Marvel Studios has released some of the biggest films of the last decade - both in terms of box office and cultural impact. Through a time-tested recipe equal parts familiarity and ambition, Disney and Marvel have proven they know what they’re doing. That’s not going to stop me from giving some advice.
The MCU needs its own Marvels.
Written by Kurt Busiek and featuring painted artwork by Alex Ross, Marvels was published in 1994 as a mini-series that took a look at the Marvel Universe through the eyes of everyman Phil Sheldon, a photojournalist who, through his camera, captured the human perspective of some of the biggest events in Marvel’s fictional comic book history. From the emergence of World War II era superheroes such as Namor to the Human Torch to the rise of the Avengers to the arrival of Galactus to the death of Gwen Stacy, Sheldon was there, illustrating just how godlike superheroes can seem when you’re just an ordinary schlub living in New York City.
Through Busiek’s words and Ross’ art, Marvels Forrest Gumped the Marvel Universe, giving the storylines fans had known and loved a larger significance and a heftier weight by putting a central figure audiences could identify with in the midst of all the calamity of the Marvel Universe.
The mini-series was a commercial and critical success and Marvel spent the next decade chasing that success with a series of other books and series. Chuck Dixon’s excellent Code of Honor told another everyman story, this time from the perspective of an NYPD cop who struggles to know what his place is as a law enforcer in a world where vigilantes take justice into their own hands. Tales of the Marvels was a series of one-shots and mini-series that told such stories as a homeless alcoholic who finds salvation through a friendship with Namor the Sub-Mariner or a young woman who devotes her life to worshiping Wonder Man after he saves her during a robot rampage. There was even a sequel in Marvels: Eyes of the Camera in which Busiek returned to tell new stories with Phil Sheldon, alongside new artist Jay Anacleto.
Other companies released their own versions, such as DC’s Kingdom Come, a series also illustrated by Alex Ross in which a minister serves as the narrator for an apocalyptic showdown among two generations of heroes, and Astro City, a collaboration between Kurt Busiek, Alex Ross and Brent Anderson that saw the three create a new universe of characters and told stories about them from a more grounded perspective than most comics.
While the idea of exploring the world of superheroes through the eyes of the people that live in their world was nothing new (check out 1984’s Amazing Spider-Man # 248 aka “The Kid who Collects Spider-Man”), Marvels ushered in a new crop of introspective comic books that painted a picture of what it would be like to live in a world of superheroes from the perspective of those without powers. The thing that all these projects have in common is an approach to storytelling that deals in the nostalgic, the profound, the humane - painting the men and women in costumes that soar overhead as more demigods than the flawed, human creations we have come to know and love through their traditional stories. Phil Sheldon never knew of how the tragedy of Gwen Stacy’s death impacted Peter Parker - he just saw a superhero swing away callously after failing to save a young woman from a man dressed as a goblin. By putting audiences in the shoes of Sheldon, Busiek and Ross were able to shake up and revitalize the idea of what it means to be a hero.
Which brings us back to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Under the leadership of Kevin Feige, the MCU has told some of the biggest stories in comic book history - in which the fate of the very universe was fought over by dozens of characters we have come to know and love over the last eleven years. Where do they go from here?
From the bits of news and rumors that have emerged, it seems that the MCU is definitely taking a step back from the epic, worlds-encompassing storytelling of Endgame for their next few films. I can only imagine Shang-Chi isn’t going to be a movie where the fate of humanity is at stake, Black Widow sure seems to be set in the past and I’ve heard The Eternals described as a romance movie. Disney knows that they can’t keep churning out Endgame-sized films indefinitely.
With their biggest stars’ contracts at an end and time needed to turn newer characters into the beloved cultural touchstones I am sure they will become, Disney and the MCU need to shake up the kind of stories they are telling. Audiences have gotten used to the idea of an ensemble film featuring a cast of dozens, and a decade of smaller character-focused films are sure to leave fans hungry for some of that epic profundity they have gotten used to. With no Infinity Wars on the horizon, what’s Disney to do?
With an MCU take on Marvels, Disney can create a story that allows the use of all their characters (even the ones that just recently were acquired with the absorption of Fox) without the constraints of continuity. While the concept of a highly-connected universe of shared characters has been an exciting thing to experience for the first ten years of the MCU, I am willing to speak on behalf of fans when I say that this concept has met its natural end. I’m not calling for the end of continuity - let the MCU continue with new characters and new adventures of the characters we know and love, but Disney should not be afraid to tell new stories featuring old characters and to tell them in new ways.
The release and success of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse showed that audiences are perfectly capable of dealing with multiple simultaneous big-screen versions of a superhero. It’s time for Disney to start releasing Marvel movies that are not part of the MCU.
With a Marvels movie, Disney doesn’t have to hire big name actors to play the superheroes. In Busiek and Ross’ series, most of the heroes are only seen in costume with their faces obscured, or off in the distance fighting their battles beyond the scope of mere humans. Instead, Disney can put the money into a great actor to play Phil Sheldon, a visionary director able to translate the beauty of Alex Ross’ paintings to the big screen and really play up the iconography of the characters we have grown to know and love. They can make their own Forrest Gump.
Because Kevin Feige has shown that he’s more than capable of twisting and contorting an existing comic book storyline into something new and exciting for the big screen, I don’t even expect a faithful translation of Marvels. Create something new! Take elements of Code of Honor, Spider-Man’s Tangled Web (another great series that looked at Spider-Man’s impact on his world and friends) or any number of stuff that’s been written about the characters and create something that resonates with fans of the MCU. Heck, they can even make a Marvels entrenched in the world of the MCU. I would be beyond fascinated to see what impact on a person the Battle of New York or The Snap would have had on a normal person.
When it comes down to it, I just want to see Disney and Marvel start doing some new and exciting things with their characters - both within and outside the MCU. I would love to see them release some animated films that are set during the missing years of Captain America and Iron Man’s careers as superheroes. It would be fantastic to see an adaptation of Mark Millar’s 1985, a comic book series that is tailor-made for this post Stranger Things world in which a kid in the ‘80s finds Marvel superheroes and villains are literally escaping out of his comic books and into the real world. Marvel could do something like Spider-Man: Life Story, the currently running Chip Zdarsky-written series that looks at Spider-Man’s career in real time, beginning in the ‘60s and running through modern day. Superhero biopics, mockumentaries, gritty noirs set in the Bar with No Name. The list of possibilities are endless. Just like the variety of different styles of Marvel comic books are endless, I would love to see more variety in the way Disney is using their Marvel characters. The Marvel Cinematic Universe was a grand achievement but as long as they stay shackled to it, Disney is limiting the types of stories they can tell.
Disney and Marvel have shown they clearly know the key to making successful superhero films. They have literally broken the mold. Let it stay broken. It’s time to tell new types of stories with these characters.