Why It's Time for Marvel to Leave Its Past Behind

Marvel Avengers Endgame Still 6 - Publicity-H 2019
<p><em>Avengers: Endgame</em></p>   |   Courtesy of Disney Enterprises
When it comes to comic book inspiration, the MCU is stuck in a 30-year time bubble.

[This story contains spoilers for Avengers: Endgame]

The most obvious question Marvel Cinematic Universe fans have after the events of Avengers: Endgame is a very simple one: What’s next? For the first time in Marvel Studios history, there was no post-credit sequence to tease the next big threat, or even the next movie, even though Spider-Man: Far From Home is just months away.

Some future Marvel projects are already known — the Black Widow prequel, Eternals, Shang-Chi and new installments of the Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Strange and Black Panther franchises. Much else is unclear, such as how the X-Men will fit into things. One thing is almost guaranteed, however: Unless it significantly changes its approach, the future of Marvel Studios will only stretch as far as the early 1990s comics for inspiration.

Despite having 80 years of publishing history to choose from, viewed across the entirety of the MCU to date, the movies are broadly centered on one ~30-year window of publishing, from the 1962 debut of Hank Pym through to, approximately, the late 1991 end of The Infinity Gauntlet miniseries.

The debut dates of of lead characters demonstrates this: Iron Man (1963), the Hulk (1962), Thor (1962), Captain America (1941, but revived in the status quo from the movies in 1963), Hawkeye and the Black Widow (Both 1964), Guardians of the Galaxy (1969, although the team used was introduced at various points between 1960 and 1976), Ant-Man (1961, although Scott Lang was introduced in 1979), Doctor Strange (1963), Spider-Man (1963), Black Panther (1966) and Captain Marvel (1967, but Carol Danvers was introduced a year later, and first became a superhero in 1977). A similar rundown of villains’ debuts would lock everything into the same window, as would a survey of the major storylines being referenced throughout the MCU to date. Almost everything is locked within three decades’ worth of comic books.

There are outliers, of course — Carol Danvers as Captain Marvel dates from 2012 (Notably, much of the Captain Marvel movie drew on source material published decades before Carol Danvers took on the Captain’s identity), the version of the Guardians of the Galaxy seen onscreen only came together as a group in 2008, and Shuri was only created in 2005. (Oddly, the "new" characters introduced at the end of Guardians Vol. 2 all predate the central version of the team in the movie franchise, being based on the original 1960s and '70s incarnation of the team. That series is moving backwards in terms of inspiration.)

Unlikely as it may seem, the most timely of the series to date may be the Captain America movies, which draw on material from 2005 and 2006 (Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War, respectively), even if the characters and much of the material used in those movies dates back to the 1960s-1990s period.

This isn’t something that happened by accident; that three-decade period was by far the most creatively fertile for Marvel as a publisher, and the period where the Marvel Universe as it’s recognized today was being built. (That it’s also likely the period when filmmakers were reading the comics as kids is no coincidence either, I would bet.) There are legitimate reasons why it’s a period for Marvel Studios to have focused on this far — but, with Endgame literally saying goodbye to the first generation of heroes, it’s time to move forward with a new set (and era) of influences.

There are, presumably, projects in the works and some of those might evolve into more recent comic book projects. The fact that Avengers: Endgame made a point of showing us a teenage Cassie Lang, combined with the rumors that the Disney+ Hawkeye series will introduce Kate Bishop, suggests that some incarnation of Young Avengers — the 2005 series focusing on teen heroes, which featured both characters — may be on the cards, just as the introduction of the Skrull race in Captain Marvel had fans excited about the possibility of a version of the 2008 series Secret Invasion, in which the Skrull shape-changers activate sleeper agents throughout the Marvel Universe.

Beyond that, Sam Wilson becoming Captain America reflects a 2014 comic book storyline (although Sam has been around since 1969 as the Falcon), and Tony Stark’s death opens up the space for Riri Williams to replace him, as she did in 2016’s Invincible Iron Man series, before adopting the permanent codename of Ironheart. Captain Marvel’s introduction to the MCU prepares the way for the hero inspired by her, the fan-favorite Kamala Khan, AKA Ms. Marvel, to get a big-screen debut. The groundwork has been laid, should Marvel Studios want to do the work.

Except that doesn’t seem to be what we’re going to see next. Beyond the sequels (and prequels) already on the cards, the new projects known are Eternals, which debuted in comics in 1976, and Shang-Chi, who first appeared in 1973.

It’s a frustrating state of affairs, considering the popularity of a project like Sony’s Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, which centered around Miles Morales (introduced in 2011) and Spider-Gwen (2014), that Marvel — by far the dominant force in the superhero movie industry, and the studio with the most power and potential to make real change — remains quite so beholden to a specific period of the past.

Creating the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it was quite a feat, and demonstrated a fearlessness and boldness to challenge the status quo in creating something new inside the movie industry. Can Marvel find a similar inner strength to challenge its own status quo and evolve for current and future audiences?