With over a decade of storytelling, and creating a truly interwoven on-screen comic book universe, it’s no surprise that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has had to reinvent several characters, storylines, and ideas – and that got me thinking about how the MCU uses reinvention. Namely taking a look at the idea of The MCU and Reinventing The Comic Books for its live-action on-screen universe.
I’m sure it’s a surprise to no one that the MCU takes advantage of its characters being around for decades in comic book form, and most movies combine different comic book arcs.
Thor Ragnarok took parts of the Ragnarok storyline and blended them with the Planet Hulk story – Some movies go to a deeper level, like with Spider-Man: Homecoming, which takes much of its inspiration from the more modern, Ultimate Spider-Man Miles Morales, and mixes that into the more traditional Peter Parker version of the character.
And through the MCU, as a sort lense, it over and over again reinvents the source material into a believable (you know, as much as any of this stuff is believable), grounded, real, fun, and in most cases incredibly well put together story.
But that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been plenty of changes that have outraged fans – because as everyone knows – it’s almost too easy to piss off fanboys on the Internet.
Perhaps the best case of adapting and reinventing a comic book storyline is Captain America: The Winter Soldier, where the Russo brothers took the opportunity to not only bring the Winter Soldier story to the big screen, or again, a version of it that works within the MCU.
But also use that as a clever way to show that S.H.I.E.L.D, the secret organisation that was responsible for bringing the Avengers together, and has been a secret but seemingly good organisation lurking in the background of the entire MCU up to this point – is actually mostly HYDRA, and are in fact very bad guys.
It’s such a brilliant example of taking a great comic book storyline like the Winter Soldier, wrapping it around the version of the characters the MCU has established and using those storylines to push the characters into new directions.
Another example of this is, no surprises here is the other Russo brothers directed Captain America movie – Captain America: Civil War, where it heavily alters the Civil War comic book storyline, partly due to a lack of mutants and a smaller number of heroes, but also to make it a Captain America movie, and really hinge it on these two pillars of the MCU that is Steve Rogers and Tony Stark, and their opposing ideologies.
The movie uses the previous Avengers and Captain America movies, and incidents in the MCU as a reason for superhero registration and blends the spirit of the comic book story with what has been established in the twelve movies leading into it.
Some Marvel fans were unhappy with the lower stakes of the story, and the hugely altered role Spider-Man had in the film. In the comics, Peter Parker reveals himself as Spider-Man to the public whilst on Iron Man’s team, but eventually switches to Captain America’s underground team.
And yet I don’t think anyone can deny how good of a movie Civil War is, and how it managed to use the themes and ideas presented in the comics, like superhero registration versus anonymity, and apply them to the MCU as it stood at that point.
Some story examples I wish were a little more accurate to the comics is something like Tony Stark’s irresponsibility in Iron Man 2. There his excessive partying, and reckless behaviour like driving the car at the Monaco Grand Prix, and drunkenly partying in the Iron Man suit comes down to him dying from Palladium poisoning – rather than just being an alcoholic which is a huge part of Tony’s character in the comics, explored in the iconic Demon in a Bottle storyline.
I understand that making him an alcoholic puts that on the character forever and can’t just be forgotten after one movie (like the Palladium poisoning was), and it’s totally forgivable as these movies have to be marketable to kids and families, and yet I think in cases like this it could have added a darker, deeper, more meaningful note to a storyline, one that RDJ would have been so good at bringing to the screen.
Moving on to a more specific level, this idea of reinventing the source material and comic books don’t just apply to the bigger picture events or storylines, it’s individual characters as well.
Where most of the heroes, like Thor, Captain America, Iron Man, Black Widow and just about everyone else lies somewhere between an amalgamation of the various comic book iterations of the characters, and the actors own take on the role – others get a total overhaul, that not only updates these characters and makes them much more realistic and engaging but also makes them work perfectly for the MCU.
One character that gets a contentious reinvention, but one that I’d argue is objectively clever, but I’ll admit in context is maybe not what the comic book fans would have wanted – is the Mandarin.
For the MCU, the Mandarin is initially presented as a pretty smart modern-day version of the character, who leads the ten rings group, hijacks US tv networks, and is attacking the country in a very believable way.
In the comics, however, the Mandarin is Tony Stark’s arch-nemesis, and he draws powers from his ten magical rings, and like all comic book characters has several notable versions – but in one way or another has always been key to Iron Man’s story.
But in Iron Man 3, after who we have been led to believe is the Mandarin for most of the movie is revealed to be a fake, Guy Pierce’s Aldrich Killian then proclaims himself to be ‘the real Mandarin’ after revealing himself to be behind the fake persona of the character portrayed by Sir Ben Kingsley’s Trevor Slattery.
So for people unhappy about that version of Mandarin, in the MCU’s defence, the All Hail the King short introduces the idea that another, presumably more comic accurate ‘real Mandarin’ does exist out there, we already know the ten rings is a real organisation as they are the ones who kidnapped Tony in the first movie.
This is something that will likely be explored in the upcoming Shang-Chi and the Legend of the – ‘Ten Rings’.
I get people being a little annoyed at the Mandarin being Aldrich Killian and combining that with the Iron Man Extremis arc, but at the same time, the idea that this over the top, comic book style villain exists in the MCU, that turns out to be an intentionally over the top front for another villain – is pretty cool, and clever.
I think other characters that fall into this category of, hugely different from the comics and displeasing some fans, but in terms of the MCU work really well, are Ultron, and Hela.
It’s perhaps these changes that led to one of the persisting criticisms of the MCU. That for a long time most of the villains were underdeveloped one-note (pretty much everyone other than Loki).
But one character that I think everyone can agree on being an incredible reinvention from the comics is Spider-Man Homecoming’s Vulture.
In the comics, animated series, and most of his various versions, Adrian Toomes aka the Vulture is just a clever but creepy old guy that made himself a wingsuit that also gives him superhuman strength (somehow).
But the name of ‘Vulture’ other than his wings and fondness for feathers doesn’t really play into the character at all.
His older age, along with the feather-covered costume, lack of exciting powers or motivations, is likely why it took five previous movies using up more popular and established Spider-Man villains to get to Vulture.
But in the MCU he is completely different from the comics, and yet it is an amazing reinvention, one that I’d argue makes a better motivated, developed, explained and compelling character than years worth of comics.
The MCU version of Toomes is essentially an arms dealer, who, like a Vulture, giving a good, real reason for the name, not just linking him to an animal because of Spider-Man
Like a Vulture, he scavenges artefacts and items from superhero, alien, and other MCU incidents – again blending the character with the established on-screen universe. Vulture’s tech is taken from the likes of the Chitauri invasion in the first Avengers movie, various Iron Man parts, Ultron weaponry from Avengers: Age of Ultron, and plenty more.
Vulture’s look is also incredible and takes the spirit of what the character should be with the feathers and wings, and makes it very believable, with some awesome tech, an aviator jacket and helmet, that kind of has the feathers – it’s all very, very cool.
But taking that even further, not only does the character collect items that relate to past of the MCU, and look awesome, his entire story and motivations come from a scene at the beginning of the movie that takes place eight years before the rest of it (or if you want to ignore the Homecoming splash screen and get the timeline right… *ahem* something closer to 6, or maybe 7 – I actually don’t know, but neither does the MCU and they’ve even admitted they got that bit wrong…).
Right after the Avengers and the Chitauiri trash New York in the 2012 Avengers movie, Toomes gets the contract from the city government to clean it up and salvage the materials, only to be ousted by the newly established Damage Control.
The scene cuts to Toomes and his men talking about how Tony Stark was the one who made the mess and is now getting paid to clean it up.
The movie not only introduces an awesome new version of an iconic comic book character but uses him to take a deeper look at the characters it’s already established, – giving us a different view on someone like Tony Stark, this time from the ground up
And then combines them to make a really interesting parallel between Vulture and Spider-Man, who are both the little guy, just trying to make their way in the world and protect what they believe in and care for.
It just happens that Spider-Man believes in helping everyone, whereas Toomes believes in helping himself and his family.
You can also take almost all of those points, and apply them to the second MCU Spider-Man movie villain, Jake Gyllenhal’s Mysterio from Spider-Man: Far From Home – who is not only expertly injected into a story that deals with the aftermath of Avengers: Endgame.
But is ingeniously placed into a key part of the MCU (as a former and now very disgruntled employee of Tony Stark) – like Vulture, Mysterio goes from a cheesy villain, that before the movie you’d think “there is no chance they can have him in the relatively – again relatively – grounded MCU and make it work, and feel like it makes sense” – and yet they did it, and made it look easy.
Mysterio creates his illusion with some advanced Stark drones, he wears an actual VFX motion capture suit, he is no longer a former set designer – which I guess kind of made sense – instead, he used to work for Tony Stark, and actually developed this technology, which we first saw way back in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War.
It’s so good, and of course, both Vulture and Mysterio are underpinned by some great performances from Michael Keaton – god that car scene – and Jake Glynehal – god that loveable smile.
Overall the MCU has managed to take its source material and elevate it into a logical, mostly, consistent, continuous and interconnected story, which is something even the comics often have trouble with.
There have undoubtedly been some issues with timelines, characterisations, and whether certain rules make sense.
But generally speaking, the MCU has taken years worth of stories and characters and made an amazing on-screen universe, one that is already, and likely will be for a long time, the gold standard in how to create an interwoven set of stories, that develop their characters, explore deeper themes, deliver truly epic moments… and most importantly (for Disney at least) – make lots and lots of money.
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