The MCU Isn't Pretending To Adapt Marvel Comics Stories Any More

Over a decade into the MCU, Marvel Studios is finally at the point where they can stop pretending to simply "adapt" comic book stories. That may seem to undermine the very idea of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but looking ahead to their future slate, it's clear Marvel is blazing a fresh trail - one that even the most experienced comic book reader will be surprised at.

Of course, Marvel movies are intrinsically based on comic books, bringing some of the biggest names in the medium to the big screen. However, even in the early days things were different. As Avengers: Infinity War co-director Joe Russo observed, "I think that Marvel jumped off with this cinematic experiment that they started 10 years ago with a narrative that diverts from [the comics]." Indeed, 10 years and 20 movies later, they've built up to the point that the differences are unavoidable.

Related: Avengers: Infinity War's Ending Was Very Different In The Comics

Howe divergent is the Marvel Cinematic Universe going to be heading into Phase 4? And should this cause comic book lovers to despair, or rather to celebrate that their movies have outgrown the medium that inspired them? Let's take a look at Marvel's approach.

Marvel Movies Adapt Comic Book Stories... Sort Of

Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man 2008

The first phase of the MCU was essentially the age of the Origin Story, and as a result the movies drew liberally from the comics. There were two sources of inspiration; the original, classic comic books such as Tales of Suspense #139 (Iron Man) or Captain America Comics #1, and Marvel's Ultimate relaunch in the early 2000s. This relaunch saw Marvel reimagine their classic heroes if they'd originated in the present day, and it provided a template for Marvel Studios to do the same. Perhaps the most visible nod to the Ultimate Comics inspiration was the casting of Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury; back in 2002, Bryan Hitch deliberately modeled the Ultimate version of Fury on Jackson (it was even signposted in dialogue, with the Ultimates discussing who should play them on the big screen; Fury responded, "Mr. Samuel L. Jackson, of course, no discussion").

There was one key difference, though, and it was a strategic decision made at the end of Iron Man. The film closed with Tony Stark holding a press conference in which he outed himself as the titular hero. Although technically this was in line with the comics, where Stark had gone public back in the '90s, it proved to be a defining moment in the MCU. Marvel realized this decision both simplified their narratives and allowed them to tell a different kind of superhero story; as a result, they dropped the secret identity theme altogether. That's most visible with Thor, which barely flirted with Thor's human alter-ego Donald Blake

Related: Iron Man's Best Move Was Destroying the Secret Identity Trope

Moving away from the origin stories, a number of the films have been quite open about their comic book roots. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, for example, was adapted from Ed Brubaker's classic 2005 run, specifically Captain America #1-14. That had revealed Steve Rogers' old wartime colleague Bucky had been captured and brainwashed as an assassin known as the Winter Soldier. Captain America: Civil War is inspired by the 2006-2007 Civil War miniseries, although there the story is heavily adapted to fit into the MCU's overarching narrative; the Winter Soldier plays a major role that's completely different to the comics, and the entire film is influenced by the tragedy of Sokovia's destruction in Avengers: Age of Ultron. By this point, the differences between the comics and the movies had begun to build up, and they were becoming particularly visible.

Avengers: Infinity War is the classic example. It's a blend of Jim Starlin's Thanos Quest and Infinity Gauntlet miniseries, culminating in a cliffhanger ending that's directly inspired by the comics. At the same time, though, everything has been switched up; Thanos's motivation is so different that he might as well not be the same character at all. The film's directors insist that's because this is a different universe. As Joe Russo observed, "As a comic book fan, I think it’s fun to take elements from the books that I identify with. But if I want a literal interpretation, I’ll just read the book."

Page 2: Marvel's New Approach To Telling Stories

Key Release Dates
  • Captain Marvel (2019) release date: Mar 08, 2019
  • The Avengers 4 / Avengers: Endgame (2019) release date: Apr 26, 2019
  • Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019) release date: Jul 02, 2019
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