The true cost of Marvel Unlimited

I have rarely felt so conflicted recommending any product as I am with Marvel Unlimited.

Marvel Unlimited as a piece of functionality is fundamentally crap. It has a UX that is at best outdated and at worst actually broken. For anyone who does not have an encyclopaedic knowledge of Marvel’s back catalogue, navigating it is a terrifying mess. Even the pricing, at least if you don’t live in the US, is misleading because they don’t add tax until you’re most of the way through the online store.

On the other hand, $69 (not including tax) gives you access to 20,000 comics stretching all the way back through Marvel’s history.

I love comics and I’m a huge Marvel fan. Sadly, space and time and money all became dampeners on my ability to curate a full collection. Time aside, Marvel Unlimited allows me to overcome 2 out of 3 of those issues. I’ve had my subscription since the tail end of December, and I’ve already read far more than $80-worth (going by the average price of a trade paperback collection).

Sure, you can’t read anything published in the last 6 months and there are noticeable gaps in the back catalogue, occasionally due to age restrictions or loss of brand licensing (don’t expect to find much Jessica Jones or the G1 Transformers run). New (and old) comics are being uploaded all the time, so I expect those gaps to eventually close.

The comics themselves look great. Reading functionality is basically what you would expect: press or click the right side of a page to progress and press the left side to go back. You can swap between whole pages or single panels in view, although the purist in me wonders why anyone not on a tiny phone screen would ever want the latter.

Marvel continuity is a spaghetti soup, even in series that were supposed to appeal to new readers (the Ultimate comics being a good example here). If you want to follow any of the big storylines, even those that are ostensibly only about a single character, you’ll have to plough through multiple comic titles. Unfortunately, Marvel Unlimited only links to the next issue within a run. It might recommend another title if you’re lucky, but more likely it won’t. Without some kind of guide (I can thoroughly recommend Comic Herald), it’s easy to miss significant chunks of story, especially for big crossover events such as House of M or Civil War.

In fairness, Marvel Unlimited does have a lot of character and creator spotlights on the homepage. But those will only give you starting points. There’s no in-built curation or direction, which is bonkers given how much content is on offer here.

I wanted a better screenshot but I couldn’t log into the website, obviously.

Worse yet, while you can add individual issues to your personal library, you can’t add an entire run or meaningfully order issues to create a proper reading list of your own, which means that the library is only useful as a reminder of issues you might want to read in the future. You have to be online at all times; if you lose your connection, you might be able to finish your current issue if you’re lucky, but that’s it. You can download up to 12 issues, but there’s no option to download multiple issues at the same time; you have to download each issue 1 at a time. And then delete them 1 at a time when you’re done.

That’s on Android or Apple devices. On PC, you have to use the browser version of Marvel Unlimited because there is no downloadable PC app. Using the browser version of Marvel Unlimited is a nightmare. The search doesn’t work properly, it doesn’t remember your previously viewed comics, your personal library is entirely absent, and everything about the website seems to hate you and would prefer you to go to Marvel’s pay-to-read store instead.  

I read on a Microsoft Surface. When I asked the (usually very helpful) Reddit group for tips, the first answer was basically, “don’t read on a Microsoft Surface”.

I’m not about to spend a few hundred quid on a new tablet just to read some comics (at least, not if I don’t have to), so I downloaded an Android emulator (Bluestacks, which you can get for free) that I run specifically for Marvel Unlimited. It’s a heavy-handed solution, but the only one available if I want full functionality, such as it is.

For any other service, I wouldn’t have bothered. Marvel Unlimited, though, is just about worth the effort. $80 plus keeping a reading list on my phone and the faff of booting up Bluestacks is still a good deal for 20,000 comics. I just wish that Marvel would look at basically any other subscription service—hell, even something like Netflix—and build an experience worthy of their true believers.