There is no questioning Marvel Studios’ dominance at the box office. It’s hard to believe that it’s not even a full decade since the inception of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with 2008’s Iron Man. This year, the number of films set in the MCU rises to 17 with the upcoming releases of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Thor: Ragnarok, the latter of which just got a sensational teaser trailer.
Thor: Ragnarok promises a new villain in Hela (Cate Blanchett), the destruction of Thor’s mighty enchanted hammer Mjolnir, and Thor getting captured and losing his long, beautiful hair. Thor is thrust into an intergalactic gladiator arena ruled by the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), where the God of Thunder is surprised and delighted to find his opponent is his “friend from work,” his fellow Avenger the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). The Hulk becoming an intergalactic gladiator is Marvel Studios’ adaptation of 2006’s popular “Planet Hulk” story by Greg Pak where Hulk, forced into exile into deep space by his fellow heroes who feared his propensity for being a destructive force, landed on the planet Sakaar and eventually led a revolution on that world.
What Thor: Ragnarok the film isn’t, however, is a direct adaptation of the comic book story collected as the graphic novel “Thor: Ragnarok.” That story – which was written by Roy Thomas, drawn by John Buscema and published in 1978 as Thor #272-278, and the general concept of “Ragnarok” as the twilight of the Norse gods in their final and greatest battle – is merely the jumping off point for director Taika Waititi’s film. While it may contain certain similar elements, the movie Thor: Ragnarok will be wildly different from the comics by design.
In recent years, Marvel Studios has made a practice of titling its films after the comic book stories they are based upon. Captain America: The Winter Soldier loosely adapted the wildly popular comic story written by Ed Brubaker; Captain America: Civil War adapted the blockbuster 2006 “Civil War” event penned by Mark Millar that encompassed and fundamentally altered the Marvel Universe; Avengers: Age of Ultron shares its title with the 2013 story written by Brian Michael Bendis – and little else. The “Age of Ultron” comic book story, an alternate reality tale where Ultron rules the world and a ragtag group of Marvel heroes form a resistance against the evil robot, resembles the Joss Whedon film only in how Ultron multiplied into dozens of duplicates and fought members of the Avengers.
Comic book movies being titled after popular comics stories, but ultimately being very different, is a relatively new development. The few comic book movies that existed before X-Men in 2000 tended to veer towards delivering original stories specific to their films. The Superman films starring Christopher Reeve were not based on and did not adapt any particular comic book stories. Nor did the Batman films directed by Tim Burton or Joel Schumacher, though 1997’s Batman and Robin directly referenced plot points from Batman: The Animated Series in regards to Mr. Freeze’s wife Nora Fries dying from a disease and held in suspended animation.
It was in 2002 when specific comic book story beats really began to bleed into feature films: Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man substituted Mary Jane Watson for Gwen Stacy but did a riff on the pivotal “Death of Gwen Stacy” story when the Green Goblin dropped MJ off the Brooklyn Bridge (which Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 in 2014 fully committed to by killing off Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy). 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand‘s attempt at adapting the monumental X-Men story “The Dark Phoenix Saga” thoroughly underwhelmed (so much so that its rumored the next X-Men film will be a second attempt at adapting that most famous of X-Men stories). The Last Stand also included elements of Joss Whedon’s mutant cure story from his Astonishing X-Men comics. 2014’s X-Men: Days of Future Past was Bryan Singer’s movie version of another classic X-Men story by Chris Claremont and John Byrne. DC Films followed suit when Zack Snyder made a point to declare Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice would be directly inspired by the Batman vs. Superman fight that concluded Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns.”
Marvel Studios has become the king of titling its movies after comic book stories, however. Thor: Ragnarok is just the latest example, though next year’s Avengers: Infinity War promises to adapt not the “Infinity War“ crossover event, but the comic book story that was its predecessor: Jim Starlin’s “The Infinity Gauntlet”. Infinity War is simply more direct and sounds better as a movie title.
When Marvel Studios titles its movies after the comic book source material, is it exploiting the comics for the sake of garnering fan credibility? After all, Captain America: Civil War was not “Civil War”. Thor: Ragnarok is neither the story found in the comic book nor “Planet Hulk.” By contrast, when a movie adapts a novel, there’s the expectation that the movie will hew as closely to the book as possible. The Harry Potter films, for example, were taken to task when liberties were taken with the J.K. Rowling novels. The same demands were placed on The Hunger Games saga, Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon adaptations, The Girl on the Train, and countless others book-to-movie adaptations. Should comic book movies be held to the same standards when its title promises an adaptation of a comic book story? Is it less misleading and a better practice to adapt elements of a comic book story but not title it such – for example, the third Iron Man movie adapting the “Extremis” storyline but going with the title Iron Man 3?
The question also becomes one of expectations: By utilizing the titles of famous comic book stories, does Marvel Studios (and others like 20th Century Fox, in the case of X-Men: Days of Future Past) promise fans more than they are able to deliver? Even at the rate the MCU is expanding in both film and TV, it still pales in comparison to the sheer size and scope of the comic book Marvel Universe, with its history of over five decades of publishing thousands of stories and characters. The MCU is also limited by the number of characters it has the rights to, as key flagship comic book characters like the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, and even Spider-Man and his supporting cast remain bound to Fox and Sony Pictures.
It’s true that general audiences who don’t read the comics but do flock to the movies, which are ultimately more widely seen than the comics they’re based on, won’t be aware of alterations to the comics’ story arcs. It doesn’t affect most people’s enjoyment of the films that Days of Future Past swapped Wolverine for the comics’ heroine Kitty Pryde. Everyone who saw Captain America: Civil War thrilled to the dozen superheroes fighting in the airport battle without getting caught up in how this was just a fraction of the superheroes involved in the conflict depicted in the comics. It’s likely that audiences will also delight at Thor facing off with Hulk in an alien gladiator arena in Thor: Ragnarok without taking issue with how closely it skews to the comics its based upon. It’s understood that these stories are the movie versions of those comic book tales.
Perhaps the understanding that “the comics are the comics and the movies are the movies” ultimately wins the day. With Marvel Studios in particular, the quality of the movies is of such a high caliber that audiences continue to enjoy the adventures of the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy without being overly concerned with comic book accuracy. Marvel, DC, and Fox’s various shared universes are their own self-contained creations that operate under their own sets of rules, which most moviegoers are able to comprehend and accept. It even works in the movies’ favor that general audiences aren’t familiar with the comics; they far outnumber the die-hard comics readers and are much more accepting of changes to the source material. In the end, the most important thing is how good the movie is. For studios like Marvel, thrilling the moviegoer is the surest bet to keep them coming back for the next movie, and the ones after that.