The Modern Age of Comics is a strange mixture of the Bronze Age and the Dark Age. The same overabundance of crossovers and "dark" storytelling from the Dark Age is still there — but, at the same time, the excesses of the '90s are curtailed and the writing and art became better. We can't go back to the way things were, we can only move forward.
And move forward Marvel did. In 1998, Marvel handed over The Avengers to Kurt Busiek and George Perez, who had a wildly popular run which included the storylines "Ultron Unlimited" and "Kang War." (My favorite story of this era, actually, is one called "And Lo! There Shall Come...An Accounting!" It's about an accountant auditing the Avengers.) And, in the year 2000, they began their new Ultimate Marvel universe with Ultimate Spider-Man #1.
But what of crossovers? Well, at the time, they were mainly for the X-titles — there was the Magneto War, where Magneto takes over the nation of Genosha, and The Twelve, where Apocalypse returns, and Eve of Destruction, where the final battle between the X-Men and Magneto ends...somewhat anticlimactically. Then there was the X-Men/Avengers crossover Maximum Security, where aliens declared that Earth was to be used as a prison system.
But that all came to an end with the beginning of the reorganization of the X-titles and Grant Morrison's run on New X-Men. And then Kurt Busiek ended his run on Avengers, handing it over to Geoff Johns and then Chuck Austen and then, finally, to Brian Michael Bendis. Who then proceeded to blow everything up.
Avengers Disassembled (2004) wasn't like previous crossovers. Over time, Marvel had begun experimenting with longer and longer storylines — Chris Claremont's stories could go on for years at a time — but these plots all basically stuck to their own books. There had never really been a storyline that concerned the entire Marvel Universe that lasted for years...until now. Avengers Disassembled was the beginning of what is called "the meta-plot" of the Marvel Universe. It would last from 2004 to 2010. There would be five major crossovers connected to this meta-plot, but really, you could see them all as just one big crossover.
The first, of course, is Avengers Disassembled in Avengers #500-503 and Avengers Finale. The Avengers returned to the Mansion only to get attacked by old enemies and friends. Things get out of control — Scott Lang dies and Hawkeye gets blown up — but in the end it's revealed as the Scarlet Witch, who has gone insane after learning she used to have two children who never existed/were part of the Mephisto's soul (it's very complicated). The Scarlet Witch's reality bending powers went haywire and tried to kill the Avengers. The crossover ended with the Scarlet Witch being taken away by Magneto.
This crossover led directly to the next one: House of M (2005). The Avengers had disbanded but a new group had formed called the New Avengers. Both the New Avengers and the X-Men were determined to figure out what to do with the Scarlet Witch, whose reality altering powers were still out of control...and she subsequently changed the entire world so that mutants were in charge. This backfired spectacularly, as when the world reverted back, in a fit of pique, she declared "No more mutants!"
Which is where the X-Men part of the meta-plot comes in: this resulted immediately in Decimation, where 99% of mutants were depowered and they were again in the brink of extinction (there was never any consensus on just how many mutants there were left, although a few writers and editors still claim that there were only 198).
And, in the aftermath of this tragedy, a brand new one: Civil War (2006-2007). Written by Mark Millar and drawn by Steve McNiven, the book started with an accidental massacre at a school — which is then blamed on the superhero team the New Warriors. A Superhero Registration Act is quickly written and pushed through Congress. Superheroes divide themselves into Pro-Registration and Anti-Registration — with Iron Man leading the "Pro" side and Captain America leading the "Anti" side.
(By the way, I didn't like any of the Civil War covers, so instead I've gone with a similar cover for Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E., which quite rightly points out how Mark Millar licks goats.)
Civil War has both its fans and its detractors. I am of the opinion that it was a great idea...but a not-so-good story. It didn't help that one of the side books had Captain America being disparaged for not using MySpace and showed that Iron Man had a plot to invade Atlantis in order to "unite" the two factions. (Why yes, this does seem like a thinly veiled allegory for the Bush years.) Like the previous two crossovers, Civil War also ended without actually ending: Captain America surrendered and then was subsequently shot and killed (sort of). Iron Man expresses sorrow over the death of his friend, but also implements the Fifty State Initiative, which trains and places a superteam in each of the fifty states.
But let us talk about other, cooler crossovers. More specifically Annihilation. In 2006, as the writers were getting ready for Civil War, another group of writers, including Keith Giffen, Dan Abnett, and Andy Lanning, realized that the cosmic side of Marvel was completely open. They could do anything.
So they did: they unleashed the "Annihilation Wave" which meant a crossover of epic proportions. Nova, Silver Surfer, Ronan, and the Super Skrull all got mini-series that led up to the main title.
To give you a hint at how badass this crossover was: at one point, Galactus unleashes a wave of destruction while saying "HERALD MY RAGE." Oh yes. It was followed by Annihilation: Conquest (2007-2008), where Ultron combined itself with the Phalanx and tried to conquer what was left of the universe.
Oh, and then there's the Hulk. Back before Civil War, a group calling themselves the Illuminati (consisting of Iron Man, Dr. Strange, Reed Richards, Black Bolt, and Professor X) declare that the Hulk is too destructive, so they shoot him into space. During Civil War, the Hulk was preoccupied with his own awesome storyline called "Planet Hulk."
Unfortunately for the Illuminati, "Planet Hulk" ended with the destruction of the Hulk's new home and him blaming them for it, which led directly to World War Hulk (2007)in which the Hulk basically kicked all of their asses and caused a bunch of property damage to New York. Not exactly a World War, but the ending did lead to two things: the widely disparaged Red Hulk storyline and the widely beloved Incredible Hercules storyline. So there's that.
In the next section of the meta-plot: Skrulls! Specifically, in New Avengers, they found out that Elektra was actually a Skrull, which kicked off the Secret Invasion (2008) storyline. Many fans thought that this would exonerate Iron Man at last — after all, he couldn't be responsible for his actions if he was a Skrull, right?
In a strange twist, however, it turned out that almost none of the main heroes were Skrulls. The only one was Spider-Woman, who was actually Veranke the Skrull Queen. The Skrulls were here on a religious crusade, which led to two very awesome moments:
1) Nick Fury declared that "My god has a hammer."
2) In the pages of Incredible Hercules, Hercules and the "God Squad" go find the Skrull gods and kill them. This part of the story was called, of course, "Sacred Invasion."
Secret Invasion ended with the Skrulls defeated, but at a cost: the entire United States no longer trusted Iron Man and S.H.I.E.L.D. The one person to come out on top was Norman Osborn, who was seen as the one who finally shot the Skrull Queen and he was awarded by given total control over S.H.I.E.L.D., which he immediately disbanded and reformed as H.A.M.M.E.R. He also formed his own team of Dark Avengers, with supervillains posing as superheroes. This entire storyline was called Dark Reign (2008-2009).
Dark Reign wasn't a normal crossover. There's no main mini-series, just a bunch of one-shots and the ongoing Dark Avengers, but the meta-plot touched nearly every book. In Iron Man, Tony Stark tried to prevent Osborn from gaining the list of superhero secret identities (doesn't sound like such a good idea now, right?) and went on the run. The Avengers became more and more splintered, into New Avengers and Mighty Avengers and Dark Avengers.
And in the cosmic Marvel meta-plot, things had also gone from bad to worse:
Abnett and Lanning's Nova and Guardians of the Galaxy series had led to a crossover called War of Kings (2009). The Inhumans, led by Black Bolts, went out into space and conquered the remnants of the Kree Empire and then went to war against the Shi'ar Empire, led by Vulcan (the third Summers brother) (don't ask).
Got all that? Okay then. At the end of War of Kings, Black Bolt and Vulcan get into a huge battle and a bomb explodes that basically tears a hole in reality. Where does it lead? It leads to a parallel reality where Death itself was conquered, where Life won. Where the Many-Angled Ones control everything. It leads to the Cancerverse.
This all led to The Thanos Imperative (2010), where Nova, Star-Lord, and the Guardians of the Galaxy tried to prevent the Cancerverse from invading the main universe. And the only person who can stop the Cancerverse is Thanos, the Avatar of Death.
Needless to say, many, many people died. (Although, this being Marvel, not all of them stay dead.)
And now let us return to Earth and the ending of Osborn's Dark Reign. In Siege (2010), Norman Osborn (on the advice of Loki) decides that he needs another invasion in order to get more power, so he orchestrates an invasion of Asgard, currently floating over the town of Broxton, Oklahoma.
This doesn't work out that well. For one thing, the massively overpowered superhero the Sentry finally went bananas after years of struggling with a superpowered evil side (it's very complicated and hard to explain or even understand) and decided to kill a lot of people. Loki, who just wanted to get Asgard away from Earth, finally repented, but the Sentry killed him, and Asgard fell from the skies. The story finally ended with Osborn finally being arrested by the newly resurrected Steve Rogers, which led into the "Heroic Age."
(Meanwhile, the X-Men had their own trilogy of crossovers: Messiah CompleX (2007-2008), Messiah War (2009), and Second Coming (2010), all of which concerned Hope, the first mutant baby born after the Decimation, and Cable's attempts to save her from anyone who would use or try to kill her.)
Is that the end of the meta-plot? Well, sort of. You see, starting with Avengers Disassembled, the Avengers suffered a long string of defeats. None of the crossovers above ended with a clear victories and most ended badly. But Siege actually had somewhat of a happy ending: Steve Rogers was back and was given the title of "Top Cop of the World," the Superhero Registration Act was removed, and the Avengers were reunited. Even Loki got resurrected as a young kid (which led to the highly acclaimed storyline in Journey Into Mystery by Kieron Gillen).
But there was still one or two plotlines dangling. Which leads us to Avengers: The Children's Crusade (2010-2012). Where Wiccan and Speed, two of the Young Avengers, figure out that the Scarlet Witch is actually their mother (see above, re: the Scarlet Witch's children who might have been Mephisto's soul) and they go in search of her.
It turned out that the Scarlet Witch's reality warping powers were actually the result of Doctor Doom. Wanda and Doom had done some magical mumbo jumbo to resurrect her children and it ended up possessing Wanda. At the end of the mini-series, Scott Long is resurrected via time travel (Hawkeye was already resurrected years ago also via time travel) and the Scarlet Witch is exonerated, but one of the Young Avengers is dead.
The Modern Age really, really loves bittersweet endings.
As you can notice, crossovers were not just happening every year but sometimes twice a year. And all too often, the X-Men and Avengers and cosmic crossovers were happening simultaneously.
This would lead into the next part of the Modern Age, when the crossovers would come closer and closer together. This would lead to Chaos War and Fear Itself and Avengers vs. X-Men.
And then another meta-plot that would eventually lead to the biggest crossover yet to come.
(End of Part One.)