Art from Civil War #1 by Steve McNiven.
Combing through the panels of major Marvel Comics crossovers for crucial points of reference for what’s playing out — and what may still be on the horizon — in the MCU.
With Marvel wrapping what is currently the studio’s final TV series of the year — She-Hulk: Attorney At Law’s first season — Phase 4 of the MCU will be pushed into its 56th hour of runtime. For those keeping count, that’s already two Black Panther sequels longer than all three preceding phases combined, and it doesn’t even factor in the second season of the What If…? animated series expected in late 2022/early 2023, the actual Black Panther sequel releasing November 11, or the standalone Guardians of The Galaxy holiday special, which will bring this wildly bloated saga to a close when it lands on Disney+ at some point in December.
With so many minutes to log and threads to keep track of across the endless sprawl of Marvel IP, tracing the bell of Kevin Feige and Disney’s master plan for the splintered, yet loosely overlapping segments of the MCU is almost impossible. And, frankly, liberties taken with the source material aren’t making it any easier. However, despite a severe lack of canon fidelity in the writer’s rooms, the comic book panels that inspired the current and incoming phases remain a singular source of context for what’s playing out — and what may still be on the horizon — in the MCU. After all, we’re only just beginning to get hints of the X-Men and Fantastic Four gradually seeping into the MCU, when both teams were integral contributors to stories already flipped into blockbuster adaptations.
How Feige & Co. navigate the introduction of those key players as they take on ambitious events like Secret Wars, Secret Invasion, and whatever they have planned for The Richards Family (and Doom, of course) once they’re firmly in the MCU, should determine just how massive Marvel’s multiverse will get over the next few years. And so, instead of fixating on where, when, or even why we landed in a perpetually fraying state of dimensional imbalance and how the missing pieces will fall into place, we’ve combed the major Marvel Comics crossover events of the last two or so decades to find some crucial points of reference for those who may be lost in the multiversal madness of the MCU.
Many of these will seem obvious; with only a handful of exceptions, the MCU doesn’t tend to pull from obscure runs. And there are so many elements of stories already adapted only just being serviced, that hitting the books will prove an invaluable resource in keeping your eyes on an endgame, no matter how rapidly Feige ramps up his caped and costumed cinematic universe.
Head over to Marvel to grab digital versions. But in many cases, the art alone is worth a trip to your local shop (or even eBay), and it is strongly advised to seek out hard copies if you can.
House of M
While it isn’t exactly source code for the direction Marvel has taken with the character, WandaVision (and the general magnitude of Wanda Maximoff’s abilities/implications across the MCU) is at least loosely inspired by Brian Michael Bendis’ 2005 run in an alternate mutant-dominant Marvel Comics universe. The main connections between the House of M pages and the screen adaptation, are the sudden escalation of Wanda to reality-bending universal threat, and how her grief defined that transformation, which has been the looming tragedy of the Scarlet Witch’s current status in the MCU. Beyond that, Wolverine’s chase to reassemble the X-Men in the wake of Wanda’s “big moment” could serve as a way to introduce the team properly in the MCU. That is, if the writing team doesn’t opt for something less obvious/more contemporary like John Hickman’s stellar House of X/Powers of X relaunch in 2018 (or some strange hybridization of the two), as the multiversal origin story for mutantkind.
The 2016 film may seem like a relic at this point, but we’re still very much living in a post-Civil War MCU. Steve Rogers and Tony Stark are out of the picture. The caped populous is fractured along a number of philosophical and metaphysical lines. And we’re just beginning to see how what’s left of those teams deliberate the merits of remaining anonymous vigilantes, as opposed to living open and transparent lives as superpowered public servants. That last bit is at the heart of Mark Millar’s colossal (and categorically epic) Civil War crossover, which covered damn-near every corner of Marvel’s map and redefined the “tie in” as we know it, when it began hitting shelves in 2006. While the MCU doesn’t have a “Stamford incident” or a “Superhero Registration Act” verbatim to polarize its powered people, the Sokovia Accords introduced in Captain America: Civil War serve the same regulatory function in governing the MCU. It feels like we’re angling toward a callback to that, and how heroes navigate the moral, social, and political math of being a public figure with wild abilities. In Millar’s story, the tensions and ideological divides pit “Big Brother” heroes against more “blue collar” suits, led by a street-level team comprising Daredevil, Spider-Man, and Luke Cage, all of three who, based on the titles slated for Phases 5, 6 and 7, will probably play pretty central roles in the future of the Earth-bound MCU. So don’t be surprised if other aspects of Millar’s panels get blown up for the big and small screen.
While we can’t yet speak for which parts of Bendis’ thrilling multi-angle alien infiltration will get factored into Feige’s cinematic calculous, there is a series inspired by Secret Invasion coming to Disney in 2023, and it’s a great opportunity to add a new style of storytelling to Marvel’s bag. Bendis’ 2008 run was a conspiratorial investigation of intergalactic proportions, pinpointing and exploiting the vulnerabilities of the hero community uncovered during Civil War, while thoroughly sowing seeds of distrust and paranoia among them. Handled properly, a small screen adaptation of Secret Invasion could be the first step in expanding Marvel’s cosmic regime just as The Guardians of The Galaxy ready their exit, while offering further exposition for a (re)introduction of The Illuminati, who tend to make some pretty terrible decisions on behalf of the planet.
Planet Hulk/World War Hulk
Speaking of The Illuminati, should you end up reading Secret Invasion or Civil War, you’ll probably notice the suspicious absence of a certain green rage monster smashing about in all the ruckus. That would be a direct result of the shadowy supergroup deeming him too dangerous to remain on Earth, and subsequently launching him into space to fend for himself on a distant planet, which is the subject of Greg Pak’s 2006 run, Planet Hulk. In the MCU, we saw a rough adaptation of this in Age of Ultron and Thor: Ragnorok. But based on the surprising conclusion of She-Hulk: Attorney At Law, it’s safe to say Hulk’s time climbing the ranks, starting a family, and eventually ruling society on Sakaar has earned renewed scrutiny. Paired with the vengeful sequel World War Hulk, Pak’s two-fer on the Hulk’s transition from unhinged and volatile to smooth-talking and oddly sophisticated, is an exciting and empathetic read that should offer plenty of context for what may be on the horizon for the Jade Giant in the MCU.
Finally, we’ve reached what could be considered the holy grail of Marvel Comics crossovers. Told across three years of releases and nearly a decade of world-building and destroying, Jon Hickman’s Secret Wars arc is the great and fairly dark reset a frayed, overly convoluted Marvel print universe was probably always destined for. It collapses all of the multiversal madness into a single and dire circumstance, in which Doctor Doom recreates the world out of a dying universe, and becomes a literal god after absorbing the powers of an entity that exists beyond the fabric of space and time. Due to licensing and legalities, much of what Secret Wars covers has yet to be explored on the screen. However, the first traces of Secret Wars fodder have already been spotted in the MCU with the introduction of incursions (or two realities terminally colliding) in Doctor Strange and The Multiverse of Madness. That means we’re probably well on our way to a cleanse of similar scale and impact in the cinematic universe. The good news is you’ve got about four years to take in as much of the Secret Wars series as you see necessary. The slightly less good news is that you’ll probably need the full brunt of that time to flip through all of the tie-ins, supporting components, and peripheral details of a story Hickman started writing with his absolutely essential Fanstastic Four reboot in 2009.