In the last few years, the works of Marvel Entertainment have impacted the lives of more people than Martin Goodman could have ever possibly anticipated when he started the company in 1939. At that time, the market for these pulp comics featuring super powered beings was believed to be limited to youngsters looking for heroes. Some people argue that Marvel’s explosion of popularity in recent years can be traced to a changing world, one in which even adults harbor an inner-child in desperate need of a hero.
That’s certainly part of Marvel’s resurgence, but you’re fooling yourself if you don’t believe that it also has something to do with how more and more people are beginning to realize that Marvel has been publishing some of the most compelling stories ever penned for years now. In comparison to DC, you could argue that Marvel has always been the home of slightly more traditional superhero stories. Even when that has been the case, the writers at Marvel have made it their mission to never turn out just another superhero story. Instead, their tales have elevated the expectations of a medium and ensured that even the most cynical of modern minds looks forward to the next adventure of these modern gods.
These are the 15 Best Marvel Comics Storylines Ever.
15. Annihilation (2006)
Contributors to Marvel have always looked to the stars for the next big storyline. Whenever Marvel writers need to produce something epic, they tend to dive into the infinite void of the cosmos and produce something so grand that it forces the entire universe to stand at attention. Annihilation is another in a long line of Marvel crossover events that took to the cosmos, but it’s a far different experience from nearly everything that came before. Rather than focus on a galactic presence that is threatening Earth and its mightiest heroes, Annihilation takes place almost entirely in the furthest reaches of space, where some of Marvel’s heaviest cosmic hitters are involved in a battle that barely even references our home planet.
Yet, Annihilation isn’t just about the spectacle of the situation. This is the story that finally brought together a line of characters that sometimes seemed to exist as a deus ex machina. Even better, it introduced and helped to popularize a new wave of interstellar heroes and villains that hold their own against some of Marvel’s biggest names. This story proves that the true strength of every great event story is their ability to provide something truly different.
14. Demon In A Bottle (1979)
Contrary to popular belief, comics did actually deal with dark storylines prior to the mid-eighties. Granted, it wasn’t that common to see comics go truly dark, but that doesn’t mean that there weren’t a select group of writers looking to push the moral code of comic book storytelling. Other writers, however, simply didn’t even realize that they were doing something unusual. For instance, when Bob Layton was tapped to field the next Iron Man storyline, he simply decided to make alcoholism the villain. In his mind, he was just dealing with a topic that would have affected businessmen such as Tony Stark.
What he was really doing, however, was penning the definitive Iron Man story arc. By exploring the very vulnerable person in the Iron Man suit, Layton humanized the mighty warrior. This storyline didn’t make Tony Stark an alcoholic; it rightfully justified that Stark was probably an alcoholic all along. Tony’s bottles of brown liquor were the silver bullet that tied the character’s design together, and made him a compelling example of how even superheroes must battle their demons.
13. Planet Hulk/World War Hulk (2006-2008)
Technically, these are two storylines, but they’re so closely tied together that they should be considered one grand arc. The story begins when The Avengers finally decide that the Incredible Hulk is too dangerous to remain on Earth. This triggers the events of Planet Hulk, in which the Hulk is exiled to a gladiatorial planet that he quickly becomes ruler of. Just as he is finding peace on this planet, the ship that brought him there ignites its self-destruct sequence, which kills Hulk’s wife and many of his people. It also inspires the Hulk to return to Earth in order to wage war and get his revenge.
For years, Marvel writers toyed with the idea that the Hulk was far and away the most powerful of Earth’s heroes. Planet Hulk/World War Hulk is the pay-off to those years of suggestions. In essence, this story assigns the Hulk a typically villainous role, but presents him in such a way that you really do understand (and even sympathize with) what he is going through. This is a patient and intelligent way to examine just why Hulk smashes.
12. Civil War (2006-2007)
The hype surrounding the release of the original Civil War was tremendous. This was the comic event that would finally pit Marvel’s greatest heroes against each other in a clash that would surely resolve every fan fantasy battle. Because of the tremendous anticipation that surrounded the release of Civil War, some people walked away from it feeling a bit disappointed. They claimed that the final product did not live up to their considerable expectations, and as far as opinions go, it’s a completely valid one.
Yet, those who dismiss Civil War would do well to remember that the story was much more than the events of the main issues. Instead, the true Civil War was waged in the pages of nearly every Marvel publication across several months. It is in these smaller issues that the true brilliance of the Civil War storyline is revealed. This event forced every Marvel writer to really come to terms with the moral compass of every Marvel hero. The grandiose fights and shocking moments are great, but Civil War deserves to be remembered as one of the most engrossing political statements in comic book history.
11. The Galactus Trilogy (1966)
Imagine that you are a superhero. Actually, let’s use the term “superhuman.” You are a superhuman who is more capable than any human being alive. You possess a power or powers that nearly every mortal person would kill for. In fact, much of your time is invested in preventing such actions. Despite your heroics, however, surely there is a hint of superiority that you must feel being a nearly unstoppable force among mere mortals. In a way, the Galactus Trilogy deals with this very scenario by forcing the Fantastic Four to do battle with a true god.
The Galactus Trilogy is all about anticipation. Early on, we hear powerful forces speak of Galactus as if his is the unstoppable end of days. He’s built to be an impossible threat who can only be stopped if you avoid him entirely. When Galactus does arrive, he brings with him a sense of true fear. What follows that arrival quickly becomes arguably the most important event in the history of the Fantastic Four. In terms of building anticipation and then capitalizing on it, this is a masterclass in superhero suspense.
10. House of M (2005)
Right from the start, House of M was described as a story that was going to change the X-Men and Marvel universes as we knew them. So few stories that promise such things actually ever live up to the hype. House of M’s saving grace is that it doesn’t begin as the story that will change everything, but rather as a story about Scarlett Witch. See, Scarlett Witch is quickly becoming the most powerful mutant the world has ever known — and also, the most unstable. Soon, every mutant and hero picks their side in a debate regarding whether or not she should be allowed to live.
What follows isn’t necessarily a clash between all of Marvel’s heroes on the battlefield, but rather a clash of ideas. While Marvel’s heroes argue over the fate of Scarlett Witch, she is creating an alternate reality for herself where she can live in peace with her family. These two realities come crashing together in unexpected ways, resulting in an ending that indeed forever changed the Marvel universe through the whisper of three simple words: “No more mutants.”
9. Kraven’s Last Hunt (1987)
It’s a favorite past time of comic book writers to explore the subject of what happens when the villain wins. For the most part, these stories are either very limited in their scope, are immediately redacted, or exist in some kind of alternate “What-If?” universe. Sometimes, however, a villainous victory comes along that manages to break the mold. Kraven’s Last Hunt is such a story. It begins with the “death” of Spider-Man at the hands of Kraven the Hunter. That’s the standard part of the narrative, and what follows is anything but.
Kraven’s Last Hunt is much more of a Kraven the Hunter story than it is a Spider-Man story. It’s not so much about the death of Spider-Man (who doesn’t actually die), but rather the life that the villain would lead in the event that Spidey truly did cease to exist. Specifically, it deals with Kraven’s desire to prove that he could be a better hero than Spider-Man. Kraven’s true victory comes when he defeats Spider-Man’s perceived ego. If his actions during this story seem haunting, perhaps that’s because they are so rational.
8. Days of Future Past (1981)
The X-Men live in a corner of the Marvel universe that is seemingly always on the brink of destruction. Oh sure, there are powerful mutants threatening to use their powers to crush the world as in all other comics, but the X-Men comics differentiate themselves from the pack by also dealing with the possibility that humans will bring the world into an apocalyptic scenario before any of the superpowered mutants have the chance to do so. Days of Future Past is the story that finally looks at what would happen if humans executed their ultimate plans to rid themselves of the mutant scourge.
The results are a mix of the anticipated and the unexpected. Days of Future Past presents a familiar vision of the mutant apocalypse in which all remaining mutants must band together to fight off the sentinels that have contributed to their genocide, but it also utilizes time travel to examine the occurrences that led to this future. Not only does this premise make for an exciting adventure, it expertly examines just how fragile the relationship between humans and mutants really is. The events of this story linger above every other X-Men arc as a frighteningly destinct possibility.
7. The Winter Soldier (2005)
In a strange way, Captain America is like the American James Bond. Oh sure, he doesn’t share the same fondness for martinis and sleeping around, but he is the ultimate American operative. There’s always been a political element to his stories which has been muted somewhat by the way that Captain America’s writers tend to reinforce the idea that his pursuits are always noble. The Winter Soldier flips that script a bit by addressing the possibility that Captain America could actually be blind regarding his purpose in life. Is he more than just a superhero blinded by his ideology?
Winter Soldier is a political thriller starring superheroes. Like any good political thriller, it features twists, turns, revelations, and major moments of intrigue. It’s a fast-paced narrative made that much better by the way it incorporates the history of Captain America. Yes, amidst all the grand political posturing is an incredibly intimate story about how Captain America may have never fully come to terms with his role as America’s champion. There are ghosts (literal and figurative) that haunt him which come to life throughout this story.
6. Daredevil: Born Again (1986)
Frank Miller has done more to advance the idea of mature comic book narratives than just about anyone. While Miller was never above relying on cheaper things like sex and violence to tell mature stories, he was one of the first comic book writers to really show how the medium could go dark without relying on exploitation. Instead, his stories chose to shed light on the darker side of certain characters. While many fans are certainly familiar with how his approach benefited the Batman universe, some of Miller’s best work can be found in the pages of Daredevil comics.
In fact, Born Again may just be his greatest accomplishment. This is the Daredevil story that really hammered home the idea that Matt Murdock’s life is a living hell. Born Again breaks down Daredevil and forces him to rise from the ashes in order to save whatever is left of his world. Before you call it a story of redemption, however, consider the possibility that Born Again is really a story about a tragic figure who has nothing left to live for but the fight.
5. Marvels (1994)
Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be an everyday person in the Marvel universe? Can you imagine how frustrating it must be to be an accountant in a world that is constantly being attacked by forces that can destroy all-known life at a moment’s notice? Marvels is the story of such a man. His name is Phil Sheldon, and he’s a photographer whose career started at around the same time that superheroes began to appear in New York City.
Marvels is all about perspective. Sheldon’s life story is designed to add a layer of complexity to how these super humans are perceived by average people. There are some who simply see them as heroes and villains, but there are far more people whose views on these icons change as the times do. Sheldon’s obsession with the lives of these heroes leads to a great number of personal failures and successes, but ultimately, it consumes him. In the end, his journey gives us a hauntingly real look at the kind of lives humans would really live when superheroes are at large.
4. The Night Gwen Stacy Died (1973)
Usually, people die in comic books similarly to how goldfish die in our world. The loss is felt, but the impact typically doesn’t prove to be eternal. Sometimes, someone even replaces the goldfish before anyone even has the chance to notice. Death in comics usually means nothing more than a brief sales jump. Every now and then, however, a comic book character’s death does forever change the status quo. It creates two separate timelines, named “Before” and “After.” Of those deaths, there are few more meaningful than the loss of Gwen Stacy.
In retrospect, Gwen Stacy was a vital piece of the Spider-Man puzzle. She wasn’t the crux of what made the character so great, but she was Spider-Man’s way out. She was the thing in his life that could have eased all the pain. That’s roughly why some at Marvel felt she had to go. Still, it’s doubtful that anyone involved with the death of Gwen Stacey could have ever anticipated how her death would forever alter the trajectory of Spider-Man. As for the story itself, The Night Gwen Stacy Died is still one of the most haunting and tightly written traditional superhero narratives ever written.
3. Secret Wars (1984)
Secret Wars was released at a time when the idea of a major crossover event in comics was still very much a novelty. Believe it or not, the event was inspired by the toy manufacturer Mattel, who wanted Marvel to publish a story that would help push the sales of Mattel’s superhero toy line. From those humble capitalist beginnings, Jim Shooter and a team of artists set out to create a scenario in which Marvel’s mightiest heroes are transported to a faraway world in order to battle one another.
It’s not the most complicated set-up, but that somehow makes it all the more impressive that Marvel was able to turn this event into a landmark occurrence. Shooter and his team could have gotten by with showing Spider-Man punching Wolverine and calling it a day, but instead, they populated this narrative with moments that reverberate throughout nearly every character’s future. While much of Secret Wars’ modern-day value comes from examining how many story threads began during the course of this event, the story itself is one that seems to never stop giving.
2. The Dark Phoenix Saga (1980)
Prior to the publication of the Dark Phoenix Saga in 1980, Jean Grey was primarily used as an object of affection that Wolverine and Cyclops occasionally fought over. Between the love triangle moments, however, there were hints that Jean Grey might just be among the most powerful mutant in all of X-Men lore. It wasn’t until the villainous Mastermind captured Jean Grey at the start of the Dark Phoenix Saga, however, that fans became truly aware of what a sleeping giant Jean Grey truly is.
The Dark Phoenix Saga betrays readers’ emotions and subverts their expectations. The sight of Jean Grey becoming corrupted by outside influence is bad enough, but then you begin to realize that all she is really doing is unlocking her true potential. X-Men comics have long dealt with the divide between humans and mutants, but the Dark Phoenix Saga introduced the idea that the most powerful of all mutants might eventually have to decide if they are going to be a god or a human. The tragic tale of Jean Grey that is told within these pages serves as a turning point for the X-Men, and a constant reminder of the way our greatest heroes can make us feel so very small.
1. The Infinity Gauntlet (1991)
Like so many great works, The Infinity Gauntlet is essentially a love story. It’s the story of how a galactic power by the name of Thanos fell in love with the embodiment of death. In an effort to win his love’s affection, Thanos spent years collecting the fabled Infinity Gems in order to assemble the Infinity Gauntlet. This gauntlet allows Thanos near-omnipotence — the ability to do just about anything he wants. It allows Thanos to kill half of all known life in the universe in order to impress the physical embodiment of Death. As far as displays of affection go, it beats standing outside her window with a boombox over your head by a mile.
It also serves as the basis to the defining epic in the Marvel canon. The idea of wiping out such a significant portion of the Marvel roster is, admittedly, somewhat gimmicky on the outset, but writer Jim Starlin turns that scenario into a conflict that feels like it could be the true final fight in the Marvel universe. Superhero stories that subvert our expectations of what superhero stories can do are always great, but The Infinity Gauntlet proves that sometimes there is nothing quite like the ultimate battle between good and evil.
What do you think is Marvel’s greatest work to date? Did your favorite storyline miss the cut? Let us know in the comments.