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The Unfilmed Future of the Marvel Universe

Five slept-on superhero stories that are ready for their big-screen moments

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Marvel

Welcome to Future of Movies Week. Too often this year we’ve been left baffled at the multiplex. It’s been 10 months, and we’re struggling to come up with a viable top-10 list. Streaming platforms are encroaching on Hollywood’s share of our collective attention, preexisting intellectual property is providing diminishing returns, and moviegoers largely skipped Jack Reacher: Never Go Back. Wild days.

November will be different. It’s packed with interesting releases — Oscar contenders like Loving and Arrival and Manchester by the Sea, blockbusters from Marvel (Doctor Strange) and J.K. Rowling (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them), a Disney movie with Lin-Manuel Miranda and the Rock (Moana), and old-fashioned fare from big-name directors like Robert Zemeckis (Allied) and Warren Beatty (Rules Don’t Apply).

This week, we’re looking at the future — of film school, horror, the Marvel Universe, movie stars, and the medium itself.

Back in 2008, Zack Snyder summed up the thoughts of many when he told Entertainment Weekly: “The Marvel universe has gone nuts; we’re going to have a fricking Captain America movie if we’re not careful. Thor, too! We’re on our second Hulk movie. And Iron Man — $300 million domestic box office on a second-tier superhero!”

How prescient those words were. In 2012, Marvel’s The Avengers changed the movie landscape and ushered in the shared-universe era. It is no longer enough to adapt a single comic book hero for the big screen. Success is now measured by a studio’s ability to assemble (pun intended) a self-contained web of interlocking intellectual property. It seems quaint to recall a time when Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hawkeye, Black Widow, and the Hulk were deemed, by many, to be B-level heroes.

Marvel has sketched out its schedule from this week’s Doctor Strange all the way to 2019. The question is: Are there any Marvel Comics stories left to adapt? Of course there are.

Here are five likely (according to me) candidates:

‘Dark Reign’ (2008–2009)

Marvel and Sony’s custody-sharing agreement of the Spider-Man IP did more than allow the web slinger to appear, in all his snarky annoyingness, in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War. It also theoretically gives Marvel Studios access to Peter Parker’s colorful and extensive rogues gallery. Of those villains, none is more iconic than Norman Osborn, better known as the Green Goblin.

Villains are important in the superhero milieu because they are the canvas upon which heroes display their super-ness. There is, after all, a limited number of possible superhero setups and outcomes. For scenarios: good guy(s) vs. bad Guy(s) and good Guy(s) vs. good Guy(s). For outcomes: good guys win and bad guys win and various shades in between.

That’s it.

Once your Captain Americas and Thors and Black Widows have whooped so much ass — alien ass, Norse-god ass, time-traveling ass, Nazi ass, mad-scientist ass, Nazi ass again but this time inside a bunch of 1970s computers, evil-robot ass — that villains start stepping up for second and third helpings (this usually takes about 30–50 comic book issues), it’s time to upend the paradigm. It’s time for good guys to fight good guys (Captain America: Civil War). After that, it’s time for the bad guys to win. For a little while, at least.

Which brings us to Marvel’s 2008–2009 Dark Reign event.

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Marvel

Reeling from the events of the superhero civil war and the devastating, near-world-destroying rampage of a supremely pissed-off Hulk (more on this later), the Marvel Universe was brought lower still by an invasion of the shape-shifting alien race known as the Skrulls. Owing to their ability to restructure their bodies at the molecular level, Skrulls are impossible to detect without specialized equipment owned by the Fantastic Four’s Reed Richards. Over an unknown amount of years, Skrulls infiltrated key positions within the government and replaced several superheros with doppelgängers. When the time was right, they attacked. Earth’s heroes fought them off, but at a huge cost.

The public, exhausted by Tony Stark’s sell-out shenanigans and depressed by the death of Captain America, was fed up. After the Skrull Invasion, trust in heroes was at an all-time low. Norman “The Green Goblin” Osborn stepped into the breach.

In the days following the repulse of the Skrulls, Osborn — still insane, but covering it up quite effectively — disbanded S.H.I.E.L.D. (Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division), took control of all of Stark’s tech and suits, and installed himself as head of a new defense organization called H.A.M.M.E.R. (which doesn’t actually stand for anything, as far as anyone knows).

With his government paycheck and position secured, Osborn set his actual plan in motion: carving up control of Earth between Marvel’s major supervillains. And it actually worked. For a year, Marvel’s villains called the shots.

How would this work in the movies? Think about it like Star Wars. In Episodes IV through VI, the Empire was, more or less, in control. The destruction of the Death Star was a clear win, but not a decisive one. By The Empire Strikes Back, the rebels were on the run. In a Dark Reign movie arc, our heroes would score wins, but they’d be chipping away at an antagonist that’s more powerful than they are.

The Wakanda-Atlantis War (2012–13)

Marvel
Marvel

Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther hits theaters in the winter of 2018. But it’s not too early to start thinking about the sequel.

Jonathan Hickman writes some of the most creative and confounding stories in comics. His body of work at Marvel is epic in scope, encompassing the literal destruction of the Marvel Universe. Hidden in the pages of New Avengers, among Hickman’s web of interwoven timelines and reality-rending epics, is a subplot that should have been a major crossover event: the war between the kingdoms of Wakanda, home of T’Challa the Black Panther, and Atlantis, home of King Namor the Sub-Mariner.

(Related: It’s unclear whether Marvel Studios owns Namor’s film rights. Joe Quesada, Marvel’s former chief creative officer, says yes. Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Studios, says it’s complicated, but kinda.)

Namor the Sub-Mariner, the arrogant king of Atlantis, as is his wont, started it. During the Avengers vs. X-Men crossover, Namor led an attack on Wakanda, flooding the secretive African nation with a tidal wave. The scope of destruction was biblical; untold numbers of Wakandans were killed. Namor was possessed by the powerful Phoenix Force at the time and wasn’t in full control of his actions. But that’s cold comfort to the Wakandans.

In retaliation, Wakandan special forces captured several Atlantean army generals with the intention of trying them for war crimes. Atlantis answered by trying to kidnap the Wakandan ambassador to the United Nations, which resulted in the deaths of the ambassador and his entourage. Wakanda then sent a strike force of 60 elite troops undercover into Atlantis. They were discovered, possibly due to betrayal, and massacred. Shuri, T’Challa’s sister and the acting queen of Wakanda, declared war. While Namor was in Wakanda, ostensibly to negotiate a peaceful settlement to hostilities, the Wakandan military was unleashing a devastating raid on Atlantis which leveled the city. Seeking vengeance, Namor did the worst thing he has ever done in his over-70-year history as a comic book character: He snitched. Namor told an ally of the power-mad Thanos, falsely, that Wakanda was in possession of the Infinity Gems, resulting in Thanos attacking the nation.

After Panther and Namor finally had it out in the pages of Hickman’s New Avengers, Namor came clean about his snitchery.

Marvel
Marvel

The rivalry is unresolved, because the death, and eventual rebirth, of the universe (as depicted in Secret Wars) interrupted the war. Panther vs. Namor remains one of the great underexploited beefs in the Marvel Universe.

‘Planet Hulk’ (2006) / ‘World War Hulk’ (2007)

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Marvel

Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the Hulk in 1962. And, since that time, the Hulk has been a problem. Like, what do you do with him? On the one hand, Bruce Banner is one of the Marvel U’s smartest individuals, who has saved the world numerous times. On the other, get him angry, and he’s liable to destroy half the continent in a huff. The Hulk is the strongest individual on earth on and he’s got a really, really, really bad anger problem. So, put yourself into the shoes of the most ruthless members of the shadowy cabal of superhero elites known as the Illuminati — Reed Richards, Doctor Strange, Iron Man, and Black Bolt — what do you do with the Hulk?

Trick him into taking a ride in a space capsule and launch said capsule into a black hole, apparently. Anyway, it’s not like that would kill the Hulk; nothing can kill him.

That’s how 2006’s Planet Hulk arc, written by Greg Pak, with pencils by Carlo Pagulayan and Aaron Lopresti, kicks off. The story itself is basically Gladiator in space. Hulk finds himself on Sakaar, a planet where the strong rule over the weak and creatures are forced to fight to the death for the entertainment of the ruling class. Hulk finds himself in the arena, and, surprise, surprise, it turns out he has a talent for punching things in the face.

Thor: Ragnarok (slated for November 2017) will apparently contain elements of Planet Hulk. But this classic Hulk story deserves its own movie. It’s an exciting, heartbreaking, tale that — oh, yeah — leads right into 2007’s World War Hulk crossover.

Question: How would you feel if your supposed friends, under false pretenses, launched you into the farthest reaches of outer space? You’d be mad, right? Yeah, you’d be mad.

Marvel
Marvel

In World War Hulk, Hulk, bent on revenge, his gladiator companions in tow, returns to Earth and proceeds to murk everyone who wronged him — everyone, one after another, in a series of jaw-dropping splash pages. The can-o’-whoop-ass recipients include:

Black Bolt, the powerful King of the Inhumans (the group that Marvel would like to replace the Fox-owned X-Men with);

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Marvel

Iron Man (Sidebar: The Hulkbuster scene in Age of Ultron was trash.);

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Marvel

Jennifer Walters, a.k.a. She-Hulk, a.k.a. Hulk’s cousin;

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Marvel

Ares, God of War;

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Marvel

Mister Fantastic;

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Marvel

Doctor Strange (Hulk crushes Strange’s hands so hard IN THE ASTRAL PLANE that they break in real life);

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Marvel

and, eventually:

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Marvel

World War Hulk is a classic good-guy-vs.-all-the-good-guys move.

Jane Foster as Thor (2014)

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Marvel

Problem no. 1: Marvel doesn’t have enough female-hero-driven films.

Problem no. 2: Marvel movies consistently shoehorn big-name actresses into thankless, underdeveloped love-interest roles.

Problem no. 3: The original Avengers cast members, Big Bro Hemsworth included, have been at this a while and are getting just a tad bit stale. (I’ll address this in more detail later.)

Solution: Make Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) Thor.

At the end of the Original Sin story line, Thor becomes unworthy of his enchanted hammer, Mjolnir, the source of his godly powers. He returns to Asgard, grabs an axe from the armory, and goes sulking across space and time on a magic goat.

Thor’s longtime on-again-off-again love interest Jane Foster, who had been staying in Asgard while battling cancer, grasps Mjolnir, hefts, and, what do you know? Says right there on the side of the hammer: “Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor.” No reason that “he” can’t be a “she.”

‘Avengers Disassembled’ (2004) / ‘New Avengers’ (2005–10)

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Marvel

Disassembled was divisive when it first ran back in 2004. The Avengers had been running continuously since 1963. With issues 500–503, Marvel tasked writer Brian Michael Bendis, still a somewhat new figure to mainstream comics, with bringing an era to a close and breaking up the team. This involved the Scarlet Witch losing her grip on reality and culminated in the killing off of several beloved characters. It was a thankless job, literally. Also, Bendis fucked up the continuity a tiny bit*. Not a lot. But, you know, comics nerds are a nitpicky bunch. Also, the story really isn’t that great.

(*Basically, the error involves Doctor Strange not knowing about chaos magic when he should have been aware of it. Whatever. Grant Morrison’s New X-Men is one of my favorite runs of the past 15 years. Every issue crackles with originality and wild creativity. In the denouement of the story, Morrison fucks up and writes Magneto as a psychic. Honestly, who cares. And, anyway, editorial should’ve caught it.)

But, as previously noted, the current Avengers cast has now appeared in 11 Marvel movies, starting with 2008’s Iron Man. Robert Downey Jr. is 51. Mark Ruffalo is 48. Chris Evans is just 35, but he’d probably like to have more time to do movies with Jenny Slate. Chris Hemsworth, I don’t know, seems really happy appearing in comedies nearly nude. Scarlett Johansson should be in a stand-alone Black Widow movie. Jeremy Renner could be flipping homes; he doesn’t need this shit.

Point is: All good things must come to an end, and our Avenger friends are certainly nearing it. Time to start thinking about breaking up the team to make way for the new team.

Which brings us to New Avengers.

Marvel
Marvel

Ironically, the best New Avengers story is the last one, the one-shot issue New Avengers: Finale (2010).

Minutes after the fall of Norman Osborn and the culmination of the Dark Reign era, the core New Avengers — Bucky (as Captain America), Luke Cage, Spider-Man, Spider-Woman, Ms. Marvel, Hawkeye (as Ronin; don’t ask), and Wolverine — along with Hawkeye’s wife, Mockingbird, head off on a mission to snip some loose ends. The villainous Madame Masque and her boyfriend (and former member of Osborn’s evil cabal) Parker Robbins, a.k.a. The Hood, fled the final battle. They’ve gone to ground with Masque’s father, the immortal and super-strong Count Nefaria. Nefaria offers to let Robbins undergo the same process that turned him into a supervillain back in the bronze age of comics. What follows is one of the great single issues of the past decade and an all-time Avengers team fight.

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Marvel

Crucially, Marvel owns the rights to all of the New Avengers except Wolverine. And, honestly, he’s a second-tier character; who cares about him, anyway?