There was nothing. Followed by everything. Swirling, burning specks of creation that circled life-giving suns. And then, we raced to the light. It was a spark that started the fire – a legend that grew in the telling… It started with two men. One was life… and one was death.”
– Avengers #3
Secret Wars #9 is not the final chapter of a story that began in issue #1. Nor is it the conclusion to Hickman’s acclaimed Avengers run, begun three years ago. No, this is a story that’s Hickman has been telling month-in and month-out since Fantastic Four #570 in October of 2009, an issue titled “Solve Everything.” And indeed, everything is exactly what’s on the line. The problem to be solved, in Richards’ own words:
Everything dies. You. Me. Everyone on this planet. Our Sun. Our galaxy. Even the universe itself. This is simply how things are. And I accept it. What I will not tolerate – what I find unacceptable – is the unnatural acceleration of that end… the untimely end of everything is what we now face.”
– New Avenger #2
A lesser writer than Hickman would have made such stakes a puzzle to be solved, the ultimate test of Richards’ immense intellect and indomitable resolve. Such certainly could have proved compelling; some of the best films of last year were tales of survival through wits and will, such as The Martian, The Revenant, and Into the Heart of the Sea. But Hickman knows the real heart of the character is not the genius which sets him apart but rather his heart and humanity. Impending extinction, whether of a single soul or the whole world, is rather a test of character and conviction; of moral fiber and fortitude.
Such had been the central conflict throughout Hickman’s duology at Marvel, writ small in his run on Fantastic Four/FF and writ large in Avengers/New Avengers. In both cases Richards’ utilitarian inclinations are pitted against his deontological duties. In the former, he alone of every other Reed Richards in existence, according to whom “The cost of solving everything is everything” is unwilling to pay the price of his humanity, unwilling to abandon his friends and family – including Victor von Doom. Whereas the rest of the Reeds say of the Latverian dictator, “There is no greater threat in the universe than Doom – his appetite is unmatched. He will never break. He will never yield,” our Richards, because he still has a loving relationship with his daughter, is able to listen when she tells him “All hope lies in Doom.”
And indeed, that faith in his foe is vindicated. Even in their final confrontation here in issue #9 of Secret Wars, Richards does not regard Doom as an evil to be eradicated, but rather as hero who helped save what Reed himself could not, buying him the time to set things right. But such was possible only because of Doom’s essential nature – his appetite, his unbreakable and unyielding will – by which he bested the innumerable omnipotent opponents who’d the omniversal destruction designed.
Nor is it a deus ex machina on Hickman’s part that allows the most moral Reed to see his universe survive Celestial slaughter or Beyonder butchery. Rather, time and again throughout his works, Hickman implicitly demonstrates that the moral goodness of an action is precisely what empower it to produce a preferable outcome. Per Fantastic Four, our Reed’s unique love for his children is directly related to his offspring growing to become the preeminent heroes across all timelines.
Such also was why the climatic clash between Richards and Doom was never going to end with the former killing the later. It was Hickman’s central thesis that winning the moral argument is always ultimately more important than winning the fistfight, especially when the stakes are at their highest. That is why, as great as the temptation was to surrender to consequentialist calculations of the cost of lives, such was the one sin it was important he not commit. With bomb in hand, the destruction of a planet possible by the press of a trigger, Richards concludes:
“I know I would be saving hundreds of trillions of lives at the cost of mere billions. I know there is no shame in coming to that conclusion – in making that choice. But even with all things hanging in the balance – there is a line.”
– New Avengers #21
Namor was the first to criticize cowing to one’s own conscience at the cost of all creation. Off the printed page on internet message boards, many fans seconded his pragmatism and practicality in the interest of survival. But having suffered such temptation and survived with his soul intact is precisely what imbibed Reed and Doom both with the conviction that the former is the better man.
Doom: You think you’re better than I am… If you had this power, you think you could have solved it all – solved everything. You think you could have done So. Much Better. Don’t you? Don’t You!
Reed: Yes. And we both know it, don’t we?
Doom: yes. damn you….
And it’s as easy as that, the solution to everything: Be a good man. All of the good that came about at the end of Secret Wars – the Richards family’s apotheosis, the restoration of the multiverse, the healing of Molecule Man and even Victor himself, the promise of a universe where everything expands and endures and everything lives – is all simply the ultimate outcome of one man simply choosing to always do the right thing.