On the heels of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, much of MCU fandom is focused on the phases to come, particularly the next Avengers: Endgame-level event. For most of them/us, “Secret Wars” seems to be the destination. But trying to figure out exactly what form the MCU storytelling will take as it prepares to adapt Jonathan Hickman’s 2015 epic has been thorny, especially because the most recent Doctor Strange film gave us another thing to chew on: The Illuminati.
The Illuminati featured prominently in the Hickman New Avengers run that preceded Secret Wars, but unlike in Marvel Comics, where the Fantastic Four and X-Men have been mainstays since the 1960s, the appearance of Reed Richards and Charles Xavier in the MCU (albeit in its Earth-838 universe) was a momentous event, one that jump-started speculation as to how and when we’d see both the F4 and mutants properly introduced into the narrative. And while I do have my ideas about the role the Fantastic Four will play, I think that the bigger question centers on the mutants, and their biggest brand, the X-Men.
Back in November 2021, Marvel announced during its Disney Plus day special that a revival of the popular 1990s X-Men: The Animated Series, often referred to as “X-Men ‘92,” would debut in 2023 under the title X-Men ‘97. Storylines and continuity from the original series would be picked up on, as the timeline would press ahead. However, now that the MCU Multiverse is firmly in play, questions about the canonicity of these new episodes abound. Which brings us back to Secret Wars.
In Hickman’s “Time Runs Out” storyline, the narrative that led directly into Secret Wars, “incursions’” of alternate universes into the main 616 universe led to the Illuminati, among others, taking drastic steps to eradicate those universes so that ours would survive, until only two universes were left — the 616 and the Ultimate Universe, designated 1610, home to Miles Morales, the evil Reed Richards known as The Maker, and others. The finale, which immediately preceded Secret Wars, was an all-out battle between the two universes, which, although ultimately fruitless for both universes, was epic.
The MCU doesn’t have an Ultimate Universe; if anything its 616 universe, what with its Samuel L. Jackson-inspired Nick Fury and its teenage Peter Parker, shares quite a few similarities to it. And with a 15-year head start, there’s no time for Marvel to build up a new Marvel Universe for us to grow attached to. But what they can do is bring back a universe that we have a preexisting attachment to: the X-Men animated universe.
Once that classic theme song hits, our nostalgia feels will come rushing back, and an audience that has been fed a steady diet of uneven live-action X-Men content by Fox will be reminded of how good they once had it, and how good it could be again. By the end of the first season, I’m sure that fans will be fully reinvested in the characters and their universe. By the end of the second or third season, when their universe faces an incursion by the 616 MCU, fans won’t be eager to see that universe be sacrificed. And if that means X-Men battling Avengers, so be it.
Introducing X-Men into the MCU this way has many advantages. For the mutant concept to maximize its potency, the weight of history — of a world where they have been hated and feared for years, and where some characters have formed relationships over decades — should be maintained. That can be highlighted and reinforced, and the animated series can do that far better than the Fox films, which admittedly still have some goodwill, but are nowhere near as universally loved and revered.
Now, will it be tricky to eventually bring the characters from that animated series into live-action? For sure. But one needs to look no further than Marvel’s Disney Plus sister property, Star Wars, to see that it can be pulled off, and be well-received by audiences. And given the stakes of this universe-destroying cataclysmic battle, Marvel can be forgiven for a stunt casting or two alongside longer-term castings of characters who will return after Secret Wars and the eventual Multiverse realignment. But many of us have been waiting decades to see comic-accurate, iconic looks in live-action, so one should expect the fan reaction to those characters making the transition be massive.
After Avengers: Endgame, fans and media alike have been trying to figure out how Marvel could top itself, and Secret Wars could definitely be that. But more so than seeing different versions of the MCU heroes squaring off against one another, seeing Avengers face X-Men with their respective universes at stake would be a spectacle unlike any we’ve seen to date. And X-Men ‘97 could play a vital role in bringing that about. Both universes can encounter Kang variants, and both could experience Incursions that would lead the heroes of their respective universes to do whatever it takes to preserve them. It would be a massive, epic storyline, with the potential to energize and galvanize fans. And of, course, it could be the biggest Marvel event of all time.