't dead/dying at all, and The Death of Doctor Strange, the Amazing Spider-Man storyline, and this current X-Men story arc will end in twists on the premise the characters are dead or dying. Such marketing misdirection is not unprecedented.
Another could be Marvel is engaging in a counter-intuitive marketing experiment. Perhaps where it usually zigs (giving potential new readers something familiar) maybe this time around it's going to zag, going against the grain with an attention-getting 'stunt' (for lack of a better term) to take advantage of the increased awareness.
The other, third option is maybe the more intriguing one, and perhaps worthwhile to be explored in greater detail another day - is that Marvel Comics is ahead of the curve and signaling something to moviegoers about the future of Stephen Strange and the mantle of Sorcerer Supreme, the future of Peter Parker and the mantle of Spider-Man, and the future of Wanda Maximoff and the mantle of Scarlet Witch in the MCU.
We all know Marvel and Sony still have the future of Tom Holland and Spider-Man and the MCU versus Sony's own Spider-Man cinematic universe to work out long-term. And who knows how long Cumberbatch and Olsen plan to continue portraying their characters? Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, and Mark Ruffalo all have or had occupied their roles for over a decade over multiple films, including at least three solo films for the first three actors, but that doesn't mean all actors will follow their leads.
So is it likely the deaths of Doctor Strange, Peter Parker, and Scarlet Witch in comic books months before their next films mean anything to or about the MCU?
But the idea can't be completely dismissed.
And we'll talk about that more soon.
Sure, deaths in comic books are often something of a sales ploy, but sometimes some resonate more than others. Newsarama looks at the comic book character deaths that still matter.