Author's Note: This is a bit of a ramble. I apologize for how my brain works.
This weekend Avengers: Infinity War is in full swing. I haven’t seen it yet, but I have been paying attention to the way people are responding to it. I have no doubt I’ll like it if not love it, but I don’t get to the movies as much as I wish I could anymore. And I think I’m passed the days of seeing things on opening weekend.
There are many Marvel characters I like, though I think I tend to be more of a DC guy. Nevertheless, 10 years and 19 films later, you cannot deny the juggernaut (pun totally intended) that is the MCU. They have the shared universe that movie studios desperately want, but at the moment, they are the only ones that have managed to do it successfully.
Just to reflect: Warner Bros is stumbling along with their DC Universe. Paramount is trying to reboot the Transformers with a shared universe that will include a new G.I. Joe and possibly other Hasbro properties such as MASK, Rom: Space Knight, Visionaries, and Micronauts in a string of films. Sony was toying around with combining their 21 Jump Street franchise with a Men In Black crossover/reboot, and Sony recently went into business with Valiant to develop a shared universe for their comic book properties. Universal also attempted and already failed at a shared Monster Movie Universe right out of the starting gate with Tom Cruise's lackluster The Mummy remake. These are just the major attempts at a shared universe and I am sure there are others we don't know about yet. Regardless, none have come close to replicating the formula.
I’ve been thinking about the shared universe piece quite a bit. The MCU still doesn’t have all of their characters to play in their shared universe. They are only sharing Spider-Man with Sony. All of the other Spidey characters (minus Aunt May) are not part of the shared universe…yet. I personally think one misstep from Sony and they’ll be desperate to partner with Marvel again. To be honest, they’d be better off letting Marvel run the Spidey films completely and release the films while taking in a share of the profit. If their Venom movie tanks, they’ll be sorry.
The Fantastic Four and X-Men are still at Fox, and although it seems the Disney/Fox merger is all but approved, it still hasn’t cleared the final hurdle. I understand Namor’s rights are even weirder and tangled up. And of course, the Hulk can appear in tons of MCU films, but cannot get another solo film because Universal still has the rights to release those. So, Marvel's shared universe is still missing some valuable parts. As a fan, I hope they figure it out eventually.
I love the Marvel movies. They can always be counted on to be worth a viewer’s time, and often they are amazing character pieces that lend themselves to both entertaining and intellectual analysis. For a short time there, I was of the opinion that Marvel’s TV properties – Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Agents of SHIELD – were the best characters and stories Marvel was putting out. (With the exception of the lame Iron Fist and Inhumans TV show.) But the last three Marvel films (counting the recent Avengers movie, Black Panther, and Thor: Ragnarok) have taken their films to another level. I haven’t seen Avengers: Infinity War yet, but I know that regardless of my personal opinion, it is another game changer for them. Just watching the trailers for it, seeing the Guardians of the Galaxy and Iron Man and Spider-Man together onscreen, makes that shared universe larger and smaller at the same time.
So where am I going with this?
I forget which comic creator posted it, but one of them spoke of the recent Avengers movie and how all of the critics were impressed with the handling of the shared universe, and this same creator said something like, “Comics have been juggling shared universes a long time before the films ever did.”
That creator had a point, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.
Before I unpack some of these thoughts, I want to acknowledge a few apples to oranges. Comparing comics to movies is unfair to both mediums. They require different moving parts to make either work, and there is a level of cost and coordination form a big budget film that eclipses the cost and planning on a comic. Comic creators work just as hard to create stories as filmmakers, but there are fewer moving pieces to a comic and films take a ridiculous amount of money and time to create. I’m not arguing against this fundamental truth.
Comic book events, like the MCU shared universe, also require coordination from multiple parties to make the overall story work. There are writers and artists and editors, sometimes working in multiple creative teams from a myriad of different titles. Sometimes these events work and are good, and sometimes they don’t and are not. Although there is always a chance for “event fatigue”, these comic book stories are fun because our favorite characters get to interact with one another.
Hell, I loved Thor Ragnarok for bringing Thor and Hulk together in a galactic-buddy-cop kind of way. I like that Nick Fury could randomly pop up in a film, any film, just because. Dr. Strange’s inclusion in the recent Thor film was also well done. But except for larger event crossovers in multiple books, comics never have to try that hard to have characters interact with each other in fun and meaningful ways. There could be a comic where Hulk’s nemesis the Leader partners with Doctor Octopus to face off against Deadpool, who has secretly developed a crush on the Invisible Woman and now she is forced to team up with Wade to save her family, and Namor is having none of it. That story could come out from Marvel in a month or two, and it wouldn’t require getting four different film studios to put aside their egos and films rights to the characters to make it work.
Jimmy Palmiotti recently tweeted that all of the actors/filmmakers/people involved in making films based on characters that were created in comics could spend some time helping the industry. I understand his point. Movie watchers hardly translate into additional sales for the comics. I’ve watched many interviews with actors who bring these characters to life and most rarely exalt the comics that gave life to their characters first and when they do, it is almost a passing, almost embarrassed, reference. There are of course exceptions to this rule, but by and large, no one takes time to explain or reference the rich stories and character work done in the medium that still handles the shared universes better than anyone else.
I wasn’t the biggest fan of Marvel’s Civil War comic book, but I could easily tell a fan of the film Captain America Civil War that the comic version includes the Fantastic Four, the X-Men and that Spider-Man has a bigger role in the story. It also features gorgeous art and there are many side stories that appeared in other monthly titles worth looking at. I mean, ending aside, the comic book version of Civil War does things that the film never could. It simply doesn’t have access to all of the fan-favorite characters or time to tell the story passed the two and a half hour mark.
Comics have utilized shared universes for almost 80 years. Think about that for a moment. The MCU has 10 years and 19 films. Comics as a whole have eight times that and literally thousands upon thousands of stories. Although big event types of stories really developed in the 80s, that still gives comics almost four decades on the films for these major event stories.
Shared universes are amazing and the MCU deserves major kudos for making it work in film in a way no other studio can replicate. But regardless of what critics say, the MCU didn’t create the shared universe, and it isn’t complete. Comics still do it best and they have been doing it for longer. Part of me is genuinely tired of video games and films taking comic characters and not tipping their hats enough to the storytellers that made those characters great to begin with. Maybe comics could use a little help from those that have a larger audience to address. Everyone that loves the new Spider-Man should read Brian Michael Bendis’ Ultimate Spider-Man run he created with artists Mark Bagley, Stuart Immonen, and others, up to and including the transition to Miles Morales. Fans of the Avengers should read the Ultimates or better yet, read Secret Invasion or the Dark Avengers. Some of the craziest Marvel villains masquerading as heroes for a while? I very much doubt we’ll ever get to see Norman Osborn match wits with Tony Stark.
I don’t want to turn this into a films vs comics rant and I’m sorry if it feels like it. I just want to point out that comics could use more of a push when the characters that appear in them reach larger audiences in a different medium. As a comic fan, I often get to see Spider-Man and the Human Torch be buddies, Batman and Superman having good crossovers, Hulk fighting and teaming up with tons of characters, Deadpool behaving only when he is in the presence of Captain America, and a million other combinations we’ll probably never see in the cinema.
So I thought I’d mention some of the better comic book shared universe/events that readers should read in celebration of an achievement like Avengers infinity War.
DC’s 52: Probably still my favorite of all the shared universe stories. In a year without Batman, Wonder Woman, or Superman, the DC characters all fight and struggle and discover new mysteries in this year-long weekly comic book. Greg Rucka, Grant Morrison, Mark Waid, Geoff Johns, and Keith Giffen wrote this series, and many different wonderful artists illustrated it. It is without a doubt a crowning achievement in shared universe stories and if you’ve never read it, I highly recommend giving it a shot. It takes some of the lesser-known characters in the DCU and provides them a chance to shine.
Although I wasn’t much of a Civil War fan, if I were to choose a shared universe event that encompasses all of Marvel’s characters, it would be House of M. The Scarlet Witch changes reality to one where the mutants were the dominant powered people on Earth and Magneto and his family were in charge. Bendis wrote the main series with art by Olivier Coipel, and the House of M also ran through many mini-series and regular titles. This alternate reality take was very satisfying as a fan, and I actually think once Marvel gets the mutant characters back, this could be a good lead in to introduce the mutants to the MCU if adapted.
Although it is extremely dated now, the Crisis on Infinite Earths title is well worth the time and effort to read it. There is a wonderful variety of DC characters, some of whom are no longer appearing in the monthly books, that are showncased in this event. The final sacrifice of Barry Allen and the passing of the mantle to Wally West is one of the highlights of this moment in DC history. The story by Marv Wolfman and art by George Perez take it to another level.
X-Men: Age of Apocalypse was probably my favorite shared universe story in high school. Like House of M, there was an alternate reality created for the X-Men and their titles where Professor X was killed leading to a different present for all of the X-characters. This might be one of the titles I’d be afraid to revisit in case it didn’t hold up, but I have fond memories of familiar X-characters that were changed in interesting ways from how I knew them. I also think it would be a fantastic story for fans of Marvel’s mutants to check out.
Even though it wasn’t a huge event spanning a ridiculous amounts of books, I do think DC’s Kingdom Come is an exceptional shared universe title and one of the best books to showcase Superman, among others. This alternate, dark future of the DCU manages to be quite hopeful even if some of my favorite heroes had fallen on hard times.
The Valiant Universe is still impressive in the way it tells stories through multiple books in its shared universe. Both the original incarnation of the Valiant titles and the current crop of titles are quite impressive. They’ve also managed to have some top talent working on their books like Jeff Lemire, Matt Kindt, CAFU, Peter Miiligan, Barry Kitson, Trevor Hairsine, Christos Gage, Darick Robertson, and more. Valiant’s relaunch a handful of years ago was extremely good and they might be the most underrated publisher in comics right now.
Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson’s Astro City might be a singular title, but this book is full of superheroes is as rich and varied as all of DC or Marvel’s lineup. Sporting lavish covers by Alex Ross, the creators have told original and interesting stories usually focused on the people that live in a city full of superheroes while also looking at familiar superhero archetypes in a new light. If you were looking for a shared universe of characters but didn’t want to engage in lots of different titles to make it work, you could rarely do better than picking up Astro City.
There are many other stories or publisher lineups I could mention. There are many other shared universes I could suggest such as Hellboy/BPRD at Darkhorse, Wildstorm at DC (formerly at Image), or even Robert Kirkman’s Invincible, but I believe I’ve given plenty of great places to start for readers that are still new to shared universe stories.
If you love what the MCU has accomplished, and it is quite an impressive feat, try some of the comics. Try something old or new because it all might be new for you. Let’s not be embarrassed that the films that are mostly beloved now, came from stories that have been beloved for many decades. And even if you love Marvel, know that there is so much more. We may never have a great DC, Valiant, Astro City, or other cinematic universes. It would be a shame to lose access to those shared universes simply because they never made films the way that the MCU does.
Let’s read some comics.