Superheroes can escape almost any trap... except for 50 years' worth of backstory that's dated, self-contradictory or gets in the way of a story. So what do you do? Reach for the retcon! Here are 15 examples of retcon fail.
Comics have a grand problem of continuity. Long-lived characters have been starring in multiple monthly titles for years, amounting to thousands of issues, not counting guest stars, crossovers, and tie-ins. And every single one of those issues counts. With retroactive continuity, maybe our heroes fought a clone; or it was a dream; or the whole thing took place in a parallel reality; or someone didn't die, and instead someone took their unconscious body and healed them. Sometimes it's handled well, with good characterisation and a soft touch. But mostly, it isn't. Here are some of the worst, most ham-fisted and generally clumsy ways of dealing with problems in the history of your character.
One More Day/Brand New Day
During the events of Marvel's Civil War crossover, Spider-man revealed his secret identity to the public, making him and his family a massive target for all the would-be assassins, crime-lords and supervillains around. At the same time, Marvel Editor-in-Chief Joe Queseda had been publicly expressing his distaste for Spider-Man's marraige to Mary Jane for years, on the grounds that it aged the character too much.
Quesada wanted to return Spidey to his roots, bring back down-on-his-luck Peter Parker, still living with his Aunt May, still struggling to pay for webfluid and get by day-to-day. And of course, he did it in the clumsiest way possible. He took over writing this series when outgoing writer, J. Michael Straczynski didn't want to pen the revisions Quesada proposed. In "One More Day," Aunt May gets accidentally shot by a sniper, and lays in hospital, on the verge of death. And Spider-man makes a deal with the devil, literally. Mephisto, Marvel's Satan stand-in, saves Aunt May, but in exchange he would take the happy marriage of Peter and MJ, and make it as though it had never happened. So, Peter gave up his beautiful, loving wife in order to extend the life of his already elderly and frequently ill Aunt. In the process, the entire planet forgot his identity, and Peter and Mary Jane's daughter would never come to be. Well, to be fair, MJ made the final decision, but the whole concept made no sense, and avoided any explanations by just saying "it's magic!"
When Grant Morrison took over X-Men, he introduced some radical changes, including the concept of secondary mutations, and the idea that at their current rate, Mutants would soon out-populate normal humans. He also introduced into Xavier's school the character of Xorn, a Chinese mutant with a star for a head, who had spent years imprisoned, and became a teacher for some of the more troubled students at the institute. Xorn eventually revealed he was Magneto in disguise, and died in a giant battle, along with Jean Grey.
However, almost immediately afterwards, it was decided that Magneto was too high-profile to kill for real — so a retcon established that Xorn was NOT Magneto (who was alive and kicking in Genosha). Instead, Xorn was a real person under the influence of another mutant. Then, just for kicks, they introduced another Xorn, a twin to the first, so they could keep the character around. So rather than sticking with a dramatic and powerful moment, as originally written by Morrison, the new writers tossed out the crux of his final arc to preserve the status quo.
Superboy Prime Punches Reality
DC's continuity has always been plagued by issues of multiple realities, which were used as the original way to differentiate Golden Age versions of characters from the Silver Age. During DCs Crisis on Infinite Earth, through the cataclysmic arrival of the Anti-Monitor, all of these timelines were merged into one, dealing away with all the confusion once and for all. Several characters from these dead universes were tucked away in a pocket universe, including Superboy Prime, who came for a reality where he was the only superpowered character. He and Kal-L, the Golden Age Superman, eventually become so angry at the dark and gritty nature of the current DC universe, that Superboy Prime punches a hole through reality. Yup, he punches reality so hard, that it shatters, creating the multiverse, and retconning various story problems, including bringing the 1980s Robin, Jason Todd, back to life. That is the power of the retcon punch.
As a side note, an absolutely excellent version of the Superboy Prime story was told a few years ago in Superman: Secret Identity by Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immonen, which is well worth tracking down.
Power Girl's Origin
Originally, Power Girl was the Earth-2 version of Supergirl, a cousin to Superman who arrived long after he did, but with the same sort of powers. However, after the aforementioned Crisis on Infinite Earths, there was no more Earth-2, nor had there ever been. However, Power Girl existed on the main Earth, so she needed a new origin. So instead of making her another Kryptonian survivor (or something similar),she was revealed to be a descendant of the Atlantean sorcerer Arion, who lay in suspended animation for a thousand years before being revived in the current day. Did this make any sense? Nope. Did it gel at all with her old background? Not in the slightest. This stupidity was thankfully forgotten, and during Infinite Crisis, they just decided she was Supergirl from another dimension, and left it at that.
Gwen Stacy Slept With Norman Osborn
Gwen Stacy's death at the hands of the Green Goblin is considered one of the pivotal moments in Spider-man's history, and remains an incredibly poignant scene. However, during JMS's run on Spider-man, he gave her two children. Originally, his plan was that they be Peter's, and that she had them in secret. However, the editorial team decided that giving Spider-man two grown children would — wait for it — age Peter Parker too much.
Instead, they decided that Norman Osborn would be the father. That's right, Gwen Stacy hooked up with creepy old billionaire Osborn, got pregnant with twins, and kept them from Osborn — which is why he killed her. Then, he trained the twins to become assassins, to hunt down Spider-man.
Wolverine's entire history is just one crappy retcon piled on top of another. How's this for a start? Wolverine was originally meant to be an actual wolverine, who had been turned into a human by the high evolutionary, and his claws were part of his gloves. Then the claws became implants created by Weapon X, and he was a mutant. Then he was meant to be Sabertooth's son. Then it turns out he'd had bone claws all along, and they were just covered up with metal. Recently, however, things have started getting even weirder for Logan.
It turns out Wolverine now isn't a mutant, but rather a Lupine, a human looking species that evolved in parallel to humans — but from wolves, not apes. And there are two tribes: one with blond hair, the other with dark hair, and they hate each other — which is why Sabertooth hates Wolverine so much. They're not the only two, either — other Lupine's include Wolfsbane, Feral, Wild Child and Thornn. So pretty much ever feral mutant isn't actually a mutant, but a wolf person. They're all being manipulated by an almost immortal elder Lupine called Romulus.
Wolverine's healing factor has also suffered from major power creep over the years, expanding from "he can heal faster than most", to "was left as a skeleton after a major explosion, and healed completely within seconds." So to de-power him slightly, a retcon established that every time he dies, Wolverine has to fight the spirit of death to return to the living. Since WWI, he has been in constant combat with a being known as Lazaer (the worst anagram since Alucard), and his soul cannot return to his body unless he defeats Lazaer in limbo, each time. After some jiggerypokery with the resurrected version Shingen, Lazaer and Wolverine ended their constant battle — so if Wolverine dies again, it's for real.
Jean Grey and the Phoenix Force
This one is the great Grandaddy of weird retcons. Phoenix/Jean Grey took her own life after losing control of the awesome magnitude of the Phoenix Force, and accidentally devouring an inhabited planet. Cyclops was unsurprisingly bummed, hooked up with a clone of Jean, had a baby, which was then sent to the future to become Cable. However, a few years later, the writers wanted to bring Jean Grey back. So they decided that she was never Phoenix, instead the Phoenix Force created a simulacrum of her, and the real one was kept in stasis, deep beneath the ocean. Problem solved.
The Third Summers Brother?
Two of the X-Men, Cyclops and Havok, are brothers. At one point, the villainous Mr. Sinister dropped hints that there was in fact a third Summers brother, which would throw another powerful energy user into the X-Men universe. The originally planned extra brother was to be Adam X the X-Treme, also known as "the 90s personified". He had the power to combust blood, but only if someone was already cut, so he covered himself with blades (and wore a totally rad backwards cap). He was meant to be half human, half an alien Shi'ar, a product of the rape of his mother by the Shi'ar Emperor.
This origin story was used, instead, for the actual third Summers brother, Vulcan. He was retroactively introduced in 2006, when it was revealed that Charles Xavier sent him and a team to go rescue his missing X-Men decades ago. Unfortunately, the whole team was lost, and Xavier mind-wiped everyone to forget about it. The end product? Xavier was a dick, and Vulcan flew into space to become the Emperor of the Shi'ar.
Nightcrawler Is A Demon
Chuck Austen's run on X-Men is regarded by many readers as the low point for Marvel's mutant titles. In addition to adding a Mary Sue version of his wife, as well as making Havoc his own avatar; and having Angel have sex with the then underage Husk in front of her family, he also tweaked a couple of characters in a rather odd way. The most notable of these was to explain Nightcrawler's demonly looks as a result of him actually being part-demon. Turns out that Nightcrawler's mother, Mystique, hooked up with the demon Azazel, who sired a number of teleporting mutant babies, in the hopes of them breaking him out of Hell. So, Kurt Wagner, the almost priest and one of the most religious of the X-Men, was actually half demon
Rape Makes You Deep
Black Cat, Catwoman, Sue Dibny. What links these characters? They had rape retconned into their background as a way of making them edgier. It's lazy writing, offensive, and a cheap ploy to pad out the background of the characters. Sue Dibny's was particularly bad, because it was used as part of the Identity Crisis crossover, which helped turn DC into a far more dark 'n' gritty place, with almost no place for frivolity or fun.
Hal Jordan and The Space Bug
When Hal Jordan turned into the maniacal Parallax, it was originally a story of a superhero who cracked under the weight of his responsibilities. The entire population of his hometown, Coast City, was killed by the villainous Mongol, and Hal Jordan was driven mad with grief. Convinced that with more power he could bring them back to life, Jordan slaughters his way through the Green Lantern Corps and the Guardians of the Universe, and absorbs a huge amount of power, becoming the villain Parallax.
Hal eventually redeems himself, re-igniting the Sun and thus sacrificing his life, during a storyline called Final Night. The retcon was that Hal Jordan didn't break under the grief of the deaths of 7 million people that he'd sworn to protect, but rather he was under the influence of a yellow space bug called Parallax, which was the personification of fear. Thus, Hal Jordan came back as an unblemished character, who never did anything wrong.
Cassandra Cain Goes Evil, Gains Mastery of English Language
Cassandra Cain was the modern Batgirl. Trained as an assassin from a young age, she rebelled against her past to join the Bat family. She kicked ass and took names, but couldn't speak, read or write. Eventually, she managed to learn basic English, and became a core figure in the Bat books, and a tireless crime fighter. Then, during the One Year Later timeshift, she suddenly had a perfect grasp of English, and was the leader of the League of Assassins, the same organization that had brutally trained and abused her since her childhood, and from which she had escaped. This was eventually explained through mind control drugs, but was still completely out of character.
Hawkman, Reincarnated Egyptian or Space Cop?
Originally, Hawkman was an archaeologist who turned out to be the reincarnation of an Egyptian prince. He flew around with wings made of the mysterious Nth metal, and hit things with a mace. Accompanying him was his reincarnated girlfriend, Hawkgirl. Then, in the Silver Age, DC made Hawkman and Hawkgirl space cops from the planet Thanagar.
Following this, there were multiple interpretations of the characters, sometimes simultaneously — the Hawks were reincarnated Egyptian lovers, alien police officers, or some combination of both. New background and retcon piled on top of one another, until no one knew what the actual background of everyone's favorite flying violence users. Just when you thought they couldn't get any more confusing, a 1990s comic explained that Hawkman was actually a Native American shaman who talked to spirit guide animals.
Presently, it's been established that all incarnations, regardless of origin, are the reincarnated souls of those Egyptian lovers, who were then exposed to Thanagarian technology. Their love is so powerful that it's become the source of all energy for all the Star Sapphires, superpowered women, in the current run of Green Lantern.
Teenage Tony Stark
At some point in the terrifying decade of comics known as the 90s, we learned that Iron Man (Tony Stark) had been under the control of Kang the Conqueror for years. Tony turned evil and killed someone. (Later, it was retconned that this wasn't actually Kang the Conqueror, but another villain, Immortus, in disguise.)
So, naturally, the Avengers went into an alternate timeline, and brought a teenaged Tony Stark forward in time to the present to fight the older Tony. Don't ask. So for a while, Tony was a teenager, until teenage Tony was killed fighting Onslaught, and adult Tony was brought back to life in another parallel universe, during the Heroes Reborn event. Eventually, this was folded in to normal Marvel continuity, and everyone forgot it ever happened. Bad writing, covered with bad retcons, and best forgotten.
Spider-man, Avatar of The Spider God
Spider-man was originally a science hero. Bitten by a radioactive spider, Peter Parker gained the proportional strength of an arachnid, the ability to cling to walls, and the uncanny ability to sense danger. Fashioning mechanical web-shooters, he fought crime as the Spectacular/Amazing/Friendly Neighborhood Spider-man.
After the massive success of the first Spider-man film, though, he was given biological web shooters, to make him more in line with the movie version. Under the stewardship of writer J. Michael Straczynski, it was revealed that the bite that brought Peter his powers wasn't a coincidence, but rather Peter was linked to a totemic Spider God who influenced him. Shortly after, Peter was mortally wounded, built a cocoon, and came out with additional powers, including wrist stingers, a poisonous bite, the ability to talk to arthropods, and night vision. Another side effect of Brand New Day was everyone, including Spider-man, forgetting about his new powers.