This post contains light spoilers for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and Loki season one.
After much speculation, we finally know the name of the next two Avengers movies! Scheduled for release in 2025, Avengers: The Kang Dynasty and Avengers: Secret Wars will cap off Phase Six of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which begins with Fantastic Four in 2024. We’ve known for some time that Kang the Conqueror, played by Jonathan Majors, will be the prime villain of the next MCU arc, now titled the Multiverse Saga.
But Secret Wars is something of a surprise, in part because it could refer to four very different storylines. It’s pretty unlikely that the movie will integrate parts of Secret War from 2004 – 2005, a black-ops story involving Nick Fury and SHIELD (though that might be integrated into Secret Invasion, following the model set by the comics). But the other three are all real candidates for adaptation, so let’s take a look at the storylines and what they offer.
Secret Wars I
The first Secret Wars was a toy commercial. No, really. It came about when toy maker Kenner got the license to make action figures based on Marvel superheroes. Through their market research, they discovered that kids liked things that have the words “secret” and “war” in them, so then Marvel Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter commissioned a 12-part crossover to run from 1984 to 1985.
Apropos of its toybox roots, Secret Wars feels mostly like a kid smashing their toys together, making up the plot as they go along. The story begins with a group of heroes – including the boy members of the Fantastic Four, half of the Avengers, Spider-Man, and most of the X-Men – and a group of villains – ranging from scrubs like the Wrecking Crew and the Lizard to heavy-hitters Dr. Doom, Magneto, and Galactus – transported by a being “from beyond,” creatively dubbed “The Beyonder,” to a place called Battleworld. Battleworld is a world on which people battle. And so the collected heroes and bad guys battle each other for 12 issues and then return to their respective homes.
Now, to be clear – superhero marketing stories are nothing new. 80s kids regularly read stories about Wonder Woman or Spider-Man using their mighty powers to stop petty thieves from stealing Hostess fruit pies. But Shooter insisted not only that Secret Wars be in continuity, but also that it crossed over into The Amazing Spider-Man, The Uncanny X-Men, and other regular issues. In other words, all writers had to pause their stories so that the characters could participate in a toy commercial. To be sure, the story had long-lasting effects on the Marvel Universe, introducing the black Spider-Man costume that would later become Venom and beginning Magneto’s journey from antagonist to leader of the X-Men. But it never could transcend its status as a toy commercial. *
Secret Wars II
Despite its creative shortcomings, Secret Wars was a commercial smash, so much so that Shooter demanded a sequel the following year. Where the first story aspired for little more than selling action figures, Shooter wanted Secret Wars II to be his magnum opus, an existential journey told in the mighty Marvel style. In Secret Wars II, the Beyonder takes human form and walks through the Marvel Earth to learn the meaning of life. Along the way, he shifts his look from a giant bruiser wearing a costume that incorporates elements of the Marvel heroes to a generic white dude with blonde hair to finally, and most bafflingly, a white dude with hair (explicitly) like Michael Jackson and a green leisure suit. In addition to the main nine-part series, Secret Wars II crossed over into almost every Marvel comic published at the time.
Surprisingly, some writers managed to tell impactful tales in their Secret Wars II crossovers. In the X-Men spin-off The New Mutants, Chris Claremont crafts a harrowing tale in which the Beyonder kills the titular team, wipes them from existence and then resurrects them with full awareness of the experience. Others fail to live up to such lofty aims, as when Spider-Man has to teach the Beyonder how to pee. Whatever the case, Shooter used Secret Wars II to exercise greater editorial control over monthly books, forcing writers and artists to interrupt their stories for the sake of a crossover.
Secret Wars (2015)
Despite the creatively questionable origin of Secret Wars, the storyline spawned several sequels. In addition to the aforementioned Secret War, there was 2006’s Beyond! In which the Beyonder once again brought heroes and villains to fight in Battleworld. Despite the retread of the plot, the late, great writer Dwayne McDuffie brought his signature wit to the proceedings. Along those lines, Cullen Bunn and Matteo Lolli’s Deadpool’s Secret War from 2016 retells the original story from the meta-textual perspective of the Merc with a Mouth.
But for many, the best version of Secret Wars is the 2015 storyline, written by Jonathan Hickman, drawn by Esad Ribić, and colored by Ive Svorcina. Despite its title, 2015’s Secret Wars owes a greater debt to the other famous crossover from 1984, DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths. Building on the storyline that Hickman began with his run on Fantastic Four and continued in both Avengers and New Avengers, Secret Wars deals with the discovery of “incursions.”
Incursions occur when Earths from two different universes intersect. If the Earths touch, then both universes get destroyed, leading the heroes to find ways of keeping the Earths apart – or destroying the other Earth to save their own. By the time Secret Wars begins, Dr. Doom has found a way to use the incursions to recreate the universe in his own image. In this universe, the heroes and villains all live in different regions, called Battleworlds, while Doom rules over all as the god-emperor. Only a group of surviving heroes, including Doom’s arch-enemy Mr. Fantastic, can oppose him.
Which Secret Wars Will the MCU Adapt?
Honestly, it’s possible that any of the three versions will make it to the screen. After all, Captain America: Civil War had little more plot than the original Secret Wars, and people still think fondly of the battle scenes in Avengers: Endgame. It wouldn’t be out of character for MCU chief Kevin Feige to give the people what they want with a giant battle royale. Nor would it be a surprise to see Secret Wars follow the model set by Avengers: Infinity War to take the Secret Wars II route, with the Beyonder serving as the protagonist instead of Thanos.
But aspects of the 2015 Secret Wars have already been integrated into the MCU, making it the most likely source for the movie. The climax of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness involves Strange battling an alternate version of himself in a world destroyed by incursions, which the story explicitly references. Likewise, Loki and Spider-Man: No Way Home suggest an overabundance of alternate universes, leading to the potential for incursions. Finally, given Kang’s role as a time-traveler with alternate versions running around, it makes sense that The Kang Dynasty would set up a Secret Wars about the end of the multiverse.
If Feige does indeed borrow from 2015’s Secret Wars, then that raises huge questions about the future of the franchise. To be sure, the Fantastic Four and Doctor Doom will play major roles, as they’ll be newly introduced in Phases Five and Six. But will Feige go so far as to recreate the universe? Will we see rebooted versions of beloved characters, giving us new actors in the roles of Iron Man, Black Widow, and Thor? We probably won’t know for sure until Avengers: Secret Wars comes to theaters on November 7, 2025.
*Full disclosure: I was five years old when these toys came out and I had several of them. They sparked my love of superheroes and are probably the reason I’m writing these words today.