How To Adapt Comic Stories The MCU Way
Phase 4 will be huge for the MCU. It’ll be the phase we see beloved characters like Kate Bishop and Kamala Khan make their debut in this world. It’ll be the phase we see the first Asian superhero with Shang-Chi. It’ll be the phase the multiverse will branch off and fall apart. And not least, it’ll be the phase where we see a very recent comic story get adapted with Thor: Love and Thunder.
5 years ago, Jason Aaron introduced the idea of having a disease-ridden, dying, middle-aged Jane Foster wield Asgard’s most prized weapon. The idea not only came with an exciting spin on a decades-old character but it also brought a lot of status-quo changes for the Thor mythos. Mjolnir was no longer just a hunk of uru shaped into a hammer; it now had a sentient storm inside it choosing the worthy. Aaron reintroduced Mangog into the fold as well as turning Roxxon into a prime big bad for the Marvel Universe. Aaron’s Roxxon was led by one Dario Agger, an intensely corrupt executive who had the power to turn into a minotaur. So yeah, good shit.
Taika Waititi clearly knew this, hence the need to adapt such a badass story on-screen despite its recency, which brings us to the whole point of this piece.
Now, whether the majority of Aaron’s story makes it onto the story has yet to be seen but the choice to adapt something so recent is a choice that stands out to me as a frequent reader of the source material. I, for the most part, enjoy back-reading more than I do reading the current stories happening. For the longest time, I had this notion at the back of my head that stories needed shelf-life before they could be eligible for adaptations. Old stories that stood the test of time had first dibs to on-screen reimagining before any of these new ones. New stories had to stay on the shelf for a while, just so we could see how strong they stood 10 years from now. Kevin Feige and his thinktank at Marvel Studios clearly do not share the same sentiment as me.
Over the course of the decade, the MCU has found great success in adapting all kinds of stories, spanning the entirety of Marvel’s history. But even though there’s a seemingly equal mix of old and contemporary adaptations, the MCU is by and large influenced by modern Marvel comics. The Avengers and all the ancillary stories around it are based on the Ultimate line of comics, which was originally published to depict what a real-world Avengers initiative could look like. The Guardians of the Galaxy had been in publication for decades but it wasn’t until the Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning run that the blueprint for the live-action adaptation came.
There are varying degrees of how the Marvel Studios machine draws inspiration from text. Some adaptations are more pronounced than others while some are nuanced. Take a look at the last two Captain America films. Both films not only adapt the primary premise of each comic, which in Winter Soldier’s case is the brainwashing of Bucky Barnes and in Civil War’s case the ripple between the Avengers but more specifically Tony and Steve, but they also remake panels in live-action and share subtext with the source comic.
More often than not, you have the films that draw loosely from the text like Thor: Ragnarok. Ragnarok is an idea inherent to the Thor mythos yet the film barely touches upon the crux of the Norse apocalypse as it is foretold in ancient text and Marvel comics. In actuality, the film has less to do with the actual Ragnarok story in the comics than it does with Planet Hulk, an arc that came out a little over a decade ago. A chunk of Thor: Ragnarok takes place in Sakaar, the planet Hulk inhabits for some time. The premise of Hulk being a stranded gladiator is there but the meat of what the actual story is about isn’t there. Hulk doesn’t become the emperor of Sakaar in the film nor does the planet get nuked by the ship Hulk rode in.
One look at the MCU slate these past 11 years and it’s easy to assume how favored the newer stories are compared to the older ones. Modern stories tell more timely problems and depict characters in ways the current generation see themselves in. There’s a reason why we’re getting Kamala Khan before a character like Nova who’s been around for decades. The world is populated by a lot of people whose voices have yet to be heard, who see themselves in Kamala Khan. The same can be said for this new iteration of Captain America, with Sam Wilson under the helmet. Both Sam Wilson becoming Cap and Kamala Khan are recent additions in the comics that resonate well in the world we live in.
There’s an uncanny ambition to how modern Marvel stories are told. As the social themes of comics progress, so does its ambition for storytelling on a visual and narrative scale. Matt Fraction and David Aja’s now-classic Hawkeye run and Tom King’s Vision arc are fantastic examples of how cape stories could be in this day age. Both have a distinct deconstructive approach to tackling superhero stories akin to modern-day independent cinema. It’s no surprise that they’re getting a live-action adaptation of both stories despite them existing less than a decade with the upcoming Hawkeye and Wandavision Disney+ series.
By design, stories nowadays are conceived with the intent of bundling them in paperback/graphic novel form. Whereas back in the day, comics only existed in single issues. Stories were marketed individually. Daredevil: Born Again wasn’t referred to as Born Again until it was reprinted in graphic novel form. Up until that point, it was simply known as Daredevil #227-233. In this graphic novel era, there is a stronger push for long-form storytelling. The kind that Marvel Studios draws inspiration from.
We live in an era where the summer crossover events are everything to publishers. Gone are the days where events used to be contained in a small particular run. Now, crossover events are highly-publicized marketing ploys, composed of multiple tie-in stories that culminate in one big comic extravaganza. Sound familiar? That’s because it is in many ways the same thing Marvel Studios is doing with their films.
And thanks to the success of Hollywood comic adaptations, the industry has attained somewhat of a resurgence in publicity. Civil War was one of the first comic stories to gain international notoriety just for the novelty of pitting superheroes against each other. The publicity became so big that even my non-comic book reading relatives heard about it elsewhere. The bigger the story, the bigger the spectacle. Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame may not be based on recent stories but the way they were designed in the MCU apes the modern way crossover events are told. Just for their scale alone, it’ll only be a matter of time until we see stories like the latest Secret Wars or Siege happen on-screen.
As for the older stories, they do get their live-action dues here and there. Most if not all ideas plucked from the stories of old are centered around a character’s essence and origin story. By design the Avengers are based on the Ultimates line, however, the first film takes cues from the original Stan Lee and Jack Kirby story where the team is forced to convene to defeat Loki. The beats of Stephen Strange’s journey towards mysticism are from Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s original ideas. The idea that Scott Lang is a reformed convict trying to make good with his daughter by stealing the Ant-Man suit is straight out of his original appearance in the 70s. Iron Man 2 was originally intended to be an adaptation for the iconic Demon in a Bottle storyline but because of the alcoholism aspect, the concept was vetoed and watered down to Tony battling the intoxication of the arc reactor instead of alcohol. As bad as they are, elements of the Thor films take inspiration from the amazing run by Walt Simonson.
Barring all the problematic stuff that made you go yikes from the olden era, there’s an unmistakable charm to the classics. The Saturday Morning Cartoon style of writing can seem to be dated at times but you can’t help but revere the SMASH!, BOOM!, POW!, EXCELSIOR! sincerity of Stan Lee. The way these stories struck the right thing at the right time and how timeless it got as the world changed. Spider-Man’s themes from the Silver Age still resonate in this day. The redemption stories of Iron Man and Stephen Strange continues to echo in our minds this day.
Of course, a lot of stories from that era had ideas that absolutely insane groundbreaking; no one had seen the likes The Coming of Galactus and Infinity Gauntlet when they were released. The stories defined what original truly meant back then. It’s because of these stories that the modern era has a foundation to build something on. The MCU at its core works because of how ingrained old-fashioned earnestness to the way they write these characters in a modern light. As Coulson puts it, we all could use a little old-fashioned these days.
It’ll be interesting to see how the MCU moves forward with taking modern comic inspiration in the next decade or so. It was announced not too long ago that Kevin Feige was being promoted to Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer, which meant all stories spanning television, comics, and film would have to go through his desk. Feige today has essentially the say to whatever kind of story he wants in the comics for the MCU to draw from. That could either go horribly wrong due to the forced corporate synergy or it could go well if Feige tells the comics division to continue telling bold and ambitious stories independent of what’s happening on screen.