There’s an unusual relationship between Marvel Comics and Marvel Studios. The comics are the original source material, and they’ve inspired every MCU film to some degree or another. At the same time, the MCU tends to make big, ambitious changes to that source material, a lot of which winds up inspiring similar changes in the comics. Sometimes comic creators find inspired ways of working these new elements into their books (Exiles introducing an MCU-inspired version of Valkyrie being one recent, notable example), and other times… we get Nick Fury, Jr. The constant back-and-forth relationship between the comics and the movies begs the question – why doesn’t Marvel publish more comics that are actually set in the MCU? Why aren’t they exploring that mostly untapped storytelling potential?
This question seems especially relevant now, with Marvel gearing up to release two new comics heavily inspired by the recent Black Panther movie, Shuri and Killmonger. Neither book is actually set in the MCU, but both are clearly drawing a lot of visual and stylistic inspiration from the movie.
The problem in some cases is that there’s only so much Marvel can do to bring in elements from the MCU. Shuri is a particularly notable example, as she’s an almost wholly different character in the comics. The comic version of Shuri is older and far more somber and detached in personality. She even went through a period where she served as Black Panther. It’s impossible to suddenly remold her in the image of MCU Shuri without flat-out disregarding more than a decade’s worth of stories. But if Marvel doesn’t, they risk alienating readers who come into the series specifically expecting a wisecracking teen lead. It’s a difficult situation that could be side-stepped if Marvel simply set the comic in the MCU and focused on that version of the character instead.
It’s frustrating at times to see how little Marvel has done to expand the MCU in print form. The majority of their MCU-focused output involves prologue comics, most of which settle for offering truncated retellings of earlier MCU films with a handful of new scenes added. Given that there are literally years of unexplored time separating each Avengers sequel, why don’t these comics do more to flesh out those unseen stories? Why isn’t there an MCU Avengers comic that explores the team’s other confrontations with Hydra leading up to the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron? What about comics that address some of the bigger loose ends in the MCU, such as the fate of the Abomination or the reveal that the true Mandarin actually exists? Or comics that provide the connective tissue between the movies, Agents of SHIELD and the Netflix shows that is so difficult to come by elsewhere? The possibilities are almost endless.
Unfortunately, Marvel seemingly has little interest in exploring those possibilities. Editor-in-Chief C.B. Cebulski made the company’s position clear in a recent CBS This Morning interview, where he said, “The movies are the face and the body. It’s what everybody sees. Our TV division are like the arms. Maybe consumer products are the legs that move the body along. But at the heart, we are the muscle that pumps the blood into the rest of the divisions to get that body to move along.”
Basically, Cebulski wants the comics to be the core foundation on which everything else is built. Which is certainly understandable. But at the same time, we’re at a point where the movies have begun influencing the comics as much as the comics are inspiring the movies. In some cases, the MCU changes the source material enough that it’s difficult to work those changes back into the comics, resulting in some painfully awkward stories like the aforementioned Nick Fury Jr. debacle. Again, there are times where it seems much easier to just set certain comics in the MCU rather than bend over backwards to make the comic universe more like its movie counterpart.
There may be more practical concerns preventing Marvel from diving more fully into MCU waters, however. Writer Fred Van Lente has indicated that Marvel Studios is actively preventing Marvel Comics from delving too deeply into MCU content. In 2013, Van Lente revealed that he once pitched a series set in the MCU and was shot down. “That was something I proposed many years ago and was told it wouldn’t be feasible,” he told Newsarama. “I sort of feel like Marvel wants to keep all the possibilities for the Marvel Cinematic Universe contained for potential movie and television development, and wants to give comics creators all the freedom to do what we do in the comics universe.”
Again, this position is understandable. Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige no doubt wants to keep all available avenues open for new MCU movies. If a certain Avengers villain is introduced in an MCU tie-in comic, then future films are either beholden to that existing continuity or are forced to ignore it, rendering that comic pointless.
It’s enough to wonder why Marvel doesn’t take a page from Lucasfilm and its approach to expanding the Star Wars franchise. Disney created the Lucasfilm Story Group, a team tasked with overseeing the larger saga and ensuring that every project, be it movie or TV show or novel or comic book, has its specific place in the larger puzzle and doesn’t contradict what’s come before or what will be coming a year or two down the line.
Marvel doesn’t necessarily need its own, full-fledged Story Group. Unlike Star Wars, there isn’t one singular Marvel Universe in which every comic and TV series and movie is set. But it does seem like there’s room for greater cooperation between Marvel’s comic and film divisions. Why not have a team dedicated to charting the course of the MCU and finding ways to expand that story in comic book form without impeding the flow of the movies?
We can only hope that Marvel moves in that direction in the future. While Marvel Comics should always make its traditional comic book universe its top priority, there’s too much potential in the idea of MCU tie-in comics for the company not to be going down that road.